October 31, 1971--5th Visit
I drove in from the highway to the plaza of Chan Kom in
eight minutes, a far cry from the two and a half hour walk
or drive over rough stones which it had been before. "The
road falta planchar--lacks ironing," said the boy caretaker
as we turned on to the new highway; and it did get rough as
we got nearer to Chan Kom. But it's a straight highway, cut
through jungle and rock, and built up about six feet in many
places with rough stone dynamited from the boulders. In some
places, though, it's wide enough only for one car.
On arriving, I walked around the plaza greeting my old
friends. Everyone was busy. I felt like I was back years ago
in Cuatla, doing the CARE movie, "The World Our Hands Can Make."
Then we tried to stage what it would be like for officials to
come in. Now it was real. Everyone was getting ready for the
fiesta, and more importantly, for the official opening of the
highway. I saw Humberto. "People are bringing cloth, just like
your dress, Senora, and selling it here. It's very cheap. And
they'll be bringing other things too." And there, right on the
plaza, was a bright red truck with a table out back, loaded with
cheap yard goods and odds and ends. Walt Rostow's idea of
stimulating the material desires of people so they would be
'motivated' towards 'development' seemed to have materialized.
For a while the garish material will be sold for less than the
lovely white poplin which the women now use to make their huipiles
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which they decorate so beautifully. Then the prices will rise.
I could feel immediately that the lovely, peaceful rhythm
which I had known in Chan Kom before had gone. Part of it was
the excitement of the coming fiesta, part of it was the road.
There was great hustling and bustling. A new sidewalk had been
built in front of Aurelio and Atala's house, and my old bathing
place in their storeroom was now a sewing room with a new
cement floor. The front room of their house was being tiled.
Humberto's house also had a new sidewalk, and brilliant red
oil paint was being carefully applied to the scraped surface
of the walls, rimmed with a bright yellow border. He later
added a pink door with a green stripe up the middle. Bartola's
house had just been painted two shades of green, and a ladder
was leaning up against Juanita's house where her husband and
son were painting. It was yellow on the top and pink on the
bottoms and next door their relatives were painting theirs
pink on the top and yellow on the bottom. The painting, scraping,
plastering, and so on continued for days. The night of November
1st which I had expected to be a religious celebration was a
painting session which lasted until morning, with Humberto,
Alipio, and Bartola's sons finishing Bartola's house and Don Eus'
new store. They looked so odd in the moonlight with their
ladders and brushes.
Everything was being put in order for the governor. Quin-
tiliano had Bartola's son make him a new door for his house, and A
-- 3 --
has made his patio into a front entrance. Now I can't look
through the open patio to see him having a happy evening meal
with his family. Atala and Aurelio asked me what color I
would paint their house if it were mine. I laughingly told
them that I would have a Casa Blanca--like President Nixon.
They were amused and pleased, and in fact Aurelio asked what
color I would paint the balcony and doors. In all honesty
I said that I would stain it natural since the wood was so
beautiful. Much to my surprise they went to Valladolid to
buy varnish, and stained most of the door, with only one bright
green stripe down the middle. Even the church had a new tile
floor. "They were a donation, you know, Senora," the priest
said. "Don Eus asked the diputado for them, and here they are.
I laid them myself."
Along with all the outside activity there was a great deal
of indoor activity as well. Everyone was in movement, and
people went from one house to another as everyone seemed to be
helping everyone else out in the preparations. "Dona Antonia
is prestada to Don Catalino for the Pib," little Serafina told
me. And the first night we were there &Us took us along with
her to watch the preparation of the famous relleno negro. I'll
never forget the sight of Antonia judiciously throwing spices
into the three bubbling pots that evening. One had a pig's head
floating in it, the middle one had a whole chicken whose feet
kept coming to the top, and the third seemed to be a mixture of
pork and chicken. Antonia would come and go with her herbs,
and the three men remained, each carefully stirring one of the
pots, like a witch's brew in the dark by firelight.
The next morning was the ceremonial opening of the Pib.
(Pib means earth oven, which is always built in bright red earth.)
The pots had been buried there and cooked away all night long.
We watched them take out the first serving. It was like thick
gravy, dark grey in color. It was so thick because of the
special masa--cornmeal--which had been added the night before.
The first portion was put into a ceremonial gourd supported by
a braided rope basket, a chuyub, made by Dona Ninfa. The man
who had been prestado for the other part of the ceremony took
it over to a tree on the edge of the woods and hung it there.
Mayan prayers were said.* Then the three pots were taken into
the house where we'd eaten dinner the night before. The largest
one was placed on a decorated table in front of the house altar.
