Life in a Guatemalan
By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University
II. Courtship & Marriage
III. Married Life
IV. Death & the Hereafter
V. Cultural Considerations
As it was observed by the author in the year 1941.
1. The Problem of Adjustment
Whether the girl arrives at her new home by elopement or parental arrangement, her first night is usually an unhappy one. She sits up and weeps or withdraws in moody silence. Added to her fear of her husband, she feels loneliness in the unfamiliar surroundings. Only now, by contrast, does she realize how strongly she has depended for her security on her parents' home. Apart from relatives, the intimacy of her own home has seldom been violated by the intrusion of casual callers. People have come on official business but have abided by custom and remained politely outside the door. Conversely, she has seldom had occasion to visit in other homes, those of relatives excepted. This almost awesome respect for the privacy of others makes emotional adjustment in a new and unfamiliar home a frightening experience. Despite all logic, she feels lost, ashamed, and threatened at the same time.
Village Elders. As they grow older, the respect and authority given to both women and men increases. Photo: Bejnajmin Paul, 1941.
She has been a member of girlhood cliques but has never eaten or slept away from her own home. In this respect she differs from adolescent boys who often sleep in the home of a companion, though they do not eat there. If the husband joins his wife's family, it is usually he who finds his wedding night uncommonly long and the fleas unusually active. But his loneliness will not be so acute. In a few days he may actually feel reasonably adjusted.
There is no honeymoon. On the morning after the first night, and every day thereafter, the bride rises at four o'clock, along with the other women of the household, to grind corn for the breakfast tortillas in the flickering light of' a kerosene flame. The groom and the other men of the house rise an hour later. When they first meet in the morning, the girl takes the hand of her mother-in-law, makes a gesture of kissing it and greets her with the conventional phrase: "How do you do, my mother-in-law." The latter returns the salutation, calling the girl "my daughter-in-law." The bride exchanges formal greetings with her father-in-law in similar manner. Should both her in-laws appear at the same time, she greets the father first, in accordance with prevailing etiquette. In her parents' home, she has done the same thing daily as a mark of respect for authority. Her husband similarly pays his respects to his own parents on rising. But there is no need for the young man and wife to exchange formal greetings in the morning. In fact, they hardly have occasion to speak to each other during the early part of the marriage.
On the first morning, the mother-in-law instructs her new daughter-in-law to bring her husband some water so that he may rinse his mouth and wash his haI1ds. She then directs her to bring him his breakfast, "for he is your husband, and you need not be shy." The groom and the other men of the house drink their coffee and scoop up black beans with their tortillas. Soon these men leave for the fields, carrying their lunches. Only after the men have breakfasted do the women eat.
The newlyweds have a bed, or at least a floor-mat, of their own placed in a separate room if one is available. But many families occupy a single-room dwelling, and the bridal couple must often be content with only the privacy of darkness and a separate corner of the room.
Since children sleep in the same room as do their parents, and often in the same bed. it can be assumed that they do not grow up as innocent of sexual knowledge as their later accounts might lead one to believe. Respect, rather than intimacy, characterizes the relationship between child and parent. Children learn not to also their elders to clarify bits of sexual knowledge or information that they hear. Shame and the fear of censure effectively block the open expression of any such curiosity. Nor do parents find it necessary to discuss this taboo topic. In the presence of children, or even among themselves, adults will resort to the traditional phrase, "they are talking to each other," in referring to a sexual affair. Children are told that babies are purchased from merchants or visiting foreigners.
Parents try to insure the virtue of their daughter not so much by communicating moral precepts as by shielding her from danger and temptation. Girls learn that good conduct consists of avoiding close contact with men and boys. They are warned that failure to follow this injunction will expose them to dire unnamed consequences. In this the parents are not completely wrong.
Adolescent girls must indeed be better informed than they will ever admit, for men will occasionally become too familiar with such girls, especially when emboldened by liquor during fiestas, and girls will exchange gossip about incidents of this kind. But information about the facts of life so acquired, however avidly absorbed, carries with it an admixture of misinformation and an aura of shame and danger. It is not surprising, therefore, that girls are apprehensive the first night of their marriage.
Wives conceal the fact of menstruation from their husbands. A daughter is warned that if evidence of this condition comes to her husband's attention, he may accuse her of witchcraft and chase her from his home. One may well doubt the presumed ignorance of the men, but the fact remains that the mystery surrounding this question can lead to misunderstanding and conflict.
"Nuestro Maiz" (The corn we Mayans grow). Painting by Pedro Rafael González Chavajay, 2006
2. Sources of Friction
Apart from the problems of early adjustment, the two most recurrent sources of domestic friction are the social distance between the sexes and the physical proximity of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The gulf between man and woman is scarcely bridged by marriage. The wife continues to be watched, mainly by other women, and the youthful husband, much more of a free agent, continues to spend his spare time in the company of male companions rather than share it with his wife. This is not done out of lack of consideration but in response to social expectation. A man who is overly attentive to his wife risks ridicule by his companions. Separated in their economic and social activities, man and wife are slow to build up mutual confidence and quick to credit gossip or make false inferences. An actual incident will show how this works.
