Chronicles of Cimera City | (Part Two)

By Mario R. Loarca Pineda

The fourth Wednesday of July, returning home, after having completed the urgent task of helping Laika and Sandymount with their daily errands, I decided to call a certain successful executive who usually keeps on top of everything and who is contagious in her good moods: Sandrita, the stockbroker, a true itinerant banker at the BR.

“Why don’t you come to the bank and we can get a coffee?”

Ready, set, go! I put my Bolivian Evo-style sweater on over the top of a red t-shirt with the insignia of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. I climbed the slope of the Mario Camposeco Football Stadium (EEMC) and made my way through a crowd of commuters anxiously waiting to board the rickety Chinese and Korean minibuses that make up this city’s first-class public transport.

I entered the BR headquarters with a confident stride, as if I were a trusted client with a platinum credit card, cheque book and personal assistance. Sandrita, the banker, greeted me like the Quetzaltecas [people from Quetzaltenango] of old would have: “I’m coming, my king, I’ll just be a minute, sit down, we’ll go any minute now!”

I waited, seated on an armchair in the library of the former governor and historian, Don Mariano López Mayorical; shelves filled with old books nobody reads anymore, all covered up and protected by clear glass windows that shield them from their worst enemies: meddling people, curious gangs, the tons of clueless people who go to the bank requesting a loans – all are unable to even glance at the books, let alone take one in their hands.

Vanushca, the woman that died from love in Guatemala.

Anecdotes I had heard about López Mayorical ran through my mind: an extravagant being who was almost always dressed like a 19th century figurine; self-taught historian and owner of one of the best libraries to exist in the wise Xela [Quetzaltenango] of the previous century (20th). It is said he was the legendary suitor of the gypsy Vanushka; a divorced libertine who married a lady of ancient lineage, heiress to great fortune, who was driven to alcoholism by having to endure such anguish and small-town slander; the whole of Quetzaltenango talking about the case.

Is there any point in collecting books when one lives in a society so provincial and pious, so resistant to any attempt at enlightenment?

Sandrita emerged from a corridor, and I stood to greet her and made for the exit nearest a café. She was accompanied by a healthy-looking young male in a leather jacket, who turned out to be of known lineage. He was Monroy Montes, one of the children of the well-known martyrs Paco and Esperancita, who worked at the CUNOC People’s Law Firm, and who were brutally murdered on the 14th of July 1980 in the vicinity of La Floresta.

We went down to the first floor of the Pradera-Xela shopping centre, and from the stairs I noticed the revival of La Garza, a shop which stands out for how different it is to the gloomy shop that was there previously, which had a dilapidated counter where the merchandise was heaped and piled on display.

People’s Law Firm. Lawyer Mario Lopez Larrave

Sandrita enlightened me: “It appears that one of Don Quincho’s daughters married a Swiss man who orders them European merchandise; look at shown at La Maya, Dohow pretty those vases are, and that large clock. It must be Chinese, but it looks like it could be German or Swiss, like the ones that were n Magín Capdevilla’s.”

I suggested that we stop at San Martín, and there we started chatting about family matters, which began with a vivid retelling of her infancy and adolescence spent as a resident at Teresa Martín College (CTM) where she suffered under the rule of Mexican Carmelite nuns. Then she told me of time spent as a captive maiden in the fish market of zone three, near the ancient Molino San Francisco [San Francisco Mill].

She revealed to me the Tabasco origin of her mother and the arrival of her grandparents – her forefathers – at the village of Tacaná San Marcos, via Motozintla, who were fleeing from rioting and brought with them sacks filled with silver, banknotes and coins from the time of Don Porfirio Díaz.

She praised her grandparents’ success in opening a drugstore in a village so far from God and from civilisation; as well as her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit and her skill at preparing cold meats. She spoke of her father, an eternally loyal and well-dressed employee of the sacrosanct Banco de Occidente (BdeO), who abandoned his family to live with a cashier with a cleft lip; of the strict Mexican Carmelite nuns at Teresa Martín College and the visits from the twisted Catalan Jesuit who acted as bishop of Los Altos, and who knew about almost everything (monsignor thinks, monsignor wants, monsignor says… repeated the slimy bible bashers at the time). The Catalan would never dream of turning his gaze to the figure of a small, defenceless orphan, today transformed into a successful banker who boasts of her strong principles and values.

And the man, Camilo, shared his emotional struggle with only child syndrome; he told of the dominant tribalist feeling in his village and how that would explain why so many unnatural marriages take place. He gave his views on the neurotic consequences of familial incest, questioning why this continues to be the foundation of a stratified society and an obsolete church.

