A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the Mayan religious traditions of Santiago Atitlan – one of the few places in the world where the ancient Mayan religion and its ceremonies and rituals are still practiced regularly. I am still only a novice in my knowledge of Mayan traditions here, but I was exposed to quite a lot, thanks to my next door neighbor, Dave, who has become involved with the Mayan Cofradías (or brotherhoods) here.
You can read about the actual function and spiritual understandings of the Cofradía here, but the following is an account of my basic understanding and experience.
There are several Cofradías in town, which are essentially membership-based sects of Mayan religious followers, and they serve the purpose of carrying out and preserving the Mayan religious tradition of man’s role in maintaining planetary cycles. Although each Cofradía is dedicated to a specific Catholic saint, the saint is essentially a figurehead or mask representing a Mayan deity – during the time of the Spanish conquest, this was a necessary practice to hide the indigenous religion from Spanish priests.
Each Cofradía has dignitaries who serve as leaders for a set period of time; I’m unsure of the election process and hierarchy specifics, but it seems that one moves up through the ranks of the system by serving in various capacities over a number of years. These dignitaries are always men, but women have an important role to play as tixeles, I am told (though I’m uncertain what that role is).
So, my first experience with a Cofradía was attending one of their parties. They have occasion to celebrate a few times throughout the year – usually on religious holidays and the name day of their particular Saint. During the week of Fería here in Santiago, the name day of Saint Santiago Apostól (who, I discovered, is James, the brother of John), falls on the last day of Fería, and was the cause for celebration the day I first attended. My neighbor and I walked to the house that serves as the place of worship for the Cofradía dedicated to Saint Santiago at around 9pm one night.
As we walked up the hill, I could hear the music from the house blaring at least a kilometer away. We arrived to see they had enormous speakers playing music from the roof, and there were a few people lingering outside. I followed Dave’s lead and walked inside, down a long hallway to a back room where several men were seated around a long table eating dinner. Dave informed me that this was not the norm, but a special event because the Alcade (mayor or chief) of the Cofradía was there. In this room, they had liters of beer for sale and Dave and I purchased 3. While this might seem strange, the beer is a sort of offering to the deity/saint and a sign of respect to the Cofradía membership. Making an offering of alcohol or money is customary when attending one of these functions.
Our beer in hand, Dave and I walked back toward the front of house and into a side room where the action was taking place. We were greeted warmly by one of the Cofrades, who took our beer, shook our hands and kissed our cheeks, and welcomed us into the room. It was lit only by candlelight, and I was enchanted as I surveyed my surroundings. At one end of the room was an altar to the saint with many candles, incense burning, and offerings. Against the back wall was a long table, behind which were seated a few old men. They got up as we entered the room, insisting we take their seats. And so Dave and I ended up sitting in places of honor behind the table, upon which the beer offerings were lined up in a row. The Cofrade who greeted us was blessing our beer at the altar, then set it on the table with the rest. Another Cofrade was stationed near the table, he opened a bottle and poured us two glasses, then refilled some of the other attendee’s cups. This seemed to be his main role throughout the night – he was constantly attending to beer refills, ensuring our cups were never empty.
From behind the table, I surveyed the rest of the room – an open area with a few people dancing to the music. I had a few moments to just sit and observe, while Dave explained some of the specifics to me. From my perspective, gender relations was one of the most interesting aspects to observe. The indigenous community here is largely conservative, and mostly Catholic or Evangelical, and they maintain fairly strict societal/cultural norms when it comes to heteronormativity and gender divisions. However, at the Cofradía, I saw cross-dressing men, men whose appearance and behavior suggested they were openly gay, and many men dancing together. There were only two women, other than myself, present, and both were quite old and didn’t interact with the men much; they, too, danced together.
In contrast to this openness and disregard for conventional gender norms, I was treated with an odd mix of respect and deference, while also being considered Dave’s property. The men of the Cofradía didn’t really talk to me directly, at first, and asked Dave’s permission to dance with me. When Dave told them it was my decision, things shifted slightly. One man actually asked Dave if he could dance with me, but referred to me using male pronouns (Puedo bailar con él?), which Dave and I found particularly interesting, albeit somewhat confusing. I chose to dance with the Cofrade who had welcomed us into the room and blessed our beer – he was the second to the chief, a very old and kind man who never stopped smiling and was extremely gracious, thanking us for coming and making us feel more than welcome. This led to dances with quite a few others, until I was dripping in sweat from the cramped confines of the small room that had very little ventilation, was full of people, and had palpable warmth from the candles.
Shortly after I returned to my seat, the Alcade came in and made a point of greeting Dave and I – a great honor. He prayed and chanted before the altar for a time and then came and sat down next to us. This man had been awake for hours, participating in various rituals and festivities, and drifted off a bit as he sat with us.
After a few hours, Dave and I decided to take our leave, but not before we were informed by the membership that there would be a procession for Saint Santiago Apostól beginning at the central church at 4am. They insisted that we attend. Most of the members present were planning to stay up all night, worshipping. Dave and I elected to go home and get a few hours’ sleep, then meet again to go to the procession – it seemed like the sort of once in a lifetime opportunity we shouldn’t miss.
So, at 3:45am, camera in hand, I met Dave outside of my house and we walked together to the Catholic church in the Parque Central, getting there just in time. We were the only gringos present, and we participated in the entire procession, which lasted until about 5:30am. It was quite the religious experience.