For decades, folklore specialists, ethnography of communication, verbal interaction and anthropology have shown the leading role of narration in the reconstruction and critical explanation of the past, as well as in the construction of the narrating-I, its identity, its beliefs and arguments. Language is something more than the raw material of tales; it contributes to place and show the image the narrator has of him- or herself, of the events of his/her past and of the audience before whom he/she tells these tales. This image is not preexistent to narration: it is dialogically created between the person who narrates and those who listen. Before them, the narrator verbally places him- or herself by means of what he/she says and of how he/she expresses it. The life stories gathered in this book are an integral part of the memory of the time lived and a resource for a narrator to present him- or herself as a social and moral person.
From this perspective, Marie-Odile Marion has played a fundamental role: she has been the audience before which female narrators interact and portray themselves. She has translated and edited the words of the Lacandón women, and they interest us above all due to their testimonial quality. The author, with her baggage of knowledge and field experience, masterfully knew how to rescue these words in conversational interaction with her informants.
I now travel through the pages of Entre anhelos y recuerdos (Between yearnings and memories) determined to be only a reader who carefully “listens” to the stories where past and present intertwine: Na’k’in, Chana’bor, Chanes, Chana’k’in, Chanuc and other Lacandón women who speak in this book.
In order to organize my impressions I have tried to rebuild the symbolic groups that caught my attention the most. The initial group includes the first four tales and the male and female characters that dwell in them. A paradigm that pierces them is that of life. A life the narrators remember and describe with force and in a detailed manner. Before the reader we find displayed the exuberant nature of the river, the lake and the stream inhabited by mojarras, tenguayacas, macabiles and turtles, according to Nan’k’in; and by eels, crabs and sea-shells that Chana’k’in and her brothers pick up. The words of the Lacandón women rebuild like the breadth of the rainforest, where iguanas run, parrots fly and the smell of the nances spreads; they also portray the country, where corn, yucca and sweet potatoes are grown. We listen to brave Chana’k’in: “Sometimes we spent days working, my sister Es and I, when my dad went hunting. He went far away and always came back with pheasant or toucan or even wild boar […]” In other pages, Chana’bor remembers her childhood in Chanacté:” there were lots of pheasants and wild boars; we also ate tapir meat when the raining season was over”; and then Coh’s memories transported us to Lacanjá: “Then the forest was tall, really pretty, and there was a lot of hunting and we did not have to walk a lot to hunt meat with arrows. There was a corozo (oil palm) field nearby and it was the shelter of many pheasants. My father was strong, and a great hunter; he did not fear the jungle. He had large bows and knew how to shoot.”
The paradigm of life also feeds, like in many of the cultures anchored in orality, from the esteem for verbal skills. It is frequent that they sing hymns and chants at the end of the day, often accompanied by flute; or that darkness summons the narration of stories from the past. Coh embroiders her memories out loud: “My mom knew how to cook atole to chant to the gods: […] then we gathered to drink atole and we sang; my brother played his flute; their song was beautiful then […]”, while Chan’k’in rebuilds evening get-togethers in her memory: “My husband told tales and talked a lot during those evenings. Almost every night he told us about his land of Valle Grande, about his journeys to the highest jungle and beyond the great town of the dzules (the mestizo).” As the pages go by, the pleasure for the use of words, nourished by the memories of past events, offers the interpretation the Lacandón women apply on their world and on that of the “others”.
Now then, in these tales life interlaces with the paradigm of death that repeatedly appears in the memory of the female narrators. Death caused by disease, as related by Chana’k’in while she presses for her memories: “my little nephew Chanbor did not grow up […] he had a cough, a bad cough, so bad that he remained stiff, without being able to breathe. His face turned blue and he grasped for air that could not enter his lungs. Poor dear! So small he died! Death caused by infections contracted from the dzules, which become fatal for the indigenous group that dwells in the jungle. Mahogany tea, remedies with leaves, offerings in pots to the gods, chants and prayers are of no use to stop the outbreak of flu or measles in Chanacté. Chana’bor describes it: “My dear poor brother, he also brought disease from the dzules. Then he was covered in swellings, his body became weak […] He died one night […] when my sister-in-law woke up, he was already dead […] Then some of my companions died; in a month, an entire house was empty […] Many died then and we didn’t know why or how to fix them […] the diseases from the dzules walked on all the roads, ran through the jungle and we could not go out anymore because they could always climb on us”.
Death caused by interethnic violence: because of jealousy between the wives of a husband; or because someone defended the women of a family or due to problems between families. So narrates Na’n’kin, beginning her tale: “My poor mother, she didn’t see us grow up […] her little sister killed her (her father’s other wife strangled her). She killed her when my father was in the forest.” And later on she says: “One day, my sister Na’bor came home. She was carrying her little daughter in her mecapal […] She was very frightened […] K’in –her father- had just killed her husband with a single machete stroke to the head. To this violence that also put an end to the life of Chana’bor’s father and older brother we add the violence of strangers: the dzules who finished Andrés and other members of her family by machete strokes, because Andrés did not let them take his daughter Ixiam; or the gringo who beat poor Cuti to death.
