After stepping off the water taxi and on to the shores of Santiago, the largest town on Guatemala's Lake Atitlan, we trotted behind Alexjandro up a steep street lined with brightly colored textiles being sold by Mayan artisan entrepreneurs. At the crest of the hill, Alejandro ducked into an alley and we followed him as he navigated a narrow maze of twisting and turning lanes, eventually stopping at a wooden shack. He opened the door and gestured for us to enter.
Crossing the threshold, we entered a dark smoky room aglow with dozens of flickering candles. Alejandro guided us to the back of the small space and as our eyes grew accustomed to dim light, we saw two men kneeling in front of an altar overflowing with sweet-smelling flowers. Above the offerings presided a carved wooden statue adorned with a black cowboy hat and layers of scarves in vivid hues.
Alejandro whispered to us that the wooden statue embodies a nawal, or protective spirit guardian, of the Tz'utuhil people of Santiago Atitlan. The statue is known as Rilaj Mam, which means “grandfather” in Tz’utuhil and is made from the wood of a Tzite tree. Alejandro said the tradition springs from the belief that humans were first created by the Tzite tree.
The Tz'utuhil religious tradition calls for sacrifices to Rilaj Mam--a tribute of tobacco takes the form of a lit cigarette inserted into the lips of the statue. We watched as two attendants periodically removed the cigarette from Rilaj Mam's mouth to flick the long ash from its end. A bottle of alcohol is placed on the altar, and dozens of candles and incense sticks cover the floor.
Alejandro told us the shaman was performing a ritual blessing of a young man who was planning to emigrate to the U.S. The shaman offered incantations that his journey was safe, and that he would be able to find a job.
The Mayan spiritual traditions incorporate both their ancient indigenous beliefs and a variety of Catholic traditions that date to the enforced introduction of the religion by the Spanish colonists. This blending of traditions is known as syncretism.
Santiago’s original Mayan name is Tzikin, which means “Bird’s House” and is named for a jay that makes its home there. Mayan people are known by their language. Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan is home to the Kakchiguel-speaking Mayans, who live it’s the north side and the Tz’utuhil, who live on the south side. While their history has included conflict, they share a powerful energy and rich heritage of artistic and spiritual traditions.
60% of Guatemalans are indigenous people, who live mostly in the north and west. From 1960 - 1996, Guatemala endured a civil war which was mostly fought between the government of Guatemala and various leftist rebel groups supported chiefly by ethnic Mayan indigenous people and Latino peasants, who together make up the rural poor. The government forces of Guatemala have been condemned for committing genocide against the Mayan population of Guatemala during the civil war and for widespread human rights violations against civilians. During the war more than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and more than 200,000 people killed.
Only about 10% of the indigenous people practice the Mayan religion but the number is growing. The practice of traditional Mayan religion is increasing in part due to cultural protections established under the peace accords.
Alejandro pointed out that there were dozens of lit candles placed around the Rilaj Mam statue, while a statue of a reposed Jesus Christ in a glass-encased casket had only a half dozen or so candles below it. Alejandro said “You can see who is considered more important here!”
Alejandro explained that Mayans do not have churches but only simple altars, which are considered energy centers. Only shamans can designate an altar site.
“If you are in tune with nature, you have a way to God, but that shamans are needed for rituals to request healing, blessings or guidance," Alejandro said.
He explained that for rituals, a circle is made with incense and a cross is placed in its center. Each line of the cross is a specific color: black for west, which symbolizes the night sky; red for east, which symbolizes the rising sun; south is yellow which symbolizes flowers and nature, and north is white, which symbolizes the “sacred place.”
"Your energy is your destiny," Alejandro said, explaining that when a child is born, the shaman divines what its future profession will be, based on his interpretation of the infant's aura.
There are 12 towns on Lake Atitlan and we visited several with Alejandro--it was clear from the start that artistry was the energetic destiny of many of the Lake's residents.
We had met Alejandro on the docks of Panajachel, and set off by boat to San Juan, a 14-km journey over waters that were still in the morning but would later get choppy. Alejandro told us there is a legend of a Romeo and Juliet-like couple, one of whom was Kakchiguel and the other was Tz’utuhil. The two groups did not get along and so the relationship between the two lovers was doomed. They took their love affair into Lake Atitlan, diving together into its deep waters.
As we skimmed along the Lake's surface at high speed, Alejandro explained that the sides of the mountains on the north side are planted with corn in May, which is harvested in December or January. Corn is the foundation of the local diet. The soil on the south side of the lake is newer as a result of volcanic activity as recent as 1852 and therefore more fertile. On this side of the lake, coffee plantations are built up the side of the Atitlan Volcano.
When we reached San Juan, Alejandro pointed out half-submerged buildings along the shore. He said that after the earthquake in 1976, cracks in the basin of the volcanic caldera had lowered the water level, and people eventually built along the shore. In 2009, those cracks became sealed and the water table increased significantly; its depth is now about 1,000 feet.
This is not the first time the water levels in the lake have changed dramatically. Archaeologists are now investigating a submerged temple that lies deep below the surface off the village of San Lucas. Lake Atitlan has been an important Mayan spiritual center for more than 2,000 years and is believed to be a portal to the sacred underworld.
San Juan has a population of about 8,000 and its residents were the first lake-side community to work together to form a cooperative to market their handicrafts to tourists, which they established in 1979. While tourism didn’t really begin to take off until 2007, when it did, other communities around the lake followed San Juan’s lead. Now there are over 25 recognized weaving co-ops. San Juan remains a favorite because of the community’s expertise in using natural dyes and we were able to meet many women weavers and dyers and see them demonstrate their craft.
Further up the street in San Juan, we met artist Angelina Quic, who pioneered a technique that has been widely copied. While on a walk high in the hills, she took a photo of the terrain below and it gave her an idea. When she went home, she organized her children with fruit on the first floor and then went to the terrace above and took a photo looking down on them from an “eagle eye” perspective. She has since expanded this aerial view technique to other subjects.
Angelina began painting a year after she got married in 1991 after watching her husband Antonio Coche, who is also an artist. Together they operate a gallery that represents 15 local artists, 7 of whom are her husband’s brothers and 8 of whom are family friends. Three of the 15 are women.
From the the mysticism of Rilaj Mam's smoky sanctuary, to the depths of its 1,000-foot waters and the heights that inspired Angelina, Lake Atitlan exudes a powerful energy that pulls you in and lifts you up.