- Patrick Vercoutere
- Colonial churches in Eastern Guatemala (16th and 17th Century )
Little is known about these peculiar churches in El Progreso and Chiquimula, two of Guatemala's 22 provinces. Guatemala is said to be poor, but is it, with its rich cultural heritage ?
When Spain invaded the New World in the early 16th century, they didn't waste much compassion on its native population. Mounted on horses, blood hounds in their wake, crucifix held with both hands, they conquered the continent.
El Progreso is proud to announce that, in the 21st century, traditional dances are a thing of the past. The province has become the equivalent of Costa Rica in Guatemala. It is now a multicultural society that uses the word 'indio' to refer to Guatemala's other provinces. And 'indigena' has a nice ring to it, they feel, at least in contemporary Spain. Its sole archaelogical site, Guaytan, lies between adobe houses with tin roofs. It is home to millions of mosquitoes and a forgotten past. Here, 'brujos' (1) perform their ancient rituals, preferably as far away as possible from the suspicious, uncomprehending Christian souls, of which catholics are a minority. Unfortunately, they are omnipresent. Nowadays, there is a fierce discussion whether 49 or 61% of Guatemala's population is from Indian – i.e. Mayan – descent. This percentage is downgraded every year, except by foreign aid organizations.
Have you ever seen the sun on the facade of the church of San Cristobal Acasaguastlan ? Or the clock, not from the colonial era, on top of the church of Santiago Esquipulas ? Have you noticed that the roman number IIII is not the usual number IV ?
The church of San Augustin can be visited, even underground. The cemetery sits under the church, and a friendly man of some age invites you to go down the stairs. From rot to riches... If you were rich in the colonial era, you almost ended up underneath the altar. The less well-off stranded somewhere half distance. The poor – i.e. the Indians in the colonial era – never saw the inside of a church, alive or dead. Now they are allowed to go inside, even though they are still as poor as before but now they have been 'granted' a soul. A massive improvement. There are still poor 'ladinos' as well, but they have always had a soul. (2)
And then there is Esquipulas, the equivalent of Lourdes and Fatima in Europe, of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico-City. A black Christ, crucified since 1595, St. John, Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary at his feet. Christ is hanging from the cross, the others kneel, stand or sit. He, the Son, hasn't always been this black. The smoke from countless numbers of candles lit throughout the centuries has got something to do with it. In the aisles of this enormous church – a basilica since 1961, courtesy of Pope John XIII – you'll notice that St. Veronica is unaffected by the smoke, while the less fortunate saints closer to the main altar are almost unrecognizable. So is it beneficial to women, having to sit in the back of the church ? Above the pulpit is a suggestive painting without a recognizable pigeon, victim of the same candle epidemic. Being modest and sitting in the back clearly has its advantages. The veil with sweat, blood, tears and probably some leftovers from the Last Supper (sic) in the hands of Veronica is original. As are so many, the most original being kept in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The church of San Juan Camotan, on the border with Honduras, was reconstructed by Belgian volunteers in the seventies of the previous century. It's a quiet town. Ignore the unseemly, upright stone with illegible markings.
(1) Mayan priests, mostly from the western highlands of Guatemala
(2) Until 50 years after the invasion Indians were considered to be soulless beings
Tour operator in Guatemala since 1997, trainee cultural guide . More information about fascinating Guatemala: email@example.com