Back to Pedro Rafael González Chavajay paintings page.

About this painting by

Pedro Rafael González Chavajay


Las Huellas de Ayer y de Hoy

[Footsteps of Yesterday and Today]
2001. Three panels, each 30” x 40”


The painting Huellas de Ayer y Hoy depicts the procession for the festival of San Pedro la Laguna, which takes place on the 24 of June, the day of the patron saint of San Pedro (Saint Peter).  The painting shows how the town and the procession would have looked in the middle of the twentieth century, a few years before Pedro Rafael was born. The division of the painting into three parts represents the disintegration of Maya traditions and culture since 1950. Each panel represents one part of Maya culture—pre-Hispanic traditions, the church, and government—that once worked together forming a unified whole, but now functions completely independently. One no longer sees a procession that contains at the same time the masked dances, the members of the municipal government, and the Catholic Church. Now the masked dancers perform in the streets by themselves, any procession contains only members of one religious denomination, and the municipality functions separately. The society of San Pedro is no longer a unified whole but three separate parts, each represented symbolically by one panel of the triptych.

Several images in the painting tell us that the painting depicts an earlier era. Anyone who has spent time living in San Pedro will recognized the boy with dark skin in the central panel of the painting. He is the only dark- skinned Maya in the community. Now an elderly man, he still can be seen working hard carrying loads of firewood and other objects up the steep hill on his back. Although his pants are old and tattered, he is one of a handful of men who still wear their traditional traje (native dress). His rose-colored shirt is distinctive, the only one I have seen of that color in the San Pedro style. The people in the painting, both in the procession and, more tellingly, of those watching the procession, all wear the traditional traje of San Pedro la Laguna. During the violence of the 1980s, most of the Maya men stopped wearing their traditional traje because the army could easily identify where they were from, a danger even for the innocent, which the vast majority of them were.  In 1940, most of houses in San Pedro were thatched, but over the next thirty years those houses disappeared. Very few adobe houses still remain in town, and no houses exist with thatched roofs. By now most of the trees that appear in the painting have been cut down. Parents divide their land in town between their often numerous children who, in turn,  build their own houses on that land before dividing it again among their children. The courtyards where the trees once grew are now filled with multi-storied houses in close proximity with each other.

The left panel of the triptych, Las Huellas de Ayer y de Hoy, shows dancers dressed as deer heading the procession. Pedro Rafael, realizing the visual importance of the dancers to the painting, has allowed the other dancers, dressed as tigers and monkeys, as well as the musician playing the marimba, to straggle over into the first half of the second panel.  This is artistic license and does not really detract from his concept of the triptych showing the fracturing of Maya society.

The dance depicted  is the Baile de Venado, or Deer Dance, but it could just as easily have been one of the other popular masked dances such as the Dance of the Conquest, the Dance of the Moors and the Christians, or the Little Bull. The Baile de Venado is one of the oldest of the dances , and has roots predating the Conquest.  Thomas Gage gives us the earliest known description of such a dance (Gage1648, 225-26):

"It was the old dance which they used before they knew Christianity, except that then instead of singing the Saints’ lives, they did sing the praises of their heathen Gods. They have another dance much used, which is a kind of hunting out some wild beast ... in this dance they use much hollering and noise and calling one unto another, and speaking by way of stage play, some relating one thing, some another concerning the beast they hunt after. These dancers are all clothed like beasts, with painted skins of lions, tigers, or wolves, and on their heads such pieces as may represent the heads of eagles or fowls of rapine, and in their hands they have painted staves, swords and axes, wherewith they threaten to kill the beast they hunt after."

The ancient Maya probably performed a deer dance before a hunt to ask for divine permission to kill the deer and for the safe return of the hunters. After the conquest, many dances were forbidden by the Catholic Church because they were deemed heathen. The dances that did survive had to conform in some way. Performing the deer dance for the day of the patron saint of the town, in this case Saint Peter, and in the story dedicating  the captured deer to Jesus made the dance nominally Christian. It allowed some ancient Maya beliefs and traditions to survive, somewhat adjusted, under the cloak of Christianity.

In other towns, the text of the Baile de Venado is different. In nearby Santiago Atitlán, it is the creation myth, while in San Pedro it is a story of the hunt. Fortunately a written text exists of Baile de Venado as it was performed in San Pedro in the early part of the twentieth century. At the beginning, the dancers line up in pairs before the marimba and introduce themselves. Not shown by Pedro Rafael  in the painting, probably because of space considerations,  are two (Spanish) captains, two shepherds, and an old man (shaman), his wife, and their two dogs.  Two captains want to trap a deer but do not know how to do the ritual benediction that will ensure success. To that end, they enter the forest to consult the shaman. The captains, being Spaniards (as opposed to Maya), scare the old woman who goes to alert her husband. The old man goes to attack them with his dogs, but shepherds explain to him that they want the benediction necessary to trap a deer to glorify Christ for the festival of San Pedro. The dialogue is in Tz’utuhil and would appear to us as tedious, but is occasionally joking:

"Old Man: I don’t know how to do the benediction.
Captain: I will teach you. In the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit for my sacred Jesus.
Old Man: Aha! Then in the name of my father and my mother and my two dogs. Amen."

