In this ethnographic account about oral tradition and beliefs surrounding the great Atitlan Lake, the authors reflect on spirituality and environmental justice in a tz’ujutil community in Guatemala.
He started talking about the lake and its existing connection with dreams: he mentioned “The Grandmother” communicated through dreams with certain persons of the village. Manuel Chavajay is a contemporary Tz’utujil artist, his work is based on his culture and its relationship to water, and therefore to the majestic Atitlán Lake. During his research, he met a lady from the village who had had an experience of connection with the lake. She had a dream in which she heads toward the lake to do her laundry. As she washes, she perceives a being, and when she looks towards the horizon she sees a woman at the top of one of the many mountains that surround Atitlán Lake. This woman won’t show her face and at that moment, the lady who dreams begins to feel ill. This feeling is transferred to the environment of the dream: a spiral of birds fly over the woman in the mountain, as when an animal is dying and the birds await its death to devour it.
The lady went into a coma for a few days after the dream, but she was eventually brought back by a Tz’utujil healer. Manuel explains that within Tz’utujil tradition there are special persons, who, it could be said, possess a “sensibility”, and whose role in the community is defined by such sensibility. Some persons have the gift for healing others, some persons know how to tell stories—like Manuel, who is called “ajq’ijab” which means time teller. In the case of the dreaming lady, her gift is being the one who receives the messages from “The Grandmother”.
San Pedro La Laguna is a small town on the shores of Atitlán Lake, it is situated about five hours away from Guatemala City, you need to get to Panajachel Port, and from there, take a boat. The town is colorful, and is home for the Tz’utujil culture, a nation from Mayan descent that has inhabited this place since before the arrival of the white man in these corners of the world. It was in this town where, for a week, within the framework of 20 Fotógrafos Atitlán, I developed, along with two fellow photographers, Morena Pérez (Guatemala) y Charlotte Schmitz (Germany), an ethnographic exercise about the relationship between the lake and dreams in the Tz'utujil culture.
We went out walking with a different attitude after that first encounter with Manuel, he had planted a seed of curiosity in us that led us to ask Tz’utujutil women in San Pedro La Laguna specifically about their relationship to “The Grandmother”. There was something clear in the dream described by our new friend and that was that both characters—the dreamer and the main character—were women.
We met and portrayed a lot of women throughout those days in San Pedro La Laguna. During our conversations with them, we realized that a lot of people were aware of the problem of having a polluted lake. Like Isabel González, who told us melancholically that "the lake was one of the happiest settings of her childhood”, while her look expressed that the lake was no longer the same as in those times. Somehow, all the interviewees manifested that it was the community’s duty to take care of the lake. Isabel Cruz told us proudly that “it was a blessing to have the most beautiful lake”, she is one of those who work at a bed and breakfast in front of the lake.
One of the questions that we asked the women was if there was a spiritual connection with the lake, and, to our surprise, not all the women interviewed accepted the lake as an independent living being that communicates through dreams. I remember the dry, straight comment by Isabel González who said she didn’t believe in that, that “he lake was just a lake”, that it didn’t have its own powers. We commented on this answer later among the group, we found it strange, especially Morena and I, perhaps because it shattered the romantic stereotype of the nature-respecting and understanding aboriginal. But Isabel’s answer made a lot of sense in the current context of San Pedro La Laguna. Taking a short stroll around the village, you can notice the great influence of Protestantism and other religions on the community. This has somehow changed the traditional perception of the lake. There are Christian churches in every corner and, according to Don Salvador, this kind of neo-colonization started decades ago.
Don Salvador is a prominent figure in the community of San Pedro La Laguna and in Atitlán in general. He was the person who welcomed us into the town during the opening session of 20 Fotógrafos. Manuel had pointed out that he could give us a broader picture of the environmental and political conflict around the lake. Although some called him mayor, he isn’t officially one, yet people come to him when there are conflicts and doubts, or when in need of good advice.
He welcomed us into his home in his traditional costume, consisting of handmade pants, shirt and belt, with multiple colors that complicate the simplicity of the elements. He invited us into a room where there was a big altar with Catholic figures—we would later find out he had been an altar boy and right hand to several priests in the community throughout his life. Don Salvador likes to put all his answers into context, therefore our conversation went back many years in time.
He recalled how in the 50s, the community was supplied with water from the lake, and that it wasn’t until the 60s that they stopped doing so. He spoke of the disappearance of the “Poc duck” (Podilymbus gigas), an endemic bird of the area exterminated by the introduction of the largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), a fish species that fed on the ducklings. In that same decade, the Indigenous Economic Development (FEI) brought agrochemicals for the first time, mainly for the coffee plantations situated in the mountain slopes around the lake. Nowadays, phosphorus, product of these agrochemicals, is one of the main pollutants of the lake. Finally, Don Salvador told us with irony how the construction for the sewage drains causes the main damage to the lake, for it turned the rivers and the lake into the community’s septic tank.
Don Salvador spoke about how they used to ask permission to enter, wash, take a bath or to do anything in the lake, they would make a reverence and go into the lake. Likewise, if they had to cut a tree, they would first ask for permission and they would never waste the wood. Those who didn’t ask for permission, sooner or later, were punished by mother Earth, who, according to them would “get them lost in the mountain” for a while. Although we met people like Isabel González who didn’t feel a spiritual connection to the lake, we did meet a lot of other ones who affirmed that both in the Tz'utujil past as today, there was a tradition to respect and treat the lake as a living being with its own identity. Besides, Manuel had told us that some years ago, when there was a cyanobacteria outbreak in the lake caused by agrochemicals, testimonies of people dreaming about “The Grandmother” had skyrocketed.
