A Lens on the Healers of Guatemala

A Mayan man named Pedro grimaced while family members held him down during treatment for a broken bone. The rag in his mouth substituted for anesthetics, preventing his screams from carrying across a village in the mountains of rural Guatemala.

His mother prayed as a traditional healer touched the wound with a sacred relic wrapped within a red cloth — held just outside the frame of a black-and-white image. They remained under the watchful lens of Brooklyn-based photographer Fran Antmann until his agony subsided.

The image is one of dozens in “Maya Healers: A Thousand Dreams,” the photography book she hopes to publish shortly about the resurgence of traditional culture along the western shore of Lake Atitlán. Antmann’s focus widens through the 200 pages from traditional medicine to daily life in a culture where genocide, environmental degradation, overpopulation, illness and broken bones all reflect the shared experience of pain and healing alike.

These processes suggest applications beyond mending bones and treating minor illnesses, she said in an interview at her home in Park Slope.

“It’s important in this world to understand that there are people who have a different relationship to our bodies, to the process of healing,” she said. “There are different approaches to it that are valid and potentially very powerful.”

Antmann’s interest in Guatemala and its Mayan heritage is personal. In 1998, she adopted a Mayan child from an area northeast of Lake Atitlán. Seven years later, she and her daughter Yasmin returned to the country, the first of many journeys that would bind them to a people and their culture.

The Mayans suffered genocide perpetrated by the Guatemalan army during the civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. They also had to overcome oppression by Catholic and evangelical groups intent on assimilating them.

The indigenous group survived these assaults, and their healers helped sustain them. Traditional medical treatments, Jean Molesky-Poz, author of “Contemporary Mayan Spirituality: The Ancient Ways Are Not Lost” said in an email, “maintain the health of an individual, of a community.”

Antmann and her adopted daughter were first introduced to the community in rural Guatemala that the Baruch professor would eventually profile in her photographs in 2005. Antmann met up with her college roommate Janie Paul whose father Benjamin Paul — a professor of anthropology at Stanford University — had recently passed away. She invited Fran and Yasmin for a short visit to San Pedro La Laguna, the highland village where Benjamin Paul documented Mayan culture for six decades.

The villagers honored them at a soccer match that featured a moment of silence in his honor. And Fran Antmann soon met the healers known as curanderos and the renowned bone-setting hueseros, a subject of Benjamin Paul’s research.

“I was captivated by the scene, by San Pedro, and by Lake Atitlán, and over the next seven years, I returned to the village six times. Working in the spirit of Benjamin Paul, I met and photographed many of the curanderos who worked in San Pedro and its neighboring Maya villages.”

By her side was Yasmin, who developed her own relationship with the community. As her mother photographed, Yasmin played with the local children and learned from Lidia Gonzalez, a longtime family friend of Benjamin Paul.

The intellect and vivaciousness of Gonzalez, an illiterate expert on native herbs and traditions, was impressive, said Antmann.

“If she had been from the United States and had been educated she could have run a corporation,” Antmann said. “She was my conduit who took me all over town, introduced me to people, introduced me to the healers — just made it known that I was to be trusted.”

Fran Antmann with her daughter Yasmin (Photo by Zachary Williams for Voices of NY)

Fran Antmann with her daughter Yasmin (Photo by Zach Williams for Voices of NY)

That first visit to San Pedro inspired a children’s e-book she wrote with her daughter called “I Remember the Smell of Guatemala.” The title refers to a comment Yasmin made at the airport as she returned to the country of her birth. She describes the first of many summers wearing traditional dress and learning Mayan crafts and customs.

Yasmin is now 17 years old and eager to begin college. She paints and photographs like her mother and is no longer just another child playing in the village. As her mother finished her book this past summer, Yasmin volunteered at a nonprofit refuge that cares for women escaping sexual abuse.

She cared for the infants as the women recovered by helping each other. Togetherness played a critical role in the healing process for the women, many of whom were also teenagers.

“It was good to see they were getting on the right path. Their children had no idea of the problems their mothers had gone through,” she said. “All the girls lived together. It was kind of like sleep-away camp … they were like family.”

Antmann has lined up a publisher for “Maya Healers,” but still needs some financial backing. An online effort to raise $15,000 in publication costs is in the works.

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