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Time And Tradition: Calendar Keepers Preserve Maya Culture

Courtesy of Juanita Chavez
Tat Pascual looks on as women prepare an altar in Golden Gate Park to commemorate "Nueve B'atz," the Maya Day of the Woman.

Ethnic Maya from Central America are escaping gang-related violence and food insecurity and building new communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Pascual Yaxon lives in a quiet house near the bay in San Pablo, where he takes care of chickens and bees in his spare time. On a sunny afternoon on his day off, a woman shows up at his home with her young son.

“Do you have some time now, or should I come back later?” she asks him.

Yaxon tells her he has an opening in about forty-five minutes. “She attended a ceremony a few days ago and would like to speak with me,” he explains.

Yaxon is better known as Tat Pascual; ‘Tat’ means ‘father’ in several Mayan languages. He’s a caseworker for San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team, and in his off-hours, he uses traditional Maya practices to help community members navigate difficult decisions in their lives. An experienced spiritual leader, Tat Pascual has traveled between Guatemala and the Bay Area since 2001, when Maya in the Bay Area requested that he visit them.

“They invited me here to be a guide and teacher to them,” Tat Pascual says.

Today, he lives in the Bay Area full time. The East Bay is home to thousands of indigenous Maya from different ethnic groups, and Tat Pascual felt that he was needed here.

“A person who loses their culture is like someone disconnected from their mother,” he says. “It's an impoverishment. If we lose our grandparents’ teachings, we will be orphans — completely lost.”

A ‘Counter of Time’

Outsiders sometimes call leaders like Tat Pascual medicine men, but that term is somewhat reductive. Tat Pascual is an "ajq'ij," and in the Mayan language "K’iche," that means something specific. It literally translates to ‘calendar keeper,’ or ‘the counter of time.’

The ancient Maya were accomplished astronomers, and the calendar system they developed is one of the most accurate in human history. According to Tat Pascual, Maya culture also understands time in a fundamentally different way than European cultures do. It’s an element like any other, he says, as integral to human life as water, earth or fire.

“That thing that’s integral to human life, that measures human life, that guides, sustains, informs and balances human life? That is something we experience as time,” Tat Pascual says. “You and I and all people have always lived within that great energy — the force that sustains the days.

“We all need time,” he says. “I’m almost 60 years old. I need to center myself, there are things I need to do — in my mind, and in my life. If we run out of air, we die in a few minutes. If we run out of time? That, of course, is the same.”

The Maya calendar system involves multiple calendars, one of which is sacred. As an "ajq’ij," Tat Pascual’s job is to use Maya philosophy and the sacred calendar to guide people through their lives. The sacred calendar is composed of twenty days, or nawales, and Tat Pascual says being born on a certain day can influence certain aspects of your character or personality. In a consultation, Tat Pascual uses the "nawales" symbols as a tool to help community members grapple with what’s happening around them. He says it can often feel like counseling. 

“If someone tells me, ‘I’m sick,’ or, ‘I need to fix a situation in my life,’ we need to look at the big picture of their lives,” says Tat Pascual. “A lot of the time the answer is inside them.”

Tat Pascual also facilitates traditional fire ceremonies in parks throughout the Bay Area, which can help people center themselves and reconnect to their ancestors or "nawales." There always needs to be an offering at these ceremonies, Tat Pascual says, maybe incense, flowers, or candles.

“Our ancestors understood the value of life and how to pay for it,” he says.

Centuries of Persecution

Tat Pascual learned about traditional spiritual beliefs from his grandparents. He remembers going to ceremonies when he was nine or ten, but at the time, they were held secretly in the mountains.

“[My grandparents] didn’t want people from the church to see us,” he says.

Maya traditional beliefs have survived hundreds of years of persecution — or, as Tat Pascual puts it, three separate Holocausts.

“The first Holocaust was committed by the Spanish as they colonized the Americas,” he says. “They eliminated our leaders, our women, and children, and they also burned our books.”

It took Spanish colonial forces a little under two centuries to fully defeat the Maya. The destruction of Maya literature was official policy under several Spanish bishops in the Americas, who viewed Maya cosmology as a threat to Catholicism.

According to Tat Pascual, the “second Holocaust” occurred in the 1800s during Latin America’s wars for independence, in which thousands of indigenous people lost their lives. The third Holocaust occurred during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which began in the 1960s and devolved into a genocide against native peoples. An estimated 250,000 Guatemalan people died or disappeared.

“The military killed entire communities’ spiritual leaders,” Tat Pascual says, “and they killed spiritual leaders like the "ajq’ij," or calendar keepers, first. They were the ones who kept the spiritual teachings.”

Many Maya don’t practice traditionally anymore, and thousands of Maya have been forced to leave their home countries.

“They’ve emigrated elsewhere because the government in Guatemala and other countries are not providing them with basic necessities, like health care, education, or basic safety,” Tat Pascual says. “Villages have been abandoned by the government.”

As their community settles in new countries, Tat Pascual and other "ajq’ij" have followed them. He knows "ajq’ij" in Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, and throughout the United States. Like him, they’re helping their preserve their culture, one ceremony at a time.

Teresa Cotsirilos was a reporter at KALW covering labor rights and public health in the Bay Area’s immigrant communities.