November 7, 2008

Mary Beth Danielson: Sunday afternoon in a Guatemalan Cemetery; Wednesday evening in the Racine Library

By Mary Beth Danielson

It was Sunday afternoon and I was staying with a family of twelve in the highlands of Guatemala. (The mother and daughter-in-law are weavers for MayaWorks.) When they asked if I would like to go with them to the cemetery, I responded enthusiastically. I've known since I was a teenager that Latin American cultures have many traditions built around visits to cemeteries. And now I was being invited, by a Maya family, to go with them to theirs!

Adults and kids piled into the cab and bed of a truly worn-out pick-up truck. Twenty jouncing, spring-less miles further into the mountains, we piled back out at the side of a dusty lane.

The small cemetery was nestled into the wooded side of a mountain. Straight ahead, over the edge of a cliff, was a blue-misted valley. The sky was azure above us, the air was warm and breezy. Maybe there was a hundred graves, maybe less; it was just the right size for a family reunion. Many graves were simply humps of dirt covered with blankets of grass, marked by painted crosses announcing the simple poetry of loss. A name, a date of birth and then of dying. No granite tombstones, no urns, no statues, no pageantry. Just hillocks of graves.

Others resting sites were a bit more formal. Stucco finished slabs and uprights marked the grave, most were painted vivid blues and greens. It was to two side-by-side turquoise graves that we all gravitated. These were the graves of the mother and father of my hostess, Mrs. Sepet. Today was an anniversary of the passing of one of them, so adult children, their spouses, children, and grandchildren (and unexpected visitors) all attended the cemetery to clean and decorate these graves of the heads of this family.

Children of this extended family circled me. They told me their names, then asked me what they’d said. I didn’t understand them very well because my Spanish is so poor, so we soon were into a rousing game of “Que es mi nombre, Senora?” I would wrack my brain for one more noun I know, then respond, “Usted eres Gato Pequeno, no?” (“What’s my name, Ma’am?” “Ummm, Sir, you are Little Cat, aren’t you? Or kitchen. Or blue. Or rain. Or pancake mixing bowl.”) I don’t think the kids ever tumbled to the fact I didn’t know what I was doing.

Other family members arrived. The women wore their Maya clothing; hand woven jaspe skirts (jaspe is muted, heathery plaid in shades of blue, lavender, green) and tunic style blouses, called huipils (wee-pills). Huipils are art. Lusciously colorful, woven with roses, birds, zigzags and stripes.

The women walked across the grass, in their colorful clothes, carrying heavy armloads of flowers. Pink, lavender, yellow flowers – along with dozens of the creamy calla lilies that are native to Guatemala. The beauty was stunning.

The women worked smoothly together (the way my mother and aunts did when they cleaned up a kitchen after a holiday dinner). They swept the flat graves while men cut and stripped pine branches. When the graves were cleaned, the fresh and fragrant pine needles were laid on the tombs. The masses of flowers were arranged into huge bouquets at the head stones. Candles were set into clear plastic soda bottles that had been rinsed, trimmed and filled with a little water to keep the candles safe.

The graves were done. People murmured respectfully, said quiet prayers, and the next thing I knew, snacks were being handed out to everyone. Grape soda and wrapped packages of wafer cookies. Sugar is apparently the universal language of togetherness.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in that quiet cemetery. Kids played with their cousins. Men talked to each other, then went over by the various trucks to look at engines and tires. One boy had a new puppy that all the kids adored. A baby was held by everyone, including me.

It’s curious, isn’t it, how much strength and identity we find when we get together? Children learn what’s acceptable behavior in our group - and what’s not. The stress we feel in our individual homes is released for a few hours; we stop thinking about all the things we have to do; we relax into shared conversation. We tell the stories of people who aren’t with us. We meander in our spirits, as we become community.

This coming Wednesday evening, November 12, 6-8PM, at the Racine Public library, there will be an event opened to all to hang out, rub elbows, share conversation, practice community.

MayaWorks Executive Director Jeannie Balanda and Board Member (her connections with MayaWorks go back to 1992) Phyllis Nickel will talk about the stories and challenges of creating economic justice in a Guatemala, among these beautiful, determined people.

You are cordially invited to attend. Hear stories, ask questions, eat some sweet treats. MayaWorks and HOPES Center sales will be hosted, so bring your checkbook and buy a present for the holidays.


  1. I won't be able to attend, but am curious what "economic justice" is.
    Is it choice in paying various taxes?
    Is it choice in paying various minimum markups for gasoline?
    Is it choice in what out-of-state winery I buy from?
    Is it choice in how one invests in their personal human capital?
    Does economic justice justice apply only to people below a cetain income level?

  2. Are you the lady that used to write a column in the Journal Times? If so, I miss you. I always looked forward to them. You are blessed to be able to live with another culture, and I mean LIVE. Thank you for this pleasant and informative comment. I still wish I were someone else (like when you were young and wished you were beautiful and a movie star). Now it is just people that I admire. And today it's you. Again Thanks!!!

  3. Anonymous 8:11 - the mayans in Guatemala are shunned by their own Government and treated as second class citizens in favor of people of Castillian (spelling?) descent. I doubt they are paying any taxes as they receive no benefits from their government. It wasn't that long ago, can't remember the year but it was in our lifetime, their government ordered the murder of thousands of Mayans in an effort to exterminate them all, much like the Holocost in Germany. It was for this reason many fled into the Highlands. They are not having to worry about gasoline or buying wine, they are just trying to survive.