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Last Day in San Cristobal de las Casas

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Tomorrow we head back to San Pedro La Laguna on beautiful Lago Atitlan after two weeks of exploring this fascinating city, along with a couple side trips.  We walked almost every inch of this place, ate at dozens of restaurants, and watched torrential rain fall almost every afternoon. This photo is of the top of one of the domes of the main cathedral, which, like most of the churches here, is closed for extensive repairs.  I’m guessing it will be years before many of them are opened. I shot this on my way back from the local market, which is a couple blocks beyond the equally huge tourist market.  The local one is full of mostly food and cheap clothing.  Many times I wanted to snap photos of endless displays of chickens or piles of fruit, but for some reason I just walked through aisle after aisle, taking it all in.  I didn’t feel like asking for permission, and I hate taking intimate photographs without doing so.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the warmer climate of the lake, and to finalizing arrangements with the printer in Guatemala City. Maybe the biggest thing on the agenda is tackling another language.  I hope to get at least some Tz’utujil under my belt in the next few weeks.

I’ll post again when the printing is finalized.  Hopefully Friday.

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Ask.

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This door was new once.  From the look of the old lock which is no longer in use, it was new a long time ago.  Maybe some trace of the original paint remains in a crack somewhere on its weathered surface.  Maybe it wasn’t painted at all, but lovingly oiled and polished regularly to protect it from the elements. Was the arch always there?  It sits in front of the door, which is evidently rectangular. Maybe it was added later, butted up against the original header to cover a gap that let the wind in?

The door has seen many iterations over time.  The remnants of several coats of paint cling to it, along with the fading marks of what may or may not have been graffiti, although it looks to have been applied with a brush.  The padlock that now holds it closed indicates either that the door is still in use or that the space behind it is, and the owner wishes to prevent entry through this portal.

There are no windows in the adjoining walls, so it seems unlikely that it was a home, with children slamming in and out as they chased one another in the afternoon.  Maybe, however, it is one of those colonial homes built around a courtyard facing in upon itself with a central garden and maybe fountain. It could be that around the corner is a more formal entrance, framed by tall windows, and that this door was used by the people who worked for whatever aristocrat resided with his family inside.  Deliveries came and went, hustled through back hallways to storage rooms or the kitchen, only to be brought out when the master or mistress called.

Maybe young men knocked quietly at an arranged time to meet with the young women who worked in the house, stealing a few moments of conversation and maybe a quick kiss while the owners were otherwise occupied.  Maybe, occasionally, leftover food was handed out to someone in need, whose plight would never cross the mind of the aristocratic family, but who might have been a friend of a maid or cook.

Maybe at some point, the money left, whether squandered by a careless heir, plundered in a revolution, or simply as a result of bad luck.  No-one oiled or painted the door any more.  The servants who once passed in and out through it found jobs elsewhere. The key was lost.  The arch began to fall apart and nobody repaired it.  The walls, built of adobe half a meter thick, stood strong, holding the door between them.

What is behind the door now?  What ghosts or memories? What stories could it tell, having watched generations grow up and leave, having watched workers come and go? If you open it will dust spill out from an empty space, or will you step through into history? Is the space beyond full of furniture, dusty and moldy, never to be sat on or eaten off of again?  If you open it, will you find the opening blocked by a new wall? We will never know, because we can’t ask the door, we don’t know the owner of the building, or any of the previous owners.  All we can do is wonder.

Now look around you.  Do you see that octogenarian sitting on the park bench, or walking down the street, very slowly, with a cane?  Or maybe the octogenarian is your parent or grandparent.  They are like the door.  You can see on their surface that they have weathered over time.  They no longer look fresh and new.  Maybe their lock is broken, or their arch starting to crumble.  They have watched generations come and go, seen history pass.  The difference is, you can ask them to tell you about it.  Why don’t you?

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Great News!

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Doña Clara González Mendez

Thanks to the gracious assistance of my favorite maestra and former Rabin Ajaaw, Celeste Morales, we have a printer!  She located one in Guatemala City who can give us high quality books at a price that will allow a much more effective gift to the people of San Pedro and leave me enough to make a donation to the survivors of the recent volcanic eruption. After returning from Mexico, I will travel to the capital on Friday to finalize everything with the printer, and hope to be able to deliver the books at most a couple of weeks afterwards.

