In 1997, Guatemala is emerging from thirty-six years of civil war. Amparo Ajuix, a determined young woman who lives in a Mayan village with her husband, runs a savings club for the local women with the help of an American NGO. Eager to take advantage of Guatemala’s new democracy to strengthen the culture of the Mayan people, she campaigns to switch the language of instruction in the village’s primary school from Spanish to the local language of Cakchiquel.
But Amparo’s life is wracked with tensions. Dona María, an older woman who influences the market where Amparo sells her handicrafts, is jealous of Amparo’s savings club. Amparo’s best friend, Raquel, is a born-again Protestant who disdains Amparo’s devout Catholicism. Yolanda, Amparo’s pretty seventeen-year-old sister, flirts with foreign men in the nearby tourist town of Antigua. Most seriously of all, Amparo’s husband, Eusebio, suspects that he is not the father of her second child, with whom she is pregnant. The erosion of complicity between them poisons their marriage.
In 2003, Amparo works as a teacher in a language school for tourists in Antigua. She is tasked with the special case of a man, whom she calls Ricardo, who wishes to study her native Cakchiquel Mayan language. The experience of teaching this man confronts her with the in-between nature of her own culture. She does not speak Cakchiquel perfectly, as her parents do, yet as a Native person she cannot be completely accepted into Spanish-speaking Guatemalan society, and her Catholicism is mixed with beliefs in traditional Mayan gods. Her crisis about what to preserve and what to discard from her culture is accentuated when her son, Pablito, an enigmatic boy whom she struggles to understand, falls ill.
"I think it is extremely hard to write on Mayas by any non-Maya author, not only because of the language, but because of the cosmovision that informs their thinking. Stephen Henighan’s did however an excellent job of dealing with Kaqchikel, and a better job than all non-Maya Guatemalan novelists, with the possible exception of Mario Payeras, in crafting the Maya belief system."
— Dr. Arturo Arias, Prof. of Central American Latin & Mesoamerican Indigenous Cultural Studies, UC Merced
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