William Vlach


Archive for the category “Hunahpú”

Address to the South West Anthropological Association, May 2015

Discovering the Ethnographic Archeological Novel
The Golden Chalice of Hunahapú: A Novel of the Spanish Attack on the Maya

William Vlach

“After all, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between literature and nonliterature and so forth are not laid up in heaven.”
M.M. Bakhtin

To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences.
The American Anthropological Association


Writing a novel about another time, another culture brings up questions of cultural appropriation with its attendant issues of power, trivialization, romanticization, and exploitation. This was a great concern of mine, as an Anglo writer, writing about events in the post classic Mayan civilization in the early 1500’s- the so-called “Conquest.” In this paper I argue that a way to limit the potential for cultural appropriation is the use of the anthropological perspective.
Examples of this anthropological paradigm in creative writing include: the work of Lydia Cabrera who studied the AfroCuban experience and wrote Afro-Cuban Tales and the Nobel Prize winning Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias who wrote Mulata from the emic view point of the Maya. More recently, the anthropologist Don Mitchell published A Red Woman was Crying: Stories from the Nagovisi. Mitchell states, “Although these stories are set in the time and place of my fieldwork and are informed by it, they are not fictionalized field notes. They are not intended as ethnography, although Nagovisi culture… forms a context for these stories.”

The goal of this talk then is to deconstruct my novel, The Golden Chalice of Hunahpú- A Novel of the Attack of the Spanish on the Maya, and examine how it is informed by:

Extant Literature, and
Engaging with the Mayan voice

The Novel:

The novel is told through three points of view: Belehé Qat, a Kachiquel Maya; Beatriz, the Spanish wife of a conquistador: and Domingo, a Dominican friar. The narrative begins immediately prior to the incursion of the Spanish into Highland Guatemala, diverts to Andalusia, returns to Guatemala for the invasion, the war, the resultant plague, and the clergies’ attempts at conversion of the Maya. The novel concludes with the destruction of the colonial capital by earthquake and flood.

The Four Sources of Hunahpú

1. Ethnographic Sources

1971 ethnography: In a graduate school research project, I did a follow up community study to the work of Melvin Tumin and John Gillin. They had studied a small town in eastern Guatemala, San Luis Jilotepeque. I was fascinated by the clarity of the caste structure and the different strategies of the Ladino to maintain it and the Indigenous people to circumvent it. The Black/White caste system in the United States clearly arose from the institutions of slavery. My novelistic question was: What are the origins of the Guatemalan caste system?

1981 research: By 1981, Norita was working on her research in Medical Anthropology, for The Quetzal in Flight: Guatemalan Refugee Families in the United States. The research included a series of interviews in Guatemala. The journey began with a visit to her refugee family living in Xalapa, Mexico. They had fled due to the genocidal war in their homeland. Her family told us stories both of the war and in depth discussions of the historical antecedents. It was there I heard the story of the doomed Beatriz de la Cueva, wife of the Conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado. In Guatemala, as Norita researched the ‘push’ aspects of the informants’ families, I observed the horrific martial law and the war conditions.

1997: Research in El Limonar
Norita continued her participant-observation research on Guatemalan refugees, now on their rebuilding of Guatemala. She met with young adults, refugees living in Oakland. Their village, El Limonar, in the Jacaltenango province of Guatemala had been destroyed in the early 1980’s. Her/our research included a visit to Zapatista controlled areas and a United Nations refugee camp in Chiapas, southern Mexico as well as extended research in El Limonar. There I developed an appreciation for the layers of subjugation and trauma and of their their history, traditions, and hopes for the future.

2011: Spain
In 2011, this work was supplemented by an interview with a researcher at the General Archive of the Indies in Seville.

Conclusion: Each of these formal and informal studies, interviews, and contacts inspired ideas for the themes in the book: Mayan/Spanish values, familial roles, identity, and the architecture of genocide.