This table had flowers tied at the four corners, and a very
elaborate floral wreath had been made to fit around the pot and
arch above it. They were purple clover, flowers. There were
four candles on the table also, and a plate of tortillas was
put in the center. There were also four bottles of rum, and
cigarettes which were later taken out of the package and put on
a plate with matches. The night before when we were there,
four white candles tied with beautiful flowers were ceremoniously
attached with henequen by the men and placed on the table. The
Mayan cross on the altar had also been decorated wfh the purple
At least the feeling I had as I watched was one of religious intensity--
hwcJ 1 (-
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flowers. There was a statue of a saint--perhaps Fatima--on
theetable, fte im leaning on a coke bottle propped up with a
After the relleno negro was put on the table, four chairs
were put facing the altar. They had been decorated with flowers
tied to their backs. A basket was sitting beside the altar
in which the rum and coke were kept, and there was much confused
pouring from bottle to bottle, always ending in four bottles.
"The people used to drink only rum," one woman told me, "but now
they drink highballs (jaibols) made with rum and coke. It's
The man in charge, Don Sebastian, pours liquor from the
bottle, divides it into four parts, drinks some, puts one bottle
in his pocket, looks out the door, and then goes out of the
house into the woods. There was a whistle. The other men took
the decorated candles from the altar and followed him. I think
they went to the place where theyhung the gourd earlier, but I
could find no traces. This activity was clearly for men only.
They had more drinks out there, and probably Mayan prayers. They
came back with an empty bottle, smoking. Then the four chairs
were put together, and the hand washing ceremony started.
Dona Antonia sat in the corner, still in charge of the relleno
negro. The other women were sitting in a circle in one corner
of the room, all but one dressed in 4 huipil5., They were all busy
making tortillas, chatting and eating.
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The young couple who were hosting the relleno negro We-re-
relatives of Marcelina, the mid-wife, and Catalino, the bone-
setter. Marcelina was also sister of the shaman, Gregorio,
who performed the loh casa I saw at the house of Rogerio
Carwik. She works as housekeeper for the priest when he is in
town. (Is this why she told me that preventing children from
being conceived is a pecado, a sin? Did the priest "hire" her
to learn something of her brother's craft, or is that just
coincidence?) When Marcelina and Catalino arrived with the
young couple, there was great excitement and they were formally
greeted as if they had been gone for years. People poked me
and pointed at them. "You should take their picture," they said.
It was an indication of the holiness of this ceremony that
in the early morning the men had taken corn to the molina to be
ground. It was special corn, new and white, which the women
weren't allowed to carry or grind. It made very fine nixtemal
and beautiful white tortillas. I offered the men a ride back
from the molino in my car, to see if the stricture against women
extended that far. They hastily accepted.
I had really gone to see the Festival of the Dead, and kept
being torn between observing all of the hand-washing and Pib
ceremonies, and wanting to know what was happening in the church,
at the home altars, or in the woods. Much to my surprise, I
found that Dona Antonia's sister and daughter had sung the evening
prayers, and were back to sing the morning mass for Dona Hilaria,
Don Eus' first wife. They were in the kitchen helping make
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tortillas, along with Bartola and her daughter. There was
great movement from one kitchen to another, with even Atala,
whom I had never seen in anyone else's house, coming in to
help Antonia. (Don Eus was in Merida at the time. She would
not have come, I am sure, with him in the house.) Eusebia
was often over helping Atala to thread her sewing machine.
One afternoon I suddenly felt my eyes watering as if the room
had been filled with cut onions. "Don't worry," I was told,
"Antonia has just begun to 'quemar chile'--burn the chile."
The chiles are put on a metal griddle over an open fire, and
after they cook are run through the molino to make a special
sauce for the bar-b-que. She was making this for Eusebia, as
Quintiliano was offering a special bar-b-que of a bull on the
12th. Juanita's husband, Eusebio, was making candles for Dona
Arcena who was offering the first gremio.
Maria seemed to be more at home and less involved with the
preparations for the fiesta. With the business of the molina,
she probably had to stay close to home almost all the time
since it seemed to be going steadily from four in the morning
until six at night. She locked it several mornings so she could
go to mass, and the people just had to wait.
For October 31st the home altars were set up with candles,
flowers and jicaras, the gourd bowls. They were set up with
lak, the pottery bowls and offerings of food for November 1st.
-- 8 -
There were white candles for October 31st, and black candles
for November 1st. As in most parts of Mexico, there is a very
real difference here between the day of the dead children--a
happy event--and the day of the dead adults, Alooe'ewLr I sk.
Antonia told us there would be no cemetery ceremony on
either night, but there was no time for us to check and make
sure. Driving into Piste to make a phone call, we saw the
many lighted candles in the cemetery at Xcualup. During this
whole week people were going to various homes to say rezas--
prayers for the dead. "The souls of the dead stay here for
eight days," I was told. Eusebia invited me to go with her to
the house of Don Santiago, where she and Juanita led a beautiful
reza together. Only the women and young girls were there.
