first published in Colere: A Journal of Cultural Exploration, 2016
Babies. Babies. Babies. Everywhere I look, round black eyes peek out of shoulder shawls, like puppies in a backpack, staring at me. Going to the market at Chichicastenango was Peter’s idea. He wanted to photograph the varieties of local dress from around the Mayan highlands. Well, we’re seeing locals all right. They’re just a little too up-close and personal for my taste. I’m twisted like a pretzel what with hugging my purse to my ribcage with one arm, my money pouch under my blouse with the other and all the while elbowing my way through the crush. From up ahead, Peter turns, pointing to the white walled church visible above the tent city of vendor stalls. He mouths, meet there, and holds up one finger. I’ve an hour to swim in this river of dark skin, day-glo colors, splayed chicken parts, pineapple pyramids…and babies. Don’t they know when to stop? Or how? Or is this just some kind fertility chest thumping?
A woman hunches in a doorway. Her child, maybe two years old, is standing with his head under his mother’s huipil, nursing. He pokes his head out, taking in the passing scene for a moment, then dives back in for the rest of his lunch. I suppose that’s the best way to feed him. It’s sanitary, ever ready and undeniably better than the fried gobs of who-knows-what that older kids munch, suck and chew with filthy hands. It’s a wonder they survive to make yet more babies. My ladino teacher told me the Indians suffer from malnutrition and diabetes. It figures.
Inside the covered market, I inch past tables of onions, and oranges, eggplants and cilantro. Underneath a stand groaning with mounds of tomatoes and avocadoes, I spot two toddlers. The girl is playing with a piece of string. The brother watches. Where’s the developmental stimulation? Or maybe you don’t need much imagination or creativity to be a market vendor. Who would have thought that dullness could be a survival technique?
Ten minutes later I fight the current, angling toward the church. Perhaps I can find a little space, a chance to expand my personal bubble away from the constant touching, visual stimulation and pleas to buy souvenirs I don’t need or want. But that’s not to be. The front of the church, eighteen steps high, is crowded with buckets of callalilies, marigolds, daisies and roses. On a platform near the top, an open fire burps tarry smoke to the chants of a Mayan shaman. Two other men pacing along the perimeter swing smoke-pots adding to the autumn leaf-burning fug…except in this case the leaves are green. I edge around to a side entrance to avoid direct contact with the witch doctors.
Inside the church, I am confused. Far on one end, there is an altar in the middle of a sanctuary sealed off by a railing. There are statues of saints but no facing pews. Instead, five 4×4 stone pads form a line down what should be the center aisle. At one, a group of men and women kneel, light candles, sprinkle flowers and dribble water on the low altars while mumbling invocations or prayers. I’ve seen this before at Mayan ritual sites. How strange to find pagan rituals going on, not only in front of the church, but inside as well.
I drift to one corner where a line of perhaps forty people wait a turn at the baptismal font where a Catholic priest is baptizing babies. The babies dressed in brilliant white, flare in the murky interior like trillium in a spring forest.
Toward the front I hear a kind of chanting sound. Could this be a monastery? Or are some pilgrims saying a rosary? I follow the sound to a side chapel where a tabernacle on an altar and a votive candle signal the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The room is filled with native women in traditional garb sitting on their heels and, surprisingly, keening and moaning, individually. This is not a group prayer. But they seem to be together. I can feel…something they have in common. They are pleading. Asking for something or just…what? Venting? Because they were married, officially or unofficially, at sixteen and started making babies and have to work in the fields and cook for all their children and weave their beautiful skirts before going to bed to make more babies. Is this a kind of women’s support group? Each voicing her concerns so the others can hear. Getting it out. Outloud. I watch at the doorway. Little by little I’m sucked into the whirlpool, the vortex of feelings. I kneel, sit back on my legs and raise my arms, palms up. “Why can’t I have babies? I want a child so bad. Please let it happen. Let me conceive,” I add to the prayerful torrent.
My cell phone trills. It takes me a moment to realize what it is. Peter. “Meet in the church courtyard.”
We sit on a bench facing the quadrants of lawn surrounding a dribbling fountain. It’s cool and tranquil. My heartbeat slows down. Peter pulls out his camera to show me the varieties of patterns and colors unique to each region that he has captured. Beneath his patter I can still hear the chanting women, feel the throb, the pulsing of their need, my oneness with them.