Jules and I entered the cemetery in Xela with hesitation. We were unsure whether we would be welcomed into such a personal environment as tourists. We walked around cautiously, keeping a respectful distance from the locals visiting the gravesites. As we watched families gather around colorful tombstones, we noticed a massive difference between the Guatemalan perception of death and our own Western views.
In Guatemala death is celebrated by bringing together the young and the old to share stories and remember deceased relatives. Families spend hours sitting at the graves, eating and chatting, while the children laugh and jump around on stranger’s tombstones playing games.
We were sitting nearby, watching a family at a grave, when a group of kids approached us. They enlisted us to pull down some fruits from the surrounding trees. When they realized we were too short for the job, they took matters into their own hands and climbed effortlessly up the branches. After descending, they presented us with fistfuls of bright red fruit. They pulled us over to sit on nearby graves and giggled while we sampled the fruit. They stuffed handfuls of fruit into their mouths, juices running down theirs chins, and grinned at us with big red smiles.
The older ones of the group introduced themselves and explained their family tree, while the little ones crawled into our arms for hugs. One of the older girls was more serious than the rest. At just 13, Emilia was in charge of caring for her baby sister, who was resting tight against her back wrapped up in a tradition Mayan fabric. She held back from playing with her brothers and sisters and instead kept a watchful eye on her younger siblings. When the parents called on the kids it was Emilia who decided to stay back to say goodbye and let us take her picture.
When she posed for the photo, she had a sense of self-confidence and pride that was very apparent. We may have only had time for a quick chat and snap, but it was enough to capture a very memorable moment.