2. Archeological Sources

The Kachiquel capital of Iximché and the K’iche capital of K’umarcaaj are the settings for the first book of the novel. These capitals lay in the highland Maya zone of the Postclassic period. (Iximiché most recently came to U.S. attention when local Mayan priests performed sacred rituals to purify the site after President George W. Bush’s visit in 2007).
Archeological research describes these settings as the hilltop defended towns typically set on a ridge surrounded by deep ravines and approached by a single causeway. The research describes pyramids, a Great Hall, and ball courts. In the novel, Belehé Qat and his cousin, Zorach, watch a conference at the “back of the Great Hall.” They imagine themselves to be “legendary ball players” on the ball court, playing with pine cones.
The boys are captured and brought to K’umarcaaj, the Mayan word for the capital of the K’iché Maya. (Later, the name was Mexinicized into Utatlán.) Robert Carmak’s splendid in depth archeological study, The Quiché Mayas of Utatlán: The Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom allowed this writer a glimpse of the physical, cultural, social, historic and meaning of that capital. This archeological exploration was fundamental to the creation The Golden Chalice of Hunahpú.
Carmak’s archeology details the plan of K’umarcaaj (Utatlán): The Tojil Temple, a place of sacrifice which is pyramidal upon which is a painted jaguar; The Awilix Temple which is symbolically feminine and dedicated to the moon; the ball court where the architectural detail now is “irretrievably lost;” and the Main Palace with its brilliantly colored murals.

The novel:

Painted jaguars glared at Zorach and me as we faced the temple. They were orange and yellow, and I felt their power to leap from the walls. These jaguars commanded us to look at all the aspects of the temple.

Carmack described the destruction of the lords of Utatlán by the Spanish:
“On the plains outside Utatlán the lords were given a hasty trial, interrupted with demands for gold. One of the lords ‘confessed’ to the alleged plot to burn the Spaniards as was set free. The rest were tied to posts and burned.”

Transformed into the novel:

“Gold, you bastard Indian,” Tunatiuh yelled. He drove the iron into the face of Nine T’zi, on the face of Xtah’s husband.
“Gold,” he cried again, as he held the iron to my face.

Archeology had informed and inspired the writing.

3. The Extant Literature: Spanish and Mayan

There are several sources of extant literature that have been ‘anthropologically’ mined in researching the novel. The major Spanish sources include work from St Teresa of Ávila, Lazarillo de Tormes, Cervantes, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Bernal Diáz.

Saint Theresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle (1577) gave me a story for the childhood of Beatriz: She and her sister run away from home so they can be martyred by the Moors.

The novel:

“How will they kill us?”
“They hate Christians. They will chop off our heads.”

The anonymously written Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554, is the first picaresque novel. The pícaro is usually a cynical youth, brought up the hard way… He meets and pits his wits against a variety of people, and this way the builds up a portrait of contemporary society.” Lazarillo gave me Brother Domingo whose humor could bring the picaro’s self serving ambitions to the fore as well as the satiric humor of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza.
Where Sancho had the demented don as his concern, Brother Domingo has Bartolomé de las Casas: This heroic Dominican, author of Tears of the Indians, was the bishop of Chiapas and appointed Protector of the Indians by the Spanish Crown. He fought valiantly for the rights of the indigenous people of the Americas after having erred earlier in making a case for slaves be brought from Africa to the New World as a way to save the diminishing ranks of Tainos in Cuba. This historic figure became in the novel Brother Domingo’s nemesis. The relationship between the two was modeled on that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Bernal Diáz’ The Conquest of New Spain provided much of the plot, as well as the Conquistador’s point of view:

When the news of Alvarado’s death reached Guatimala, the grief of his family knew no bounds; and his wife, Doña Beatriz de la Cueva, with whom he had lived on the most affectionate terms, cried incessantly, and she and all the ladies of her household cut off their hair.

The primary extant Mayan extant literature includes The Annals of the Cakchiquels, The Popol Vuh, and The Rabinal Achí.

Annals of the Cakchiquels

The initial inspiration for the novel was the Annals of the Cakchiquels written originally by Francisco Hernández Arana. It covers first contact with the Spanish, the resultant war and diseases, resistance, then the collapse of the city. The author of The Annals served as an anchor for the entire narrative. In the novel, his Mayan name is Belehé Qat:

Then novel:

Here is the story, oh, my sons! the story of our people. Here is the history of our people, our family. This is what happened to the people who originally came from the place of reeds, from Tulan. The story of K’umarcaaj, now Utatlán; of Iximché, now Guatemala. This is our story. Here is your history.

This is the story of your father, Belehé Qat. The story of the rabbit and the loss of the rabbit. The story of Hunahpú, who still lives. Lives here. Lives now in Christidom. This is the story of your mother, Xtah, now Lucia, and your father, Belehé Qat, now Francisco.

In the novel he is fictionalized as a warrior, spy, and, ultimately, embodiment of the continuation of the Kakchiquel peoples.

