Christianity came to Latin America with the Spaniards, with missionaries following conquerors and colonizers. In Guatemala, there is an interesting mix between traditional Catholicism and Mayan religions. The stories and beliefs of the indigenous peoples have somehow infused even today’s culture. Every town and village in Guatemala has a Catholic church, and it also has adopted a patron saint, often one influenced by that mix.
Maximón (pronounce the “x” as “sh”), also known as San Simón, a folk saint, is by far the most colorful and memorable character. He is most often depicted by a fully dressed and hatted, carved wooden figure who smokes cigars and drinks alcohol. People come to see him bringing offerings of tobacco, liquor, money, or even tortillas. They seek protection, money, good luck for some coming event, to be cured, or even to find a spouse. Not always true to the request, he is prone to making human-like mistakes and may sometimes be a trickster. Maximón is said to originate from Santiago Atitlán, a village on the shores of Lake Atitlán, where he is reportedly moved from house to house each year. But his image is found throughout the area. I first encountered him in Antigua.
Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur, revered in Antigua as Hermano Pedro (Brother Peter), was a bona-fide saint, canonized by Pope John Paul II. He came to Antigua in the 1700s. After the massive 1717 earthquake that devasted Antigua, he ministered to the poor, and later established a hospital for the poor and homeless, including a school. I happened upon the dancers in the annual Hermano Pedro festival. I could recognize the monk, but I never did get an explanation of who the other masked characters were.
The last time I visited Guatemala, I wandered the ruins of La Recolección with a friend. The church and convent opened in 1717. The complex suffered an earthquake later the same year, and two more large quakes in 1751 and 1773. It is now a protected national monument. I could imagine prayers and chants as I stepped over the piles and pieces.
Note: I am certainly no expert on the spiritual lives and beliefs of different cultures. I’m just a traveler that finds joy in uncovering a glimpse into another culture, meeting people and learning about their lives, at times a sponge for information and stories, and a photographic observer for both art and my own memory. Any errors in information in this post are solely due to my conversations with locals, which may or may not have been accurate, and my not-terribly-thorough Internet research.
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