Nevertheless, women who survive face fatality with lifeforce; they accept with strength and respond positively to the loss of their relatives, which in most cases means changes in habitat, new husbands with other wives and new children and brothers. In the Lacandón society, this great family that rebuilds over death reemerges more vital and renews itself. Among Chana’bor’s happiest memories she narrates those of her childhood in Chanacté, surrounded by the wives and children of her father: “With my stepmothers there were many of us in Chanacté. Living there was good […] With my little brothers and sisters we often went fishing, we set traps and ate fresh fish.” The extended and polygamic family was until recently the center of the duties and obligations of the head of the family, father, brother-in-law, or older brother, who decided the fate of the women. Chana’k’in says when she talks of her sister: “Then my father looked for another husband for my sister […] K’i’n was his name […] He had light hair and my sister liked him very much. Again she went to sleep behind the curtain and I was left alone in my bed.” Coh, on her part, remembers: “After my father’s death, my brother gave me to my husband Bor […] My daughter was born here in Lacanjá. She is from here, just like me. She was the first daughter of my husband […] I had two daughters and my little sister (her husband’s other wife) had many. We had a lot of little girls in the house and my husband was happy because he knew he would soon have his sons-in-law.”
Moments of joy are ephemeral in these stories of the Lacandón life and we must note the maturity with which women like Nan’k’in, Chana’bor, Chanes or Coh, face everyday obstacles: “Then my husband left me. At the beginning he gave me corn, but then he didn’t want to give me anything”, says Coh. The absence of the man of the house due to death or abandonment means loss of support, and forces the woman to take care of her subsistence. “Then –Coh continues- I had to build my milpa to have corn in the barn.” Chana’k’in does the same after Bor’s death (her husband): “I cried a lot when he died; many days, I don’t remember how many […] Then I had to grip the machete and the ax again: I had to get back to work alone with my children, from sunrise to sunset.” For this reason, they have the custom of constantly searching for a partner for their daughters, their sisters, their nieces, and the widows. The most precious asset for these women of the jungle, notes Marie-Odile Marion, is a man who grows their corn. Until some years ago, a husband, a son-in-law, or a brother fulfilled this task. For a widow, it was great luck to be given to a new man and to start sharing the racket of his house with his other wives and children. Lucky were the orphans who found other mothers. It is true that sometimes the stepmother is not diligent and treats his stepchildren ill, as in the case of Chacún and her little brother. There are also cases in which the Lacandón husband is “mad”, as was the case with Chana’bor and Chanes: “My husband was very mad in those times […] and he hit us hard when he got angry.” He beat Chana’bor until he broke her leg, but both Chanes and Chana’bor cried his death, as if the other roles he fulfilled in their life compensated his brutal behavior. The gradual integration of the Lacandón -good, jovial or mad- to the temporary work sources offered by the dzules has resulted in that the Lacandón women face -each time in more solitude, like Coh and Chanuc-, their survival needs and the passing of their everyday life.
In this book, there is a third paradigm that opposes to life and death in the Lacandón world, that of the “others.” The voice of all these women witnesses that the relationship with the dzules or foreigners, far from offering a solution to the social and economic deterioration of the Lacandón life, interferes abruptly with their system of beliefs and social relationships, and weakens or destroys their cultural behavior patterns. In their childhood, they all fear these strangers; their families look for shelter in the deepest parts of the jungle to avoid them. The jungle possesses richness that attracts the dzules and they push away the Lacandón, whose youngest members find themselves usually prevented from finding other work sources in Palenque or in lands of Tabasco. Men from the outside burst into the memories of the narrators shrouded as looters of the jungle and bearers of fear, or like strangers, distant from their customs.
Women accept the preaching of the Protestant minister Felipe only in part. If he combats the abuse they receive from their husbands, they agree with him; however, they do not follow when he preaches about a monogamous union that is foreign to them. “Felipe didn’t like when a man asked for the sisters of her wife”, comments Chana’bor, “I don’t know why Felipe spoke like that […] I liked to be near my little sister Chanes (her husband’s other wife)”. “Felipe used to say having many women was not good”, explains Coh, “I didn’t say anything […] because my husband had always had two wives and we didn’t fight; so I didn’t understand what Felipe meant.” On the other hand, breaking with the scheme of the polygamic and extended family has affected the economics of the group and the shelter Lacandón women could find in it.