The Popol Vuh

Other Mayan extant literature mined includes the magnificent Popol Vuh of the K’iche Maya. The figures of the Popol Vuh informed the mythological background of the novel. Much of the Popol Vuh is made up of the adventures of the hero twins, Hunahpú and his brother Xbalanque. Painfully, I excluded Xbalanque from the novel for two reasons. First, the image of Hunahpú would over complicate the narrative. Second, I figured Hunahpú could ride off the English speaking tongue in ways Xblanaque could never.
The use of the Popol Vuh in the novel was background, never foreground in that the intent in the novel was to recreate lived lives as opposed to the magic of myth. The closest the Popol Vuh comes into the foreground is in the section where Belehé Qat descends into the Mayan underworld, Xilbaba, for a ritual of identity transformation into manhood.

The Rabinal Achí

The Rabinal Achí was used to inform the final section of the novel. That section’s title “Under Heaven, Above Earth” is taken directly from The Rabinal Achí. The Rabinal Achí is still performed today in the village of Rabinal in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. The language is poetic, with repeating phrases and evocative images which tells the story of events that took place during the wars between the K’iche and the Rabinal.
In 2005 UNESCO’s 3rd Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity cited The Rabinal Achí.

4. Engaging with the MayanVoice

The final use of the anthropological perspective in creating the novel was engagement with the Mayan voice.

The University of California, Davis anthropologist, Liza Grandia, in a damning review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto wrote: “To me, these actors didn’t look or sound Maya at all. Their Yucatec diction was terrible and lacked the real lyric cadence of Maya languages.” This “real lyric cadence of Maya languages” was the key inspiration for the diction of the novel.
Initially, in San Luis Jilotepeque, I was struck with the attitude of the Ladino population toward the indigenous Pokomam Mayan language. The one Pokoman Mayan speaking teacher in the school did not speak Pokomam to the children. I wrote in 1971, “Evidently she knows Pokomam but according to the alcade’s wife, it would be ‘Que vergüenza’ if she ever spoke it to the children.” Clearly the Mayan language was disdained.
Over the years, I heard the sounds and music of Mayan in San Luis Jilotepeque, then Antigua, then in Chiapas and El Limonar In each site, I was struck with the poetics of phrases, shifting points of views, an eloquence of diction. The Mayan voice sounds did not seem to be of the Western speaking world: various sounds with a pronounced a glottal stop, clicks that seemed to come from the throat, and popping sounds.
The language, even through multiple translations, revealed a poetry- repeating phrases, a rhythm that I could feel but not define. I took a brief class in Kachiquel Maya taught by a native speaker. Encouraged and stimulated by the clicking sounds, the poetic nature of Mayan, and the meaning of this ‘culture contact,’ I returned to the United States and rewrote the book.
Reading The Annals of the Kachiquel inspired the idea to emulate the Mayan lyricism through repetition, epimone lament, and rephrasing. There was music in The Annals that I heard Guatemala in 1970 and 1981. In 1997 in Chiapas, Mexico in a Zapatista camp I heard Tzotzil Mayan translated into Spanish, then English. By the end of the year, Norita was working in El Limonar, Guatemala, and I heard Jakaltek (Popti) translated. In each setting, the music of the language was striking. I took a brief class in Kakchiquel in Antigua. The clicks and glottal stops began to make sense, not in terms of translation, but in terms of music, of the lyrical.

Repeating and rephrasing

A Western example of the use of repetition in poetry is TS Elltiot’s Ash Wednesday:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn

The repetition of a phrase to stress a point is called epimone: e.g. “Because I do not hope…” In the first section of the novel, the phrase “Oh, my sons!” is frequently repeated. This epimone is derived from the Annals: “We all witnessed the fire, oh, my sons.” and “… because of the wicked man, we abandoned our city on the day 7 Ahmak, oh, my sons”
This repeated use of this sort of phrase, I would call an epimone lament, an expression of the experience of the writer intended to transmit the emotions of loss and grief.
From the Rabinal Achí, the repeating phrase, “Under Heaven, above earth” is, again, the epimone lament. We see the phrase and rephrase: “Is it true I must die here, must end here?” The epimone takes the form of a repeated question leaving the reader in a state of anticipation.

The novel:

Now Francisco was dancing with twelve yellow Eagles and twelve yellow Jaguars. Francisco yelled out: “Look upon me, Heaven. Look upon me, Earth.” Antonia put her hands over her eyes.
I scrambled out of my seat. The Saint grabbed my cloak, but I yanked it away.
“Look upon me, Heaven, look upon me, Earth. Is it true I must die here, must end here, here under Heaven, above Earth?” Francisco chanted.

In the writing below I will state: “The writer of the first account, Belehé Qat, addresses his sons. They are his audience.” This is redundant. I’ve said what I’ve said, now I am rephrasing it. The Annals’ literary strategy uses that approach:

“During this year the Spaniards arrived. Forty-nine years ago the Spaniards came to Xepit and Xetulul.”

