Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guatemala Part 6a: The lakeside town of Santiago Atitlán

Tz'utujil woman at the lakeside town Santiago Atitlán. She wears not only a beautifully embroidered huipil (blouse), but also an unusual hat, called a toyocal for which the Tz'utujil are famous in Guatemala. It is shaped like a thick frisbee with a hole in the center, and is made from a long, coiled, embroidered strip of cloth. While at Lake Atitlán, Caravan Tours took us across the lake to visit the small Maya town of Santiago Atitlán. The town is located along the largest of the two inlets on the south side of Lake Atitlán. Towering over the community are Volcan San Pedro, across the inlet to the west, and Volcan Toliman, immediately behind the town. In pre-hispanic times, the town, then called Chuitinamit, was the capital of the Tz'utujil people. For a map of Santiago Atitlán and the area around it, click here. The best way to view the map is in the Hybrid setting (upper right corner of the map) that includes not only a satellite view, but the road network.

The Malecon

Santiago's malecon is rustic. Palapas, rickety piers, and a palm-shaded, dirt plaza greet visitors as they clamber off one of the many boats that dock here each day. I felt I was stepping into another world, another age. Like they did throughout their Western Hemisphere empire, the Spanish renamed local indigenous towns. Usually, they kept the original name, but added on the name of a saint, with each town in an area getting a different saint. In Spanish, Santiago means St. James. One of the original Apostles, he was revered in Spain as a warrior-saint who aided the Spanish in their re-conquest of their European Peninsula from the Muslim Moors, as well as in their subsequent conquest of the New World. The second part of the name, Atitlán, is a Nahuatl word, imported by the Aztec mercenary soldiers brought down to Guatemala by conquistador Pedro Alvarado after the destruction of their empire. The word means: "place where the rainbow gets its colors." The original Maya name was dropped.

Lake Atitlán has risen recently. Some residents had built homes and tiendas (shops) along the malecon, but now many of these are now flooded. In the foreground are several of the oddly shaped boats the fishermen use. In most similar craft with which I am familiar, the sides, or gunwales, are curved outward from bow to stern. In the boats above, the sides are all flat and the boats are full of angles instead of curves. They seem quite small to venture out on such a large lake. Until fairly recently, Santiago and most of the other towns around the lake were very isolated from the outside world. There were few roads and many bandits. A journey that can be accomplished in a few hours today took as much as a week, traveling on foot with line of packed burros. To travel from one part of the lake to another, people nearly always used boats. In spite of the new roads, this is still largely true.

Street scenes

On parade: Santiago's lovely young girls in traditional clothing. This quartet carried on a lively conversation as they strolled down a side street. Their embroidered huipils are tucked into ankle-length cortes (sarong-like skirts). Two of them wear wide embroidered belts around their waists. The designs of the huipils are a mixture of Maya and Spanish. The Spanish required Maya to wear clothing that identified their specific town, in Santiago's case the stripes you see above. The Maya acquiesced but then decorated their "prison stripe" huipils with gorgeous embroidery. They have maintained the stripes into modern times, even though the Spanish colonial overlords are long gone.

Busy intersection near Santiago's main plaza. The cop in the middle of the street rather casually waved to traffic, while the tuk-tuks darted around obstacles such as tourists like myself. As you can see, vendors lay out their goods right on the sidewalks and into the street. Pedestrians wander about or nonchalantly stand in the street. All this was a bit hair-raising to me, given all the tuk-tuks whizzing about.

Tuk-tuks are not the only form of local public transportation. Above, a pickup truck (locally called a "picop") hauls its load of standing passengers, including one on the bumper. These trucks are usually Toyotas, an extremely popular model in Guatemala. I can vouch for them, as a former Toyota picop owner myself. Transportation by picop is cheaper than by tuk-tuks, taxis, or bus. The picops not only operate locally, but also travel considerable distances, for example between municipalities (counties).

The Divine Providence Bar. Jorge, our Caravan Tour director (red shirt on left) gives us instructions for how to meet up again. A young boy, in the foreground, decided to mimic his gestures as a prank. I was amused by the name of the Cantina La Divina Providencia. Perhaps, after a long night consuming the local cerveza, a little "divine providence" would help get the imbiber home safely.

Maya mom walks her young daughter to school. Traditionally dressed in her cortes, she has a tzute thrown as a shawl over her shoulders, and her long hair is in a traditional braid. A tzute is an all-purpose garment, essentially a large rectangle of woven cloth that can function as a shawl, a hat, a baby wrap, or a container for packages. In Mexico, such garments are called rebozos. Interestingly, the daughter is dressed in modern exercise pants and a sweatshirt. If such dress is adopted by young people as their preferred style in out-of-the-way places such as Santiago, the lovely traditional clothing may become much more rare. Rather than daily wear, it may be brought out just for the tourists. At that point a living culture becomes a sham.

Parroquia Santiago Apostol

Parroquia Santiago Apostal. The Parroquia, or parish church, stands in front of a broad plaza at the top of a hill overlooking the town. The present church was completed in 1947. The steps leading into the Parroquia are almost identical in design to those we saw in Chichicastenango's church. This leads me to believe they may have been part of an ancient Maya temple as was the case with Chichicastenago. Typically, the Spanish destroyed such temples and built churches on top of their ruins. Therefore, there may also have once been a colonial-era church where the modern church now stands.

