Maternal mortality is highest in those countries whose health budgets are restricted. Practical strategies employed in the International Safe Motherhood Initiative, therefore, must be both effective and economical. Investing in emergency obstetric care resources has been touted as one such strategy. This investment aims to insure significant improvements are made in regional health centers, and a chain of referral is put into place so that only problem cases are attended by the most skilled health workers. This article examines how this model of referral functions in Sololá, Guatemala, where most Kaqchikel Mayan women give birth at home with a traditional midwife, and no skilled biomedical attendant is available at the birth to make a referral. Ethnographic data is used to explore reasons why women do not go to the hospital at the first sign of difficulty. I argue that the problem frequently is not that Mayan midwives, their clients and families fail to understand the biomedical information about dangers in birth, but rather that this information fails to fit into an already existing social system of understanding birth and birth-related knowledge.