Points of View; Who is the audience?

The three sections of The Golden Chalice of Hunahpú are written in the first person. The intent here is to bring proximity. The first person point of view is inevitably limited, but when that point of view is mixed with other first person points of view about the same event, the effect can be a ‘Roshomon’-like mosaic.

The intended reader is different in each section: The writer of the first account, Belehé Qat, addresses his sons. They are his audience. That notion was taken directly from The Annals of the Cachiquel:

“In this manner the Castilians arrived…, oh, my sons!”

“Thus it was that, because of the wicked man, we abandoned our city on the day 7 Ahmak, oh, my sons!”

Beatriz writes the regretful story to her mother; Brother Domingo writes as a cautionary tale to the laity.

This shifting emphasis of intended audience and points of view during a narration I found evocative and I did the best I could to invoke.

The novel:
From behind me I heard the war cries of Kaqchikel warriors. The writing bunny, the scribe, and the healer had been lost. There was only the raging warrior. Belehé Qat was now a vicious man who thought only of protecting his family and elders. A man with blood streaming down from his eyes.
And he screamed, “Kill their horses! Kill their horses!”

Cultural Appropriation/Exploitation

The basis for cultural appropriation is the objectification of the ‘other.’ After that objectification, the cultural artifacts, customs, and such are available for the use of the objectifier. The list of cultural appropriation/objectification is endless: The Washington Redskins, ‘Stepin Fetchit,’ minstrel shows, pornography, etc.
The objectification that begins and allows this process, according to the philosopher Nancy Nussbaum, contains a series of components including the Denial of Subjectivity. This category of objectification can be seen in the historic subjugation of slave music and carnivals in the Americas. Could there be anything more subjective than music and dance? To deny a people their music allows the slave “owner” to perceive the slave person as not human.
The goal of this novel and type of novel (perhaps the “ethnonovel”?) with its grounding in the anthropological perspective attacks this denial of subjectivity.
The caveat is, of course, that the writer must be tuned into the realities and empathetic to the “other.” The challenges of the writer is to not fall into the trap of romanticization, and thereby trivialization of a culture. Likewise, a slip into cultural stereotypes leads to a work of simple projection that reinforces one’s own cultural hierarchies with an utter failure of appreciation and respect for the people in question.
Likewise, ridicule is a denial of the crucial ingredients of the humanity of the “other.” This can be seen in the character arc of Brother Domingo.
At the beginning of his narrative:

I watched them. First, they began with their crazy language. They chatted with each other, that’s the only way I can put it. Chatted. Maybe chattered, like someone threw cow dung against a wall, and the dribbling off that wall is the sound of their language. Click, cluck, dribble.

Later, Domingo develops the ability to recognize the humanity of his “slave,” Francisco, and realizes he must save him:

The Eagles and Jaguars lifted Francisco and placed him on a sacrificial stone. The priest’s black knife was in the air as I barreled into them. I was like an avalanche from Heaven. Feathers and gold flew everywhere. Priests and kings sprawled on the stage. Eagles and Jaguars fell onto the field.
Francisco lay stretched out on the rock, his chest, his skin smooth; his body intact. He looked at me, shook his head, and smiled.

This recognition of the humanity of the other is reciprocated by the Mayan, Francisco, formerly Belehé Qat, after he pulls the Dominican from the climatic flood:

In the gray morning light, I found myself on a muddy bank. A soaked Francisco sat next to me. He looked over and smiled. “The black rain is for the wooden men, not human beings.”

Conclusions: Dialogue with the past in the present

In writing about the many people from around the world who visit the Mayan areas, Schele and Mathews write: “The Maya people have joined these pilgrims, but their connection with these sacred places are more than curiosity–knowing their own past and understanding what their ancestors built has become a means of resistance against the fate of being strangers in their own land.”
And I would argue, these histories, archeologies, ethnographies, the “ethnonovel” allow us all to be at home in a homely world. They resist the temptations of amnesia, of trivialization, of commodification of culture.
I can only hope that this novel facilitates an understanding of that first American genocide and adds to an appreciation and respect for a people and a resistance that ripples into their and our current reality.

“My great fear is that we all suffering from amnesia.”
– Eduardo Galeano

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

We the indigenous peoples of Guatemala declare and denounce before the world more than four centuries of discrimination, denial, repression, exploitation, and massacres committed by the foreign invaders and continued by their descendants down to the present day. The suffering of our people has come down through the centuries, since 1524, when there arrived in these lands the assassin and criminal, Pedro de Alvarado.

-The Declaration of Iximché February, 1982

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