With the proper rituals done, the old man goes off to hunt the deer. The deer are willing to give their lives to Christ because the blessings have been done, but a tiger also wants to kill them. The old man kills the tiger, captures the deer and gives his wife the antlers. The deer, the old man wearing a deerskin, and his dogs then dance together. They are joined by all the other dancers who gather in front of the marimba and dance giving a benediction to Jesus (Paret-Limardo 1963).

Because of the effort and expense, especially in the smaller towns, the masked dances usually are only performed during the festival of the town’s patron saint. The most elaborate and expensive of the dances is the Baile de Conquista, so in smaller towns, which San Pedro was at the time, the Baile de Venado was a popular alternative. Preparation for the dance began many months before the festival titular (town festival). The person responsible for the production of the dance was the director. The director is responsible for choosing which dance will be performed, who the dancers will be, and for gaining support and funding among the townspeople.  The rehearsals will be held at his house. This involves considerable expense as food and beverages are provided for the dancers.  The town would hire a dance master, although sometimes the director and dance master might be the same person.  The dance master would thoroughly know the dance so that he could teach the performers their dances and their lines. For this the dance master had to know how to read and write. He was owner and  guardian of the script which was used to teach the dancers, most of whom were illiterate, their lines. He also taught them the dance steps that go with each of their songs. Because the dance master is paid for his services, he carefully guards his manuscript. A dance master would probably train a son to inherit his position and pass on his manuscript to him. For a complicated dance like the Baile de Conquista, the dance master might come from another town and be the dance master of this dance in several communities (Bode 1961).

The masks and costumes are rented from a morería, an establishment peculiar to Guatemala. It is usually run by a family of talented mask-makers who pass down the business from generation to generation. When the time of the festival is approaching, the dance master and all of the  members of the dance troupe travel to the morería to rent the costumes. Before the Pan American highway was constructed, this meant a walk of about two days each way to the town of Totonicapán, the nearest morería to San Pedro la Laguna.  As shown in the painting, the deer, in costumes rented from the morería, wear fanciful versions of the elaborate capes worn by the Spanish. These flashy costumes are often satin and decorated with sequins and bits of mirror. Certainly the ancient Maya dressed in the skins of deer for the dance. While dancers in some towns still wear  deer skins, the dancers and spectators seem to prefer the costumes rented from the morerías. This is not surprising because the isolation of Maya towns meant the dances were the highlight of the year (Luján Muñoz 1987).

Once or twice before the performance, the dance troupe would go to a sacred place in the mountains, usually a cave, and have a shaman perform a ritual blessing so that the production would go well. During the ritual they would call on the four cardinal points, burning colored candles and incense, while offering sugar, cakes, and chocolate to the spirits of the earth, sky, and lake. Upon their return from the morería with their costumes, a last ritual would be performed in the mountains with much ritual drinking to induce a trance state, and then performed again in the church without the drinking.

The second and third panels of the triptych deal with the local government and the Catholic Church. The church and state of San Pedro and all other highland Maya towns at that time were intrinsically intertwined in a civil ceremonial system.  In the middle panel of the painting, the man between the two crosses is the mayor of the town. He carries in his hand a baton that is symbol of his office. Directly behind him we see the head of a man wearing a distinctive red tzute (head-scarf), which is an indication that he is one of the principales (high-ranking elders) of the town. In the third panel, the women singing are texeles (female members of the cofradía), followed by more principales with pom (incense) and carrying the image of Saint Peter, who has been removed from his niche in the church for the procession. The cofradías are in turn followed by members of the congregation.

Although Pedro Rafael depicts nearly sixty people in the whole procession, each person in the painting represents several individuals. Each of the town’s six cofradías would be represented in the procession, but were Pedro Rafael to show each of them, the painting would be thirty feet long instead of ten. The actual number of people in the procession would have been several times what Pedro Rafael can reasonably show.

In order to understand how the traditional Maya culture has broken apart, it is necessary to understand how it functioned over the centuries since the conquest. In the sixteenth century religious cofradías were introduced in Guatemala to help implement the Catholic faith. They quickly became very popular. Because the cofradías were strictly segregated (the Spanish had their own cofradías in Antigua and Guatemala City), the Maya found that in a cofradía they could continue to perform many of their pre-Hispanic rituals in the name of a Christian saint. The Cofradía of Concepción was established in San Pedro on January 7, 1613 (Orellana 1984). To put that in a historical perspective, the first known cofradía was established in San Pedro 163 years before the United States became independent from England.

