Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Quetzal, Cuchuchito and the Cenzontle; Guatemala's story in birds

In a book titled "Young People of Mexico and Central America," Charles R. Joy describes three distinct types of birds that stand out in Guatemalan culture.

The most significant bird he mentions is called the quetzal. It is a green, blue and red bird with a very long tail that was prized by the Indians of Guatemala. This bird is now almost extinct, yet remains popular emblem throughout Guatemala. It appears on Guatemalan money and is an object of national pride. According to Vera Kelsey in "Four Keys to Guatemala" the quetzal has at least one legend attached to it. "One curious and deep-seated superstition stems from antiquity: the nagual According to this belief, each Indian's spirit has a counterpart in some animal; his life is irrevocably identified with
that of his animal guardian. The nagual of Tecum-Umam, who led the Quiche armies against the Spanish, was the quetzal, the beautiful bird now used as Guatemala s symbol of liberty. And the legend is often encountered that when Indian chief and Alvarado met in hand-to-hand conflict, Alvarado really killed the quetzal which appeared at that moment above the Indian's head."

The second type of birds he mentions are all birds that herald bad omens. The cuchuchito, a bird whose call sounds like the bark of a dog, and the owl are both thought to be signs of calamity. He mentions the Indian saying "when the owl sings, an Indian dies." This is also mentioned in "Four Keys to Guatemala" along with another bird, the guia del leon. This "variety is known as the Guide of the Lion (Guia del Leon) as a result of its habit of flitting ahead from tree to tree, emitting short, sharp notes whenever a puma or tropical lion is stalking his prey
at night."

The third bird is another treasured bird of Guatemala called a cenzontle the "bird of four hundred voices." This is a type of brown thrush that can sing many different songs. It is also frequently called the "Mexican Mockingbird." Kelsey says: "Though an insignificant brown in appearance, it has a song of such range and variety that it is said to be the inspiration for Indian music." I found it interesting that just by casually looking at these three Guatemalan birds, one could find out so much about the country's cultural heritage. These three cover almost every spectrum of life. The patriotic, beautiful, almost extinct quetzal ; the ugly, scavenging for survival, birds of bad omen; the unremarkable looking cenzontle that has thrived with remarkable skills. Each mirror many aspects of the Guatemalan Indian lifestyle. Like the quetzal, the past glory of the Mayan kingdom is extinct. Only the indigenous blood in much of the population and a few emblems remain to prove it existed. The horror of the fall of that kingdom and bloody nightmare of war forced many of them into the role of an unpleasant scavenger, like the owl who sings a scared story of bad omen because he's seen too much horror to hope. And then there is the product of those generations that I think resembles more the censontle. Not glorious, like the quetzal, not scary and nocturnal like the owl, but surviving and thriving with a skill like no other bird.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see that book come out of hiding! Very interesting!