Search for Guatemala's evil saint

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E-Journal of an Aging Hippie

Search for Guatemala's evil saint

By CAROL FRANKS, SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER

Carol Franks grew up on the family farm near Peterborough, Canada. A former journalist, teacher and innkeeper, Franks currently spends winters in Nicaragua, Central America, where she is a volunteer English teacher and student of Spanish. Together with the Fowler's Corners and District Lions Club, she is raising money to buy textbooks for her students. You can join the effort on-line at www.sjdsbiblioteca.orgor send a cheque, made out to Textbooks for Nicaragua, to the Fowler's Corners and District Lions Club, P. O. Box 8613, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, K9J 6X3. In the fall of 2007, Franks studied Spanish in Western Guatemala.

 

Turkey vultures patrol the bright afternoon sky right above the stone bridge where the chicken bus drops us for our trek up to the Mayan village of Zunil in Guatemala's Western Highlands.

Small but heavily-populated, this small Mayan village with its strange-sounding name is hemmed in by mountains and breathtaking volcanic peaks such as Volcano Santa Maria.

Zunil's indigenous inhabitants are mostly market gardeners, who are also famous for their fine weaving marked by vivid shades of purple. Village women still wear the traditionally embroidered skirts and blouses.

On the surface, Zunil looks, sounds and smells very much like other indigenous communities here in Western Guatemala. It has a vibrant central plaza full of produce vendors and an impressive white colonial church, standing guard.

But don't be fooled by appearances!

Zunil has a darker side that reaches back into the 1800s. Legend has it that Zunil is one of the few villages in Guatemala that still worships the "evil saint."

Some call this scoundrel, San Simon, or Maximon but here in Zunil, he's known as Alvarado.

Today, I have persuaded my Spanish teacher, Manuel, to help me find the secret shrine in Zunil that honours Alvarado.

In colonial times, Alvarado was a Mayan leader, believed to have had special powers. He had what the Mayans call "el don."

When Spanish colonial rulers realized that Alvarado was a threat to their power, he was killed and his body burned.

Alvarado's followers collected his ashes and made an effigy of their leader.

To protect his spirit from the Spanish, they fashioned him not as a Mayan but as a tall white European with a big moustache. They dressed their idol in a black suit and a big, black-rimmed hat; a cigar in his mouth.

The ruse fooled colonial rulers of the time who had no idea that this western effigy was honoring the Mayan leader, Alvarado.

Needless to say, the Catholic Church disapproves of Alvarado and for most of the year, adoration of Alvarado is secretive --except during Easter week when his image is paraded through the streets of this small village.

While we have no difficulty finding Zunil's weaving co-operatives, tracking down the "casa" or home of the evil saint proves more difficult.

For half an hour, we trudge up and down steep cobblestone paths. Finally, two young boys point out a gateway where Alvarado is said to reside.

At last, there, seated in a big wooden chair at the end of a long, shadowy room, is Alvarado. This life-sized idol in black cuts a dashing figure. He sports a big grin on his face. His legs are casually crossed. His trademark cigar is dangling from his mouth.

No wonder this evil saint is popular. He drinks, smokes and enjoys life.

On this sunny afternoon, Alvarado is holding court. On the bare cement floor in front of him are an array of burning candles and a handful of kneeling indigenous women and men asking for favours.

It's believed that Alvarado has seven powers--as doctor, philosopher, priest, lawyer, healer, teacher, and fortune teller.

A very strong smell of marijuana fills the air but my teacher says it's just an herb that is burned as incense. Claro!

For 20 cents, I purchase two red candles that I offer to the evil saint in hope of one day mastering those 500 irregular Spanish verbs.

To remember "Alvarado", I buy a crudely carved wooden figurine, cigar in his mouth and walking stick in hand. It will make an interesting addition to my doll collection.

My fingers are crossed that my Spanish improves and that Zunil's bad boy saint doesn't corrupt any of the other dolls in my collection.

Hasta luego!

 

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