Saturday, August 26, 2006


-¿Qué cosa es ese ruido?
-Un reloj.
-¿Y para qué sirve?
-Para medir el tiempo.
-¿Y a quién se le occurió
semejante cosa?
El tiempo sólo es.
Humberto Ak’abal

Today I had the opportunity to speak to a wise and generous man, Oscar, who helped me better contextualize Mayan culture so I can incorporate its teachings and traditions into the plays I am writing for my theater classes in San Pablo. He taught me that our breath represents the essence of life and the essence of a spiritual energy within our souls: Take a deep breath and feel the energy during your exhalation. This is the closest the Maya come to having a god.

They do not worship “gods.” Instead, they revere Tepeuy, which is this breath, and Mother Nature, the physical. The Popol Vuh (the Mayan creation myth) says Tepeuy united with the materials of Mother Earth to create humans and all living animals. They did this by loving each other, by interlacing their arms and legs, and all that they formed were infused with the spiritual energy of Tepeuy. So, when the Maya look at the world they see this spirit in everything, from an inching worm to the rising sun.

Oscar spoke of the equilibrium of the cosmos and of our role in that system. The Maya believe that the actions of any given individual help or hurt the balance of the universe. Human action has a direct effect on the extinction of animals and the polluted environment. The Maya honor a different Nahual every day, representative of components of our lives. They include: fire, reciprocity, the string of history, water, obedience, work, free will, intelligence, suffering, oracles, air, time, and word. Instead of being seen as gods, the Nahuals are represented as grandparents, who during ceremonies are called upon to remind participants of their beliefs and values. In this way the culture continues on in the knowledge and wisdom of the elders.

The youth group I work with is hesitant to embrace these cultural beliefs. Here in Tacaná, many teens are two or three generations separated from their indigenous roots; instead of having direct knowledge of their ancestors’ way of life, they rely on history books and cultural stereotypes. These prejudices make the teens associate cultural history with uneducated Indians, which runs counter to what they hope to be: successful and knowledgeable Ladinos. In Guatemala the indigenous wear traditional clothing and speak a native language, and the Ladinos wear modern clothes and speak Spanish. While most Ladinos in Guatemala have Mayan roots, they do not consider themselves Mayan. They look away from the past and instead strive to be more modern, admiring western culture’s entertainment, money and clothes.

Through the two plays I am writing I hope to raise awareness of both modern and traditional views of the environment. In Ayer y Mañana (Yesterday and Tomorrow), a salesman sells the sacred earth, air, and water to three happy and unsuspecting people. But once these natural treasures become possessions, the humans mistreat them, forgetting the spiritual energy in all things. The humans burn trash and use diesel fuel, cut down all the trees and pollute the river. But the humans, too, begin to suffer. They are ill. They cannot breathe. They are hungry for a lack of crops. While they complain, Grandpa Water, Grandma Air and Mother Earth arrive to share their wisdom with the actors and the audience, talking about the necessary equilibrium in the earth and the importance of seeing oneself as only a small part of the cosmos.

Only now, after seven months of living here, have I had the opportunity to integrate these important cultural themes into my work. My work has hit a new level of depth and importance, and I hope the cultural research I am doing now will philosophically support the work of la JEM. ArtCorps’s mission touches upon the importance of conserving traditional values and art forms, but in most cases the artists have implemented workshops and programs within their frame of reference, like painting murals or building puppets, two art forms that didn’t exist in traditional Mayan culture. In a place like Guatemala, where a rich artistic culture is slowly passing, it seems unreasonable and foolish to impose something new and different. Instead, a focus should be placed on breathing modern life into traditional forms of expression that reflect the multiculturalism of Guatemalan society. While I am introducing new theater techniques into the community, our performances build on the Mayan tradition of storytelling. And while the students are thrilled to be acting out a script written by a westerner, they will also be learning about their own past. Here in San Pablo, months after my arrival, I feel I have just begun to breathe.


At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You have met many wise and generous men in your short lifetime. ;-)

Of course, our exhalation of breath has a lot to do with life... just try holding and see where that gets you. :-o

GOD only knows.

Love, Paul

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