Bump In The Road

Yesterday was a very frustrating day. The good news is that all work on the book is finished.  The long hours of interviewing, translating, and computer work have paid off, and I have what I think is a beautiful thing.

For the past month, I have been asking over and over for a final price from the printer.  I had some idea based on the estimate he gave me before we started. Yesterday, on the very last possible day, one day before I leave for Mexico, he gave me a price which was, frankly, ridiculous.

The whole point of the book, beyond documentation and celebration of the people and their culture, was as a vehicle by which to make my donation to the community worth more. Based on the printer’s previous estimates, they could have sold the books, and, along with spreading knowledge of their community, nearly doubled my donation.  The price I was given yesterday completely negated that.  It was almost double the original estimate, and so high that I might as well just write a check and distribute it to the people rather than making them sell books for it.

I don’t blame him,  the issue likely lies with the fact that he buys materials from a reseller who in turn buys from another reseller, with the price rising with every transaction. The discrepancy between the original estimate and the final price is what throws all my plans off.

After much struggle, he brought the price down as much as he could, but it is still $30 each for a 9×12 book, and more than $20 for the paperback!  These are retail prices in the US.  Nobody here will pay even that, much less enough to make it worth the investment.

I am not looking to make a profit.  I am not getting anything but a few copies of the book out of this.  I am trying to get the most for this community with the resources I have.  It simply does not serve them to pay this price.

So, after much struggle, I have decided to buy 100 hard bound books (reduced from 300) from the local printer because I promised one to each of the people who participated, and in order to have a few to bring home.  I am also calling on my friend and former maestra who lives in Guatemala City for help in finding a printer there who will hopefully give us a better price on a larger quantity of paperbacks that can be sold here.

Copies of all videos, photos, and completed PDFs of the book will be left here for the community to use as they see fit.

This has been a beautiful, uplifting, and expiring experience, which only adds to the frustration and disappointment I am feeling right now.


When I first came to San Pedro La Laguna  in 2008 to learn Spanish, there were 37 Mayan dialects still in use across Guatemala, Southern Mexico, and parts of Belize and Honduras. I remember being told that a few of them were only spoken by one or two people. As I spent more time here, I became aware of other cultural changes. While the local dialect, Tz’utujil, is till spoken by most Pedranos, Spanish is dominant, and many young people, influenced by tourists, television, and the internet, are rejecting the language as well as other parts of the traditional culture. When I came here in late 2005 to refresh my Spanish and to set the groundwork for this project, I learned that there were only 27 Mayan dialects still spoken. Today, just over two years later, there are 22.

I am an artist and a photographer. My orientation is visual. Therefore, my initial desire was to document the elder generation in photographs while wearing their traditional clothing. At the same time, I was looking for a way to give back, to do something with my art to benefit people less fortunate than I. I thought that a book filled with photographs of these handsome and photogenic people would sell well to tourists, and that I could then donate the money back to the community to help the newest generation. In the end, even though the book will likely still be sold to tourists, this project has become less about extranjeros and more about Pedranos.  This book is for the people of San Pedro, to document the elder generation and to connect them to the younger.

We interviewed 52 people, all of whom are included in the book. With a very few exceptions, all the interviews were conducted in Tz’utujil by the tireless and hard working Juan González Chavajay, who then transcribed them into Spanish. René Lopez Isidro then edited that transcript for length and content, always attempting to stay true to the words and sentiments of the person being interviewed. After grammatical revision and more editing by María Teresa González Mendez, I translated the result into English, and Juan into Tz’utujil. While the words may not always be precisely those spoken by the interviewee, we feel they accurately represent what was said, and hope that, collectively, these interviews and photographs paint a picture of San Pedro’s elder generation and convey their stories and wishes to its youth.

It has been an honor and a privilege to do this work.  Thank you for welcoming me into your community and into your homes.


The Cover

This is the design I am currently favoring for the cover of the book.  It features Doña Elena Coché Gonzalez.  The back will list the names of myself and the others who have worked so hard to make this happen.  I will post the whole thing when I have it done.


The Power Of Belief


Doña Jesus Rocché de González is holding a smooth, rust-colored stone in her left hand. Using this, and others she has collected over the years, she can mend a broken bone in three days.

This is what I was told during our interview, when she brought out the stone and did a quick demonstration of her technique on the backs of my hands. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a skeptic of the first order.  If something isn’t borne out by science or my own empirical knowledge, I doubt.

The people of San Pedro swear by this woman’s abilities.  Absolutely everyone I spoke with confirmed her claim, either from personal experience, or second hand from a relative or friend.  Thousands of people from around the lake have visited her, both to cure bone injuries and for her services as comadrona (midwife).

I, of course, want proof.  Has anyone had an x-ray before her treatment?  Of course not, I am told.  If you get an x-ray, they won’t let you leave the doctor without the bone set and a cast.  Still, the consensus that she can do this is overwhelming, and we are not talking about uneducated, superstitious people here,  these are intelligent, educated, worldly people who Believe.  And because they Believe, it Works.

Belief is a powerful force.  It is perhaps the most influential force in humanity’s path to its present state. It can be belief in God or Gods, which has motivated and been used to manipulate for millennia, or it can be the belief that there is an answer to a mystery which can be divined without the Divine, simply by methodical exploration and calculation.

