Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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‘There is no place there – not a single continuous acre – without a landslide cover’
by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register
(From the Dec. 1, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Don´t worry about Ixtahuacán. They are used to being cold, to being poor.
— Sololá governor Julio Urretea, in a meeting of relief agencies, post-Hurricane Stan
About 45 minutes drive from Guatemala City and only a few from that ubiquitously photographed and painted colonial capital called “Old Guatemala City” (or “old” or “Antigua” for short) you can find, behind a gate, at the side of a school courtyard, on a ragged piece of adobe, a vox clamanti that is as brief as the wall on which it is stored:
Hold your steps here travelers
This marks the one sole remnant
Of the palace of the Conquistadors.
Here perished the luckless Doña Beatriz de la Cueva
And her 11 ladies in waiting
In the catastrophe that befell this city
On Sept. 8, 1527.
It seems another age ago that I first came across those words. According to my Spanish teacher, a cratered lake about 6,000 feet above the site had, as if released by a vengeful mountain spirit, slipped in stealth its borders, and, gathering reinforcements from the mud and boulders it picked up along the way, overran in a matter of seconds the first pioneer settlement outside of Mexico in the continental New World. The golden-haired Adonis Pedro de Alvarado and his sword-wielding companion conquistadors would already be in Peru when they would hear of the fate of their womenfolk who died under the very earth upon which they stood erect and indomitable only a few months before, swords newly washed of the blood that had dimmed their luster, and gleaming again like cathedral crosses in the grip of their Hyperion lords.
The same Volcan de Agua (Water Volcano) stands over me today, as it does any other occasional visitor who happens on this wall in Ciudad Vieja, and who is invited to meditate its words. It occurs to me now, for the first time, that for however long I stood before them, like the poet Shelly before his statue in the desert, I had no way of knowing, then, in December, 1975, how very close to hitting up against the lives of these women my own life’s road was to turn, nor the similarly brief amount of time that I would have before my own Guatemalan idyll was over.
For if they, in their first few exhilarating months in the New World, must have reveled in the exuberant, spring-like surface beauty with which Guatemala beguiles almost all of its visitors, blissfully ignorant of the passive-aggressive-like physical world lurking invisibly beneath the outer smiles of its physical form, so, too, I, battened not only on the smiles of that physical world, but on the spring-like smiles of these people for only a few more months before I began to learn a secret of their nature: that as surely as the spectacular clarity of a summer dawn here derives from the rains the night before, so too the relation between these people´s expressions and their tears.
It was in fact less than two months after I first saw that inscription that there occurred the catastrophic event that killed 23,000 and made the date Feb. 4 as recognizable here as is Sept. 11 elsewhere. The force of it shook me from my bed, and came within two or three seconds of burying me under a few tons of roofing material that had been extracted from some nearby earth. Had the 7.5 earthquake extended itself but two or three seconds longer than the 39 that the earth took to regain control of its jitters (I know this because a very much smaller aftershock brought the wall down a few days later) I would have been buried only a block away from where Doña Beatriz and her companions were buried 448 years earlier.
I stand in Ciudad Vieja today in the wake of the calamities that struck all over the Highlands here.
I recall once again Faulkner´s words: memory believes before knowing remembers. That is to say, one, prior to knowledge, believes something that one understands differently when one recalls the same experience years later.
Today, in the light of Hurricane Stan, I know that my language teacher erred. I returned to confirm my sense that what occurred to her must have happened at the end of the rainy season, in September or October. I know now that there was no lake that spilled over. Rather, the same kind of natural phenomenon that killed more than 1,000 a few weeks ago near Santiago Atitlan, and a few hundreds near the Mexican border, the same kind of natural phenomenon that occurs in a more modified form at the end of any rainy season but which in this particular season left our Ixtahuacán coastal outlier villages, mud-covered, and the former inhabitants of these outliers, descendents of the people subjugated by Don Pedro´s sword, carrying the weight of nightmares and by day the even heavier weight of the incubuses in their heads rerunning the same images over and over – images of the cliffs above them, heretofore benevolent and paternal, sweet with the canes that they alone among Ixtahuacán villages, savored, suddenly
descending upon them, and chasing them out of their Eden and up to the harsh, alpine regions where they currently are quartered, where they wake from their hoar frost mattresses to the sounds of children crying whereas only a week before they heard the rhythm of the warm, paradisal Pa C’utama river – that same natural phenomenon (and not a lake) was what killed the wife of the conquistador. The water-saturated sides of a mountain fell on her.
