Life in a Guatemalan
By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University
II. Courtship & Marriage
IV. Death & the Hereafter
As it was observed by the author in the year 1941.
The Childhood Period
A baby born in San Pedro is destined by his biological inheritance to show physical features marking him as an Indian. But apart from physical appearance and conceivably a slight variation in temperament, the infant is no more predisposed at birth to behave like a Pedrano than to think and act like a Frenchman, a Chinese, or an American. However, all evidence indicates that the child will grow up to speak and act like his parents and friends in San Pedro because of the particular set of circumstances that mold his development from infancy to adulthood.
San Pedro girls with "tinajas" earthenware jugs that they balance on their heads while carrying water up from the lake. Photo: Ben Paul,1941
Though they elude recall in later years, experiences of infancy leave their imprint on the character of the individual. Unpleasant treatment at the outset may affect his capacity to make a satisfactory social adjustment as an adult, though this depends on the kind of culture or society in which he is destined to live out his life.
In general, infants in San Pedro receive good care and escape the frustration of adjusting to fixed feeding schedules and the early demands for cleanliness characteristic of other societies. Babies are well clothed and rediapered frequently. By day they sleep in a hammock, safely and comfortably, and at night they share their mother's bed. They are offered the breast whenever they cry. If the mother is temporarily absent, an older sister or another woman of the household pacifies a child by picking it up.
1. Adult Attitudes Toward Infants
Both men and women are indulgent and expressive in handling their babies. When time allows, a mother will sit in the hammock, rocking the infant in her arms as she croons a lullaby. After resting on his return from the fields, a father will play affectionately with his baby, bouncing it on his knee and laughing at its antics. Older sisters treat babies entrusted to their care tenderly and share their parents' pride over the accomplishments of the child when it begins to crawl or to take its first steps.
Many precautions are taken to protect the health of the infant. Some of these are practical, and some are based on superstitions. People do not boast about children nor expose them unnecessarily to public view for fear of the "evil-eye." The infant is hidden in the folds of a shawl when carried in the street. Its face is first publicly exposed when it is baptized in the company of other infants, parents, and godparents who assemble in church to take advantage of the periodic visits of the priest.
Baptism is usually delayed until the child is about six months old. The reasons usually given for the delay are difficulty of paying the fee or rarity of the priest's arrival in San Pedro. Actually, parents are reluctant to expose the infant to the crowd at the baptismal font and hence to the chance of "evil-eye" before it is old enough to withstand the danger. Women school teachers temporarily stationed in San Pedro are the most common choice for godmothers, since they are not Indians and are considered more worldly in their knowledge.
Babies are introduced early to corn gruel and bits of tortilla, but they continue nursing until they are twelve or eighteen months old. The usual reason for weaning is the advanced pregnancy of the mother. The milk is believed to be injurious to the nursing child when the mother is in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy.
As a rule the average mother gives birth to a baby every year and a half or two years. She bears from six to a dozen children. But only half (or less) of this number survive, most deaths occurring in early infancy because of infection or other disease. Birth control is not practiced, or at least not countenanced. Some couples remain childless, but these are considered unusual cases attributable either to the "strong blood" of the wife or the unhappy coincidence of "weak blood" in both partners. The concept of blood strength approximates what we might term strength of character or individual forcefulness. Fathers are said metaphorically to carry the fate of their daughters on their backs, mothers to control the destiny of their sons.
Children of crawling age are carried about in a shawl rather than left for long periods on the floor where they are in danger of upsetting pots, getting into the fire, or contracting dysentery and other illnesses from the dirt floor. They are aided in taking their first steps but are not prodded into walking. No effort is made to instruct them in toilet training until they are old enough to walk and talk. When they are two or three years old, they are encouraged to go into the yard when they feel the need. Later they learn to use an out-house. Beyond occasional shaming devices, no punishment is used to hasten toilet training.
Everything considered, children receive benign treatment during their first year or two of life, enjoying the affectionate and permissive handling now advocated by child psychologists in America. But secure infancy, by itself, is no augury of a model adult personality. Much depends on the nature and tone of subsequent experiences in and outside the home and on the system of values and ideas communicated by the culture. Children in San Pedro grow up to be capable and productive individuals, perhaps as well-adjusted as the average run of human beings in most other cultures. But, as we shall see, they are far from devoid of fears, suspicions, and frictions. Part of the explanation may lie in the rather sudden reversal of treatment experienced by children on graduating from infancy to childhood.
The weaned child who sees himself displaced by a nursing infant interprets the loss of constant attention as a mark of rejection and makes his displeasure known through fits of petulance temper tantrums, and swift changes of mood. Busy with household duties, mothers have little time for older children after tending to the needs of a breast baby. The next youngest child is not actually neglected, but it can no longer be indulged in the style to which it has grown accustomed. Aggravated by the contrast, the child remains resentful until the competing baby in turn is weaned, and the child, now third youngest, achieves a new adjustment by adopting an obedient role toward the mother and a solicitous attitude toward the younger children. Parents and relatives do what they can to ease the frustration of the recently weaned child by offering it fruits and confections and displaying tolerance toward its emotional outbursts. In good time this tolerance will be withdrawn and sterner methods introduced to insure obedience.
By the age of five or six the child learns to submit to authority, to show deference to older members of the household, and to assume responsibility for junior children. He finds that there is reward in duty, not so much in the form of approval as in the avoidance of physical punishment and verbal censure.
"Tres Amigos" (Three Friends). Chema Cox, 2000.
Now there are classes for the younger children in the Tz'utuhil Mayan language, but when Benjamin Paul wrote this article, children were prohibited from speaking Tz'utuhil in the public schools. Painting, "Enseñanza en su Lengua Materno" (Teaching in our Mother Tongue), by Miguel Angel Sunu Cortez. 2003. Collection: Rita Moran, mayawomeninart.org