We could see the little children playing outside in the sunlight
through the slats in the house. Don Santiago arrived just as
the prayers and singing ended, as the atole and cornmeal bread
baked specially in the pib was offered to the guests. The cere-
mony had been for his first wife who had died, and it was his
second wife who had arranged it with Eusebia. Eusebia and Juanita
seemed even closer than last time I was there. Juanita is more
self-assured, sings beautifully, and is looking so mature that
I wonder how much longer she will remain on the sidelines at the
By November fifth I realized that with all the gremios,
the pib, the masses, the novenas, and the general preparations
that I had very few quiet conversations with my key women.
There were constant interruptions, even in the kitchens, with
people always coming and going to church or to someone else's
house. That Friday I went to breakfast early, determined to
find some quiet time and later to visit the partera. I found
Honoria rebuilding the side-board of her house. She is not
very close to many women in Chan Kom, and I have noticed that
she does a lot of the heavy work that the other women never
-o have to do. Pots and pans and clay water jugs were scattered
over her floor in great confusion. She was trying to cut a new
forked log--a ten inch thick one--and started hacking at it
with a machete. Then she called Mario to help her. He seems
to be spending more and more time with his mother now. Always
he used to slip in quietly in the evening for short visits,
but now he seems to be called in often for special jobs, and
stays longer. I watched him playing happily in the hammock
with his little brother Dario. He often eats meals at home now,
and I overheard Honoria offer him a peso to help her cut new
sticks for the wall. Alipio seems completely unconcerned that
his wife does so much of the heavy work. I asked Honoria why
Humberto helped Maria to do all this and Alipio didn't seem to
help her. "He is tired. He works on the highway all day and
when he comes home he is tired."
Antonia's kitchen was in complete disorder and breakfast
was a confused time. Don Eus was away in Merida, so everything
was being rearranged. Dresses were being brought out and tried
on. According to Atala and Eusebia, most of everyone's clothing
is purchased every other year at fiesta time. I heard many
animated conversations about shoes, huipiles and cloth. But
just as I began getting into a real conversation, we were inter-
rupted again. It was Juanita's little boy. "Senora, my sister
Marcelina is very sick and my mother asks if you would please
take her to Valladolid." I learned that she had a severe pain
in her side, and was vomiting violently. So I immediately
agreed to take them to Valladolid. Maria broke into agitated
Mayan, using more energy than I had seen in her before. I
later found that she was telling them to take Marcelina to the
clinic in Xochenpich where she had gone, that they would be
very good to her there and let her stay if she needed to. I
was surprised at Maria's sudden burst of energy and involvement.
She is usually so reticent, coming and going quietly on the
edge of things. The gmbo interviews had to be postponed. I
packed film and letters to be mailed, picked up Marcelina, her
husband Marciano, her baby boy, and Maria Isabel, her husband's
sister, and set off for Xochenpich as they had asked. Marcelina
looked terrible. Pallid, frightened, her dress wet with milk
as she was a nursing mother, she looked so nauseated that I gave
her a paper bag to hold. But qhe held out until we got to
Xochenpich, vomiting violently several times as soon as we got
out of the car.
Ruth, the nurse, examined her briefly at first and said
she thought Marcelina had a gall bladder infection. She suggested
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that the family stay in the guest house until the could come
to check her more thoroughly. She gave Marcelina an injection
to calm her and stop the nausea. I was glad that Maria had
suggested taking Marcelina here, because now they knew where
the clinic was and in the future could meet Dr. Estrella.
He is taking over the clinic this year, and is interested in
setting up a branch clinic in Chan Kom if possible, and at
least in informing more people about it. He is the Mayan-
speaking doctor who was trained in birth control methods, and
I have great hopes that he will be able to help the women of
Chan Kom. I feel that if we could get a group discussion on
the techniques of birth control and general gynecological
information, the women would be very receptive to change.
I learned on that trip that my Presbyterian missionary
friends were preparing to leave Mexico. Appnar.ently the
American Presbyterians were pulling out so that the Mexican
Presbyterians could take over their school and mission. It
seemed like a step in the right direction.
On the way back I stopped to get gas in Piste and brought
fresh bread, still warm from the Pat's oven. "Will you tell
the Ceme's they're eating bread baked by the Pats?" Eliazar
asked me. "Now that you know where it's going, do you want to
add some veneno?" I countered. "They would blame you, Senora,"
they laughed. "You would have the culpa--blame." "You mean
I would be a pulyab," I said, having just learned the Mayan
-- 12 -
word for witch. There was more laughter, and then we talked
seriously of Chan Kom and my long interview with Don Epiphanio.