Unions with the dzules, to which sometimes they are forced by their father, do not exempt women from abuse; on the other hand, these unions separate them from the solidarity they would otherwise share with the Lacandón. Nan’k’in’s father gives her away to the chicle laborer José Rivera in exchange of two bloodhounds, but she escapes from him, running away to the jungle on her own: “In the early morning I crossed the old acahual field. I ate a lot of bananas and a tender papaya. Before the sun finally rose, I was on my way to Lacanjá. My dad did not get angry when he knew I had come back: he was happy with these bloodhounds and I was happy with my sister.” Later on, her father forced her to work in a dzule house where one of the men already had two sons: “Then I had to stay there with the dzules. And then Fabián took me; he was my husband. But he drank a lot of wine. Then he hit me, kicked me really hard […] First, my son Luis was born, then came Celia, but my husband Fabián kept hitting me”. Finally, Nan’k’in also runs away from him, taking her children with her, but this union marks her before the Lacandon community and marginalizes her offspring, who are not acknowledged as members of the group. “My partners did not like my son, they said he was a dzul and that dzules are mad, and this is why they didn’t want him to be their son-in-law.” However, we see that the same determination with which she distances herself from the “others” keeps her proud before her own people: “Then my partners said that I was like Kisin (the lord of the underworld). Because I smoked cigarettes, they said my heart would rust. I laughed and did not listen to them. The xunam (mestizo women) smoke cigarettes and they don’t have rust in their lungs”.
Within the framework of these three paradigms: life, death and the others, the image that Nan’k’in builds of herself is belligerent, both before the dzules and before the members of her ethnic group. The narrations of Coh and Chanuc also offer the image of two women who express with dignity their disagreement towards a Lacandón society that condemns them to solitude. They both struggle to vindicate their rights –among which there is the right to marry a xatero and integrate him to the Lacandón community- and they defend them publicly in the assembly of family chiefs, registered by Marie-Odile Marion. In the same way, the other women are solid characters who respond with capacity and strength to the challenges the Lacandón culture present to women.
The two final experiences that integrate the book are texts in which the author’s intention to denounce irremediably creates a rupture regarding the previous narrations. In Ixiam’s story, Marie-Odile Marion goes from the author who listens and narrates to the author who interprets and judges, mixing the testimonial words of the informant with the analytical point of view of the anthropologist: “Andrés’ worst mistake (Ixiam’s father) was to blindly believe in the righteousness of the dzules’ world. He thought that outside the boundaries of his town there was a universe of progress and security […] he was so closely convinced of that fact that his gullibility amused me.” On the other hand, Cuti’s story is not a tale narrated by Lacandón women, but an emotional chronicle in which the author intertwined her denunciation with the threads of a metaphor both poetic -K’imbor’s tale about the chrysalis which never becomes a butterfly- and cruel –the Lacandón girl who was murdered and never became a woman.
This book accounts for two sides of the work of an anthropologist. In the first, Marie-Odile Marion is only the character that promotes and encourages the narrative voice of the Lacandón women. Here she tries to accomplish in a perfect way the purpose of recovering a personalized view of the history of the “other”, as expressed in her introduction. In order to achieve her objective, she limits herself from this second plane, to provide help to tack the events and to interact respectfully with the memories of her informant. The recovered and verbalized memory leads in this way to the tales of Na’k’in, Chana’bor, Chanes, Chana k’in. It was more difficult for Marie-Odile Marion to keep herself in this second plane when she introduced Coh and Chanuc’s characters, who forced her to place herself as a main character in the narration. Nevertheless, her enormous experience in handling interviews helped her to make these two women offer a pristine testimony of the difficulties they face before social and cultural change imposed from the outside to their community and their life.
In this book we see shaped with great analytical consistency and literary quality the experiences of a culture from the past that nowadays goes through the difficult process of a transition towards an uncertain future. In this point, I note, foreseeing future editions, that due to the text characteristics of this work, it would have been better to have the information in the footnotes –scientific names of plants, bibliographic references, traditions of terms and expressions in Mayan language as well as other additional explanations to the stories- placed at the end of the book. In this way, without these interruptions, readers could let themselves go more freely into the flow of the narrator’s words, magnificently captured in these pages.
Finally, I would like to note that a major merit of Entre anhelos y recuerdos is what the author modestly managed to mention: the difficult and complex process of scientific and field research which lies beneath her book. We regret the early death of an anthropologist with the attitude, competence, and dedication that characterized Marie-Odile Marion.
Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
Tenguayaca: Fresh water tropical fish that measures around 50 cm long, from the Cichlidae family; it is of certain commercial importance.
Nance: Bush from the Malpighiaceae family, whose trunk has a dark brown external bark and a rose-tinted internal one; of elliptical leaves and yellow flowers; it has edible fruits, which are small and aromatic. The bark is used in traditional medicine.
Atole: Hot drink made of corn flower dissolved in water or milk, to which different flavors may be added.
Mecapal: strip with two ropes at the extremes used to carry water, putting part of the strip on the forehead and the ropes holding the load.
Acahual: tall weed of thick stem.