Faced with the environmental damage affecting the community, and the neo-colonization promoted by the Guatemalan State, there are native people groups organized around the lake—of which Don Salvador is leader and representative—who still try to defend “The Grandmother”. Currently, they are waiting for a resolution from the authorities, who, following an aggressive, neo-liberal logic, are trying to impose a mega collector project without proper consultation to the indigenous people that have lived together with the lake since before colonial times. A project proposed by outsider groups. According to Manuel and Don Salvador, it’s the governors, business men, and chalet owners around the Atitlán Lake who are anxiously pursuing this project. The initiative consists in building a mega-pipeline covering the entire Atitlán Lake’s shore to collect the sewage waters of the community and deposit them in a treatment plant. At first, it sounds like a great idea, but there is a lot of uncertainty from Don Salvador and Manuel, and not considering the local people’s opinion raises the historical mistrust that has been built by the same governing leaders throughout time. The resistance is grounded on very basic concerns that haven’t got an answer. For example, one of them is, that given the pipeline would be underwater, what would happen if an earthquake provoked a leak? Would the Guatemalan government have the technology and resources to face such an environmental catastrophe? Answers are yet to come.
When we asked Don Salvador if religion and beliefs had anything to do with caring or neglecting the lake, he replied that the main enemy of the lake was the mercantilist neoliberal system in which we live, which labels the lake as a “capital resource” and not as a “living being”. Yet he mentioned that we can’t be too spiritual and expect things to fall from heaven, we can’t focus our gaze upwards, while everything around us is crashing down. The community is already taking concrete measures to restore the lake, like for example, banning the use of plastic across town (there are fines for those who don’t comply with the measure). The community’s link to the lake is inherent. The lake is present with every dusk and dawn. Its volcanic origin—well documented in the community’s museum—is proof of its millenary essence, and makes it a tourist attraction that generates income for the community. Perhaps, if the spiritual perception doesn’t validate its protection, it might be an economic perception what could come to its rescue.
At the beginning of this ethnographic exercise, we realized, through Manuel, that the oral tradition is the Tz’utujil culture’s way to preserve their worldview, their language and their stories throughout time; and our encounter with Don Salvador confirmed this. Although the catholic figures occupying most of the space where we spoke to Don Salvador surprised me, our host is loyal to his cultural roots and he is proud to defend them. He didn’t finish secondary school, however, he possesses a great wisdom which he obtained thanks to his curiosity and his ability to listen to his community’s elders when he was just a kid. Today he is a guardian to the Tz’utujil legacy and to San Pedro La Laguna.
Speaking to the women we portrayed, we noticed that although they spoke Tz’utujil language, only a minority of them knew how to write it. The day I came into the museum I met Andrea and Lola, both Tz’utujil women. They were in charge of welcoming visitors and running the tours, which show everything from San Pedro La Laguna’s geography to its Mayan culture aspects. I remember asking them if I could take a photograph of them, to which they replied asking me to come back the next day because they wanted to show their most beautiful dresses. The next day I took their portraits and asked them, as we had done with others before, to write a short paragraph with something they would like to say to the lake. To my pleasant surprise, Andrea knew how to write in Tz’utujil:
“Qa tee ya’ maxko nat nb’isooj rumaal chi magonojeel ta noq chajini ja na sipaj chi qe, maltioox ja qa k’aslemaal na ya’ rumaal chi jarayaa’ xuk’uk’eem nuya’ pa qa k’uux.”
“Mother lake, I feel very sad for you because not everyone takes care of your gifts, thank you for the life you give us because through water you freshen our being”
My naive excitement of finding a text written by a Tz’utujil woman in her language—which to me took archeological dimensions—vanished gradually as I read the expressed sadness in Andrea’s text.
We either gathered or went alone, but it was important to us to meet the lake, so we set out to bathe in it every day. Deep inside, it was a way of asking for permission to speak about her, "The Grandmother", it was a poetic action to get to know each other. While I was bathing in the lake, the image of that woman hiding her face, slowly dying alone, was very present in me. Feelings of anger, sadness and hope traced my body as I floated in her waters, and at the same time I wondered who I was to her. Am I part of the problem, an invader or am I a friend? I felt that I was entering her territory, yet, surrounded by the high mountain tops that shaped this majestic being, I didn’t feel rejected. Her waters revitalized me constantly. Today I wonder how the dream looked like before the pollution, I wonder if anyone ever saw her face, and if they did, I wonder if they could put it into words, or just images. Will anyone ever see her face again? If that moment comes, perhaps it will be an opportunity to reconnect with the lake and, in this new socio-cultural context, reinvent our relationship into a fairer and deeper one.
Inspired in the testimonies of the different people we met, we decided to make a tribute to The Grandmother and the Tz’utujil oral culture, through images and texts, capturing everything in a photo-book that we entitled QA TEE Y A’, in english: Our Mother Water. With the aim of taking the images out of the virtual / mental space, where they risked getting trapped, we made them part of a physical library. In the end, the photobook was donated to The Museum of San Pedro La Laguna, with the intention of humbly contributing, from our perspective, to the Tz’utujil culture of San Pedro La Laguna.