This is part three of a series of glimpses from my ethnographic eye. I choose to give you small unanalyzed stories from my fieldwork that I find have something interesting about them. Remark that I write Maya Ways (plural). I want to underline that there are many ways to to be, feel or act Maya. Unlike what many believe, there is a flourishing culture of people who define themselves as Maya, and I find it important that we recognize their own explanations of Maya identity rather that putting them into a box of what we believe Mayas are supposed to be like. Feel free to comment below
The Wednesday after my first visit to Templo Maya, I began my “hunt” for informants. I saw two elderly women dressed in hipil, which are white dresses embroidered with colorful flowers traditionally worn by Mayan women. Each carried a pot under the arm. They entered the church. I followed them, and introduced myself to one of them and asked if she had time to talk to me later. Then I realized that she might not understand Spanish, so I asked if she did. She smiled, and several gold teeth became visible. From the moment I had given her my hand to greet her, she held it tight between her two hands. I felt her warm and loving personality. She told me in fluent Spanish that she only knew a few words, but that her friend was from Tulum and spoke Spanish. She pointed towards the other woman who was busy looking after a toddler boy who lividly crawled across the floor pushing a dried corn grain. She smilingly told me that she did not have time to talk after mass, and when I asked if I could ask her some questions right away, she refused as well. She blamed the lack of time on the toddler. Despite the words, I did not feel rejected, so I tried one last time, “What if I visit you?” I asked in Spanish. Luckily, the question, which I found rather intruding, worked. She told me that that would be much better, and that I could come on the following Sunday at 1pm. When I asked her to write down her address, she told me that she did not know how to write. A bit embarrassed by my inconsideration, I wrote down the address myself.
A group of men had gathered around a table. I went to the table to look what they were doing, but the leader of the church instantly said in a hard voice, “Sit down! We are working!” Sorry for my intrusion and a bit frightened, I sat back down on the bench and found my notebook to write about my meeting with the woman, which made the leader yell that in the church all notetaking was prohibited. The nerves rushed through my body as I packed my stuff away and apologized. “Hold yourself together,” I told myself, while I saw myself in the role as the intruding tourist that I was so critical of. I began to consider the ethics of coming to the church, a house of a religion that was not mine, mainly to get informants. I decided not to come back. I considered to leave, but since I had already placed my offering on the alter, I needed to stay to get my plastic box back.
Two elderly women smiled to me from the bench next to mine. I got up to breathe fresh air in the doorway between the benches. Only a soft breeze touched my skin, and it did not really help my nerves. The two women talked Maya together, so my plan about collecting narratives in collective environments turned out to be problematic. Since they looked at me and giggled, I was sure that they talked about me. All the sudden, one of the women asked me in Spanish if I was a Gringa. I introduced myself, and we ended up talking about my questions quite a while. I kept the information in my head and wrote it down when I got home. I got her address and I was told to come by any day after 2pm. Her friend was silent. She did not speak Spanish. When the two women got up to put their soup bowls on the alter I stayed. After the episodes with the church leader I considered to skip the mass.
The woman who spoke Spanish asked me if I was not going to light my candle. Together, we walked to the most sacred room. I lit my candle, and kneeled down. Unlike my first visit to the church, there was no collective prayer. Each person did their own. Praying was not something I was used to, but I thought it would not hurt, especially now when I had been in trouble with the leader of the church. As I saw the others do, I made the sign of the cross in front of my body. I observed how each woman went to the alter to make a prayer, and how they then mumbled and made the sign of the cross followed by a kiss on their palm. They made the gestures about five times as they walked sideways by the table with offerings. I followed along. After the service, the women asked for my opinion. Everybody shared the food that had been offered. A woman whom I had not talked to before asked me if I wanted to bring some food home as well, and then her 9-year-old daughter helped me getting it. The woman happily answered my questions. She asked for my phone number, and she gave me her address. We arranged that I could teach her daughter English, and that the family would help me with my project (fieldnotes August 26).
My first and only Wednesday noon mass was everything from an extremely frightening to a beautiful and heart warm experience. This became the day when I entered the Mayan community of Tulum. It is a day I will never forget, and a day my informants have mentioned as special on various occasions. Following this day, I visited all three women. The visit to the church was my access to do participant observation in private homes.