Maya Healers: A Thousand Dreams

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Photo by Fran Antmann


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Fran Antmann is a photographer, writer and educator. She teaches photography at Baruch College, CUNY. For over thirty years she has been documenting the lives and culture of Maya, Andean, Inuit and Dene indigenous people—in the villages surrounding Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, in agricultural villages and mining towns in the Peruvian highlands, in the Canadian Arctic tundra and in Baffin Island, Canada.

She began her work as a Fulbright scholar in a mining town 16,000 feet high in the Peruvian Andes. For two years, she researched and recovered the glass plate negatives of an unknown Peruvian photographer, Sebastian Rodriguez whose work is now included in the history of photography collection at MOMA. She also pursued her own photographic project on the same town and people.

A Thousand Dreams

For over a decade she worked on the book excerpted here, Maya Healers: A Thousand Dreams, with yearly trips to Guatemala. The book is a fiscally sponsored project of the New York Foundation for the Arts and was a finalist for the 2017 Lucie Foundation Photo Book Prize. 

“I will always remember the tranquility, the sense of focus and the creative energy that I drew from BMC,” Antmann recalls.  “A wonderful ritual at the end of a productive day: calling my friend, the late Peruvian novelist Gregorio Martinez in Ohio. I would read him passages in English, he would give him me comments in Spanish.”


Photos and excerpts from Maya Healers: A Thousand Dreams

Berta Navichoc, a healer and weaver, says secrets are embedded in the memory of Mayan Guatemalan villages. There are a few public monuments, such as the Park of Remembrances in Santiago Atitlán, built in memory of the victims of the army’s massacres. But in San Pedro la Laguna, the monuments are unmarked, buried in the landscape.

There was a time in the 1980s when the streets of San Pedro were as silent as the night sky. After dark, the only sound on cobbled streets and unpaved dirt roads was the footsteps of the soldiers. Some villagers, hiding in fear for their lives, stayed in different houses every night.

Now, the streets are never empty.  Boys fly homemade kites; kids on their way to and from school invent games with stones and scraps of colored paper and candy wrappings; strings of girls go hand in hand, darting through oncoming traffic of delivery trucks and three-wheeled taxis called tuktuks. Pickup trucks with villagers squeezed side by side clutching the overhead rails as the trucks lurch over potholes the size of craters. Tourists abound in this town of 20 churches and no movie theaters; backpackers, expats, potheads, and Spanish language students—some scantily attired, some in dreadlocks—climb the steep cobblestoned main street. A babble of French, Spanish, English, Italian, German, Dutch, or Hebrew at times drowns out Tz’utujil conversations. Stray dogs, chickens, and roosters peck along the roadsides where canals of water have formed after heavy rains.

The rains end as quickly as they began. In an hour the cobblestones are parched again.

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In a tiny candlelit room, Pedro Mendoza’s extended family surrounds him, praying in an indigenous dialect known only to the people of Lake Atitlán. His mother stands at the foot of his narrow bed, praying for his soul, for his cure, for Berta Navichoc’s hands to heal him.

Berta’s probing hands reach into his pain. The sacred bone touches his wound, which feels as if it’s engulfing him. Without analgesics, all is dark as he tries to feel her gaze beneath the growing blackness.

Her hands are like knives that tear his body apart. The men hold him down, stuff rags into his mouth to stifle his screamsscreams that now course through his insides like the hurricanes that rip through his village in winter.

Berta remains undaunted by his wails, his cries for mercy. Here, there is no expectation of immediate relief from physical pain, just as there is no expectation of relief from life’s hardships. All Pedro can count on is the deep faith that he and Berta share.

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In a small church in the village of Santiago Atitlán, there is a chapel. Buried beneath its earthen floor is a peanut butter jar. It holds the heart of Father Stanley Francis Rother. During the war, he spoke out against the military’s atrocities in his weekly sermons and gave sanctuary to those fleeing the death squads. He was killed by the army while sleeping in the rectory on July 28, 1981. His parishioners, who called him by his Tz’utujil name of Padre A’plas, only agreed to return his body to his family in Oklahoma if they could keep the heart he had given them. In this country of few monuments to the war, yellowing photographs tacked to concrete walls—like those of Father Rother, missing family members, and saints—are the only public tribute paid to the 200,000 who were killed or disappeared during the genocide.

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Throughout the year, Maya worshippers trek up the slopes of the pine-forested mountain outside the town of Chichicastenango to pray at the sacred shrine of Pascual Abaj. During La Violencia, Acción Católica attacked the ancient shrine, made from carved stone, and tossed the central figure into the canyon below. Later, worshippers recovered it.

Small mounds of earth are now scattered around the main altar, where families gather to make offerings of candles, food, alcohol, honey, and cigars, and burn copal incense. Laurel leaves and flower petals, their inner edges charred, lie strewn around the circles of burnt offerings.

The Maya priestajq’iij in Tz’utujil, sacerdote Maya in Spanish—feeds the fire with aromatic offerings. It is through the fire that the ajq’iij communicates with God, the ancestors, and the forces of nature and time, asking them to accept the offerings and grant his requests. The petitioners’ appeals are varied; they pray for good health, luck in love, plentiful crops.

At the end of the day, the embers from the fire glow faintly. The tallow candles have melted onto the ground. The prayers have evaporated into the surrounding mountains. Stray dogs pick at the day’s remnants—prayers entangled with Ritz crackers and sweet offerings.

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