A few days after her marriage, a young wife chanced to meet one of her male cousins who chided her for marrying a man who was carrying on an affair with another woman. The girl believed this improvised story, not knowing that her cousin bore her husband a grudge. Afraid to confront her husband with the story, she brooded until the groom, his suspicions aroused by her silence, accused her of entertaining an interest in another man. She suspected that his display of anger was meant to cover up his own duplicity. This rift, which was eventually repaired through the help of relatives and a successful libel suit against the malicious cousin, might never have materialized were it not for the characteristic lack of confidence between young husbands and wives.
The constant supervision of the mother-in-law over the actions and movements of her daughter-in-law is another source of friction. The older woman considers it her duty to make the young wife an efficient worker in order that she can her keep and become an asset to her husband. She warns her not to tarry on errands and not to enter into prolonged conversations on the playa, lest she fall into temptation or be misled by mischievous counsel. The young woman does her best to control her feelings toward the dominating mother- in-law until eventually the tension breaks, and squabbles begin. Or the girl may suddenly try to escape and return to the home of her parents.
If several married brothers are living under the same roof, quarrels may develop between sisters-in-law. When conditions in the house become intolerable, and if the couple has been married a year or two and has a baby, the most common solution is to set up a separate residence. With the aid of relatives and neighbors, father and son build a new adobe house for the latter, usually close to his parents' home. The son continues working with his father in the fields; his wife remains in close contact with her in-laws, joining them on I trips to the lake for water and laundering and exchanging advice or gossip across the courtyard. But the new family sleeps and eats apart, and the daughter-in-law manages her own house.
About half of all first marriages result in early separation. Not sharing our practice of premarital "dating," young people of San Pedro have their test of compatibility after marriage rather than before. But once a marriage results in children, it is usually permanent.
Only in exceptional cases does a person of San Pedro marry someone from a neighboring village. Such marriages usually take place between local girls and young men who come to San Pedro as hired hands. Some of the families own more land than they can cultivate by themselves and, therefore, employ laborers from poorer villages, paying them in corn or in cash. To feed his workers during busy seasons, a large landowner brings his daughters and other available women of the family to a temporary residence in the fields where they grind corn and cook meals. If the fields are not too far, the workers may be quartered in the village residence of the employer.
In either case, unmarried daughters have occasion to meet men from other communities and to receive proposals of marriage. Some fathers object to such marriages, considering it beneath the girl's station to marry a landless laborer. But other wealthy fathers, especially if they have few or no sons, welcome such arrangements, subordinating pride to practical considerations. Having spent a lifetime building up an estate in order that he may hand down a comfortable inheritance to his children, the father fears that his daughter may marry a local ne'er-do-well who will neglect the fields and finally be forced to sell them to pay his drinking debts. He knows that a son-in-law who has demonstrated his capacity for hard work as a hired hand is the surest guarantee that his daughter's share of the estate will continue intact.
"Tejedora" Weaver spinning wool into thread for weaving. Painting by Domingo Garcia Criado, circa 1985. Collection: Arte Maya Tz'utuhil.
3. Adult Activities
A. Work Habits. Housewives lead remarkably busy lives, waking before dawn and working until shortly after dark when they go to sleep. Grinding corn for tortillas consumes at least four hours of the day. Two hours are devoted to weaving, two more to washing clothes and bringing water from the lake, the remaining hours to cooking, caring for children, feeding chickens and turkeys, and perhaps watering vegetable plots at the edge of the village. Some wives travel by canoe to the market village of Santiago Atitlán to sell tomatoes or other cash produce. Woman of poorer families can earn several cents a day carrying water for wealthier families with many hired field hands to feed, or weaving for local merchants who sell native shirts to tourist shops in the capital.
A woman's work day is more tightly scheduled than a man's, and there is less variation from day to day. Still, she manages to take the edge off monotony by humming over the grinding stone or exchanging gossip with other women across the yard while weaving on the porch. Water trips and laundering are strenuous tasks, but they count as relaxation for the opportunity they offer of walking and working with other women and engaging in social chit-chat. Bargaining with peddlers provides another source of satisfaction. Animated and protracted haggling helps stretch her small reserve of cash, but a housewife also gains gratification from driving a shrewd bargain.
Men spend most of their time farming. Some walk more than an hour to reach their fields. According to the season, they clear the land of overgrowth; plant corn, beans, squash, and lesser crops; weed, cultivate, and hill-up the corn; harvest and haul the products to their cribs and houses. If they have much land, they hire helpers if they own too little, they work part time for others. They cut and carry home firewood, thresh beans in the courtyard, dry maguey fibers for making ropes, bags, hammocks, and halters, and assist neighbors at housebuilding during the dry season. They travel to near and distant markets to sell chick-peas and other money crops and to purchase farming tools as well as hats and sack coats for formal wear.
