Inside a Mayan healing ceremony

Meet the Mayan healers keeping various forms of traditional healing alive for poor indigenous Guatemalans.

Mayan priest Ramon Tzunun and a worshipper sacrifice a chicken over a ceremonial fire in Zunil [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]
Mayan priest Ramon Tzunun and a worshipper sacrifice a chicken over a ceremonial fire in Zunil [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala – At the Cofradia de Conception in Santiago Atitlan, Juan Ramirez, 28, sits pensively on a wooden bench, his outstretched leg held gently by Don Juan Pacach, a Mayan priest and bonesetter. 

The windowless room – part Catholic shrine, part traditional Mayan healing space – is set back from a narrow unmarked street up a hill in this lakeside Mayan village.   

Its interior is lit by thousands of Christmas lights strung across the roof and woven through a menagerie of Catholic saints that surround an altar to Baby Jesus and San Simon/Maximon, the indigenous Mayan folk saint venerated in the Guatemalan highlands.  

Minutes before, Ramirez had limped in to receive the second of three treatments for his injured leg.

“I have been coming to Don Juan since I was a child,” he says, as the kneeling bonesetter – backlit by the lights of the shrine – begins gingerly to roll up Ramirez’s trouser leg, revealing an ankle sprain and a large contusion.  

Ramirez, a physical education teacher and tuk tuk driver (the prolific three-wheeled taxis that zoom around the steep roads of surrounding Lago Atitlan), injured his leg the week before during a football match.

“That sport is often the culprit,” says Don Juan, his hands moving around Ramirez’s injury, assessing the healing progress. “It is much less swollen today,” he concludes.

In his nearly 20 years of bonesetting, Don Juan has treated everything from sprained ankles to dislocated shoulders and severe fractures. His gift, believed to be passed on by ancestors or known intuitively,  comes with a deep sense of commitment to the community.  

“Many cannot afford or do not have access to doctors,” he explains, “So they come to us.”

“If it was broken I would have still come to Don Juan,” Ramirez says. Don Juan  has treated him for three previous injuries.

“For the bones we go to Don Juan. For illness we see a curandero [folk healer/herbalist]. And for a spiritual problem with see a guia spiritual [spiritual guide or shaman],” Ramirez explains.

Together, these different types of Mayan healers comprise a holistic indigenous healthcare practice that provides  an indispensable service to the indigenous poor, who remain  critically underserved by the state healthcare system.

“So far as health is concerned, more than half the population have no access to official health services, the most seriously affected being the native population, which is mainly to be found living in rural areas of the country,” writes Dr Hugo Icu Peren, the director general of the Guatemalan Association of Community Health Services.  

Don Juan and his niece in one of the 12 shrines around Santiago Atitlan. Each shrine is maintained by a member of a Catholic brotherhood or Confradia [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera] 

‘This is our tradition’  

Reaching into a small bag, Don Juan removes some cloth containing his “material” – a piece of a bone he found in 1979 while working in construction.

“When God created the world he left special items in many places,” he explains.

Each bone setter has their own “material”, which they use to practise their ancient craft.   

“This is not something you choose. It is not a career. It is a mission,” he continues, echoing the Mayan belief that some individuals have been granted the gift to heal and that  the signs of that calling often begin at birth and continue throughout life.

“My grandmother would always say to me that I was a Mayan priest. But I thought she was joking,” he says.

For years, Don Juan resisted the calling, hiding the bone in his cupboard and ignoring the visions, dreams and even physical illnesses believed to be signs of it.  

READ MORE: Cultures of ‘magic’ and healing

Then, 19 years after he found the bone, a friend and Mayan priest visited his house. Without being told anything, the priest immediately went to the cupboard where Don Juan had put the bone.

He recalls how the priest told him to stop denying his calling and that he needed to carry the bone with him at all times. Then he began to teach him how to cure people.  

Switching between Spanish (for the benefit of our translator Samuel Botan Sen, a local guide ) and Mayan Tz’utujil, Don Juan utters a few quick words as Ramirez bears down in preparation for what is to come.   

Using his material, Don Juan begins to deeply massage the leg, focusing on one point and moving outwards with steady, deliberate pressure. Gritting his teeth and clenching the sides of the chair, Ramirez yells out as Don Juan moves over the injured area with a series of methodical movements. “Sometimes it takes two or three men to hold them down,” says Don Juan.

The sessions last three to 10 minutes but are intense.

“It’s painful but it works,” says Ramirez, handing Don Juan a single green bill, 20 Guatemalan quetzales, the equivalent of $3.

“The hospital would charge 300-400 Q ($40-$52) and put my leg in cast. But I have to work,” Ramirez says, explaining his reasons for visiting Don Juan – a mix of practicality, tradition and faith. “This is our tradition. I believe in Don Juan. And I trust him completely.”

