I came to Guatemala with my son, Jay, who is nearly 17. His mediocre Spanish grades drew me to Antigua’s reputation for excellent and inexpensive courses in ‘living’ Spanish. Leaving the Guatemala City airport, we squeezed into a dilapidated ‘chicken bus’ and hurtled through that city’s cinder block outskirts. Soon we crossed a high mountain pass and dropped into a compact valley. Antigua’s fantastic volcanic setting and its skyline of monumental ruins instantly created that magical feeling that we had just passed through the looking glass.
We learned that the highland Maya were routed in the 1520s by the murderous conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado. For more than 200 years, the city known as Santiago de Guatemala served the Spanish crown as the seat of a vast province. The conquered Mayan population were available to labour on monumental works. The city founders laid out their capital after the grid plan of Seville, itself borrowed from Rome, though they expanded the scale. I heard it said that if Caesar himself walked into a restored Antigueno home today, he could comfortably find his way to the bathroom without noticing
much out of place.
The Spanish built grand palaces, cloistered monasteries, churches, hospitals and universities, in a unique Moorish style dubbed ‘earthquake Baroque’. It is characterised by low rooflines, squat walls and thick, sculpted columns. Antigua lies right on top of a notorious, hair-trigger seismic fault. The most recent disaster was a huge 39-second tremor on 4 February 1976, that killed nearly 30,000 Guatemalans and left more than a million homeless.
After substantially rebuilding their city in 1565, 1586, 1607, 1651, 1689, 1717 and 1751, a damaging ‘swarm’ of quakes in 1773—leading up to a cataclysmic shock on 29 July—pitched the Spanish authorities over the edge. In a series of increasingly harsh edicts, the Crown forced the capital’s reluctant residents to gut their homes and institutions down to the doorknobs. Mules hauled this salvage over the mountain pass to the nearby valley of la Ermita, and a new capital slowly took shape. It became known as ‘Guatemala’ while the abandoned city became simply ‘la Antigua’, or ‘The Old’.
Most of la Antigua’s great public buildings fell into ruin, serving as squatters’ camps and quarries. The Maya returned to build their traditional thatch-roofed huts inside the courtyards of wrecked homes and even in the naves of tumbled down churches. Most of the surviving homes were subdivided into ever-smaller fragments, and the whole city fabric fell deeper into ruin with each generation’s human pillage and monster quakes.
Our own mission to learn conversational Spanish coincides with the most decisive factor in Antigua’s recent comeback. Intensive Spanish instruction has become the town’s principal industry. Nearly 100 schools pay rents that maintain buildings, employ thousands of teachers, support services such as internet cafés, and create opportunities for local families to supplement their income by boarding students. My Spanish teacher said that her bookkeeper husband works for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and has not been granted a single day off in 12 years. His salary is less than $500 a month.
Through the babble of an unfamiliar language, we continually overheard the name Rios Montt. General Efrain Rios Montt is a figure who evokes for me the combined dark shadows of Slobodan Milosevic, Ariel Sharon and Augusto Pinochet. He is an army officer who seized power in the early ’80s on a platform of ‘more executions and less reconciliation’, and who mercilessly waged the latest phase of Don Pedro de Alvarado’s war of conquest by a European ‘criollo’ oligarchy against Guatemala’s six million Maya.
Rios Montt renounced his Catholicism because of the meddling opposition by its priests, and in 1978 he became an ordained minister in the California-based Church of the Word. He personifies the very troubling national schism between insurgent gospel hall ‘cultos’ and a Catholicism that tends to recognise social justice concerns while tolerating ancient Mayan ritual. Rios Montt’s crusade was actively supported by the hard men in Washington, and on a visit to Guatemala in 1982 President Reagan called him a ‘man of great personal integrity and commitment’ who had been ‘getting a bum rap’.
Until a ceasefire was negotiated in the late ’90s, his army racked up nearly 200,000 civilian victims, earning Rios Montt the nickname of the ‘Central American Saddam’ and a place among the most murderous of the last century’s political leaders. His regime later morphed into the kleptocracy that ruled
Guatemala with impunity.
Our congenial days in Guatemala were often suddenly disturbed by the skeletons of Rios Montt’s scorched earth—or ‘scorched communist’—campaign as he prefers to call it. A home-stay family told us their elder sons had been in a university rock band. Ten years later, a right-wing cultural warrior discovered that the lyrics of the band’s most popular song included the phrase ‘I want to be free’. Their names were added to a death list. One brother disappeared and the next week the other was shot dead on the family’s doorstep. When we visited the village of Santiago, our amble around the church interior stopped cold when we read on a plaque that in 1981, its Oklahoma-born parish priest Stan Rother was gunned down in his study. His crime was that he offered the church as a sanctuary to villagers who were fleeing the nightly raids of local paramilitaries. At least 500 Santiago villagers disappeared, and on its outskirts there is a memorial to 11 villagers shot to death for daring to protest the drunken harassment of locals by soldiers.
In July 2003, Rios Montt defied a national ceasefire agreement and began running for Guatemala’s presidency on a law and order platform. His roadside billboards show an elderly man proclaiming ‘Soy Guatemala’ or ‘I am Guatemala’. In August, knots of tourists and locals sat in Antigua’s park reading in the newspapers that busloads of Montt’s political flunkeys, disguised as masked campesinos and carrying machetes, went on a prime-time rampage through the capital. Their message—only ‘I’ have the
power to make or break the peace in Guatemala.
Violence feels close to the surface in a country where even the soft drink delivery trucks carry guards armed with shotguns. A Spanish teacher told us that last October she and a neighbour, a young mother like herself, received phone calls demanding a ransom or they would die. The teacher borrowed, begged, paid and lived. Her neighbour refused and she disappeared. Rios Montt was booed and jeered when he arrived to cast his vote at the November 2003 elections. With voter turn-out exceeding 80 per cent, Rios Montt was resoundingly defeated at the polls.
For centuries, Guatemala’s storyline has read something like ‘sublime shattered by catastrophe’. In Antigua, we tasted the sublime. But the determination of a ruthless old order to throw aside a decade of national reconciliation left us anxious that the next great tremor may be past due.
Peter Hamilton lives in Brooklyn, New York, email@example.com. His son’s excellent Spanish School in Antigua can be located at: www.loscapitanes.com.
All images courtesy of Contours Travel, Melbourne.