When a Monarch butterfly lays its eggs, it dies soon after.  The eggs grow into caterpillars.  The caterpillars feast on milkweed and then morph into hard shells filled with undifferentiated mush.  Over time, that mush coalesces into a new Monarch.  After several generations of this, the resulting butterfly knows how to reach the exact same breeding ground as the original one.  How?

I posed this question on Facebook.  I was given links to several scientific articles on advances in understanding Monarch migration.  None successfully addresses how the memory is transferred from monarch to egg to caterpillar to mush and then back to monarch.  Then a friend said God is in everything, and that explains it.

I can’t go there.  The response is too easy, too pat for me.  If you don’t understand something, attribute it to the supernatural.  That is why, before we understood the rain and the movement of the planets, they each had their own God.  It makes things so much simpler if you don’t have to work to understand the mechanism behind the miracle.

I’m sure Doña Jesus would attribute her healing abilities to God.  She is, after all, a devout Catholic in a culture steeped in both mysticism and Christianity.  Again, I can’t go there.  I can’t discount her abilities in the face of so much corroboration, but I also can’t bring myself to attribute them to an invisible supernatural entity.  That’s just too easy.

The downside to my skepticism is that if I break a bone, I will have to spent weeks in a cast instead of just three treatments from Doña Jesus.  One thing I am certain of is that without the undifferentiated mush of Belief, her method will not work for me.

Happy Mother’s Day


Doña Rosa Chavajay Chac, 6 Agosto, 1936

Thursday was Mother’s Day here in Guatemala.  Rosa didn’t make our appointment that day because her family, like most families here, threw a party for her.  I’ve been interviewing a lot of mothers (and fathers) here, who are around the same age as my parents.  As I listen to them tell the stories of their lives, I realize how little I know of the details of my own parent’s lives, what school was like for them, how national and global events shaped their lives, what their first job was, what their parents were like when they were middle aged.  I’m sure bits and pieces of this have been shared with me over the years, but I have a feeling that the rebellion and emotional separation of adolescence and early adulthood closes this font of knowledge for most of us.  Who wants to tell stories to a kid who doesn’t want to listen?  If there is one thing this project has taught me, it is the value of just listening.  Look out, Mom and Dad, I might set up a camera and try to interview you.

What Is Work, Anyway?


Don Bartolo Quiacaín González

He started out as a kid with 10 Quetzales, about $1.25.  With that he bought a few onions to resell in the market.  Gradually he built his business, adding avocados to his wares along the way.  Eventually, he was growing his own to sell.  Then he bought a few boats.  Long story short, he now owns two fleets of repurposed US school buses which run to Guatemala City and to Xela.  He still goes every morning to tend to his onion field.

I have a friend who says “Work is when you’d rather be doing something else.”  It’s a clever turn of phrase, and I have repeated it often.  Recently, however, I have taken a second look.  I think maybe work is living.  It is everything which is difficult, even those things we love doing.  Many people who retire are miserable afterwards, even if they had a job they hated.  This is because their job, with all its challenges, was their life.  Without it, they are lost.  If all you do is go to your job every day and come home and vegetate in front of a TV with a beer, that is what your retirement will be; vegetating in front of a TV only with more beers.  So, you either keep tending the onion field, or you develop other interests which require work, keeping brain and body active.


Interrupted Rhythm

The local bacteria aren’t nearly as friendly as the local people here in San Pedro.  Somewhere along the way, I was careless with my hygiene and managed to invite them into my digestive system.  A battle of wills ensued.  I won, but only with the help of quite a bit of raw garlic and a virtual two day fast.  Fortunately for the schedule of the project, this exciting episode occurred over the weekend.  Today we will be back at it, with three interviews, and on track to finish this phase in two weeks.  At that point interviews will end, and we will wrap up translations and reviews thereof, design a cover, write an introduction, and off it goes to the printer at the end of the month.  I should have a couple sample pages to show you later this week.  Meanwhile, here is a handsome gentleman from last week.


Don Francisco Toc Chavajay is a drummer.  I had hoped to photograph him with his drum, but it was elsewhere waiting for him to perform in a festival.  The festival wasn’t far from my house, but being sick, I didn’t go out.  It was impossible, however, not to hear.  I’m pretty sure he drummed non-stop for about four hours.

Rock Star


Don Pedro Chavajay Quiacain (85)

In the initial interviews, as I mentioned in an earlier post, a consensus appeared that there had been a loss of respect among young people for their elders and for the tradition of greeting them in the street.  So we modified the question to acknowledge this and ask what the causes were.  A surprising (to me) number of people have brought up education as a cause.  They say that students think they are better than their less educated parents and grandparents, so they don’t respect them or their advice.

We worship rock stars because they are there in our adolescence, speaking to our fears, understanding our angst and pain, whether it be that first breakup, our political awakening, or just the need to throw our cares to the winds and dance.  Whichever rock star is there in our moment of need is imprinted on us in such a way that decades later, we can still go back and visit that feeling.

Our parents and grandparents are rock stars on an entirely different level.  They are there throughout our entire lives, also understanding our angst and pain, because they felt it too.  They may not communicate to us through the escapism of popular music, but what they have to offer is much more substantive, and what they give us through the course of our lives is much more profound.  Take the time to listen respectfully.  You may not take their advice or agree with their perspective, but they have decades of knowledge and experience that you can learn from.