They were curious. "What did he say about us?" "Well, he
talked of the times long ago when you were all friends." The
heavy-set older man said, "The Ceme's seem like friends, but
watch out. Don't trust them." And he told me about their
days of religious disagreements. "They wanted us all to be
Catholics," he said indignantly. But just the day before Don
Epiphanio had told me, "The Pats wanted us all to be Protestants."
I reminded them of the fiesta. "Why don't you all come back and
smoke a peace pipe together?" And when the elder people were
not around, Eliazar told me that he did hope to get in for part
of the fiesta now that the road was open. (His young wife, co w o. Cce
incidentally, t**a** at the Presbyterian school, although she
still wears the medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe around her
neck. She told me that she wanted to take it off but had nothing
to put in its place. That seemed unconvincing to me, but no
one seemed to mind that she wore it.)
Early the next morning a boy on bicycle came in with a message.
Don Eus had just gotten off the bus up at the juncture of the
highway. Could one of us please go pick him up? Susan picked
him up. She found him walking in from the highway, pulling two
heavy bags with his hands and another in his mouth. Alipio had
driven out with her, but when they reached Don Eus, she said,
"Alipio wouldn't even speak to his father, who was hot and sweaty
and tired. Alipio got out of the car, opened the door, and
ushered Don Eus into the back seat with his packs without saying
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a word." She mentioned the news of the governor's arrival
the next day. "Yes, I heard in a car in a radio from Merida,
so I hurried back. And I want you to receive the governor,
take him by the arm, and lead him to the platform." Later
there was a formal request that Susie and I both take parts
in the governor's arrival. I made it clear that we would be
glad to do anything to help, but it was their ceremony, and
we shouldn't be the ones to receive him. But Don Eus said
that he wanted it to show up in the papers in Merida, so that
people would know that Americans came to Chan Kom.
In the meantime, I had been distributing bread to Atala,
Bartola, Eusebia, Maria, Honoria, everyone except Arcena who
makes her own. I didn't tell anyone where it came from, and
they all commented on how delicious it was.
We went to Don Eus' for a talk. Upon arriving I felt
a great excitement in the air. Aurelio was sitting very near
Don Eus, who was lying in a hammock. Betog the tailor, secre-
tary of the president municipal, was nearby. The three men
were in deep discussion, intense, leaning in toward each other.
They welcomed us with unusual warmth. "We have just been talking,"
said Don Eus, "and we want you, Susie, to abrazar--embrace--the
governor.when he arrives. We want him to know that Americans
respect Chan Kom and come to visit. We want him to know that
you, Senora Maria, are doing work like the Carnegie Foundation.
We want you to take a film of it all, and record what I say,
and what the governor and all the autoridades say." They con-
tinued their talk, so we found places to sit inconspicuously,
but it took a while to disappear into the background.
After a while the planning was going strong again. Eusebio,
Juanita's husband, joined the group and soon the mood changed.
The Mayan words sounded angry. Aurelio moved his chair further
away from Don Eus. After a while, the young men left without
a word or even a signal of farewell. After a few minutes I
broke the quiet and asked Don Eus what had happened. "Oh, I
had forgotten that you were here." He explained that he had
been telling the men that as autoridades they should have made
all the plans and takehresponsibility for the governor's coming.
"They have money enough to buy the food. They should prepare
the breakfast for the governor's party." I had witnessed
them buying the big black turkey from Dona Antonia, examining
and poking it, trying to bring down the price. But apparently
they had expected Dona Antonia to prepare the meal herself.
"Their wives should help them," he said. "Atala doesn't want
to miss a day at her sewing matching, and Don Beto has two
sewing machines and a boy working for him, so if they have the
party at his house he will miss two days of sewing."
In the end, the breakfast was held."in the house of the
son of Don Epiphanio, next to the Palacio Municipal. Antonia,
Martina, and many of the other women helped fix the meal.
I asked why Martina had not been in on the planning, since she
too was a member of the junta, the first woman to hold that
position. "That's right. She should have been," they said.
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Bt sh had o ay been forgotten. She also was not at
the table with the governor during the meal, and I found later
that she had been helping with the preparations. But she
said, "I told the governor I was the treasurer of the Junta
del Autoridades when he came out to thank the women." After
he had thanked the men for the breakfast, I asked him if he
didn't want to thank the women as well, so he went out back
and gave Antonia a big abrazo--hug.
That night I ran through the tapes I had taken during
the day. Atala must have heard it, because the next day she
asked me what Don Eus had said about her. "Did he say I
was stupid? Just because I can't read and write I'm not stupid.
I'm going to learn--I'm going to talk with the new school
teachers and set up an evening class. I know lots of things
even though I can't read and write. What did my father-in-law
say on the machine?" 2