With his ‘material’ in hand, Don Juan massages Juan Ramirez’s leg where it is injured [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

Healers of the highlands

At 57, Don Juan is a well respected bone setter around Lago Atitlan, the spiritual centre of the highlands and the region with the greatest concentration of indigenous healers .  

Many patients come from the rural hinterlands to seek treatment from the various types of traditional healers here whose legitimacy, according to Icu Peren, “is rooted in the trust placed in them by indigenous families”.

The Mayan holistic healing tradition is a medico-religious one – viewing the ailments of the body and the spirit as fundamentally interconnected. “Mayan traditional healing is a complex blend of mind, body, religion, ritual and science,” writes Marianna Appel Kunow, in her book Maya Medicine .

The healing practice is also rooted in a deep sense of service to the Mayan people.

Many ceremonies take place throughout the day at the shine to San Simon. Each is for a specific purpose and involves specific items [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

“These healers provide an indispensable service to Mayan people,” says Jim Dillin, whose organisation, Grow Your Own Cure , provides guided tours and connects foreigners to local Mayan healers in the hope of preserving and promoting traditional healing practices. “It’s about maintaining a culture and knowledge that is at risk of dying out.”          

“Ours is a healing practice unique to us, the Mayan people. It reflects our culture and heritage,” says Don Juan. He acknowledges the resilience of traditions that have survived a range of historical assaults: the Spanish conquest, the proselytisation campaign of the Catholic and Protestant churches (creating the deep syncretism of Mayan and Catholic beliefs present in Guatemala) and, in the second half of the 20th century, a US-backed genocide that left 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly indigenous Mayan, dead or “disappeared”  [PDF]

“In Guatemala it has always been dangerous to be Mayan,” says Don Juan, who was kidnapped in 1984 by the army and accused of collaborating with left-wing guerillas, a common accusation levelled against priests, who were considered central to the Mayan culture.  

He considers it a miracle that he was able to escape. “A lot of other people from Santiago disappeared,” he says.

The signing of a peace accord in 1996 brought an official end to the violence,  as well as the recognition that Guatemala is ” a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual country [PDF],  creating space for a higher degree of  openness about Mayan spiritual beliefs and practices , including traditional healing.  

Yet the marginalisation and discrimination of the Mayan people continues. “Despite being in a majority, and possessing great cultural richness, the indigenous peoples [of Guatemala] have a history of invasion, colonisation and extermination, to this day reflected in the marginalisation, poverty and destitution in which they live,” Icu Peren writes  [PDF] .

Healthcare is a particular problem for the indigenous Maya, as lack of access, language barriers and cultural  discrimination as well as the implementation of a series of neo-liberal healthcare reforms have led to a health crisis in these communities.    

Christine Gonzales Pop, a herbalist and curandera from San Pedro La Laguna [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

‘Underserved and forgotten’

“We are underserved and forgotten,” says Christine Gonzales Pop, a Mayan curandera and herbalist from San Pedro Lake Atitlan, speaking through our translator Pancho, who works with Grow Your Own Cure.     

Now in her 40s, Christine has been a practising curandera for more than 20 years. For a tiny fee, she treats everything from cancer to arthritis, ulcers, diabetes, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).     

“I have a something that you can use instead of insulin. You have to use it every day but it lowers your blood sugar,” she says, moving between her open-air kitchen/lab (a wooden table, propane burner and metal pot) and the garden below. She returns with small bundles of plants with which she creates the salves and tinctures she uses as treatments. 

Following in the tradition of her curandero father, Christine relies on a holistic approach to healing and a detailed understanding of local medicinal plants.  

“Ruda (rue) is for the inflammation,” she explains, adding a portion of the plant to a large metal pot, steam billowing from the top. This is one of four medicinal plants – piles of which cover her workspace – that she combines with Vaseline to create a salve for the treatment of haemorrhoids.       

“These plants have the same energy as we do. They can be used to treat almost anything,” she says.

Christine also makes medical teas, tinctures and packaged herbs for medicinal baths and cleansings. Her treatments are often the only affordable option for her patients.

“I want to rescue the tradition,” says Christine, who sees her practice as fulfilling both a dire need in her community as well as countering what she views as the pervasive and often misguided use of synthetic medications.  

“Chemicos, chemicos, chemicos,” she laments, switching briefly to Spanish from Mayan Tz’utujil,  one of 21 distinct indigenous languages spoken in the Mayan world.

“In your country you have young children taking amphetamines,” says Christine, referring to the more than six million children in the US diagnosed with ADHD, nearly two-thirds of whom are taking medication for the condition, according to a 2011 study .

“There are other ways to treat our minds and bodies,” she says. “People are losing the ability to treat these problems in a way that is healthy.” 

She has attracted a large internet following and a steady flow of foreigners travel to Guatemala to learn her alternative, natural remedies.  