Meanwhile, running down an alleyway in San Martín, kind Begoña appeared, one of the heirs to the Arenales wine producers, the very same Arenales who made so much money selling Guatemalan guaro [moonshine]. Because of this, the Ajaw del Cerro Q [the King of Q Hill] came to terms with allowing one of his sons becoming a drunkard, who to this day continues harassing and demanding credit at brothels, despite the cirrhosis he is already suffering from.

Yes, the same Begoña who Camilo remembered for the Kraft-melted cheese. She of the I don’t want anything else doctor – maybe Doña Mati will like this jelly, the Royal jelly or Ana Belly – all from Sunday – that just arrived from El Salvador, or the Mirasol margarine that’s on offer; also these 3-minute-oats are on sale and arrived yesterday from Nicaragua; don’t worry doctor, we’ll settle up later – we missed yours and Doña Mati’s custom – so lovely – would you say hello for me? – affectionately, of course – we’re always at your service here – in this humble house…

The first Thursday of August. The time of the zodiac Leo is upon us. I’ve had one of my migraine attacks that usually bother me quarterly. I resorted to my usual remedy – an espresso with lemon juice and a Mexican painkiller I was prescribed by a certain apothecary who lives over there in the Cerrillo neighbourhood, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas.

I went to bed half-revived and half-asleep, deciding not to listen to the inevitable radio cacophony about the new football match between Guatemala and the US, the first of the preliminaries of the South Africa 2010 World Cup.

Between four-yearly presidencies and four-yearly football preliminaries, the media has occupied itself with documenting the population, especially the locals of unknown lands who, in their own jargon, are known as departmental capitals, or internal municipalities of the Republic.

We are societies condemned to voting, shutting up and watching TV, declared Don Pedro Casaldáliga, missionary bishop from Brazil.

I spent the afternoon wretched with discomfort, unable to write even a few lines.

On a personal level, I had reason to believe that I’d reached the limits of my tolerance, when a deep voice – maybe my inner guide – urged me to change and rediscover my faith; to try a different ethos, view the city as one that was ordered and coherent, with green spaces, citizen awareness, and spaces of liberal culture.

Is it possible to imagine such a place within the borders of Guatemala?

The second Tuesday of August, I awoke dreaming that I was inside a gaucho-style family home, surrounded by a strange family who invited me to try local dishes: stew, dulce de leche, roast beef, red wine, criollo bread, polenta-vegetable soup, sweet pastries, herb tea and grappa.

I found myself at ease, enjoying the protected feeling that this group of people dressed in the style of Martín Fierro gave me. Outside, the house was surrounded by cobbled streets and colonial-style buildings, similar to the style of Quito, Ecuador or the university quarter of Córdoba, Argentina.

I still dream, in my heart, of moving to some town near Córdoba and escaping the bonds of the clan, the tribe, the church and my country, where (as Andrés the cat said), things can only get worse.

At 9:20 I received an untimely call from Ekaterina Kavanaugh, the bibliomaniac and Confederate oral historian based in Savannah, Georgia (EEUU). She is a kindred spirit who delights me with her stories.

She told me at great length of her recent visit to Hamburg (Germany), and of the atmosphere on the streets that inspired Goodbye, Berlin, a novel written by the Brit Christopher Isherwood. This novel inspired the moving film, Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse and featuring the stellar Liza Minelli, who was superb. The call eventually ended when her pre-paid telephone card ran out of credit.

Sandymount and the soviet cosmonaut played on the sofa.

A little later, in shops near to La Democracia market, I enquired about the prices of two-speed blenders, and waited for ten minutes until I discovered that the dentist Juan Eulogio wasn’t seeing patients that morning, because he’d rather escape to the wild beaches of Manchón to take photos, situated below Retalhuleu – capital of the world.

Passing by one side of the hospital called La Democracia, which is almost indistinguishable from the market with the same name, I noticed the figure of Damian, the lapsed alcoholic cobbler, who was leaving the Santo Toribio in the custody of a young woman. Could it possibly be his caring daughter? Or was it a new long-suffering concubine?

I recalled the turbulent history of his marriage to a certain Aragonese lady, a collection of skits and picturesque episodes that from time to time are recounted by veteran members of the

Spanish Society of Western Welfare (SEBO), which has its headquarters on the street Real del Calvario.

