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Home arrow Sociology arrow Balancing the World: Contemporary Maya ajq’ijab in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala


All the interviewees mention abuelos, ‘ancestors,’11 as very important to them and to Maya spirituality. The ancestors are commonly regarded as the spirits - or, by some of the interviewees, the nahuales - of people who have lived before. They can be specific persons, like a family member, or just all ancestors of everyone in the world, of the Maya or of the community.

Odilia has an altar in her home with several stones that she calls nahuales. Each of these is connected to a specific ancestor of hers, like a deceased grandfather. For Odilia, it is important to thank them, as they were the ones who “showed the way” of Maya spirituality.

[ Odilia points to her altar and a bowl of food standing in front of it]. [It’s] an offering for the nahuales. We are doing it in the fashion taught to us and left for us by our ancestors, because that is how they did it when they started to work.[1] [2] Because they were working in a clean culture.[3] - Odilia

When someone dies, they can help the living with the knowledge they gained in life. They send signs to warn or to help.

I think they can send us signs. They can send us messages, as it were, because of their different, and wider, and broader, and deeper perspective of what’s going on.

You know, it’s like a little child can only see at a certain level. They’re only two feet tall, and they can only see what is not obstructed. Their mother or father is taller and can see a wider perspective.

They can see the top of the table as well.

Exactly. And the ancestors can get an even broader, wider, deeper perspective of what’s going on. And so they can be appealed to, also to give us signs and give us advice and give us guidance, and so on, as communicators from a different point of view or a different perspective.

Would you say ... you talked about the sacred, or God, as everything that has life. Are the ancestors part of that? Do the ancestors have life?

Yes, because the sacred is also part of everything that has had life. [...] Everything that has had a spirit, to some extent, will continue to have a spirit. [---]

Not too long ago, [I asked another ajq’ij about a dream I had, in which a dead person was speaking to me,] and he used just that phrase to me, over and over again: “Don’t forget, don’t forget, that person is alive! She’s alive, she’s not dead, she’s alive,” and he insisted on just that phrase. Which, which ... it makes sense to me.

- Martin

  • [1] Literally: ‘grandparents’
  • [2] Work (here): when they started to practise Maya spirituality.
  • [3] Without Spanish influence, such as Christianity. See below.
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