Barbara Rogoff has spent the last 37 years working closely with Mayan midwife Chona Pérez in the Guatemalan community of San Pedro La Laguna, on Lake Atitlán. Over the decades, Barbara has witnessed and felt the transformation the community has undergone, including the ways in which midwifery practices have changed and remained the same over time.
In part one of a two-part interview with Midwife International Communications Manager Sierra Brashear, Barbara shares about how a woman traditionally becomes a midwife in Guatemala, and gives suggestions on integrating professional midwives into this ancient system in a culturally appropriate way.
Traditionally, how does a women become a midwife in Guatemala?
There are several ways that happens now, but Chona Pérez, the woman I work with in San Pedro, was born to be a midwife. That’s the traditional way for Mayan women to become midwives – there is a birth sign when they are born. The sign is a piece of the amniotic sac like a veil over the baby’s head (not over her face, but over her head, like a veil), and the delivering midwife makes a diagnosis. She says, “this child is meant to be a midwife.” She secretly tells the family, and tells them not to tell anyone. The family keeps the piece of the amniotic sac in a sacred way, and as the girl grows up, she tends to daydream quite a bit. She has visits from ancestor midwives in her dreams, and they teach her things about childbirth – both about the sacred parts of childbirth and about the obstetric parts of childbirth.
Most women who are born to be midwives don’t want to do it because its scary, and it interrupts family life in many ways. They also don’t want to do it because they can be blamed for infant and mother death, which is not that uncommon in places like San Pedro. So the young women resist. The usual way that any healer is recruited, not just midwives, is that first they resist, and then they fall ill, or their family members fall ill and die. Then the ancestors – shamans or midwives – visit them in dreams and say, “this is because you have not yet accepted your destiny.” Eventually, they become convinced that they must do it, and so do their family members who might also be resisting the woman’s destiny. That’s the traditional way.
There are also people who are midwives now who were trained in western medicine, and they have different sets of skills, but they don’t do the sacred parts, and they aren’t able to diagnose who has got a sacred destiny like becoming a traditional midwife.
Our intention with the Midwife International training programs is to integrate those traditional, sacred practices with the skills and knowledge of western medicine. Can you speak to the benefits or challenges of that?
I think that it’s very important to do that, and I also think there are some difficulties in doing so. A large part of the credential for a woman to be a traditional midwife is that she is born to be a midwife – so that’s hard to adopt. Although, I have had some experience with people who are from North America who are considered to be born to be midwives and it’s based on how they act. Shamans refer to them as little sister and claim that “Yes, they were born to be midwives.” I actually don’t know the basis for saying that, but I think it’s based on how they act, and that they have a certain kind of supernatural air about them.
How do you imagine that it will or will not work to train professional midwives in Guatemala who haven’t necessarily been given the calling at birth?
I think it may depend on the extent to which you pay respect to the practices and the sacredness of the traditional midwifery practices. There was a midwife in San Pedro who was contrasting the differences of the “simply trained” midwives and the traditional midwives in San Pedro, and it was not just about whether they were born or not born to be midwives, although that was important. It was also whether they understood the sacredness. One of the traditional midwives said, “We are old like the rocks,” as if to say “We are part of the natural world.” It connects the midwife to the whole universe – the sacred natural world. Not just thinking of themselves as technicians, but as people who shepherd souls into the world, and have some continuing responsibility for them. Another midwife said, “We are the mothers of the town.” – and people treat them that way. There is this mutual obligation by helping a person be born, and its something sacred, not just a technical skill.
Some of the critiques the traditional midwives have of the simply trained midwives are that they don’t respect the old ways and they are not modest enough. There is an issue about charging money as well because traditional midwives don’t charge. So how is payment handled? It’s gifts. A traditional midwife cannot disdain any size of gift; so if a person brings six eggs – good. If a person brings six chickens – good. So there might be ways when training new midwives to help them see the underlying meanings and be culturally sensitive to both the sacred and the practical parts of birth.
Another suggestion is helping them to get an understanding of the culture – that will help them be respectful of the different practices, and that’s one of my purposes in having written “Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town.” It is to help people see that there are multiple ways to do things, that many ways are good, and to begin to be able to understand things from a perspective different than what they were raised with. That’s not a simple thing for people to learn. One of the reasons I wrote it sort of like a story was to help people who are not from San Pedro to get inside another way of living. People can put themselves into that life, vicariously, and begin to make sense of it. Understanding family life will help them with understanding their patients, and help them understand when the patients want to do things a little differently than what they are used to. It can help them in thinking about how they can handle situations that are puzzling to them.
Barbara Rogoff is University of California Santa Cruz Foundation Professor of Psychology. She has been Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Kellogg Fellow, Spencer Fellow, and Osher Fellow of the Exploratorium. She has served as Editor of Human Development and committee member on the Science of Learning for the U.S. National Academy of Science.
Developing Destinies is based on Barbara Rogoff’s 37 years of child development research in the Guatemalan Mayan town of San Pedro la Laguna. One of the town’s leading child development experts is Doña Chona Pérez, who was born with the destiny of being a midwife in the Mayan spiritual tradition. The book, written together with Doña Chona and two of her grandchildren, gives an account of how individual lives and community history are intertwined. It focuses on how family lives change and continue with traditional practices, across Chona’s 85 years, and extending back to historical accounts of spiritual and birthing practices from pre-Hispanic times. Barbara has also created a 6-minute YouTube video with historic film and photos related to Developing Destinies.
The photo on this page is of the celebrated midwife, Chona Pérez (in the middle), with Barbara Rogoff (on the right), and her friend Marta Navichoc, at the formal presentation in San Pedro of the new book “Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town.” [photo copyright Domingo Yojcom Chavajay, 2011.]