Children of the earth, worshippers of nature

Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan human rights activist and peasant leader, was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Menchu was witness to the massacre of her entire family at the hands of the Guatemalan army. In this excerpt from her testimony, Menchu describes the close communion that Latin American Indians have with nature.

By Rigoberta Menchu
Published: Monday 30 November 1992

-- FROM VERY small children we receive an education which is very different from white children, ladinos. We Indians have more contact with nature. That's why they call us polytheistic. But we're not polytheistic... or if we are, it's good, because it's our culture, our customs. We worship -- or rather not worship but respect -- a lot of things to do with the natural world, the most important things for us. For instance, to us, water is sacred. Our parents tell us when we're very small not to waste water, even when we have it. Water is pure, clean, and gives life to man. Without water we cannot survive, nor could our ancestors have survived. The idea that water is sacred is in us children, and we never stop thinking of it as something pure. The same goes for the earth. Our parents tell us: "Children, the earth is the mother of man, because she gives him food". This is especially true for us whose life is based on the crops we grow. Our people eat maize, beans and plants. We can't eat ham, or cheese, or things made with equipment, with machines. So we think of the earth as the mother of man, and our parents teach us to respect the earth. We must only harm the earth when we are in need. This is why, before we sow our maize, we have to ask the earth's permission.

Pom, copal (incense) is a sacred ingredient for our people. We use it to express our feelings for the earth, so that she will allow us to cultivate her. Copal is the resin of a tree. It has a smell like incense. We burn it and it gives off a very strong smell: a smoke with a very rich, delicious aroma. We use the candle, water and lime a great deal in our ceremonies. We use candles to represent the earth, water and maize, which is the food of man. We believe (and this has been passed down to us by our ancestors) that our people are made of maize. We're made of white maize and yellow maize. We must remember this. We put a candle out for man, as the son of the natural world, the universe, and the members of the family join together in prayer. The prayers usually ask the earth for permission to plant our crops at sowing time, to give us a good harvest, and then to give thanks with all our might, with all our being, for a good harvest.

The prayers and ceremonies are for the whole community. We pray to our ancestor, reciting their prayers which have been known to us for a long time -- a very, very long time. We evoke the representatives of the animal world; we say the name of the heart of the sky -- the Sun. Our grandfathers say we must ask the sun to shine on all its children: the trees, animals, water, man. We ask it to shine on our enemies. To us an enemy is someone who steals or goes into prostitution. So, you see, it's a different world. This is how we make our pleas and our promises. It doesn't refer so much to the real world, but it includes part of our reality. A prayer is made up of all this. We make a definite plea to the earth. We say: "Mother Earth, you who gives us food, whose children we are and on whom we depend, please make this produce you give us flourish and make our children and our animals grow...", and other things as well. Or we say: "We make our vows for ten days so that you concede us permission, your permission, Mother Earth, who are sacred, to feed us and give our children what they need. We do not abuse you, we only beg your permission, you who are part of the natural world and part of the family of our parents and our grandparents". This means we believe, for instance, that the sun is our grandfather, that he is a member of our family. "We respect you and love you and ask that you love us as we love you" -- those prayers are specially for the earth. For the sun, we say: "Heart of the sky, you are our father, we ask you to give your warmth and light to our animals, our maize, our beans, our plants, so that they may grow and our children may eat". We evoke the colour of the sun, and this has a special importance for us because this is how we want our children to live -- like a light which shines, which shines with generosity. It means a warm heart and it means strength, life-giving strength. It's something you never lose and you find it everywhere. So when we evoke the colour of the sun, it's like evoking all the elements which go to make up our life. The sun, as the channel to the one God, receives the plea from his children that they should never violate the rights of all the other beings which surround them. This is how we renew our prayer which says that men, the children of the one God, must respect the life of the trees, the birds, the animals around us. We say the names of birds and animals -- cows, horses, dogs, cats. All these. We mention them all. We must respect the life of every single one of them. We mention them all. We must respect the life, the purity, the sacredness, which is water. We must not do evil while the sun shines upon his children. This is a promise. Then we promise to respect the life of the one creature, which is man. This is very important. We say: "We cannot kill any our creatures, neither trees nor animals." Then we offer up a sheep or chickens, because we believe sheep to be sacred animals, quiet animals, saintly animals, animals which don't harm other animals. They are the most tranquil animals that exist, like birds. So the community chooses certain small animals for the feast after the ceremonies.

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