When I first arrived in San Pedro in the 1980s the cofradías had already disappeared, but anthropologist Benjamin D. Paul arrived in 1940 while the civil-ceremonial system was still strong and the cofradías still active. He says, (Paul 1989, 1) it “...was a marvel to behold. The product of countless years of operation, its organization was intricate and neatly articulated. And it served a host of significant functions for the individual and the community.” Under the cofradía system, about every four years men were expected to devote all or part of their time to public service. The terms, which lasted for a year, would alternate between the church and the municipal government of the town. During the year of service, their responsibilities would be handled by other family members, so they could devote themselves to the needs of their office. As a person aged, he served in positions of greater importance, and with these positions came greater respect from the community.

Cofradía is a Spanish word that implies brotherhood, but both the cofradías and the civil government operate on a system that would better be called fatherhood. As Ben Paul explained to me many times, in the Tz’utuhil language, if one is a male, there is no single term for one’s brothers. There is a term for one’s older brothers, and another word for one’s younger brothers, and a word for one’s sisters. Likewise if one is a girl, there is a word for one’s older sisters and another for one’s younger sisters, and word for one’s brothers. The language helps establish a hierarchy, one does what one’s older brother commands, and also denotes a separation between male and female roles. This strict hierarchy also exists in the civil government and the cofradías; i.e. the cofradías have a ranking of importance in relation to each other, and the members of each cofradía have a ranking within that cofradía.  (Paul  1989)

On the civil side, Ben Paul counted 35 positions, among them alcalde (mayor), five regidores (councilmen), a síndico, a policia, first and second mayores (constables), interpretes (people who spoke both Tz’utuhil and Spanish), twelve alguaciles (errand men) and twelve regidores auxiliares who rowed the large wooden municipal canoe that went daily between San Pedro and Santiago Atitlán (Paul 1989). The alcalde would be chosen by the town’s principales—men of the village who were present or past heads of the six different cofradías. This system in which the alcalde was chosen by people who had served in the religious cofradías kept the government of the town and the church intertwined.

There were six cofradías in San Pedro. Each cofradía revered a particular saint. At the head of each cofradía, was a cofrade, whose assistant was called a juez, five mayordomos, and three unmarried  women called texeles. An image of the saint was kept on an altar in a separate room in the house of the cofrade. It was the duty of the cofradía to keep the fresh flowers on the altar,  and keep the floor covered with pine needles. The texeles ground castor oil beans from which they obtained an oil that was kept perpetually lit on the altar. During the year the cofradía would be responsible for a festival honoring their saint. Each cofradía was responsible for one day of the week. They would be responsible for burying anybody in the community who died on that day. All of these expenses, which were considerable, would fall on the cofrade.

In the 1940s General Jorge Ubico introduced military training to the Maya towns. One result was that young men who went away to serve in the military would refuse  for a time to do servicio in the civil-ceremonial system of the town when they returned. Then, in between the 1950s and 1970s, Protestantism began attracting significant numbers of Maya. These Maya began refusing to participate in the Catholic cofradías, although they would still perform their civil duties. During the 1950s when liberal Areval-Arbenz was president before being deposed by a CIA coup, it was decreed that the mayor and other town officials would be elected by popular vote. Ben Paul observes “At first this made little difference; the town was willing to confirm the slate proposed by the principales in accordance with custom. But in time, competition between rival political parties arose, with the result that elected officers were no longer part of a unified civil-ceremonial heirarchy.” Protestantism attracted many Maya because it opposed drinking. Ritual drinking had been a part of the cofradías since their inception. Just as in other small Maya towns, there had been no resident priest since the previous century, but only a visiting priest and local Maya who performed the services. Catholic Action began sending resident priests in hope of reforming the church enough to keep members from leaving. Ben Paul observes (Paul 1996, 4):

"The death blow to the weakened cofradías came in 1970, when the then resident priest, a Carmelite from Navarre, excoriated cofradía members from drinking in church on Sunday, as they had done ceremonially from time immemorial, and denied them various customary privileges. In effect, the were excommunicated."

San Pedro once had a unified face it presented to the world. In the civil-ceremonial system the townspeople had a well-established way of gaining respect as they progressed though life. If they earned the title of principale by the end of their lives, people would kiss their hands as a token of respect. The church and the government functioned together as part of a whole. Now, besides the Catholic Church, there are scores of fundamentalist Christian churches in town. Even in families considered progressive, children had been disowned by switching from one church to another. The competition of political parties during elections had become rancorous, and occasionally violence resulted during the election process. The unified Tz’utuhil Maya society has broken into the three separate parts represented by the three panels of Pedro Rafael’s painting: the masked dance, representing the pre-Hispanic Maya heritage, the government, and the Christian religion.



Back to Pedro Rafael González Chavajay paintings page.