Alex was a fantastic guide, but he only spoke Spanish. I did my best to listen to what he said, but my weak Spanish interfered. Mostly this didn´t matter much, because most of what he showed me was routine tourist things I understood well enough.
Then he took me to Parque de la Paz. The story of the park is clear enough. During the Civil War Santiago de Atitlan suffered as all the Mayan villages did from the near-genocidal efforts of the Guatemalan military. A Catholic priest, Father Stanley Rother, was killed in 1981, and all through the 80s people from here ¨disappeared.¨ In 1990 an angry crowd gathered and threw stones at a Guatemalan military base, and the military massacred 13 people. But because Santiago de Atitlan is a tourist facility the military was forced to withdraw to avoid further embarassment.
In memory of those massacred the village has erected ¨El Parque de La Paz,¨ a beautiful stone park with small marble memorial stones to those killed in the massacre. The story that I didn´t understand from Alex I could read in the marble plaque on the side.
I didn´t understand exactly what Alex said next, but he asked me if I wanted to see the houses.
¨What houses?¨ I asked.
¨The houses where we lived when the soldiers came,¨ he said.
So I followed him. We passed a residential part of the village. Some women were weaving on traditional looms. Then we passed a school, but it was empty even though it was a school day.
Then we passed a hospital, also abandoned. Alex pointed to a field across from the hospital. Many people lived there, he said, though I didn´t understand the rest of the sentence.
Then we walked a little further. We came upon the wrecks of a number of stone houses. They looked burned out, and there was ash in the dirt. Alex walked to one of the houses. I understood what he said next.
¨I lived here. The river used to pass this way. I was five years old. They killed my father and my mother right over there.¨
A couple of times I have had people ask me what the Popul Vuh ¨means.¨ I have found this a difficult question to answer, and not just because I am still an outsider studying it. What does the Bible mean? What does the Odyssey or the Gilgamesh mean? It is the story of the people, and it would be ridiculous to try and sum it up.
But I´ve still put some thought into one strong message that comes from the book. The PV is ridiculously violent. Through the course of the book the heroes lose limbs, have heads cut off, are killed and chopped up and burned and thrown in the river. And yet they always come back. In a sense there is something almost cartoonish about it, and Hunahpu and Xbalanque aren´t supposed to be normal people. ¨They were just gods,¨ says the book.
But I can´t help but think there is a theme that is connected to this: no matter how you try to destroy the Hero Twins, they always bounce back. They always survive. And in the face of terrible violence and evil they always find a way to win through a combination of trickery and courage.
As I said, these are the stories of a people. Though the PV was specifically Quiche, I am pretty sure that the part of it that is the story of the Hero Twins is pretty universal to the Maya. And if one was forced to sum up a ¨message¨ from the book, it would be this: you can conquer us, you can massacre us, you can try to take our land and destroy our culture, but we will survive. We will come back.
The Mayans suffered under oppression from the Aztecs even before the Spanish came, then they suffered the horrors of colonial oppression. Their literature was burned by the Spanish monks in a crime against human knowledge equal to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. For the next few centuries they rose up repeatedly against Spanish and Ladino oppression, and were suppressed violently. Their land was taken to make coffee and sugar plantations, and they were forced to work under conditions little better than slavery. And in the civil war, villages like San Mateo de Ixtalan suffered much worse than better known villages like Santiago de Atitlan. Fernando said that during the 80s more than 3000 people were shot on the picturesque bridge that overlooks the valley below the house where we were staying.
But, in the words of Faulkner, the Mayan people endured. Just like the Hero Twins, they survived through a combination of courage and necessary deception. When the Spanish tried to destroy their beliefs and culture they hid them away while pretending they were doing what they were told. But when the Spanish and later Guatemalan military pushed them too far they would get together and stand for their rights, knowing that many of them would pay the price of their lives.
And now they are still here, with a culture that is as strong as it ever was. The culture they have now isn´t the culture they had 500 years ago; like everyone else they have developed new skills and ideas while adapting ideas from the outside as they were useful. But the culture they have now is distinctly their own.