Floating mosaics of water lilies hug the sunken interiors of old buildings that line both sides of the dock. I sigh while staring at the jagged cement tops that barely pop above the surface. Water levels here have been rising steadily over the past 50 years.
“There used to be a huge park here . . .” the boat driver laments.
In many ways, Maximón — the vice-laden trickster deity of the Guatemalan highlands — is like these buildings. His foundations are visible yet submerged, planted below the surface yet reaching above. Like much in Latin America, he’s a mix of Spanish and Indigenous influences; a combination of San Simon from the Catholic tradition and earlier Mayan deities. To many of the Maya in Guatemala he’s known as Rilaj Maam.
Although his origins lie in the murky depths, legend states that Maximón was quite a Casanova back in the mythopoetic day. One day, while the men were off farming, he seduced all their wives. Upon returning, the angry farmers chopped off both his arms and legs. However, life hasn’t been that bad for the legless/armless deity.
Today you can find Maximón in many places throughout Guatemala, but Santiago Atitlán is the most famous. There you can see him draped in a garland of clip-on ties with a wide-brimmed hat dangling with silk as he’s offered gifts of Rubios cigarettes, bottles of Quetzalteca and money, in exchange for help in areas of business, marriage, crops, health, death and more.
On a cloudy afternoon during Guatemala’s rainy season, Sue, my travel companion, and I set out to find this notoriously dubious deity. There is something deeply appealing about a saint who can knock back a few shots of Quetzalteca — the harsh local hooch named after the national bird — and then dole out wisdom to those in need. He felt approachable.
We crouch onto the simple wooden benches of a water taxi, or lancha, at an empty dock in Panajachel and head off. It’s 30 minutes to Santiago Atitlán.
This city in the highlands is nestled between three volcanoes (Tolimán, Atitlán and San Pedro) and faces a lake Aldous Huxley famously called “the most beautiful in the world”: Lago de Atitlán. At 50,000 people, it’s the largest of the lakeside communities in Lake Atitlán.
Most of the local women wear purple-striped skirts and huipiles with floral designs and the older men are known for their white-striped pants. It’s an artistic hub popular for its Tz’utujil oil paintings — vibrant canvases that often depict a bird’s-eye view of rural scenes and landscapes.
Long before the arrival of the Spanish, the Tz’utujil Maya called this place Chuitinamit. It was their capital. To this day it still holds the largest population of Tz’utujil Maya in all of Guatemala. In 1547, in an effort to consolidate indigenous populations, Franciscan friars changed the name and established the town of Santiago.
At the height of the civil war in the 1980s, the Guatemalan army cracked down on the left-wing guerrilla presence here by killing and causing the “disappearance” of hundreds of villagers. A brutal massacre in 1990 saw 13 Tz’utujil Maya slaughtered by the army. Public outrage grew so strong that, for the first time in their history, the army was ousted by popular demand.
An elderly woman with cataract eyes and a handful of teeth walks barefoot down the street. On her head she balances a basket of bananas. We buy some, then ask for directions. She answers softly, in Tz’utujil, and sensing our baffled expressions, throws up a hand and points.
Down the road we go, past a gaggle of vendors and into a dead end. Left. Right. Hmmm . . .
“Maximón?” we ask and two kids hop into action — “come on” — and lead us a few yards down the road to a nondescript alleyway where a chicken slowly pecks away at his tin of food and a woman hangs up laundry to dry. We hand them a few quetzales and off they go running.
Inside the home, torrents of Copal incense are swirling back and forth, mimicking the laughter of the swaying drunks outside. The drunks are stumbling around their playground bar, gulping plastic bags filled with Quetzalteca that is stockpiled in bottles near the door.
Upon entering, a bored 12-year-old takes our entrance and “permission-to-take-photos” fee and heads off in the corner to ogle the scantily clad supermodels of the local periódico. We sit cross-legged, somewhat outside the ceremonial space, and try to be unobtrusive, a task that, many travelers come to learn, is nearly impossible.
We tease out our cameras and quietly snap a few photos as the ceremony begins.
A Man Asking for Help is sitting on a chair with a cowboy hat that’s drooping with floral cloth. His eyes meet ours for a brief moment, then turn back. Next to him on the bench is his family: a few small and restless children, a smiling wife and a stoic mother. Kneeling on three straw mats in front of 12 lit candles is an elderly man reciting prayers in Tz’utujil.
Patrons at the outdoor bar are cackling in the background and a man in a maroon-colored shirt who’s wearing dark sunglasses is talking on his cell phone as an unkempt dog lies nearby slowly licking his genitals. The Man Asking for Help is sitting inside this chaos, enclosed in the partial safety of family and prayers, and asking his silent questions. The elderly man is straightening out a wax candle stuck to the cement floor.
Ashtrays and candles separate us from Maximón, who is sitting immobilized between two helpers as he calmly puffs away at a Rubio cigarette. The gray ash falls to the floor as the smoke rises. The helpers are pouring him a shot of Quetzalteca and, soon after that slides down his wooden throat, they continue plying him with liquor, this time a glass of Gallo, the popular Guatemalan Beer.
These man are part of the cofradias, a respected few who are tasked with maintaining the proper veneration of Mayan and Catholic deities (observing their feast days, caring for them, etc . . .). This tradition was brought over from Europe to Guatemala by Franciscan missionaries in the 16th century. Their goal was to convert the locals, but the cofradias were reformatted to fit the personalities and schedules of important Mayan deities.
Just like the sudden influx of Europeans during the 16th century, the clamor and disruption of a large tour group is piling into the small room. As they begin complaining about the wafting smell of Copal and dust that envelopes the room, Sue and I know that it’s time to leave. We gather what we brought and slip out quietly, strolling down the narrow alleyway and onto the cobblestone streets.
As we wandered back towards the lancha, I reflected on this enigmatic deity. Maximón’s home had a unique feel to it that arose from the fact that it was not made to be unique. It wasn’t floating on some glorious mountaintop nor hidden in a far-off cave. It was calmly constructed inside a humble room next to a bar down a back alley.
Maximón was very much of this world and the ceremony was a jigsaw mix of the sacred and profane. Perhaps this was best for a saint who drinks, smokes and sleeps around. For someone who has made a mistake or two, this is a saint I could relate to: a saint who, at times, has been unsaintly.
Matt McGuire is a freelance writer and odd-jobs worker with a love for notebook paper, good books and the unwritten lines of the open road. His blog can be found at ThoughtWalks.com.