The chicken bus is a religious bus.
There are pictures of Jesus, Mary and God. There are messages asking for forgiveness and safety.
At the start of a journey it’s not unusual to see people making the sign of the cross.
Evangelical preachers occasionally lecture the word of God as they stride up and down the central aisle of a chicken bus, occasionally grabbing onto a railing as the bus accelerates into a hairpin turn. Sometimes they even ask for money after having delivered their words of wisdom. This strikes me as rather odd.
After all, it’s not like once Jesus turned bread into fish for five thousand people that he suddenly became one-pound fish man.
The predominant religion in Guatemala is Catholicism, although it is one of the least Catholic countries in Latin America, with about 60% of the population following the religion.
This is due to the rapid growth of the Evangelical church which started during the Civil War. American missionaries came to the country when the Catholic Church was in retreat and managed to win followers by rebuilding communities that had been destroyed in the armed conflict.
Catholicism in Guatemala is especially interesting however as it is fused with elements of Mayan religion from before the colonization. In churches there are plenty of models of saints along the sides of the knave and Jesus doesn’t always seem to be the focal point.
Occasionally in some traditional highland villages there are Mayan ceremonies going on just to one side of the church.
In the countryside it is possible to visit nahuales (Mayan sacred sites) where ceremonies are performed. In fact the Spanish built their churches on cathedrals on top of nahuales so as to force indigenous people to go to them. Cheeky.
Ok, enough of normal religion.
One time, in a town called San Andrés Xecul, in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, I was asked if I wanted to see Maximón. ‘Who’s Maximón?’ was my first thought.
No one told me so I figured it would be best to see who he was for myself.
I got led down a narrow alley, through someone’s house, like their living room or something, then into a small courtyard. Then there was one last door.
Aquí es Maximón
Here is Maximón
Now, normally it’s strange to be led through someone’s house and then directed to a closed door to see someone you’ve never met before. And, well, yes it is, and it was, strange.
It was dark inside. There was a guy kneeling on the floor in front of some candles sort of talking to himself. In front of him was a very very strange model.
Sat in a chair, was a wooden model of a man with a moustache. He was wearing a cowboy hat, sunglasses, and had some light bulbs draped around his neck. His limbs were tied together with ropes.
His hands were made of black dentist-type gloves which had been inflated. He wore some sort of blue shawl and traditional Mayan textiles.
The room was full of religious imagery, flowers and offerings of beer, spirits, coins and cigarettes. There was even a fully made bed in one corner of the room which I was told was his bed, so he had somewhere to sleep at night. Obviously.
The whole experience was mostly just weird as nobody ever told me exactly what was going on. All I gathered was that he represented a mix of Catholicism and traditional Mayan religion.
And that was all I heard of Maximón for a few months until several weeks ago when I entered a restaurant in Guatemala City, La Cocina de la Señora Pu, and I noticed this in the corner of the room…
I got speaking to the owner, Jorge, who also happened to be a professor of anthropology in one of the City universities.
He knew a lot about Maximón.
He goes by several other names; San Simon, Monchito and Ri Laj Mam.
What I gathered was that he means different things to different people although there is a general consensus that he is a mix of traditional Mayan belief with Spanish Catholicism. Jorge explained that the Mayans opened up their religion and allowed in elements of Catholicism so that their faith could continue to survive.
Nonetheless, due to the Spaniards efforts to wipe out traditional beliefs and implement Catholicism, San Simon had to be kept in a secret location. To this day he is kept in a spare room of someone’s house, with the location changing each year.
One legend has it that Maximón is a representation of the last ruler of the Maya Kaqchikel people, who was tied, tortured and murdered by the Conquistadors. In Maya Kaqchikel, ma means a man, like Señor, and ximón means tied up. This would explain why he looks the way he looks – Mr tied-up.
Jorge told me a more interesting variant of this story. Once upon a time in a village in Guatemala, whilst all the men were out working the fields, a Maya god would drink all the men’s beer and sleep with all their wives and generally have a great time at their expense.
So the guys got pretty hacked off and cut all his limbs off. Then they tied them back together and started to praise him as a new Central American Frankenstein. (Something may have got lost in translation along the way. My Spanish is rudimentary, and I haven’t done any vocab on the occult yet. That’s the gist of the story though).
Anyway, the story is different depending on where you are in the country. He looks different and means different things depending on which village he is from.
Since my meeting with Jorge, I’ve heard countless different stories about him. Some effigies of San Simon have a hole in his mouth where you can pour your offerings down his throat be it beer, wine or something a little stronger. One rumor persists that in the town of Zunil, a tube runs from his mouth and through the length of his body into a basement where the guardian of the house then spends his days sipping goblin juice out of San Simon’s…
What I think is most important about San Simon is that he represents something very controversial. Many people fear him.
Amongst all the well-intentioned people who worship him, he also draws the attention of drug dealers, mareros, and other criminals. Therefore he is a shady figure, occasionally a tabboo topic. This is confirmed by the Vatican’s refusal to acknowledge him.
To conclude, I think in the way he is flexible to accommodate both Mayan Cosmovision and Spanish Catholicism, he can mean all things to all people. I’ve heard so many different accounts of what he signifies that I can’t come to any solid conclusion, so this is actually just like any essay I ever wrote at university – Confused and badly structured, with an unsatisfactory conclusion.