Sad News And Renewed Determination

My maestra (Spanish teacher) sent me a message on Facebook Thursday.  I’m always glad to hear from Celeste.

When I told my friend Rene, who owns the Orbita Spanish School in San Pedro La Laguna on the shore of Lago Atitlan in Guatemala, that I had a photo project in mind which featured the elders of the Mayan community, he paired me with Celeste for the four hours of intensive Spanish I took every morning.  Celeste is an outgoing 20 year old who seems to know everyone in San Pedro and has a strong connection to the elder generation.

She facilitated interviews with two nonagenarians and a septuagenarian, who happened to be her grandfather.  I met them, photographed them, and interviewed them, asking each to tell me a story of their youth and to impart some advice for future generations.

All three of them were kind, supportive of my project, and more than happy to talk at length about their lives.I am fortunate to have met them, and look forward to getting to know more of their generation.

Were I forced to pick a favorite, it would have to be Encarnacion Perez, the beautiful 91 year old comadrona (midwife) to thousands of mothers and babies around the lake.  She was sweet, wise, and full of advice for me.  We made plans to speak by Skype with Celeste’s help after I got back to the States.

When I got Celeste’s message: “Hola David”, I immediately shot back, asking how she was, how her school was going, and if she was still playing soccer.

She said “Encarnacion ha muerto” Encarnacion has died.

I was stunned

Encarnacion had said more than once during our conversation that I would never see her again, because she was going to die soon.

My experience is that, as a general rule, the older one gets, the more preoccupied one becomes with one’s death.  I have seen this in my grandparents and now my parents, and the first stirrings of mortality awareness are insinuating their way into my daily thoughts.

So, when Encarnacion told me she was going to die soon, I did what I always do, I said “no, no, you will be around a long time, and I will see you soon.”

I wonder if denial of others’ mortality is a self defense against awareness of one’s own.

The news of her death made me think of the inevitability of my own, but, more importantly, it brought home the urgency and seriousness of my project.

When I first visited Guatemala and Lago Atitlan in 2008, I, as a photographer, fell in love with the history-lined faces and brightly colored clothing I saw everywhere I turned.  Over several subsequent visits, I made friends, learned Spanish, and also learned some of the tragic and often violent history which had formed those lines.  My immediate instinct to photograph these interesting and colorful people evolved into a desire to document the culture of this generation while at the same time having some positive influence on the next.

My project, which I will be promoting this year, is a book, to be titled “Abuelos De Atitlan”, which means “Grandparents Of Atitlan”  It will consist of 50-100 photographs of Mayan elders, each paired with their self-told story and advice to their grandchildren, translated into English, Spanish, and Tzu-Tujil (the local Mayan dialect).

Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the participants and to local schools.  I hope, after successfully completing this book, to do the same for other indigenous communities who are slowly being assimilated and their cultures erased by globalization.  Success in San Pedro and beyond will be the most fitting of tributes to Encarnacion.


If you would like to stay apprised of progress on my project and the upcoming Kickstarter in May, please follow me here or at  Thank you for reading and sharing!

7 thoughts on “Sad News And Renewed Determination

  1. Hi,

    I am so sorry to hear of your loss. I love the sound of your project; you write, photograph and listen with such clarity, skill and keen interest. I look forward to hearing that you are headed back to continue!

    Love, Alicia

  2. What a wonderful project. I too think about some of the many points you touched on in your brief essay with regards to the places I travel and the people i meet especially in the countries that are quickly being swallowed up by globalization. I look forward to following your journey and hearing the advice from elders that I know I could certainly use.

  3. Pingback: Seeking Depth, Substance, and Complexity | davidscottmoyer

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