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Residents Wonder if Divine Intervention Guided Mudslide

Some Guatemalans look to Christian or Maya beliefs to explain why they were spared.

October 12, 2005|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala — The two villages sat side by side, one lost, one spared.

In Panabaj, about 500 men, women and children are believed dead and buried under the avalanche of mud and rock that burst last week from the mountains that loom thousands of feet over the town.

Next door, the homes in Tzanchaj were largely untouched.

The survivors of Panabaj cooked tortillas Tuesday on griddles over open fires, tended their children and talked, huddled in rooms and plazas of the sprawling Catholic church that is their temporary shelter.

They talked of practical matters: Where will we live? How long will the help last?

But there was one other question: Why our village?

Their answers reflected the interwoven strands of Maya and Christian culture in this highland region of Guatemala, where a week of tropical storms washed away towns and roads, killing more than 650 people. Hundreds more were still missing.

Francisco Xhicay, 29, a spiritual leader in Tzanchaj, said that the Maya shrine at his home and a strong belief in ancient ways spared his village, and that his neighbors' neglect of those traditions killed them.

The Maya who live around Lake Atitlan clung to their ancient culture long after the arrival of Spaniards in the 16th century, absorbing elements of Catholicism. The Spaniards found little of material value in this region and left the people here largely undisturbed.

The majority are now split between Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, with only a small minority still believing in the Maya's Nahual spirits.

One member of that minority is Pedro Esquina, 45, who said the destruction and deaths did not come without warning. He said he found an abandoned altar to Inox, the Maya god of water, during a hike in the mountains this year.

"The next night I had a dream of water," he said. Esquina sought the counsel of a Maya priest, who warned that the dream demanded that the village participate in three ceremonies or risk catastrophe.

Few people believed Esquina.

Salvation might have come, he said, with the ceremonial lighting of candles in different colors to represent the sun, the night, the wind, the sky and the earth.

"I think people will return to the old ways because of this," he said.

Nicholas Ramirez Sojuel, a Christian, said the storms were God's way of warning the community against drugs, corruption and violence. When God shows his power, he said, "sometimes it's incomprehensible to man."

At the church shelter, Concepcion Ztizna cradled her son and said she and other Panabaj survivors "were singled out to tell other people what happens when you don't repent."

But not everyone saw a divine hand in the disaster.

Mudslides killed 14 members of Gaspar Tzina's family, including his wife, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. He said he heard the roar of the avalanche and managed to escape.

"Nobody can say it was for our sins," said the 32-year-old farmer, dressed in short white pants with thin black stripes and a Western-style shirt that is common here. "There are a lot of cities that suffer despite having good people. It was the weather that did it."

Hurricane Stan struck the eastern Mexican coast, shrank to a tropical storm and managed to stagger south to Guatemala, said Richard Pasch, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But it followed heavy rainfall that had saturated southern Mexico and parts of Central America.

"I'm writing the report on Hurricane Stan and I won't be able to attribute all those deaths to Stan," he said. "Maybe some in Mexico."

Standing outside her small home, Marcella Ixbalan, 55, said hers was one of the largest families in Tzanchaj, a town of 4,000, a little bigger than Panabaj was before the storms. She spoke of her village's salvation with conviction, gesturing like a teacher.

"My faith tells me we were protected by God," she said Tuesday. "But besides God, we have our guardian angels, the Nahuals. My family came here 200 years ago, and for 200 years we have followed the traditional ceremonies. And for those 200 years, every single member of my family has had a dream about nature agreeing to protect us."

Guatemalan President Oscar Berger arrived by helicopter in the church plaza here and made his own promises. He said building materials would arrive soon, enough to house the estimated 4,000 residents left homeless.

"I declare Santiago Atitlan to be the symbol of the reconstruction of our country," he said in a speech at the town square. Millions of dollars in foreign aid will be needed to finish the job, government officials said.

No decision has been made on what to do with the dead who remain under the mudslide covering Panabaj neighborhoods.

No one would live in houses built above the dead, said farmer Tzina's grandfather, Felipe, 76.

"The spirits would come out of the ground and turn into phantoms."

Times special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report.

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