Beware of Mayan Gods

The Mayan Goddess Ix Chel

This is a poem about a famous photograph of a Salvadoran refugee and his child found drowned in the Rio Grande while attempting to cross it near Matamoros. Poet Brenda Cárdenas refers to the Mayan goddess Ix Chel in the course of her poem. She bases her work on a drawing by Erik Ricardo de Luna Genel which I have not been able to find. Below is the photograph:

Cien nombres para la muerte:
La hilacha/The Loose Thread

Ix Chel, skeleton moon at her loom,
wipes her furrowed forehead, daddy
longlegs dangling like loose threads
from the corners of her eyes dark as ditches.
She stitches crossbones into skirts,
weaves skulls into blankets she will trade
with travelers. “Mantillas, rebozos!”
she’ll sing unfurling her wares for parents
to wrap around babes she has guided
from their mothers’ oceans to Earth.

Under one moon, a Salvadoran father
and mother cannot wait any longer
in the winding lines of starved
asylum seekers ordered to halt.
So their daughter, not yet two, wraps
her tiny arms around the bough
of papi’s neck, clings to his trunk
as he wades into the big river, swims
strong as salmon, against churning currents.

But when he spills her on the bank, warns
her to wait, and lunges back into the torrent
for mami, the little one panics, follows.
Under one sun, the river carries them
away, defying the border
it never meant to become.

Ix Chel’s waning crescent finds them
first, face down in the mud,
wrapped together in the black shroud
of papi’s shirt. And from her great jug,
holding all the waters of heaven,
she spills storms to wash away
the lines we’ve carved, dug, drilled,
the walls we’ve built in chain link, barbed
wire, concrete, and steel between desert
and desert, river
and river, earth
and earth, between father
and mother, mother and
under one moon.


I have just finished reading Joan Didion’s short book on the right-wing death squad violence in El Salvador forty years ago. Back in 1964, she had voted for Barry Goldwater for President. A rancher’s daughter from Sacramento, she did not really personally encounter the disconnect between what Ronald Reagan was saying in Washington and what Roberto D’Aubuisson and his adherents were doing to the people of El Salvador.

Here Joan talks about something that shocked her about the availability of “actual information”:

Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this was not a culture in which a high value was placed on the definite…. All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if the numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as a proposition to be floated, “heard,” “mentioned.” There was the case of the March 28, 1982 election, about which there continued into that summer the rather scholastic argument first posed by Central American Studies, the publication of the Jesuit university in San Salvador: Had it taken an average of 2.5 minutes to cast a vote or less? Could each ballot box hold 500 ballots, or more? The numbers were eerily Salvadoran. There were said to be 1.3 million people eligible to vote on March 28, but 1.5 million people were said to have voted. These 1.5 million people were said, in turn, to represent not 115 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters but 80 percent (or, on another float, “62-68 percent”) of the eligible voters….

Why I’m Stuck on the Maya

Maya Girls

My first real trip outside the borders of the United States was to Yucatán in November 1975. I was so entranced with what I saw that I kept coming back to Maya Mexico for years, until 1992. During that time, I also wanted to go to Guatemala, but a civil war between the Maya and the Ladinos (Mestizos) was raging until 1996; and Guatemala was on the State Department’s “Level 4: Do Not Travel” list until just recently. Even now, the State Department as the whole country classified under a blanket “Level 3: Reconsider travel to Guatemala due to crime” warning.

Why is it that I am so fascinated by the Maya that I would risk flouting President Trumpf’s State Department?

For one thing, the Maya are incredible survivors. The Aztecs were ground down by Cortez within two years. In Peru, it took forty years before resistance was smashed by Pizarro and his successors. And the Maya? That took a full 180 years before the last Maya kingdom (at Tayasal in Guatemala) was leveled.

Today, there are 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. There are some 6 million speakers of the 26-odd Mayan languages and dialects. Of course, the Incan Quechua language has even more speakers: some 8.5 to 11 million speakers in several South American countries.

In recent years, there have been several disturbances in the Maya area:

  • In Mexico, there was a Maya war against the Ladinos in Yucatán that lasted from 1847 to 1901 and a Zapatista revolt in Chiapas that flared briefly in 1994.
  • In Guatemala, there was a violent civil war against the Ladinos from 1960 to 1996. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Maya were massacred by the army.
  • In El Salvador, there was a civil war from 1979 to 1981. (Only some of the indigenous peoples involved in that one were Maya.)

The Maya are still there, occupying large parts of Mexico (Yucatán, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo); Belize; Guatemala; and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. It is no small achievement for them to have survived so much persecution for upwards of 500 years.

That is what interests me.