The third Thursday of August, I still had twenty quetzals in my wallet, it was nearly 11 and I had not had my morning coffee. I’d just skimmed through Prensa Libre, learning of the new adverse result against the gringos. Thousands of fans of the blue and white had been disappointed by some terrible refereeing by a Caribbean referee.

It’s a story that seems to repeat itself every knock-out round.

Commerce School (ENCO) Quetzaltenango

So I decided to walk past the School of Commerce (ENCO) and crossed the fourth street inconsiderately, contravening any implicitly learned pedestrian rule. I wanted to get to the newly-opened university cafeteria as soon as possible.

There I came across Felicia, the pastry chef of Calabrian origin, with a couple of her friends, the Kanjobal man, Timoteo, and the Canadian girl, Bernardette. Such an unexpected meeting gave way to an improvised stereo dialogue in which we discussed the vehicular chaos that afflicts Cimera City.

“That in Xela [Quetzaltenango] they would manage to impose land planning and regulations to manage traffic is a pipe-dream. It will never happen! I’m convinced that this society won’t ever evolve, on the contrary, it regresses more day by day. The whole country is going backwards: politics, education, the environment, the church.”

“And Xela is much worse-off than the capital – we’ll never have someone like Álvaro Arzú, who has been able to impose himself on those who hold the economic power. He’s launched a modern urban project that will last far longer than the electoral circus that takes place every four years; elections end up scamming the majority of people, since they are reduced to nothing more than marketing.”

“We, at the national university, are formulating a project aimed at regulating transport in Xela so that the urban service works, that all the old trucks are taken out of circulation, that only minibuses are used, and that the stops are marked with notices and signs, so that buses don’t just stop anywhere.”

“Here plans are not accepted, and it’s not convenient for the mayor to oppose the mafia business that is transportation. So many plans have been abandoned since the peace treaties were signed, and cooperation has brought a mountain of development projects; but we need to start somewhere and we must teach people, educate or civilize them so that they know how to live in a city.”

“You’re right, it’s not just about convincing, but maybe also being a little coercive!”

“Let’s stop with this for a bit! To change things, we would have to start with the language we use. We’re used to saying we’re ‘a bit annoyed’ when we’re pissed off; ‘a bit sad’ when we’re so depressed we could throw ourselves into the abyss; and ‘a bit late’ when we submit our exams a week after the due date.”

“People also say: ‘Is it very urgent?’ The only thing that’s for sure is something is urgent, or it isn’t. Octavio Paz always said that corruption always begins in the language one uses, and here, in Guatemala, we accept that we use a language that is timid, imprecise, elusive, designed to hide the reality of things and never calling things what they are.”

“What goes on in the capital is that, since 1986, the same group of businessmen-cum-politicians have been in power. The only determined and resolute politician is Álvaro Arzú, who isn’t scared of making decisions because he knows his enemies and knows their weaknesses, their corruption, their inclination towards sabotage and smear campaigns; he himself grew up in an oligarchy, as he was a member of the anticommunist MLN.”

“In this country the media conspires daily against the state, flying the flag of democracy, or so said the late Ricardo Stein, a mathematician and physician who was the Head of Government while the aforementioned Arzú was president (1996-2000).”

“At least the new Transmetro in the capital is a development, even if the service is is of dubious quality. Nobody wants to get on or off where someone is snoring or urinating, or dragging a cart filled with vegetables; everyone has to stick to the fixed stops and – most importantly, for a society that is yet to be urbanized – the masses get used to walking in a group, like cattle, with policemen who her them through barriers and corridors so that they don’t dissipate.”

“Once again you can walk through the streets of the historic centre of the capital and see the architecture that had been dismembered after the earthquake of 1976. With the arrival of globalization it means, above all, that society must urbanize, life must be arranged around big urban spaces like the capital, so that the masses consume and gather like herds in malls and leisure areas.”

“What is lacking in Xela, I say, is that there is no collective of businessmen ready to invest in the city, that they agree to stick to the initiatives of the city council or the mayor.”

“What is killing this backward society is greed, the greediness of so many people trained to claw and beat! The merchants, mixed-race and indigenous alike, will never accept the idea of pedestrianizing the historic centre of Xela, because they’re so lazy that they want to use their pickup or their car even to go to the bathroom without needing to get out of the vehicle.”

—Mario R. Loarca Pineda is a Guatemalan writer who has published articles and essays in various Mexican and Central American magazines. In 2006 his novel, Nefarious Sin was published (a review of his novel can be seen here;   He is educated in Social Psychology and Latin American Studies

Cover photo by: John Mitchell