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Why Is This Popular?: Blaming the Sick

Steve Mullaney feels bad. And it’s all his fault.

The next time that you are sick you might just want to keep it quiet, otherwise you could find yourself on the receiving end of one of Guatemala’s medical traditions: blaming the sick for their own illnesses.

       Folks from other parts might mention not feeling well as a play for sympathy or in order to try and get some medicine, but in Guatemala admitting one’s medical condition is seen as a sign of moral failure.

       “You’re sick?” starts one common reply “What did you do?” The word “do” is usually stretched out to at least five syllables to emphasize how much you messed up.

       “Did you go to sleep with wet hair? Did you go out when it was cold? What about eating avocadoes harvested at night?” Endless folk traditions (many involving showering at inopportune times and cold drinks) will be thrown at you, making it seem like it’s your fault. The only thing that will not be brought up as a potential scapegoat for your condition is germs.

       Once word gets out that you are sick, you need to watch your actions to make sure that they don’t draw even more scrutiny: a key thing to watch is your consumption of beverages. A good rule of thumb is “unless it’s steaming you will get yelled at.” One particularly memorable interaction in a recent illness of mine involved purchasing a bottle of water only to be asked if I was going to boil it before drinking it. You might as well stick to tea for the duration of your illness.

       But, why is blaming the sick popular? This is a moderately touchy subject, but as far as this investigation has gone, we believe that most folks genuinely want what’s in the best interest of their friends/guests—and that the way this gets expressed is by browbeating anyone who doesn’t conform to the rigid standards of what sickness is and what it means.

        Just as I’m shocked and put off by some suggestions that I received while dealing with illness, I know that I have shocked and put off folks with suggestions of having some nice cold ice cream to deal with a sore throat or to use a Neti pot to open up the sinuses. Ultimately, some folk medicinal traditions don’t translate well across cultural lines, so when in doubt don’t mention your minor illnesses—and if you do, make sure to drink plenty of tea.

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