The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2003, Volume 49, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

Guatamala’s Folk Saints: Maximon/San Simon, Rey Pascual, Judas, Lucifer, and others.

By Jim Pieper. Albuquerque: Pieper and Associates, 2002. Distributed by University of New Mexico Press. glossary. Map. 402 color photographs. 246 pp. $39.95 paper. $65.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Paul Vanderwood, professor emeritus of Mexican history, San Diego State University.

Tourists and scholarly observers have long been intrigued by the conglomerate of Guatemalan santos. At the center of their curiosity sits Maximon (often called San Simon), an extraordinarily whimsical fellow often depicted wearing a fedora, tinted sun glasses (at times an aviator’s goggles), smoking a cigar, and dressed in brightly colored scarves and typical local textiles. He is said to have emanated from the heavily populated Maya cosmology. Natives and Ladinos, rich and poor, urban and rural pray for Maximon’s help in their daily lives. Most petitions are positive; people seek health, employment, good family relations, sustenance, trucks, homes, and spouses. A few appeal to his darker side, wishing harm or bad luck on a rival or despised individual. For decades, outsiders have puzzled without much success over the origins and meaning of Maximon. The author of this book, Jim Pieper, comes no closer to fitting the pieces in place. Still, he has produced a marvelous work of sumptuous photographs, reenforced by informative interviews and keen insights born of his field experience with Maya ceremonial practice.

As past chairman of the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles and curator of several exhibits of indigenous ceremonial masks from Mexico and Guatemala, Pieper is well-suited to highlight the details and diversity in costuming, facial masks, and accouterments that surround Maximon and other Maya santos. Cofradías in various pueblos support the devotion as guardians of the idol in special shrines, rotated annually among believers. But Maximon is also a mainstay on home altars of many Guatemalan families. The author sees the devotion as syncretic, an unfathomable mix of Maya ancestral worship with an overlay of Roman Catholicism imposed by colonizers. The combination is dramatized during Holy Week ceremonies in the town of Santiago Atitlán, where Maximon, for a short period, joins the solemn procession marking the death of Christ, a traditional ambiance today periodically invaded by electronically enhanced Pentecostal hymns. There is no other sight or sound (or spectacle) quite like it in the world.

Pieper also introduces Rey Pascual, a skeletal santo dressed as a king, and various representations of satan to the melange. Interviews with Maya and Catholic priests, cofradía administrators and curanderos, the reproduction of prayers to the idols, and descriptions of ceremonies provide an elemental introduction to the world surrounding the figures, but meaningful contextual emplacement and historical information are limited throughout. There is no overview of Guatemala religious life as a whole, no estimate concerning the breadth of these devotions among the populace, nor any indications of how they have changed over time. And they have changed alone dramatically and rapidly in the last decade or so. Ceremonial details described by Pieper, who seems to have done most of his fieldwork in the early 1990s, have disappeared or been altered in this new century. How and why they have changed (there are economic, political, and social as well as religious reasons) would be a difficult but rewarding study in itself.

The heart of the book lies in the photographs, laid out on fine paper stock with careful attention to dimensions. The book is self-published; Pieper obviously intended to retain control of the process, and the results are frequently stunning. They give the ethnographer a feast of detail, while even the most casual reader cannot be but awed by the richness of the home altars with their flowers, family of saints (both Mayan and Catholic or a mixture of each), bottles of liquor and pan dulce. Photos also capture the wisps of pungent copal smoke, enormous variety of votive candles, sacred stones, myriad offerings and signs of gratitude for miracles received associated with other devotional practices. The book beckons one to see, to ponder, perhaps to experience, mysteries which have been part of human kind since time immemorial.

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