Careers of Midwives in a Mayan Community

By Lois Paul, Stanford University

Chapter Three
Maria, an Atypical Midwife

Thus far there are no instances of two sisters occupying the role of midwife concurrently in San Pedro, but one of the most popular midwives in a large neighboring town is Juana's older sister, Maria. Maria too suffered before becoming a midwife, but her suffering has not completely resolved her internal and interpersonal conflicts. Her life continues to be punctuated by crises of identity.

"Parto," childbirth. Painting by Domingo Garcia Criado. 2004.

Maria was the first child to live after three who died in infancy. She was therefore given the ritual protection of costumbres, plus unusual care and attention as an infant. But at 15 months she was abruptly weaned to make way for her sister. At the age of two she was dethroned when Juana, who became the favorite, was born. For a year or so Maria was indulged as a typical "knee child" (B. Paul 1967:207). Her temper tantrums were characteristically indulged, ignored, or pacified with a fruit or sweet, but like most children of this category, she was relatively neglected until she became her father's constant compañera, as he fondly called her. He treated her like a son. She accompanied him wherever he went, to supervise his field hands or on trips to markets and fiestas. As her father's companion, Maria enjoyed unusual freedom and independence, traits normally encouraged only in boys.

However, when Maria was seven or eight years old and had therefore reached the age of responsibility, by Pedrano norms, she was expected to stay home and learn feminine tasks. But she resisted her mother's efforts to train her. Her willfulness, wandering ways, and independence were intolerable and led to frequent conflict and punishment. She was soon defined as the "bad" child in contrast to Juana, her "good" little sister.

Although she started school most unwillingly, Maria was one of the few girls of that period who remained in school to complete all three grades of primary school (there are now more grades in San Pedro). She learned Spanish and some ingratiating ways to avoid "discipline" and to win approval from the ladino (non-Indian) school teachers. Maria's beauty attracted the attention of male teachers and she began to entertain fantasies of escape from her family and into the ladino world.

Maria was more worldly than her sister, and assumed the prerogatives of a youthful male, experimenting with sexual liaisons before eloping with her first husband at 14. By the time she was 18, when we first met her in 1941, she had had three husbands-nearly all unions were then common-law marriages-and was nursing a nine-month-old girl, child of her last marriage. Each of her marriages had ended abruptly as the result of conflicts with her various mothers-in-law, as well as with her husbands. Each of her mothers-in-law complained of Maria's laziness, her bossiness with the younger children of the household, her long absences from home, and her brazen habit of stopping to talk with men in the street.

Constantly seeking an escape from home and the confinement of the woman's role, she had married young men from relatively wealthy local Indian families, each time in the hope of escaping with her husband from San Pedro. Each of her husbands was literate and ladinoized; two were educated in the capital—a rare event at the time—and qualified as rural school teachers. She realized her wish with one husband who took her to live for a while in a ladino town on the coastal plain, where she improved her Spanish and was exposed to ladino ways.

But Maria's life in the ladino town came to an end when she and her husband were stricken with malaria and had to return to his parents' home in San Pedro. The three youths she successively married were unable to liberate themselves or Maria from their society. They were among those early temporary migrants who became marginal men when they returned to the village, no longer willing to work with hoe and machete in their fathers' fields, turning to alcohol for consolation.

Maria's elopements were defined by her parents as defiant acts, humiliating to their pride. Despite the fact that elopement was the popular mode of marriage at the time (Paul and Paul 1963), the girl's parents but not the boy's were typically angered, often bringing suit against the eloping couple in the local courthouse, if only to see the young offenders punished with the imposition of a fine, which was usually paid by the parents of the boy. Maria's family reluctantly accepted her back home after each separation, but the atmosphere grew increasingly strained, particularly when she returned with a baby, another mouth to feed.

Maria's knowledge of Spanish, her beauty, her poise among ladinos, and her talents as a performer led to her election on repeated occasions to represent the village in provincial or national folkloristic events such as displays of native weaving (other Pedrano women did the weaving) or demonstrations of "typical Indian dances." Maria was a good dancer and drew criticism from her parents and neighbors for the many hours she spent like a man, dancing in the cofradías (sodalities) to the marimba music during fiestas. It was at one such dance during Holy Week in 1941 that we observed Maria dancing coquettishly with José, who, she misleadingly assured us, was not a novio (sweetheart) since they were cousins. A week later she eloped with him from our house one evening, going to live in the house of his parents and abandoning her baby at the home of her own parents.

This time Maria's alienation was nearly total. Enraged, her father brought suit against her in the local court, demanding that she be sent to the local jail for abandoning her baby. Everyone knew that the baby, claimed by its paternal grandparents in the ensuing local court suit, had little chance of survival since it was under a year old and still nursing. Maria's desertion of the baby and the baby's subsequent demise were widely considered a heinous sin.

