Ash recently had the great privilege of studying with a couple of midwives (comadronas), in Guatemala. She went via an organization called Dar La Luz whose goal is to improve the health and quality of life for women and their families during pregnancy, birth and postpartum through health education programs and hands on support. Most of their work centers around Honduras, but they are expanding to Guatemala as well, and Ash was sent to start building these relationships.
While doula care in Guatemala is starting to pop up in some of the larger cities, it is overwhelmingly still unknown to the region and it seems the comadronas may benefit as much as birthing women. It is not uncommon for comadronas to experience abuse by their husbands and/or their clients' husbands because they “roam the streets” alone at night. Doulas would make it so these women aren't traveling alone and therefore less of a target. Dar la Luz is always looking for extra support. So all you doulas and midwives out there who are interested in working abroad, check this organization out! And for everyone else, consider making a donation if it is within your means.
While Ash could spend pages recounting her experience, the ups (temazcal, a traditional sweat lodge, ceremonies!) and downs (eating an entire bowl of pasta with globs of mayonnaise) and everything in between, we thought it might be more fun to share the story of one of the comadronas herself.
Meet Angelina. She is K'iche' and lives in Tecpan with her husband and four grown children. She is a home birth comadrona, and in fact, she organizes all of the midwives in Guatemala! When she’s not busy catching babies, or organizing everyone who does, she works for the Women’s Presidential Ministry helping to protect women's rights and the traditions of the indigenous. So yes. She basically does it all!
HOW WERE YOU BORN?
A: My mom had an unmedicated vaginal birth and I was 12+ lbs when I was born! I am the second child but the first one died when she was born; My mom was 16 at the time. She then spent eight years trying to get pregnant again. When I was born it was a party, everyone came to visit my mom and celebrate that she had finally had a baby. My mom says they gave her many gifts because everyone was very excited. After that she went on to have two more kids; I have a brother and a sister.
WHY DID YOU BECOME A COMADRONA?
A: I am a comadrona because when I was born, the comadrona that my mom worked with, told her that I was going to be one. She was actually a partera, not a comadrona.
BB: What is the difference?
A: Parteras don't use the temazcal and they can use injections. My mom chose to work with a partera because during her first birth the comadrona she had worked with kept drinking in the temazcal and uncovered the baby when she was born in the caul, which according to my mom was why she died.
I was also born in the caul. The tradition here in Guatemala is not to just uncover it. When a baby is born in the caul it is because she has a special mission. We save the caul and give it to the parents so they can keep it. The partera told my mom: "Your daughter is going to be like me, she is going to be a comadrona." My mom says I was born with the mission. Comadronas are born, not made.
FOR HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN CATCHING BABIES?
A: I started practicing when I was 17. Then I went to nursing school. I told the director of the school that I wanted to catch babies. She believed I had the calling and supported me and I started attending births at the hospital. I only worked at the hospital for one year. I then worked for the Public Health Department in a rural community for 21 years where I had the opportunity to attend home births with other comadronas.
HOW MANY BIRTHS HAVE YOU ATTENDED?
I’ve attended thousands of births. No baby nor mother has died. Only once a baby girl died after 5 days of being born.
ARE THERE MORE RISKS IN THE HOSPITAL OR AT HOME?
It’s the same. But here in Guatemala women are afraid of going to the hospital because they won’t get their tea, the medicinal plants and other traditions that are very important for them. People think there are more risks of death in the hospital than at home, but the risk is the same.
BB: How interesting. It is the exact opposite for most people in America.
ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC MAYAN TRADITIONS THAT YOU USE DURING THE BIRTHS?
Here in Guatemala we have a very spiritual connection with Mother Earth and the Fire. There are many rituals that we do for families that come from the Mayan tradition. One of them is the placenta ceremony. You build a fire and add incense, flowers and sugar and put the placenta on top surrounded by flower essences. It’s a ritual to give thanks to the ancestors and the Creator for the flower of life. In Guatemala we call the placenta the flower because it's where the baby grows. It’s the mother of the baby, where the baby was born and developed, so it is very sacred.
There’s also the Temazcal ritual. When a woman is pregnant she goes into the temazcal twice per week. If the woman wants to give birth in the temazcal then we have the birth there. After the birth there are 5 temazcales, every other day for 10 days. On the 13th day after birth we have the Ash Ceremony in the Temazcal. We do a cleansing bath to call the ancestors to the temazcal so they can protect and help us. At the end of the ceremony we offer alcohol and tobacco (smoke) to the ancestors (by pouring it on the ground). We also make food to share (if we have enough money we eat chicken, otherwise just tamales with egg and salt). The food is shared with the ancestors; that’s how we say goodbye to them and release them so they can go somewhere else. We also clean and purify all the impurities that the mother might have accumulated during the 13 days she has been in bed. Because our ancestors sometimes bring bad energies, we have to get rid of them too. We use flowers, pine and incense and give a bath of medicinal plants. After this ceremony there’s more balance and the woman can take good care of her baby and get out of bed.
After 40 days we do the Introduction Ceremony where we introduce the baby to the sacred Fire. 7 years later we have another Introduction ceremony that marks the beginning of childhood. At 13 years there’s another special ceremony in front of an altar with flowers and many offerings, as well as a big party. It’s a ceremony in which the child thanks her parents for the gift of life and gives away all her toys. In exchange she’s going to get her work tools. This ceremony marks the beginning of adolescence. She now has responsibilities to help at home and to work. It’s a beautiful and very emotional ceremony that can be a little sad too. It’s the beginning of womanhood.
After this we keep celebrating cycles every 13 years. At 26 years old the woman is ready to be a mother, she has the next 13 years to give birth. The next cycle starts at 39 when she starts prepping to be a counselor and an elder. At 52 she receives the "authority stick" which is when she can start holding council.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WOMEN CAN DO TO PREP FOR LABOR?
It starts with pregnancy. There, are two main things. The primary one is the emotional state of the mother. In our case this can change depending on if it is a wanted pregnancy or the result of sexual violence which unfortunately is very common. Another very important aspect is nutrition, the mother has to eat well and get enough nutrients to be strong enough and healthy for labor.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY BIRTHING?
There are two main projects. One of them is to create an ancestral maternal health center where we can gather all the Mayan traditions and practice the values we have lost in the hospital setting. There are many places where women are choosing the hospital because the traditions are becoming too foreign. The idea is to go back to the traditions from our ancestors and use all those grandmother secrets that are so useful and preventative. For more than 37 years of catching babies I’ve wanted my home to be a place where women can come and give birth on their own terms. It doesn’t matter what I want or what Western medicine wants. What’s important is for women to be comfortable and follow their instincts and choose how she wants to give birth.
The other project is to educate and train comadronas. I am the National Representative of the Comadronas and have been teaching for many years around the country. My goal is to create a national network of comadronas so we can all exchange secrets and wisdom. The idea is to combine both projects so we can have exchange programs with other countries, and invite guests from other places but also travel and see what is being done in other traditions and countries.
ANY #BRILLIANTBITS TO SHARE?
It’s not about the body but about the spirit. I am always inspired by the exchange of wisdom with our ancestors which I’ve felt many times. There’s a connection with what I call the aura. It’s an energy that comes and takes over us, it makes us part of the cosmos and the universe, and a wisdom exchange is made.
The comadronas wisdom is abstract, you don’t see it but feel it. We connect that ancestral energy and let our elders work through us. We ask for permission to the Creator before we work with women. That’s the essence of the comadrona life.