There are not many Americans who are idolized by the Maya people. One exception is a Catholic priest from Oklahoma called Father Stanley Francis Rother, who was appointed to run the church of Saint James the Apostle in Santiágo Atitlán from 1968. He learned Spanish and the local dialect of Tzu’utujil Mayan, and over the years became a beloved figure to his parishioners. Maya fabrics started working their way into his liturgical vestments, and the statues of saints in his church were lovingly dressed by the local people.
In August 1981, Padre Apla’s (Maya for “Francis”), as he was known, was threatened by right-wing death squads and ultimately murdered in his own bedroom. That bedroom, a few steps from his church, has been turned into a museum. Although most of his body is buried in Oklahoma, his heart was removed and is buried under the altar of his church.
I visited the scene of his death on two consecutive days. Each time, it was filled with Maya who prayed and sang songs honoring the priest who had become one of them. I noticed that the Catholic church is considering him for sainthood and has designated him as Blessed Stanley Rother. At the same time, one wonders how he could simultaneously please the Maya people whom he loved and the conservative bishops to whom he reported.
There are not many North Americans held in high regard by the Maya. In fact, it was John Foster Dulles and the CIA who, by deposing Jacobo Árbenz, President of Guatemala, in 1954, started the long civil war that finally ground to a halt in 1996. Even today, I deliberately avoided encountering the Guatemalan army, who seemed to be all over the place, and who have an unsavory reputation for massacring their enemies, the tribal Maya.