Although some people claim to find the jungle a calm and relaxing place, other people do not—not even when they live there. Belizeans of all cultures and colors live in the bush, either one-one (by themselves) or in small, often isolated towns. Like forest-dwellers everywhere, they have plenty of reasons to fear the rainforest. I talked about your run-of-the-mill poisonous and otherwise disagreeable plants and animals last week, along with a woman the Kekchi Maya call ix tabi. Since nobody has ever photographed one (what a surprise), I had to resort to a staged photo from the internet. This time I’m resorting to a drawing. (More about that in a minute.) The ix tabi share the rainforest with other creatures, who have likewise never been photographed.
Just as various white cultures have their cute but mischievous goblins, leprechauns, and fairies, the Kekchi Maya have the chol gwink (Kekchi). The Garifuna and Kriol call their “little people” duende, or tata duende. But the Kekchi also worry about bigger, hairier, scarier creatures, the sisimito (Kekchi) or Big Foot (English). This drawing of a tata duende both illustrates and ignores certain key physical traits of both creatures.
What interests me here is the cultural cross-over. Chol in Kekchi refers to a related Maya culture. One variant of their language is spoken in Mexico, the other in Guatemala. Gwink means “people” in Kekchi—who originated in Guatemala. Sac li gwink is Kekchi for “white people.”
But tata duende is Spanish—so why do the Kriols and Garifuna call these gnome-like creatures by a Spanish name? Probably because we absorb elements of other people’s religion and folklore all the time. How many of us meditate? Go to an acupuncturist for relief from pain? Practice yoga? These are hardly bedrock American traditions. If our own culture is lacking, we borrow what appeals to us from other people’s cultures.
According to Wikipedia, the “African/Carib-descended Creole and Garifuna populations” consider the duende folklore, “a forest spirit.” This description comes from a scholarly article by Katherine M. Emmons, “Perceptions of the Environment while Exploring the Outdoors: a case study in Belize,” published in Environmental Education Research, October, 1997. She didn’t have photographs either. According to the Kekchi, these “spirits,” who often wear funny hats, will pop up in front of travelers and ask to barter—cacao for salt, or vice versa. Either way, they’re considered pranksters, not killers or rapists. The sisimito, on the other hand, is both.
One Kekchi man my anthropologist husband talked to said he’d seen a sisimito in a zoo in Guatemala City. Even though the word sounds Spanish, the Spanish word for “gorilla” is gorila. According to an adventurer named Mark Sanborne, who has no scholarly credentials whatsoever, the sisimito is “a rare animal, not a supernatural being.” Sanborne is positive the sisimito is some sort of undiscovered New World primate, but (sorry)—he wasn’t able to photograph one either. In fact he didn’t even see one the entire time he spent in Belize. The Kekchi believe they’re as big as humans, covered with long hair, and the only way to kill one is to set it on fire. Their tracks can be identified in the bush because their feet point backwards. They live in caves (the Kekchi are afraid of caves and rarely go near them, let alone into them). The Kekchi fear the sisimito because if he (they always seem to be male) notices a lone woman walking by herself, he will carry her off to his cave and use her for sex. If he sees a lone man, he will kill him.
According to a writer living in Ambergris Caye—her professional name is Tia Chocolate and who is part Maya, Kriol, Garifuna, and Spanish—she grew up listening to stories like these from a Maya grandmother. “Every tale had a moral to the story, and each story was a warning against bad behavior,” she writes. “For weeks afterwards, it would be a scary ordeal to head to the outhouse. Cousins would accompany each other, when a parent wasn’t willing. By light of the moon, or flashlight, we’d make a dash for the far-away building, praying that no short little man in a pointy hat and backward boots would try and steal us away.”
The moral of all these stories is the same: “Stay out of the forest, Little Red Whatever-Your-Name-Is.”