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Guatemala: Land of Bad Luck?


Commentator Francisco Goldman grew up in Guatemala and has published three novels inspired by his time there. Since Hurricane Stan hit, he's been hearing from relatives and friends who are bewildered by their bad luck.


I got an e-mail the other day from my friend Dave, the owner of the hotel in Santiago Atitlan that I always stay in, who told me that they were all OK, but that the village of Panabaj 400 yards down the road had disappeared in a mudslide. At least until last week, Panabaj was part of the municipality of Santiago Atitlan, the ancient, still-thriving capital of the Tzutujil Maya, where people openly worship a deity named Maximon, the contemporary manifestation of the ancient Maya's most powerful lord.

Rescue efforts were useless. It was decided that Panabaj should be declared a cemetery, a terrible echo. Guatemala's 36-year civil war ended less than a decade ago, and ever since people have been unearthing the clandestine cemeteries left by the army in what a UN Truth Commission later labeled a campaign of genocide against the Maya.

Calamity after calamity, earthquakes, war, hurricanes, endless corruption and violence, not to mention 500 years of injustice inflicted on Guatemala's Mayan Indian majority. `What have we done to deserve this?' my Guatemalan relatives and friends ask over the phone. Santiago Atitlan is a spiritual, even mystical town divided between traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants and followers of the ancient Mayan costumbres. This is also the town that suffered one of the last massacres of the war. When townspeople, Catholic and Mayan, led by the Protestant mayor, surrounded the army base to protest abuses, soldiers opened fire, killing 13. The government closed the base down, and Santiago Atitlan became the first Guatemalan town that the army was prohibited from entering.

I wasn't surprised to read in The New York Times that the Panabaj survivors refused any help from the army. Santiago Atitlan incarnates the stubborn, resilient spirit that has sustained the Maya through calamities as bad or worse than Stan. Plus, they have a secret weapon: Maximon, his being rooted in the ancient Mayan lords who carried the sun across the sky and named days. When you visit his shrine, you will see a sort of wooden mannequin in a black suit and Stetson hat, cigar stuck into his mouth. The aguardiente-swilling Maximon has many identities, many stories. He's the ancient Maya Lord of the Middle, he's Judas Iscariot, he's old grandfather or, as my friend Dolores(ph), the first modern female Tzutujil shaman, once explained to me, `He's crazy. He's a wild man. He's the lord of everything.'

Maximon, I've seen the way people line up to pray to you, to ask you for favors. What are they asking you now? `Why does this happen to us? Why do such calamities befall Guatemala?' You've endured for such a long time, along with your people, Maximon, because nobody would ever expect you to answer a question like that.

NORRIS: Francisco Goldman is the author of "The Divine Husband" and "A Long Night of White Chickens." He lives in Brooklyn.

This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Francisco Goldman