Nov 21, 2011

Mayan Courtship, Shawl-Pulling, & Dancing with the Saints

In Santiago, the Mayan women, young and old, wear shawls, and the shawls are an intrinsic part of courtship. If a young Mayan male wants to let a Mayan girl know he is interested, he expresses it by pulling on her shawl. The girl, if she is to protect her honor, holds on to her shawl and doesn’t let the man take it away. In this first courting gesture, the young Mayan should be careful not to pull too hard and the Mayan girl doesn’t want to let him take her shawl away. If she wants to let him know she is interested, she can do so by not pulling away immediately. The little tug of war indicates the degree of interest of both parties, and it is important for young Mayans to develop the necessary social skills to perform the ritual correctly, as in a kind of dance.

If the girl’s response is encouraging, the next time the young Mayan holds onto the shawl a while longer or pulls a little harder. If the dance reaches a point where neither party lets go of the shawl, a bond has been established between them.

If the man pulls too hard and takes the shawl away from the woman, her family is obliged to visit the young man’s home and demand its return. Men who commit this error repeatedly become known as shawl-snatchers, and Mayan girls are careful to keep their distance from them. The other side of the coin is when a young girl has her shawl taken too many times. Then her family collects the shawl more apologetically, word gets around, and less and less Mayan males want to pull that particular girl’s shawl.

Last week, I went to a local ceremony at the shrine of San Miguel, where a shaman danced with his bundle. There were five travelers, all dressed up in local garb: a gay man, a lesbian couple, an old lady, and a beautiful girl named Jenna, aged twenty. The group—who had all met up while in Guatemala—had run into Dolores several times by chance, and she took it as a sign and introduced them to an American psychotherapist, Ileana, who lives in Santiago. Ileana offered to organize a “spiritual retreat” for them (for a sum), and they agreed.

I met the group at the San Miguel shrine, where I was filming the ceremony. Nicholas, a Mayan versed in local history, had been hired by Ileana to provide the group with historical information. Ileana also paid Las Confradias (the shaman brotherhood) to let the “gringos” dance with the saints (wooden figurines of San Juan, San Miguel, Jesus, and the Jaguar) as part of their spiritual retreat. At a given point, the doors and windows were closed, the marimba music stopped, and candles were handed out to everyone present. The shaman honored the four directions and then used a candle to light everyone else’s, moving slowly around the room until all the candles were burning. The dancing then began, culminating when the shaman danced alone with his mysterious bundle.

By that time everyone’s candle had burned almost all the way down, and they were blown out and the stubs handed to the shaman, one by one, who placed them in a small container. Everyone then lined up to kiss the scarves of the saints and the ceremony was over. People continued dancing, however. Nicholas danced with Jenna for more or less the whole time, and I danced with Debbie, one of the lesbians. At one point, the button of my sleeve caught on the fringe of her shawl, and I realized I was pulling it off her without meaning to. “That means I like you,” I said, and laughed. Debbie seemed puzzled so I told her it was a tradition here. She asked Dolores if it was true. Dolores told her that it was: “That’s how they do things here in the village,” she said, and explained the curious ritual of the shawl-pulling. Debbie’s partner caught the end of the conversation, and feigned jealousy at my “courting” her woman.

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