Finding Maximón
Story and photos by Luke Armstrong

While working for a year in Guatemala, a young traveler visits the crafty local deity who changes houses each year and ponders the violence that wracked this population not so long ago.


One of the first things travelers learn is that fornicating with the local's wives and then sacrificing the illegitimate children produced to the devil is considered culturally insensitive. Maximón (pronounced Ma–she–mon) had a predilection for this, and not without their reasons, the men of his village decided it was lynching time. But Maximón, among other things, is a tough guy to pin down. Handily, he changed himself to the biblical Judas right before things got heavy, so that it was not actually him who was lynched. Maximón: 1 Village People: 0

Maximón, or San Simón as the Spanish called him, or Rilaj Maam as the Maya know him, is a mixture of Catholic saint and Mayan deity. Depending on whom you ask and when, he's a god or a devil, a friend or an ass. Pray to him and he may help you, but watch your back, because he might just screw you over.

In my year living in Antigua, Guatemala, I had heard quite a few accounts of Maximón. The topic was usually brought up late at night with the taleteller typically deep into his bottle. After a year of hearing sometimes–conflicting folklore, it was time to go to his "house" and pay him a visit. candles

On May 1st, a national holiday to commemorate the day of the worker, I set off with two of my fellow NGO workers from Antigua to Santiago Atitlán to find Maximón's house and to hang out drinking with him, and as is customary, providing an offering of Quetzal bills and cigarettes.

Maximón is a wooden statue usually smoking a cigarette whose house is changed yearly during holy week processions. Wherever he ends up, it is that family's responsibility to serve him. From what we saw in our afternoon spent at his home, this service involves drinking Quetzal Especial firewater and smoking plenty of cigarettes. In front of candles waxed to the floor and incense, a shaman chanted pleadingly to Maximón in a Mayan dialect we did not understand.

In the several hours we spent at his house, tourists came briefly to take photos, locals came to leave offerings, take drinks, and to stay and pray a while. We watched as one shaman was replaced by another, and as people's sobriety states changed.

A woman and her infant walked in. The mother set her son down on the cement floor and lay prostrate in front of Maximón. She pleaded with him for her husband to find a job, promising to pay for 12 hours of marimba music to entertain him if he would grant her this wish. Maximón wooden facade just smoked his cigarette, looking unmoved by the entreaties.

Before leaving, we rolled quetzal bills around cigarettes and to the nodding eyes of the house's dueño, we left them in Maximón's offering dish. We took out a quart of rum and passed it around to the dozen men paying homage. They nodded approvingly; this is how you prayed in this house!

Then feeling light we took a ferry to the relaxed town of San Pedro Atitlán.


Beauty and Blood
I always forget just how beautiful Lake Atitlán is. When away from it, I tell people that it is the most beautiful lake in the world, but carrying this Platonic opinion never compares to actually being present, to watching a burning sunset light up over a lake born out of fire. Some 85,000 years ago the massive Los Chocoyos eruption blew ash as far as Florida and Panama. The blast left a crater large enough to create a lake 300m deep in the Guatemalan highlands, 1560m above sea level. Aesthetically, the result still stuns. The lake is one of those places, sites where casual travelers become lifelong ex–pats. Lake Atitlan

After procuring cheap accommodations in this hippy–hang, expat paradise, we asked the only question on our minds, "What would Maximón do?" WWMD?

The answer was obvious. He would find a bar and be "debaucherous." After drinks here, drinks there, and emptying a few liters of beer in the street with help of some locals whose money had run out faster than their desire for fire water, we ended up at a place called the Buddha Bar. Here we felt the hours slip by to the heartening sound of a jazz band traveling through Central America on their music. When my friends finally retired at closing time, I went out on an after–hours hang with an Argentinean and Mexican I had just met.

Before we entered the open–air hangout on the lakeshore, some adolescent Guatemalans yelled a few provoking words our way. We just shook our heads and ignored them. Youth, alcohol and having something to prove are never a good mixture, and they had a generous amount of each. We sat down and the Argentinean, Pedro, said a few pointed words about the youth. But his criticisms missed the target. His words could not harm them the way they could harm themselves. Reacting to some shouts outside, we looked up to see one of the youth bleeding profusely in the street. An Australian seated at the table next to us confirmed what had happened with a Steve Erwin–esque enthusiasm, "He was just trying to break up a fight between two of his mates, and he got stabbed with a broken bottle!"

The bloody kid just stared at his gaping wound in awe, as if it was something to behold and showed it wide eyed to several people in the street. When the police came everyone seemed to forget who had done the actual stabbing, and the rowdy kids disappeared into the late night darkness.

Dark History Barely Gone
Clearly, it was time to go. I got up to tell the waitress that I would not be needing my coffee that still hadn't come. Seeing several disturbingly large pools of blood in the street made me light headed. Not the sight of blood, but a glimpse of this beautiful place's shallowly buried past.

While walking down the street, my newfound Argentinean friend turned to me and asked, "Isn't it stupid?"

I thought of several things he could be asking me and agreeing with them all, answered, "Yes."

Senseless violence is no stranger here. During Guatemala's bloody thirty–six year civil war, the descendents of the original Mayans were slain in mass genocides around the region. Details of what exactly happened and who was responsible are still unclear. As documents providing clarity that are slowly being released to the public, those who are implicated by the records are perpetuating more violence.

No one around here talks about the war years, especially not those who remember them. Penitent widows and men with missing limbs are the clearest testaments to what happened here. They will never forget, but they have a hallowed right to push it as far back in their memory as it will go.

Back in my hotel room, when the rains started pouring outside my window, I saw Maximón as more than just a wooden figure and antiquated tradition. I caught a glimpse of the day–to–day realities faced here that enthrone him as the most revered deity of the region. Maximón is real. He's your friend, until he's your enemy—and vice–versa. For hundreds of years, outsiders here have followed the same pattern. They brought new technologies, which could be used to build or to destroy. Rather than our benevolent Western gods who see violence and evil with the same grimace as its victims, Maximón, like so much in life, can help you, but he can also hurt you.

Lake Atitlan

As it poured outside, I lie in my bed awake thinking about this, and imagined the blood in the street being washed by the rains into Lake Atitlán, mixing with those deep waters. Tomorrow anyone who was not there to see what had happened would never know the blood was ever there.

Luke Maguire Armstrong grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota. After finishing degrees in philosophy and English in La Pontificia Universidad de Valparaíso, Chile, he did what any financially oblivious recent grad would do: took out a large student loan and planned on hitch hiking from Southern Chile to Alaska. He only made it halfway though, and started working as the director for the humanitarian aid organization Nuestros Ahijados in Antigua, Guatemala. He has lived there since April 2008.

Related articles:

A Journey Through the Land of the Maya in Guatemala by Michael Shapiro
Granada on Haphazard Guitar Strings by Luke Armstrong
Guatemala's Running of the Horses by Michael Shapiro
Cuba's Port of Hope, on Hopeless Machinery by Luke Armstrong

Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives

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