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  Field Notes From
Maya Underworld

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Maya Underworld On AssignmentArrows

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From Photographer

Stephen L. Alvarez

Maya Underworld On Assignment

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From Author

David Roberts

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs courtesy Stephen L. Alvarez (top) and David Roberts


Maya Underworld On Assignment Photographer Maya Underworld On Assignment Photographer
Maya Underworld

Field Notes From Photographer
Stephen L. Alvarez

Best Worst Quirkiest
    After spending days talking to a community near Joloniel, Mexico, and earning its trust, I got permission to photograph their spiritual leader performing a cave ritual. Allowing me to witness their most intimate moment was a tremendous gift and responsibility. For two hours I took pictures of him praying for rain in front of three crosses and candles. And at one point my assistant leaned over and said, "No one has ever seen this before." Photographing this event had to be one of the highlights of my life. It was also a great way to start my assignment, setting the tone for uncovering other modern Maya cave rituals.

    I had just finished photographing crowds of pilgrims in the Chiapas town of Tila, and I wanted to get back to my hotel. But the town's narrow streets were jam-packed with people and vendors who had set up their stalls. The people in front of me wouldn't move, and the people behind me kept pushing on my back. I tripped and thought I was going to get crushed to death, but luckily I grabbed onto a pole and pulled myself up. Big crowds really have a mind of their own.

    There are a couple of saints in Santiago Atitlán that govern the religious life of the Guatemalan town. One of them is Maximon, who gives good luck, so when I first arrived in Santiago I visited his statue with an offering of money. Later I went to see San Miguel, who blesses you with bounty, and I gave him a little more money. Five minutes after that, my brand-new camera stopped working. So I went back to Maximon and gave him more money. That didn't make my camera start working again, but I think it helped the rest of my assignment go well.


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