Maria could count on the help of her new husband and his parents—who paid the heavy fine imposed by the court—but not for long. Maria again found herself under the thumb of a mother-in-law who was a martinet. Condemned by her culture's rules of residence and lack of alternatives, Maria had acted out of desperation and impulse, grasping at improbable routes of escape. Again Maria's mother-in-law was promptly antagonized by Maria's absences and insolence.

One month after the elopement, Maria and her husband had a violent quarrel, each accusing the other of infidelity. José struck Maria, who fell into a faint that lasted for two hours. When she came to, she experienced a dissociated episode that lasted for several weeks. (This event is described and discussed in B. Paul 1967.) During this episode, Maria was in a state of fugue, oblivious to her ordinary surroundings. She was considered loca or insane (chuj in Zutuhil-Maya). She became alternately violent and morose. She paced, gestured, and talked to spirits who tried to take her with them to the other world. They said they needed her to help nurse the many dead babies in heaven. In her dissociated state, Maria chanted forbidden snatches of her father's shamanistic prayers.

The spirits who pleaded with Maria to join them in death symbolically represented the "social death" she had suffered by alienating every member of her human society. This illness, however, posed the threat of common jeopardy to all the relatives and set in motion "self-regulating processes" (B. Paul 1967), which reversed the process of social alienation. Maria's father, until then at odds with her in-laws, was called in as the expert in curing insanity. Maria, accompanied by her husband and both sets of parents, was taken by canoe to the shrine of Maxim6n, where her father and another shaman performed the appropriate rituals. Maria became the center of concern, sympathy, and attention; she recovered. By an abrupt change in her mode of deviance from argument and rebellion to psychological withdrawal, "Maria was able to trip the cultural lever that set restitutive processes in motion. Having no hospitals to hide her in, the culture provided Maria with a key to re-enter their own society" (B. Paul 1967:165). Maria's illness had the effect of temporarily reknitting her relations with her own family and with her husband, but it was not a prelude to becoming a ritual midwife, at least not immediately.

At the time (1941), we recorded the following observation in our field notes:

Her society provided no feasible alternatives to the standard feminine role of home-maker. The specialized role of midwife might accommodate such a unique person but one may not merely elect to become a midwife. This role is assigned by fate and must be validated by certain supernatural insignia and by social confirmation. In any event she is not old enough to fill the position of midwife in this culture. The only realistic way she might escape the limitations of her society would be if she leaves the village ....

As it turned out, she did leave San Pedro at a later date; and she did become a midwife, but not for another 20 years.

In fact, Maria and José lived for several years in the capital of Guatemala, where we saw them briefly in 1946. The following year, after the birth of a baby girl, Maria and José separated and Maria returned again to her parents' home in San Pedro.

"Parto," childbirth. Painting by Antonio Vasquez Yojcom, 2007. Collection: Rita Moran,

On our return in 1962, we learned that Maria was living in a large Indian town nearby. She was married to her fifth husband, a native of that town. Maria had not yet become a midwife but we found her ill and complaining about peculiar symptoms. Maria was sure she had been bewitched because of her "powers." She referred to her illness and its causes in hushed tones, to dramatize the mysterious implications of her innuendos. The town to which Maria had moved is known among its neighbors for the high prevalence of witches. At the time we recorded in our field notes that we would not be surprised if Maria emerged as a shaman or a midwife in the near future.

When we returned two years later in the summer of 1964, Maria had indeed already become one of the most respected and well-known midwives among a large group of midwives in her adopted town. We learned that a powerful shaman had counteracted her bewitchment by removing several foreign objects from her body. He also divined that she was being "called" to be a midwife.

Like the case of shamans described by Silverman (1967), Maria has had cognitive experiences that in our society might be labeled schizophrenic. But her culture has provided her with a socially acceptable role for the expression of her psychological peculiarities. Although Maria may not have been born with signs of her future role—it is not clear that midwives in her adopted town, like those in San Pedro la Laguna, are born with a distinctive sign-she plays the part so convincingly that Juana, her own sister in San Pedro, now asserts that Maria was born with the virtud, just as Juana herself was. Retrospectively, Maria's early episode of mental dissociation is now reinterpreted as premonitory evidence of her supernatural virtud.

But Maria has not entirely overcome her inner conflict, the envy of her neighbors, or the opposition of her husband. In varying degrees, all three problems still trouble Maria. Her present husband is a literate Indian who retains Indian dress and in other respects exhibits an Indian style of life. He works as a lawyer's assistant on Indian inheritance disputes and has political connections in the local and national ladino hierarchy. A man of property and entrepreneurial skills, he is economically well-off by local standards and has his own need to command and be important. He depends on Maria to help promote his own fortunes and those of their growing sons in the ladino world. One son has graduated from military college and the parents hope to see one of the other two sons become a full-fledged lawyer. When facing the outside world, Maria and her husband make a successful team. Her charm and fluent Spanish make her popular with visiting dignitaries and medical personnel. In 1967 Maria was chosen to act as interpreter in a ten-week course given by visiting public health nurses for local midwives, most of whom spoke no Spanish.