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Bump In The Road

Yesterday was a very frustrating day. The good news is that all work on the book is finished.  The long hours of interviewing, translating, and computer work have paid off, and I have what I think is a beautiful thing.

For the past month, I have been asking over and over for a final price from the printer.  I had some idea based on the estimate he gave me before we started. Yesterday, on the very last possible day, one day before I leave for Mexico, he gave me a price which was, frankly, ridiculous.

The whole point of the book, beyond documentation and celebration of the people and their culture, was as a vehicle by which to make my donation to the community worth more. Based on the printer’s previous estimates, they could have sold the books, and, along with spreading knowledge of their community, nearly doubled my donation.  The price I was given yesterday completely negated that.  It was almost double the original estimate, and so high that I might as well just write a check and distribute it to the people rather than making them sell books for it.

I don’t blame him,  the issue likely lies with the fact that he buys materials from a reseller who in turn buys from another reseller, with the price rising with every transaction. The discrepancy between the original estimate and the final price is what throws all my plans off.

After much struggle, he brought the price down as much as he could, but it is still $30 each for a 9×12 book, and more than $20 for the paperback!  These are retail prices in the US.  Nobody here will pay even that, much less enough to make it worth the investment.

I am not looking to make a profit.  I am not getting anything but a few copies of the book out of this.  I am trying to get the most for this community with the resources I have.  It simply does not serve them to pay this price.

So, after much struggle, I have decided to buy 100 hard bound books (reduced from 300) from the local printer because I promised one to each of the people who participated, and in order to have a few to bring home.  I am also calling on my friend and former maestra who lives in Guatemala City for help in finding a printer there who will hopefully give us a better price on a larger quantity of paperbacks that can be sold here.

Copies of all videos, photos, and completed PDFs of the book will be left here for the community to use as they see fit.

This has been a beautiful, uplifting, and expiring experience, which only adds to the frustration and disappointment I am feeling right now.

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Introduction

When I first came to San Pedro La Laguna  in 2008 to learn Spanish, there were 37 Mayan dialects still in use across Guatemala, Southern Mexico, and parts of Belize and Honduras. I remember being told that a few of them were only spoken by one or two people. As I spent more time here, I became aware of other cultural changes. While the local dialect, Tz’utujil, is till spoken by most Pedranos, Spanish is dominant, and many young people, influenced by tourists, television, and the internet, are rejecting the language as well as other parts of the traditional culture. When I came here in late 2005 to refresh my Spanish and to set the groundwork for this project, I learned that there were only 27 Mayan dialects still spoken. Today, just over two years later, there are 22.

I am an artist and a photographer. My orientation is visual. Therefore, my initial desire was to document the elder generation in photographs while wearing their traditional clothing. At the same time, I was looking for a way to give back, to do something with my art to benefit people less fortunate than I. I thought that a book filled with photographs of these handsome and photogenic people would sell well to tourists, and that I could then donate the money back to the community to help the newest generation. In the end, even though the book will likely still be sold to tourists, this project has become less about extranjeros and more about Pedranos.  This book is for the people of San Pedro, to document the elder generation and to connect them to the younger.

We interviewed 52 people, all of whom are included in the book. With a very few exceptions, all the interviews were conducted in Tz’utujil by the tireless and hard working Juan González Chavajay, who then transcribed them into Spanish. René Lopez Isidro then edited that transcript for length and content, always attempting to stay true to the words and sentiments of the person being interviewed. After grammatical revision and more editing by María Teresa González Mendez, I translated the result into English, and Juan into Tz’utujil. While the words may not always be precisely those spoken by the interviewee, we feel they accurately represent what was said, and hope that, collectively, these interviews and photographs paint a picture of San Pedro’s elder generation and convey their stories and wishes to its youth.

It has been an honor and a privilege to do this work.  Thank you for welcoming me into your community and into your homes.