Here’s a story that didn’t make it into my book. It happened fairly early during my stay in Rio Blanco, and I didn’t include it because I had already documented my many cultural blunders and didn’t see the point of including another example. Besides—the incident wasn’t really that funny. Except to the Maya.
Our closest neighbors—and I mean that literally; their house was so close to ours that we could often hear laughter—were two brothers, plus their wives, plus a couple of young children. In spite of the fact that I could have eavesdropped on what they were saying (except I didn’t understand Kekchi), one of the woman gave birth during the night and my husband and I didn’t hear a thing. Because Maya women worked so hard physically, and because they weren’t forced to lie on their backs in a bed the way pregnant American women do in hospitals, childbirth is usually uneventful. Lucia, another one of our neighbors, was the one who told us about the new baby.
My husband the anthropologist insisted that we pay our neighbors a visit and congratulate the new parents. At last—a custom I could relate to. When I was little and one of my mother’s high school friends had a baby, she always paid her respects—I think she usually took a small gift with her—and dragged me along. I was not a friendly child (I was too shy) and I didn’t like babies (I preferred puppies). But at least I knew how to behave.
So I did the obligatory oohing and ahhing while my husband congratulated the new father in Kekchi. I knew from the laughter that my husband had begun bantering with the men—the Kekchi love to tease, which our English friend Don Owen-Lewis called “humbugging.” Somehow the conversation drifted around to the fact that my husband and I were planning to go to San Antonio the following day. (San Antonio was, and still is, the largest Mopan Maya settlement in Toledo District.) In those days, San Antonio was also the nearest market town—meaning it had shops where you could buy kerosene, a box of corn flakes imported from Denmark, canned bacon, rum, flour, sugar, you name it. It was also where the Catholic priest lived, and where he kept a calendar listing the days of the month when various saints had lived and/or died. And somehow our neighbors managed to play the “we’re just poor Indians living out here in the bush” card, and my husband agreed to take a look at the calendar while we were in San Antonio and write down various possible names for the baby.
Since very few adults could read, some children ended up with highly improbable names—probably because a Kekchi parent had pointed at a word and somebody who did not speak Kekchi wrote it down. This explains why one woman I know is named Santa—in English, her name is “Saint.” My husband and I dutifully wrote down several saints’ names, those on the actual date of the baby’s birth, and several more names of saints who had been born/died during that week.
When we got home, we were instantly surrounded by every child in the village, and almost as many adults—all of them vitally interested in seeing what Teacher and her “hoosban” had bought. Eventually my husband dug out his list of names and off we went to visit our neighbors, trailed by everybody still in our house. Once pleasantries had been exchanged, my husband started to read from his list. The mother and father listened carefully, and after three or four names, they glanced at one another—in amusement, I thought. What was funny? My husband was doing what they had asked him to. But then people in the assembled crowd began to snicker. At that the wife said something to her husband, and everybody in the room laughed out loud. The laughter was boisterous and lasted a long time.
My husband finally worked it out. Neither of us had thought to check on the baby’s sex. He had written down a list of male saints’ names. The new baby was a girl.