“What are we celebrating? Independence? No. We are all dependent in some way.”
“Dependent on what?” I ask Henry.
“Corporations. Government. The Church. Foreign Aid.” He trails off.
We are standing in front of Espiritu Santu overlooking the central park of Xela. He shows the faintest look of distaste as we gaze out at the festivities unfolding in the streets.
Xela, or Xelajú, is the ancient name for the second largest city in Guatemala, designated by the indigenous Mayan culture, though the official name of the city is Quetzaltenango. Tomorrow, the 15th of September, is Guatemalan Independence Day, as it is for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In five years it will be the 200th anniversary of independence from Spanish rule for these five countries. The festivities are a week long affair in Central America.
As Henry and I walk that morning, he takes me to beautiful landmarks and important, magnificent buildings. He is a wonderful guide. Pleasant, patient, and thorough. He speaks slowly and with accentuation in Spanish so I can understand everything.
Henry tells me San Nicolas was financed by a wealthy (think Koch brothers level of wealthy and influential) Guatemalan family. They negotiated to have their children be depicted as angels, adorning the grand ceiling:
(Wealthy elite in bed with the church? Ted Cruz would be proud.)
I’m led through the sprawling streets of Xela, sometimes at a hurried place to get across busy streets, weaving through tuk-tuks and bikers and street-side vendors.
We stop outside the Gallo brewery, a fortified complex financed in part by Germans alongside local Guatemalans. In the mid -to-late 19th century, Xela became a booming city due to a robust coffee industry. A dynamic economy emerged, bolstered by a migration influx of Spanish-descended Guatemalans (or “Ladinos”), alongside a unique and storied Mayan culture.
Enter Germany in the early 20th century, alongside a host of other foreign investors into land and other assets in Xela.. Can you guess who was among them? (Rising capitalist society? Strong Catholic culture? Powerful ruling class? Lady Liberty could barely contain herself.)
Indeed, the United States has had a long and sometimes horrific interest in Guatemala. Outside the brewery I turn to Henry and tell him I know enough about my country’s involvement here, and that I know it isn’t pretty. I tell him I don’t want him to mince words with me. I am not looking for anything watered down, tell me what my history books won’t. He smiles and nods in understanding.
“We don’t salute our politicians, but we do honor this”
He turns to face the brewery and salutes.
Influences of the church are seen in and around Xela. The day before I met Henry, I have a driver take me to outlying San Andres Xecul and Salcajá to check out two magnificent and historic churches.
The power of the church and the ruling elite, often through government, is apparent throughout Xela and the surrounding areas, Henry explains. The cross at the top of this point sits on Baul, a small mountain that looks out ominously over Xela.
This ugly devil’s threesome of the elite, the church, and the government has long been a method of assimilating Guatemalans and building community, (though in reality it is a channel for control, as is in many parts of the world). With such a diverse population, religious and ethnic tensions have endured for hundreds of years in Guatemala. Even today, 500 years after Spanish dominion ended, the ethnic divides still linger between the Ladinos and indigenous Mayans. Henry is of the former, and has his strong opinions.
Xela has endured such corrupt coalescence, undergone militaristic dictatorships, successful but ultimately crippling socialist regimes, infrastructure-destroying earthquakes,and a devastating volcano eruption. And yet nothing quite compares to what would occur in the ethnic and class-driven Civil War perpetrated by the United States
During World War 2, Guatemala severed investment ties with Nazi Germany. This left a gaping void that was filled by the state buying back German assets, along with heightened investment from the US. The United Fruit Company (UFC) was one such interest, a powerful enterprise that had a penchant for forcing indigenous Mayans and poor Ladinos off their farmland.
In the 40’s and 50’s, a leftist movement came to power in Guatemalan government. In 1951, democratically-elected and self-proclaimed communist Jacobo Árbenz began his presidential tenure. He led reforms to expand the right to vote, the ability of workers to organize, and allowing public debate. A friend to the indigenous people, “the centerpiece of his policy was an agrarian reform law, under which uncultivated portions of large land-holdings were expropriated in return for compensation, and redistributed to poverty-stricken agricultural laborers.” Approximately 500,000 people benefited from the decree.
In 1954 when Árbenz began a call for nationalizing the UFC, which, again, had displaced thousands of poor Guatemalans, the US armed and funded a military coup d’etat that successful removed Árbenz and installed a dictator, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. The claim was that it was to “stop the spread of communism”. Starting to sound familiar?
What would follow was four decades of military rule, loss of rights for the indigenous and poor class, massive displacement of these people, uprisings, and often brutal quelling of rebellions. In the 1960’s and onward, systematic and coordinated killings and “disappearances” were carried out by the Guatemalan government with oversight by the US Department of state and CIA. Between the years of 1966–68 alone some 8,000 peasants were murdered by U.S. trained forces.
Men were castrated. Women had their breasts cut off. Enemies of the state continued to disappear. In total, it is estimated that over 200,000 citizens were killed over 36 years of horrendous civil war.
In the early 1980’s, the killings began to be identified as genocide by the international community. Henry tells me that the US was arming both sides, even after this declaration. I believe him.
The lively scene before us in the central park sharply contrasts the dour feeling I have in my stomach.
The streets are filled with music, dancing, and processions. Students from across the city have been performing all day and would continue well into the night. Flags and traditional wear add to the colorful scene. The energy is palpable as thousands are gathered to watch.
In 1996 the war ended by way of a peace accord brokered by the UN. It has been 20 years since then, the ethnic conflict is a thing of the past. And yet its not. Henry explains that “reparations” made to indigenous people have been disproportionate to the Ladinos who also suffered during the war. He calls the indigenous folks lazy, that they were given too much welfare and land and computers and subsidized schooling after the war. Now they have too much of a leg up.
I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with Henry’s assessment. What I do know is he reminded me of my detest for my country’s history of money-driven projection of military force. Our long term involvement in this war, that featured such awful war crimes, of which the consequences still endure today, sickens me.
As I thank and bid goodbye to Henry, I hang around the park and enjoy the spectacle.
Smiles. Laughing. Cheering. Children of Mayan and Ladino descent performing together, creating beautiful cultural displays. The kids are all so gifted and have clearly worked very hard. It is a heartwarming show of unity, especially after what was a harrowing conversation that morning.
Though the circumstances are different, modern Guatemala faces the same issues that we do in the US. Money in politics. Corruption. Ethnic tension. Wealth inequality. Unchecked capitalism.
As I watch these talented young people perform, I hope they will begin to see more opportunity in their lives. I hope they will continue the fight for equality and a system that works for everyone, much like young people have elsewhere in the world.