Oct 24, 2012
When we arrive at the Chapel of San Simón in the town of San Andrés Itzapa, it’s as if we’ve arrived at Guatemala’s own Graceland. The difference is that few tourists come here, only believers. Our guide, César, doesn’t speak English, so I have to translate Spanish for Dale. That’s hard enough when I’m not overwhelmed by holy men burning sacrifices and beating me with flowers on my way to a mannequin king. I’ll explain:
It’s as if we’ve arrived at Guatemala’s own Graceland. The difference is that few tourists come here, only believers.
When we park, a small girl waits outside my door to sell me wildflowers. I buy a small bunch, assuming I’ll lay them at San Simón’s altar. We walk down an alley lined with small shops and street vendors, selling tortillas, candles, plastic saints, and other votives. César buys two red tapers and hands them to me.
We approach the gate of a walled enclosure, where several women sell fruits and flowers. One cuts a piece of fruit for us to sample: green outside, spongy inside, and tastes like pineapple. I don’t recognize the name.
We approach the gate of a walled enclosure, where several women sell fruits and flowers.
We pass into a courtyard with a chapel tucked in one corner. Along one wall, several shamans with colorful head wrappings and staffs each tend a small fire. The fires consume candles, eggs, cane sugar, tiny liquor bottles, garlic, and other offerings symbolizing the petitions of believers. If I understand correctly, eggs symbolize fertility, red candles love, booze a beloved alcoholic. The lips of each shaman move in earnest but unintelligible prayer.
The lips of each shaman move in earnest but unintelligible prayer.
César once brought two young Italian women who wanted to quit smoking. They burned their cigarettes. They returned several months later to thank San Simón for helping them kick the habit. Even so, César admits he’s not a believer.
A couple of men approach and ask me an unfamiliar question.
“¿Quieres una limpia?” César clarifies. “Do you want a cleansing?”
“Do I want a cleansing?” I ask César, hoping he’ll tell me whether these guys are bona fide holy men or snake-oil charlatans.
But César misunderstands me. He walks away and returns with an ordinary-looking guy in his thirties. He’s wearing a jean jacket. For some reason, his lack of head-wrap or staff makes me trust this shaman. He charges 50 quetzales, about six bucks, for a limpia. César declares the price fair, so I agree. I’m surprised when, instead of helping me prepare a sacrifice or asking for my prayer request, the man leads us out of the courtyard and back to the candle shop. There, César instructs me to buy a small bottle of agua de florida, or flower water, and a red candle in glass. Funny, he keeps choosing red without asking me. The color of love. Does he assume that’s the primary interest of every woman, or am I giving off some sort of signal?
The shaman whacks me with the bouquet, over and over: my back, head, shoulders, chest, legs, all over.
The shaman beckons me to the rear of the shop, to a table-altar cluttered with flowers and candles, fronted by plastic stools. He instructs me to sit. Then he takes my flowers, douses them in flower water, and waves them over me, showering my head, stinging my eyes, raining down my cheeks, soaking my blouse. He asks me to stand, and then – I’m not sure how to say this – he whacks me with the bouquet. He flower-slaps me over and over: my back, head, shoulders, chest, legs, all over. He even gives me a couple of good smacks in the face. I shake with silent laughter. This cleansing is more literal than I expected.
After thanking the shaman, we walk straight to the chapel of San Simón.
After thanking the shaman – why not? – we walk straight to the chapel. A constant, silent line of pilgrims waits to receive a limpia at the altar. The altar reminds me of a carnival booth with a robotic fortuneteller, only inside this booth sits a white male mannequin with a handlebar mustache, cheap suit, tie, and cowboy hat. Neon lights announce in red and blue: “San Simón” and “Welcome brothers.”
The altar reminds me of a carnival booth with a robotic fortuneteller, only inside this booth sits a white male mannequin with a handlebar mustache.
San Simón lived during colonial times. He was a Spanish doctor who healed the common people, offered wise counsel in all their affairs, and fostered harmony among indigenous peoples, Spaniards, and mestizos. César says that’s why the mannequin looks humble to the point of comical – he’s a man of the people. His pale face and moustache represent the Spanish, his suit the middle class, his cowboy hat the peasantry. The Catholic Church does not acknowledge his sainthood.
The walls are filled with plaques thanking the saint for the blessings he’s bestowed since death.
I ask whether San Simón was known for performing miracles during his lifetime. César doesn’t know, but the walls are filled with plaques thanking the saint for the blessings he’s bestowed since death. Most of the words of gratitude are vague, expressing thanks for “what you’ve given” or “what we’ve received.” However, one plaque thanks him specifically for new cars, a farm, and success.
No one can say I didn’t sacrifice anything.
I stand in the middle of the room, among tables full of flickering candlelight, and present my offerings. I bow my head, lift my three candles, and pray. For what? Sorry, that’s between God and me. I light the candles and place them atop a table. I burn myself with hot wax as I melt the bottom of a taper to affix it to the surface – no one can say I didn’t sacrifice anything.
A female shaman stands at the altar, giving a limpia to every person waiting.
A female shaman stands at the altar, giving a limpia to every pilgrim waiting. They each receive the same flower whipping I did, except that the men remove their shirts and end up with leaves clinging to wet torsos. One woman repeatedly blinks and wipes red eyes. I’m relieved this is a normal reaction to the flower water.
Offerings of meat, bread, and booze sit before San Simón.
As I take a final look at San Simón, I see that his face is covered in protective plastic, like the prized couch of a budget-conscious grandma. Offerings of meat, bread, and booze sit before him, calling to mind Buddha, Vishnu, Chinese ancestors, the Maya maize god, even Jesus. Wherever people worship, there is always food and drink, even if only wafers and juice. Wherever believers gather, there are always flowers – though they may never again slap me silly.