Local girls gossiping. The steps of the church form an ideal gathering spot for those who want to catch up on the latest gossip. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying, but, given their ages, I speculated that it was probably about boys. The girl on the right is providing a juicy detail that the one on the left finds humorous. The girl on the middle seems a bit skeptical of the whole thing, but can't resist a slight "Mona Lisa" kind of smile. All three wear the Spanish stripes with embroidered flowers. The middle girl wears a beautifully woven tzute.

A painted wooden retablo stands behind the main altar of Parroquia Santiago. A retablo is the backdrop behind the altar of a colonial church. In colonial times they were made of wood, painted with various scenes, and usually contained niches for Christ and various saints. When we entered the Parroquia, the interior was largely unadorned, except for two rebablos and some statues. The retablos appeared to be quite old and possibly came from the previous colonial church, or maybe some other ancient church.

Tableau of statues in front of the main altar retablo. These were full-sized (or at least Maya-sized) statues, beautifully carved and painted and finely clothed. Behind the cross-carrying Christ are two saints. The one in the center may be the Virgin Mary. The figure on the left wears a bishop's mitre made of palm-fronds. I asked Jorge to explain the palm frond mitre, but--for once--he was at a loss. Notice the multiple scarves on this figure. More, later, on the meaning of these.

Another retablo, centered on Mary and the Baby Jesus. Again, Mary and the saints around her are finely robed. This rebablo, set off in a corner, was more richly carved than the one behind the main altar. Like the altar retablo, this one appeared to be much older than the current church.

The faithful at prayer. The gender separation in clothing is very apparent here. Most Maya women maintain the traditional garb, while the men dress in modern styles, often looking like American cowboys with boots and stetsons. In many colonial churches I have visited, representations of Jesus seem oddly absent, or at least tucked away in a side chapel somewhere, and God is almost nowhere to be found. The central focus is generally on the Virgin Mary (in Mexico almost always the Virgin of Guadalupe) or one or more of the saints. Parroquia Santiago Apostal gave a much more central place to Jesus, portraying him both at the main altar and in this side chapel.

The line-up. Paul, one of our fellow Caravan Tour participants, takes a break while a long line of saints looks on. Paul is a psychologist from the US who was fascinated that Carole and I live full-time in Mexico. He was eager to check out the possibility of living in Mexico, but his partner, John, was a bit dubious of the whole prospect. The saints in the background are taken out during fiestas, especially Semana Santa (literally "Saints' Week", otherwise known as Easter Week). They are paraded around town, along with many of the other statues we have seen. The fiestas and parades contain the same fascinating mixture of Catholicism and ancient Maya beliefs that you will find throughout Guatemala.

A saint with a cravat. This statue of a saint was adorned not only with fine robes, but also a very colorful scarf. The faithful present such scarves to the saints as a gesture of devotion, or thanks. Quite often, they include very expensive name-brand scarves such as Gucci, Ives St. Laurent, Givenchy, etc. According to Jorge, the cloth will sometimes be decorated with the US flag, or the flag of Texas, or some other state where the person has lived in the United States.

A modern martyr. Father Stanley Rother, a Roman Catholic priest from Oklahoma, was shot to death in his Parroquia rectory by a right-wing death squad on July 28, 1981. This occurred during the height of the US-backed repression by the Guatemala government. The words above were a quote from Rother: "For myself, I am a Christian. No, for the others I am a priest." The Lake Atitlán area did not escape the savage killing that followed the CIA-organized-and-financed overthrow of the democratically-elected government of  Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. The overthrow set in motion a 30-year Civil War in which as many as 200,000 people died, most of them innocent civilians killed by government security forces. For access to the CIA's own records detailing its actions, click here.

Santiago's ordeal occurred primarily between the years 1980 and 1990. On January 6, 1980, 10 local men were massacred as they worked in their fields just outside Santiago by Guatemalan military forces. This was followed by countless death threats, disappearances, and assassinations. These were so common that people often sought refuge in the Parroquia at night rather than stay in their own homes. This drew the attention of the authorities to Father Rother, who was then assassinated. People in town were so grateful for Rother's brave actions that they asked that his heart and blood remain in the parish where they are buried in a martyrs' monument. The killing went on until December 1990 when 13 people were shot to death just outside a local military base where they went as part of a peaceful protest against the abuses. This time, the press coverage finally caused international attention to focus on the atrocities. The military was forced to withdraw from the area, and several years later the Civil War reached a negotiated end. Not long after the military withdrawal, local people discovered a nearby mass grave, but the military threatened to return if the digging continued. The local people stopped, but left the open hole as a further monument and reminder of this dark time. To this day, military establishments are forbidden in the Lake Atitlán area.

This concludes the first part of my posting on Santiago Atitlán. Next week we will take a look at the main plaza and the markets of the town. I always appreciate hearing from my viewers. If you would like to leave a comment, please either use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hey Jim - nice posting.

    I am wondering since you take many photos with high contrast (bright sun, deep shadows), do you edit any photos to even out the lighting? I am thinking of the photo of the four girls in the street scene especially.

  2. Jim,
    Loved your articles on Guatemala. What time of the year did you go and how was the weather, temperature and rain wise. Also, what airline(s) did you take from Guadalajara to Guatemala City? Because of your articles, I am seriously considering on going. My email is:

  3. Hi Jim and Carole,

    I am enjoying your travelogues and photos -- wonderful. So well written and beautiful pix.

    Just thought you might be interested in the fact that I just retired from the manager's position at a fair trade store here in Salem. It now called One Fair World, but used to be Ten Thousand Villages. We sold a lot of Guatemalan fair trade coffee and woven goods there. Still do.

    Keep 'em coming!

    Linda Bruce (former neighbor)


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim