Prophets & Profits: My Man San Sim

Zunil, Guatemala

October 17, 2001

Wherever Bernadette and I have traveled, the search and discovery of religious folk art delights me. Effigies, especially the puppet style, sculptural depictions of people and gods, serve up my favorite glimpses into the unconscious of everyday life in any culture. My preference is for idiosyncratic, less emotionally constricted, and less self-conscious folk art, as opposed to the politically correct, official portrayals of deities that are jammed cheek by jowl in so many religious sanctuaries. Religious folk art is sometimes funny, sometimes moving, and often a lapel-grabbing mirror.

| | This San Simon sits at the outdoor palapa bar at Tortugal Marina, which is Ithaka’s summer home.* * *|

In Guatemala there’s a special affection for the many effigies of San Simon, who is a saint to the citizenry, if not to the poobahs of established religion. Known in Spanish as San Simon, in Mayan as Ry Laj Man, and to the Ladinos as Maximon, in rural Guatemala, out in the hood, he’s the Man, an ecumenical fusion of figures borrowed from several religions, and attractive to a cross section of the people. Scratch a rural Guatemalan Catholic or Protestant, and chances are you’ll find inside a weave of indigenous faith and institutional beliefs. We’ve seen San Simon in various forms and sizes in hotels, homes, vegetable stalls, sailboat marinas, and craft shops. Sometimes he has a permanent address. In other villages he moves from one house to another, once a year, so more families can enjoy his presence—and rake in a little dough by charging a few quetzales for entrance. The more entrepreneurial hosts also hawk candles of all colors, chicken eggs, small bottles of cheap rum, loose cigarettes, and the right to take photos (5 quetzales a flash, thank you very much). Religion, which in Central and South America is probably the single greatest force today for much-needed, radical reforms, has always preserved cozy balances among capitalism, ritual, and faith, and San Simon offers ethereal and practical blessings.


We visited much-touted San Simon effigies in Nahuala and San Jorge de Laguna—just ask anyone in town where to find the dude, and they’ll point you to the house—but we much preferred both the effigy and its overall scene in Zunil, where this year his host’s house is about two-thirds the way up the hill from the main road. To get to Zunil, a 16th century agricultural village nestled by a monstrously polluted river in a fertile mountain valley at about 6,500 feet, you hop on a chicken bus in Quetzaltenango, which is fewer than 10 kilometers away. This was one of the many rides for which we paid a Gringo tax. The conductor charged the locals one-and-a-half quetzales, but the six tall pale-faces paid four, and no amount of poorly articulated, ersatz-Spanish bellyaching could achieve a rebate.

| | We’re not sure yet of the symbolism of eggs on the head, but in Zunil it was a popular part of the ritual.* * *|

On the way out of Quetzaltenango, we passed a number of villages whose sour-egg smell reminded us that the hills are bubbling with soothing, hot, sulfur springs. If you like, plenty of folks will rent you time in their thermal-fed cement tubs for less than half a dollar an hour, and just the other side of Zunil is the dramatic Fuentes Georginias, one of the nicest natural hot-water spas in the country, and a favorite of Guatemalans.


At Zunil, outside the modest stone and stucco house where San Simon’s altar is set up in the front room, the Simon-keepers had strung ropes with blue plastic streamers from a tree across the alley to the door frame, making the ticket-selling kiosk simple to spot, even without a neon glow. The shoe-shine boys, the cigarette and booze salesmen (any quantity of Venado rum is a frightening experience), the women selling eggs, and the candle maker were pretty much a giveaway. Even for the ritually obtuse such as me, a shrine stands out. After we purchased an entrance ticket for two quetzales, we ambled into a dark windowless room about 20 feet square. San Simon was enthroned at the far end, behind a low barricade of wooden crosses and candles. One stooped workman constantly scraped melted wax off the floor. Another fellow stood guard by San Simon and “assisted” the worshippers. A third man offered the final chance to buy the right color candle for our personal requirements: red for love, black for enemies (give me a god with vengeance any old time), blue for work, pink for health, green for success. In this labor-intensive industry, a fourth member of the team monitored the crowd, tallying the number of flashes emitted by everyone who wielded a camera, and collecting roughly 75 cents a pop.

| | The San Simon at Zunil commanded a queue of worshippers that stretched out the door of the dark little home, and into the street.* * *|

The ironies of this scene appear well integrated in the minds of the locals, many of whom found the carnival aspects as wild as I did, but who, upon entering this smoky little room, seemed to become infused with something spiritually powerful; and all of us ceased giggling as we entered the space.


The Zunil version of San Simon was a wooden fellow, no larger than a good-sized four-year-old. He’d been perched in a reclining chair, something akin to a primitive barca-lounger. He wore traditional, woven garb, a number of scarves, an off-kilter cowboy hat, and black boots; he sported a handsomely-carved dark beard. Jutting from his lips were a series of frequently replaced cigarettes. We watched men feel his beard, kiss his face, rub his arms, put cigarettes in his mouth and pocket, and pour alcohol over his head. We watched women rub eggs against his cheeks, stroke his legs, and whisper to him. Two ladies took his hands and began moaning, letting out small sobs as an attendant swatted them repeatedly on the shoulders with a fagot of small sticks and feathers. These women rocked on their heels, chanting quietly in between tears: mortification of the flesh crossed with the wailing wall.

| | Crosses and candles are spread out at the feet of San Simon, each left by worshippers asking for favors, or just checking in to pay their respects.* * *|

There is a fourth effigy I still want to see, but for that we’ve got to wait till fall. Just outside Antigua, in San Andres Itzapa, Ry Laj Man has permanent digs. No shuffling back and forth among families schlepping his pack, this time he’s got a bed of his own and a personal bureau. Ry Laj Man is brought out in public just once a year, on October 28, when he’s paraded about in a major festival, during which people hope to absorb some of his magic and vision. The 28th being my birthday, I’m already having pre-holiday delusions of reference and grandeur, fancying myself a major part of this year’s festival and wondering just what sort of sedan chair will be found to tote me about.


| | Douglas in the highlands, capturing the view* * *|

I thought of my friend Harriet Miller, the spry 82-year-old mayor of Santa Barbara, California, whose birthday is July 4th. She reports to me that “every year the city throws me one hell of a birthday party, and a not bad parade to boot.” Sounds pretty good to me, so I asked Bernadette what duds I’d need for my parade and if there’s a gift registry for deities where I could list which brands of smoke and drink I’d prefer. I really don’t want a lot of egg offerings because my cholesterol is already too high.

My Commodore seemed only marginally amused, until I pointed out our potential economic gain if the world were to acknowledge her deification and contribute appropriately. Bernadette’s the business brains in our family, and her being god seemed to interest her more than my being so.

An excursion to the States to see our families would provide an ideal time to kick off the commerce with a Saint Bernadette effigy program in Rhode Island, a small religious state with advantageous demographics. We’ll construct an appropriately suave and sexy likeness of the Commodore, clothe her effigy in righteous boating duds, sell candles and eggs, and get a liquor license to peddle the hooch. If the Saint Bernadette shrine catches on, I think she could franchise it like Starbucks, proving one can be a profit in her own backyard.

| | In Zunil, handmade figures representing loved ones are left to keep San Simon company. * * *|


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