This week during classes, Julia and I took the opportunity to visit the center of the city and the public cemetery with our teachers and Nora, who told us about the history of the places we saw.
Quetzaltenango is not only an old city, it is one of the most important in Guatemala. As such, it has been the home of multiple presidents. The current seat of the district government was once the home of a very important family, the Aparicios. Their daughter, Francisca, had a storied life: she married the president as a very young woman, then moved to New York where she married a marquis. After his death she moved to Spain where she married a duke. The president she married, Justo Rufino Barrios, was born in a nearby city. There are multiple monuments to him in Quetzaltenango, honoring both his presidency and his death in battle in El Salvador.
The Aparicios’ son died young, and eventually the house was taken by the government. However, while these two were growing up, the illegitimate son of the housekeeper and a high-ranking church official was growing up there as well. Despite his humble origins and the mistreatment he suffered in his childhood, Manuel Estrada Cabrera became a very successful lawyer and a president of Guatemala. With the investment of the Aparicios, he founded the first bank of Guatemala. His mother founded many homes for girls in difficult circumstances. He is buried in the cemetery we visited.
Quetzaltenango was home to many wealthy families, many of whom disliked the amount of money they were required to pay the central government. In fact, there was a plan to break away from Guatemala and form an independent state out of Quetzaltenango and some of the surrounding area. However, the president at the time obviously did not like the idea, and ordered them to be shot. Most of the leaders were killed while they were walking in the street. Their bodies were dumped in a ditch in the cemetery. Today there is a monument to them. On the wall, as well as on another monument I’d seen earlier, is written: El odio a los tiranios les hizo martires; amor a la libertad les hizo heroes. In English, “Hate for tyrants made them martyrs; love for liberty made them heroes.” The symbolism of the broken column for unachieved goals was especially obvious here.
The cemetery was half Latino, half indigenous. In each section were areas for rich and poor. Scattered throughout were other groups, particularly of German immigrants. The monuments were much more elaborate then even a decorated headstone. The very wealthiest had mausoleums made of marble imported from Italy. The overall effect was of a small city, with miniature houses for the dead. The city cemetery was originally located in what is now the Parque Central, but when the park was built they tried to move the bodies. However, the cholera virus which had swept through Quetzaltenango earlier was still latent, and the workers and doctors died. Today, while the majority of the city’s dead are found in this or other, private cemeteries, some still remain under the park.
One of the most surprising and recurring detail about the history of Quetzaltenango was the influence of the Freemasons. I had no idea how much power they had or that they were such an international organization. In fact, they even designed the city to reflect their imagery. On a smaller but more noticeable scale, the center of town and the cemetery have multiple instances of four columns, which represent the four elements. Masonic symbols are present on many of the mausoleums.
I’ll end with another story from the cemetery. Many years ago, a young Gitano (Spanish gypsy) woman visited Guatemala with the circus she worked in. She fell in love with a young man in the audience, but because he was from a high class family their relationship was impossible. Legend has it that she died of a broken heart, and today she is a symbol of impossible love. Many people visit her tomb to ask her help in finding a relationship. They bring flowers, write their messages on the tomb, and keep it freshly painted when they run out of room. And before you think this is just a local superstition, some of the messages were in English, including one asking for help finding a bae.
Nora and Rolando know a lot about the history of Quetzaltenango, and I am really enjoying learning about it from them. The stories not only provided an interesting background to the places we are visiting, but were very intriguing in and of themselves.