In place of farming, or to supplement it, some men earn money as masons, carpenters, small shopkeepers, soap-makers, bakers, and butchers. The village supports four butcher shops, each open in turn for a three-day period during which a carcass of beef is retailed to the public. Each butcher spends part of his nine-day lull journeying to the Pacific lowlands to purchase a steer which he leads back to San Pedro.
B. Diversion. Men find relief from the tedium of hard labor in small talk with companions on the way to work, in seasonal changes of activity, in trading trips to other towns, and in discharging administrative assignments which afford long stretches of leisure about the courthouse. Here they witness lawsuits, hear the latest scandals, listen to the courthouse radio (when the batteries have not gone dead), twirl fibers into rope by rolling them over the bare thigh with the flat of the hand, and knit men's mesh bags with a pair of wooden knitting sticks.
But the major source of diversion is the series of fiestas that punctuate the year. Among the main celebrations are Holy Week, the important titular fiesta of San Pedro, and the six fiestas corresponding to the patron saints of the six lay brotherhoods (cofradías). Each festivity lasts a number of days and is enlivened by processions, choirs, drum and marimba music, resounding rockets, chili-spiced corn gruel and cane-sugar rum. On several of these occasions groups of men and boys stage traditional dances in gaudy and expensive costumes. During the fiesta of San Pedro, visiting merchants form a temporary market in the village square, selling confections, fruits, baubles, and wooden toys.
Members of all the cofradías, as well as the body of municipal employees, enter into all the religious processions, swelling the total of active participants well beyond a hundred, apart from choirs, choruses, musicians, and dancers. Throngs of children scamper after the colorful train, gulping gruel served in gourd cups as the procession, which begins and ends in the church, pauses at each of the cofradía headquarters scattered throughout the village. Many men not directly involved find fiestas fit occasions for getting drunk. Women leave their houses for brief intervals, lining up along the street to witness the ceremonies, most of which are slow paced and more serious than Joyous. But the popular comment, "How gay it is!", refers not to the tempo or mood. of the performance, but to crowds in the street. Gaiety is a function of numbers, not of movement; it is the opposite of loneliness.
Families that can afford the time visit fairs and fiestas in other towns, laboring up steep mountain paths with their children, mingling with the crowds and gazing at the goods in the bazaar, and often returning home with fruits and candies for their neighbors' children.
C. Public Service. All men are obliged, periodically, to hold administrative posts, ranging from deputy constable to mayor and judge, and to fill any of a series of graded offices in the ceremonial organization which consists essentially of the six cofradías, or Catholic brotherhoods, established to venerate certain saints and hold celebrations in their honor. Ordinarily, each male citizen between the ages of 18 and 60 serves one year out of every three or four in a civil or ceremonial capacity, his appointments alternating between the two systems. Except for the higher administrative offices which require full-time attendance at the courthouse, most assignments are part-time appointments. An average man contributes approximately one-eighth of his total working time to the community.
Many of the offices require the expenditure of personal funds as well as time. This is especially true of the higher positions in the religious organization which require heavy outlays for festive food and drink. Men progress systematically from lower to higher offices. By the time they receive the more responsible appointments, their children are sufficiently grown to assist in accumulating the necessary corn and cash. Many nominees accept their duties with reluctance, proclaiming their inability to make the sacrifice but acceding when it is pointed out that all must sacrifice for the common good. They are pushed up the servicio ladder by the pressure of public opinion, but, as they approach the top, they are coaxed up the final difficult rungs by the prospect of enjoying the dignified status of village elder, an honorific office reserved for those who have contributed in full measure to public service. A man's obligation to the community is formally completed when he has successively taken charge of three cofradías with all their attendant display and expense.
The elders foregather on high religious occasions, red kerchiefs tied about their heads to symbolize their status, acknowledging with dignity the deferential greetings and hand-kissing by those who meet them. From time to time they convene in special session to deliberate on problems of common concern such as the question of raising funds for repairing the church or the advisability of piping water into the central square. They are summoned to conference by a delegation of municipal deputies, including a drummer, that calls at the home of the first elder, then the second, and so on in order of seniority. Ranking elders reach seventy or eighty years of age.
D. Woman's Reward. One position in the ceremonial organization is filled by unmarried girls, who are assigned to cofradías to grind corn on the eve of fiestas and to bear candles in religious processions. With this exception, women hold no communal offices in San Pedro. Nevertheless, a woman’s sense of importance increases as she grows older, partly owing to greater years, which by themselves command respect, partly through sharing her husband's prestige as he rises in the civil-ceremonial hierarchy, and partly by assuming authority over junior members of her household. In return for submitting to domination as a girl ill her mother's house and later as a young wife under the control of her mother-in-law, a woman eventually finds herself on the credit the authority ledger, claiming deference and obedience from children, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.
Throughout her lifetime, a woman remains formally subordinate to her husband who represents the family before the public. But the husband seldom interferes with the affairs of woman, allowing his wife full sway in domestic management. Money which she earns through minor sales and services is hers to spend; allocation of tasks to other women in the house is her responsibility. Some women grow mellow and dignified with increasing importance; others exploit their power, demanding the same strict compliance to which they themselves had once adhered.