The past rainy season was my wettest ever – even without the concluding three days provided by the hurricane trapped between low pressure troughs not too far from the Mexican border. The rains once again exposed the vulnerability of an eco structure debilitated by the people’s recent cultivation of their steeper slopes, largely devoid now of a natural forest cover. On the detours around the highways, I see images I´ve never seen before: brown dirt slops covering the tops of the mountain with their ugly runoff as effectively and as completely as beautiful snow covers the crest of the Cascades in winter. There is no place there – not a single continuous acre – without a landslide cover.
One can be forgiven a certain discouragement when one contemplates the sea of plastic tents, held aloft by sticks covering these alpine regions of Ixtahuacán to which our people repaired after the storm. In the Feb. 4 earthquake, for example, though the destruction in some places was so great that property boundaries disappeared under the ubiquitous rubble, one can, in retrospect, at least see the advantage that these people still at least possessed their earth. Not so here. What one fears now is rather a kind of end times scenario for a historical process that has arrived at term.
In the decade of the 1870s and ’80s, a series of modernizing Guatemalan presidents removed the native peoples from the wider coastal lands – the lands safely removed from the mountains that collapsed in the latest storm – and repopulated the area with non-Mayans who would provide the developed world with its Folgers. During my time here, I have witnessed the progression that could have caused me, had I been more prescient, to hold my breath in fear: people from our coastal first moving towards, then crowding up against and finally climbing up into mountains visited only for cultic purposes before.
Year after year our visitors would grow more impressed as we, the hosts, equally impressed, would point out the more and more vertical-approaching slopes on which our intrepid farmers, sometimes only a foot or two from a 1,000-foot free-fall into the atmosphere, would sow their corn. The two-step process followed a pattern. As each new group would transport itself mountainwards, it would first claim the area for cultivation, then for their houses, moving the hoed area up further.
Now, as one contemplates the people from Pa C’utama and about 10 other centers on the top of the mountains on a site that has no obvious recourse to water, but being encouraged in their situation by an accommodating officialdom that wish solutions that will placate the more – as one contemplates the aspects of these people, their silken skin already beginning to resemble that of an Artic explorer, one can only ask the question, “from here, where?”
I am not sure. Five years ago, after a similar hurricane, the young leaders here, taking advantage of the situation, and wishing to live closer to the asphalted world, exercised enormous media pressure on a similarly accommodating group of officials to have their town declared uninhabitable, so that they could receive funding from international groups to relocate next to the Pan American Highway into the same general mountainous area as the current Pa C´utamaj squatters. There occurred, sadly, a consequence that one can perceive, if only darkly, by a simple drive along that highway today, where one encounters groups of relocated women washing clothes in local puddles, despite millions of dollars spent in search of water. If actions speak louder than words, the young men, who declared the old town uninhabitable with the latter, have since made a far more eloquent judgement on the uninhabitability of the new town by the former: In the years following the transfer, the mayor who promulgated the relocation by
finding young men jobs in Europe, and the young men, for their part, by going there or to the United States for work.
One has the fearful presentiment that something similar is at play here – only in this case, there are more people, less funding, and the land is worse. More ominously, whereas the government six years ago made an extensive study of the situation (which the president later ignored) the current government has not sent a single person to inspect the sites of the alleged disasters, nor evaluated the possible psycho-socio conditions in which the exodus occurred. Could it be that (as happened in the year 2000) young Mayas, sensing opportunity, exploited the fears of the populace to relocate their too too trusting elders to an area that they (the young people) for their own particular purposes desire? Could it be that their land was salvageable after all? For those of us who have seen the generation manipulation of the latter by the former, that scenario is troubling to consider.
In the year 2000, there occurred about 10 deaths directly attributable to a relocation that was meant to save a people from a situation that had not killed a single person for hundreds of years.
For all of its beauty, Guatemala is a difficult land. For those not killed, like Doña Beatriz, by its dangers, there are many more whose smiles are brightened by their tears. I know not if my smile too grows brighter.
But as I stand before the wall, I note the vibrant city that now surrounds the ruin. The site was not abandoned. I ask myself: Was it necessary that they be abandoned – ours?
(Father Baronti, a priest of the Diocese of Spokane, has been a missioner in Guatemala for over three decades.)
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