In many Guatemalan businesses and churches, you can find a statue of a man, San Simón, also known as Maximón. He dresses in a formal suit with a large hat, and instead of a necktie he wears a traditional Mayan neckance. According to legend, he was a Spaniard who served as mayor of a small, primarily indigenous town many years ago when Guatemala was a Spanish colony. The details of the story differ based on region, but San Simón used his leadership to help the indigenous people and protect them from harm. Whether or not this actually happened, San Simón is now a cultural aspect of Guatemala. People come from all around to visit his shrines in small towns, leaving gifts of flowers, money, candles, fruit, cigars, alcohol, and more. They ask for all kinds of things, from love and luck to success and money. The only problem – he isn’t a real saint.
My teacher in the morning, Antonio, who is generally very open minded about social and cultural topics, told me that he wasn’t very religious and didn’t really believe in the power of San Simón. He worked as a tour guide for many years and visited the most famous shrine dozens of times, but he didn’t necessarily buy into the legend like others did. However, he thought that it is people’s right to believe whatever they want, and it didn’t matter to him whether someone believed in San Simón or not. He qualified that statement by saying some people go to San Simón and use magia negra, or black magic, to get what they want, which he views as bad for a village and a misuse of an important religious symbol.
My host mom, Eluvia, is an older, more religious lady. When I asked her about San Simón, she was very clear that she thought he was not a good symbol to worship because he isn’t recognized by the Catholic Church. He is called a saint, but in reality he is more like a pagan deity of the indigenous people. She felt that he had no power and that it was sinful to worship him as an idol.
My afternoon teacher, Sandra, had the most interesting insight in my opinion. She was excited when she talked about San Simón and they things that she had heard about, but repeatedly said “I’m not sure.” Eventually, I asked more directly if she believed San Simón had supernatural power or not, and she responded that yes, she did. Regardless of people’s beliefs, San Simón is an important representation of religious syncretism in Guatemala. Catholic tradition blends with indigenous superstitions and beliefs to create something altogether new that many people don’t agree with.
Sandra and I then began to talk about other supernatural experiences she’s had. She described a ghost she’d seen in her house as a young girl, and the evidence of haunting in the Maximo Nivel building that we were currently in. Like in American ghost stories, she told me that some ghosts were benevolent, while others were malevolent. One distinct different is that many American ghosts are stuck on Earth because there was something they needed to complete before they died, and they can’t pass on until they do. In Guatemala, the alleged ghosts are stuck on Earth because they died before they were supposed to, and they simply need to exist until they reach the time that they would have died. She then told me about the different superstitions surrounding ghosts and spirits. In Guatemala, the “haunted hours” were 8 PM, midnight, 8 AM, and noon. It’s odd to imagine a spooky ghost encounter at midday, but apparently it can be just as dangerous to go out at noon as midnight when it comes to ghosts. We started to talk about other legends of Guatemala, including La Llorona, El Sombrerón, and La Siguanaba. I was surprised that both Sandra and Eluvia both avidly believed in these legends, with Eluvia even telling me, very casually, of the time she heard La Llorona crying in the street when she was younger.
This investigation gave me a lot of insight into the Guatemalan mentality. Perhaps due to the mixture of Catholicism and Mayan culture, people believe in legends and spirits a lot more avidly than I had expected. Additionally, I had possibly my most successful conversation outside of the classroom with Eluvia, which gave me a lot of confidence and excitement about how far I’ve come since I first arrived in Guatemala.