Mother and Child

Several years ago my friend Ursula asked, “If you really want your photography to document the culture, lives, and beauty of the Maya, then why don`t you take photos of mothers breast-feeding their babies?  It`s everywhere,” she said.  Of course, she was right: in the back of every pick-up truck, every bus, in every field, with women washing clothing, weaving, gathering or carrying firewood, or buying or selling in the market; everywhere: breast-feeding. I responded that I thought breast-feeding was a private affair between mother and child, however, which I had no right to invade. But, of course, I was wrong.

Change of Perspective

My attitude soon changed.

August 15th is the principal day of the feria of Sololá, and therefore the most colorful event of my photographic year. To the Catholic world it is the feast day of the Virgin of Asunción. Once in Sololá at a pause in the procession on that day, a member of the religious brotherhood (cofradia) of San Antonio asked me to take her photo. She was seated on the ground in front of the Saint next to her antique earthenware incense burner. She was nursing her baby girl while her 8 or 9 year-old son smiled on. Her expression was rapture. Later, when I gave her her photos, she cried.

Breast-feeding and motherhood have therefore been photographic themes of mine ever since. The tenderness between the Maya mother and child is compelling. The Maya mother loves these photos dearly too. Therefore, she approaches my camera without reservation or reproach; to the contrary, with pride. There is no stigma to breast-feeding in highland Guatemala. It is part of the culture.

Maya Children

What one notices first about Maya children is that they rarely cry. Thus when an infant does so, the reason is obvious, and his cries are quickly quelled. Beyond infancy, however, children rarely cry. Maya babies go with their mothers everywhere, wrapped on their mothers’ backs in long rectangular perrajes (rebozos) or square tzutes of woven cloth. Mother and child go to the fields together to plant onions. Babies go with their mothers to gather firewood in the mountains, to fetch water in the lake shore, and to wash clothing in the public pila (wash  basin).

From their mothers` backs, babies thus meet the market with all of its sights and smells and vibrancy. From the vantage point and security of perraje or tzute, babies also see the world and participate in adult conversation. I have seen a child of one mimicking her mother picking coffee, two year-old’s washing onions, and infant girls washing clothing in a stream or the lakeshore. Children participate at an early age in the sustenance and economy of their families and are generally loving and well-adjusted

I therefore laud the Maya method of motherhood.