“Her Facebook page has over one million likes,” says Jim Dillin, whose organisation has helped connect Christine with those attracted to her holistic healing. ” H er practice is one that sees the mind, body and spirit as connected,” he adds.

“We know that spiritual sickness can lead to physical sickness. Our bodies and spirit are all connected. To treat one you have to understand the other,” Christine explains.

Devotees of San Simon come to this shrine from all over Guatemala to pay tribute and offer gifts of candles and cigars [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera] 

‘The protector’

In the town of Zunil, 40km east of Lago Atitlan, a Guatemalan woman stands in a courtyard outside the Cofradia to San Simon/Maximon.

She carries a wicker basket brimming with bundles of multicoloured candles, bottles of Quetzalteca (liquor), rice, sugar, eggs, copal (incense) and a live chicken. She has travelled all the way from Antigua to solicit the skills of Ramon Tzunun, one of six Mayan priests who work out of this shrine to Maximon.

“He is the grandfather, the protector,” says Ramon, motioning to a seated 4ft-tall wooden mannequin dressed in a dapper suit, cowboy hat and sunglasses.

People come to visit Maximon/San Simon, sometimes tipping his chair back so that they can pour an offering of Quetzalteca into his open wooden mouth.  

Maximon is both a part of the Mayan faith and a figure venerated as San (Saint) Simon by many Catholics in Guatemala (although the Church officially considers prayers to Maximon/San Simon to be witchcraft). He has multiple origin stories, appears in many physical forms, and is represented and understood differently depending on location and faith.

The woman, who asked not to be named, has arrived at the shrine for a Limpia (cleansing) and a protection ceremony to help her business. These are two of the three types of ceremonies Ramon conducts. “Other priests fulfill other requests,” Ramon explains.

Outside, in the walled courtyard, the ceremony begins with a cleansing. The priest rubs eggs on the head, arms and body of the woman and then places them on top of eight piles of sugar that encircle the copal (incense balls) located at the centre of a ceramic indentation.

On the sheet metal wall behind the ritual space, three blackened crucifixes hover over the offering and the two still smouldering piles of debris – remnants of previous offerings.

“The cross is specific to Maximon, not Jesus,” explains Ramon.  

After a series of prayers, Ramon removes the live chicken from the bag. Holding the animal’s legs, the priest moves the chicken in rapid circles around the woman’s head, then up and down and side to side for each station of the cross. The chicken is then handed to the woman who repeats the same series of movements.

The priest, meanwhile, places a flat black stone, which will later become a chopping block, upon her head. He removes it and then places it at the centre of the circle. He takes the chicken and then, after a prayer, cuts off its head.

The decapitated chicken is handed to the woman who splatters its blood on the eggs, the cardinal points and on each of the three crosses. The chicken is then dismembered and placed, limb by limb, upon the copal, incense that, Ramon explains, is used to “communicate with God”.  Bundles of wood and hundreds of candles are then placed upon it and lit.

For the next hour, dozens of offerings are tossed into the fire – accompanied by chanting, singing and ritual purifications – culminating in series of loud explosions as each egg bursts, covering the participants with bits of yolk and shell.   

San Simon/Maximon sits behind the shrine along with his attendants. Although there are many variations, he is typically portrayed in a cowboy hat and sunglasses [ Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera] 

The Mayan faith and the Catholic faith 

Back at the Cofradia in Santiago, Don Juan sits on the bench. His niece, having left during the bone setter session, has returned to his lap, her preferred location during our visits to Don Juan.  

Each day people come to the Cofradia de Conception to have their prayers answered. Hundreds of their green and blue bills, Guatemala Quetzals, are scattered as offerings at the feet of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.

The Cofradia that Don Juan   oversees was created by the Catholic Church after the Spanish conquest with the intention of promoting Christian practice in an indigenous region that was resistant to the official Catholic doctrine.    

Today, these Cofradias, 12 in all, revolve around the veneration of Maximon/San Simon, with the effigy moving from one to another each year.

“The Catholic church here is run by the Cofradias, and we are mostly followers of the traditional [Mayan] faith,” says Don Juan, who will receive Maximon/San Simon next year.    

The at times surprising religious syncretism at work here reflects the intersection of two peoples and the resiliency of the Mayan faith and culture.

“The Catholic tradition was imposed here. There was no other way to go and they became part of each other. Now they both work together,” says Don Juan.

“When I am old I will give it [his “material”] to my nephew so that the tradition can continue. It is our ancestral faith that guides us [in] our healing practice. As long as we are here, it will survive.”

A Catholic saint is dressed in traditional Mayan garb, including a red xk’op hat often worn by women in the community [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera] 

Follow Gabriela Campos on Instagram: @gabriela.e.campos

Source: Al Jazeera

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