But Maria and her husband have equally strong characters, and within the privacy of the domestic sphere they frequently clash. When this happens Maria does not yield; her "manly" temper often flares. Unlike other females in her culture, she does not cry or go limp when her husband strikes her. To the amazement of her sisters, Maria "fights back like a man."

Maria's extraordinary need for ascendancy and power seems to have its roots in the discontinuities in her early socialization. After her father had encouraged "male traits" in his young daughter, her culture unsuccessfully attempted to impose narrowly defined female norms on the male templates.* Unable to express herself constructively, she alienated her society by her "manly" behavior. Defined as a deviant, she was made to feel unworthy as well as powerless. In any case her present problems are with her husband, whose need to dominate her is stronger than his pride in her accomplishments. Although the two are evenly matched in their drive for ascendancy and in their quick tempers, her husband is the stronger in physical combat. Moreover, Maria lacks the independent economic base that enabled Juana to successfully assert her terms of independence vis-a-vis her husband.

*Other "Marias"-nonconforming girls-growing up in San Pedro at the present time have more alternatives: in the past two decades there have been significant changes in alternative roles available to females. A few, from families with means, have received higher education outside of the town and are now teaching in rural schools, earning the same relatively high salaries ($125 per month) that men in that job category earn. A few have been trained as paramedical personnel but are not yet accepted as midwives. One has become an injectionist and another has been stationed in another rural village as the public health nurse. Other less fortunate young women have escaped from broken marriages and their town by taking jobs as servants in the capital. Still others, out of desperation, have availed themselves of the questionable "opportunity" of entering the under- paid pool of temporary plantation laborers earning $1 or less a day-cash much needed as San Pedro grows more "modernized."

Maria and her husband have frequently quarreled over Maria's insistence on sexual abstinence in the name of her ritual requirements. In the asymmetrical context of sexual relations in her culture (L. Paul 1974:289) it is all too true, as De Beauvoir (1970:368) claims of women generally, that "to give oneself to someone is to abdicate one's will." In Maria's culture midwives gain in two ways by abstaining from sex. To her society and to herself, the midwife demonstrates her continuing sense of professional commitment and her right to the office. Moreover, freed from the necessity of submitting to her husband's sexual demands, she gains a positive sense of self-direction. While Juana is assertive without being aggressive, Maria characteristically challenges her husband by communicating defiance in her demands for sexual independence. He is not fully resigned to Maria's career, nor does Maria countenance his extramarital liaisons.

Thus Maria has not completely overcome the strains in her conflicting obligations as wife and midwife. Nor has she fully reduced the strains in her subjective identity. In moving to another Indian town, she left some of her history behind, but she carried with her .the product of her upbringing, her overdetermined needs. Her commanding and dramatic style enhances her professional role, giving her a certain measure of charisma, but her aggressiveness and unbridled temper bring her into recurrent conflict with her husband and with other members of her society. In the eyes of their society, Juana and other Pedrano midwives ameliorate the social ascendance of their role by genuine displays of compassion and emphasis on the hardships of their office. Maria, in a sense, is too successful; she enjoys the power of her position too obviously. The very quality that adds to her success as a ritual specialist also incurs envy and occasional bewitchment. Periodically she is overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. At such times she withdraws into illness. Such withdrawal often is the desperate strategy of the powerless (Lewis 1971; Uzzell 1974).

However, Maria does not disintegrate into madness. Her culture provides the means for cloaking domestic conflicts and locating the hostility outside in envious neighbors. Local metaphysics and cosmology recognize "permeable body boundaries" (L. Paul 1974:299) and the intrusion of injurious objects by witchcraft. This same permeability makes possible miraculous curative acts. Following a recent conflict with her husband and his mistress, Maria became seriously ill once again. For weeks on end she lay in bed, virtually paralyzed. She scarcely ate, suffering severe weight loss. But she was cured by miraculous intervention. Winged women in white appeared in her dreams to perform a bloodless operation that removed a disabling foreign object from her side. Following the dream, she rose from the bed feeling hungry and strong. Both Maria and her husband marveled at her miraculous recovery.

Silverman (1967:28) points out that persons on the threshold of becoming shamans or schizophrenics face crises revolving around a severely damaged conception of the self and that their abnormalities may be regarded as the result of a desperate attempt to redefine a personally meaningful self-concept. Both redefine their self-image from one of being faulty and unworthy to one of being more than human, a person of momentous importance. The shaman is supported in his self-imagery by his culture's belief in his supernatural powers, while the schizophrenic in our society suffers for his. The role of midwife, like that of shaman, has made it possible for Maria to redefine her self-image from that of an unworthy and undesirable deviant to that of one who possesses some measure of supernatural power and is a person of momentous importance. But she remains dependent on an unwilling husband and lacks the full support she needs to stabilize herself completely in the midwife role or to feel secure in her new identity.