Tag Archives: guatemala

Guatemala: A brief history of Christian conversion by force

In July of 2012 my wife and I visited Guatemala.  We traveled around the country and visited ancient ruins, religious sites, and learned much about the history and culture of the people living there.

One phenomena I found especially interesting was a unique form of Christianity practiced throughout the region – especially prevalent in the rural regions of the country. This form of Christianity incorporated Christian and Mayan traditions and symbols – a unique and beautiful presentation of religious history right there in front of us.

History: Christianity brought to Guatemala by the Spaniards

Much of the Spanish inquisition of Central America centered around greed, not religion. Spanish explorers used religion as an excuse to pillage and destroy villages for resources, land, and glory – rather than in the name of Christianity.

None-the-less religious leaders permitted this behavior in the name of God and Christianity was spread by forced conversion – a convenient  mechanism for the Spaniards to promote their imperialistic goals in and around Guatemala.

“Maya communities under immediate pressure to conform to imperial designs…Under the policy of congregacion…thousands of native families were coerced from their homes in the mountains into new settlements built around churches…For the Spaniards, congregacion promoted more effective civil administration, facilitated the conversion of Indians to Christianity, and created centralized pools of labor to meet imperial objectives.” [Source]

In all, hundreds of thousands of Mayans were killed, millions displaced from their homes, and incalculable history destroyed. “Mayan-Christianity” persist to this day.

Guatemala religion

Mayan Christianity

And though most Guatemalans in these rural villages consider themselves Christian -traditions left over from native Mayan culture remain potent. One example is the Mayan headdress and shirt (shown above) worn by only the elder women in Santioago Atitlan. The fashion is fading away, but remains one of the clearest examples of local culture entrenching itself into modern Christianity.

Spanish Priests also incorporated Mayan symbolism into the churches (shown below). My local tour guide pointed out the altarpiece inside the church:

“Maya traditionalists familiar with this structure merge the Christian symbols in this large carved wood sculpture with their traditional worldviews. The altarpiece is seen concurrently as “a sacred mountain from which divine beings emerge,” the three volcanoes surrounding Santiago Atitlan, and, in the broadest sense, a referent to ancient Maya temples and architecture” [Source]

Guatemala relgions 2

Modern Guatemala

Modern Guatemala is a mashup of native and imported traditions. In the small town of Antigua, Guatemala, for example, there are nearly 40 churches representing different Christian denominations. Each a beautiful, yet painful reminder of the costs of imperialism and religious zealotry.

Note: All photos belong to me.

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How to get from the Airport in Guatemala City to Antigua

If you are headed to Antigua, Guatemala you have to fly into Guatemala City. Guatemala City isn’t exactly a tourist oasis and most people find it a little dirty and mildly dangerous. My personal advice, if you aren’t familiar with Central America, is to avoid the city and head directly to Antigua upon arrive in Guatemala. Since there is no airport in Antigua you will have to catch a ride to Antigua. Not to worry though Antigua is less than an hour drive from Guatemala City.

Getting to Antigua

The best way to get to Antigua from Guatemala City is by pre-arranging transportation before you arrive. There are a variety of reputable tour companies that can set you up with transportation and will be waiting for you when you arrive in Guatemala City. At only $10 per person most people find this option the easiest, safest, and most hassle free. This is the option I use when I visit Antigua and see little reason (unless you are up for adventure) to use any other method.

I usually pre-arrange my ride to Antigua via the folks at Around Antigua. You have to communicate via email, but they are always very helpful in setting something up for me (including tours, transportation, advice about locations, etc.).

Chicken Buses

The cheapest and probably most dangerous (and perhaps most fun) way to get from Guatemala City to Antigua is via the Chicken Buses. The Chicken Buses are typical American style school buses that have been painted and decorated in true Central American style. The bus drivers are reckless, robberies have been known to occur, and you will be stuffed in with the locals – but if you want true Guatemalan culture – a chicken bus is it.

I do not recommend taking a chicken bus if you are afraid of getting lost in Guatemala or if you will be carrying a lot of luggage or valuables. Tourists with a lot of luggage and who aren’t fluent in Spanish are prime targets for jerks looking for someone to take advantage of. The chicken buses can be fun and they are pretty reliable, but use them at your own discretion.

Outside the Airport – What I wish I had Known

One thing you have to realize when you arrive in Guatemala City is that you are in the third world. People think you are rich and by their standards you probably are. They want to perform services for your for cash. Some people want to take advantage of you too, but most people just want to perform a service.

When you exit the airport – even if you are just waiting for your ride – you will encounter a variety of people. When my wife and I exited the airport there were kids begging to shine my shoes, there were men who looked like they worked for the airport (but didn’t) offering me their cell phone to call my ride (for a tip), and there were about 100 other folks standing around doing this and that.

I had been in Central America before so it didn’t bother me, but it was a first for my wife. I had warned her about what she might expect, but it still made her a little nervous so just be aware of what you might see. My advice is to just stick to yourself, politely decline offers, and catch your ride. I actually enjoy the experience as a reminder that I’m not in the States anymore.

Guatemala is AWESOME

If Guatemala City seems a little rough don’t worry because overall Guatemala is an amazing place. It is the only place my wife and I have ever traveled to where she literally begged me to move to. Honestly we both fell in love with Antigua. You will too. Some people have visited and literally never returned – it’s just that kind of place.

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That Dive Bar in Antigua, Guatemala

I remember walking in Cafe No Se. I instantly knew I had found something special. Something not quite Guatemalan, but certainly perfect for Antigua. At the entrance sat several expats discussing what must have been something philosophical – it just looked too important.

One guy at about age 50 worked at the book store next door and sported a long ponytail. I coincidentally remembered him from earlier in the day as I was browsing the local shops. He couldn’t have looked more relaxed if he tried and that was the same thing I remember thinking when I saw him in the bookstore earlier that day.

The bartender was several years sober and didn’t touch a drop of alcohol. While he made drinks for the rest of us he quietly sipped on coffee and complained about the “gringo bar” next door. Something about the way he sipped his coffee made him seem wiser than the rest of us. His almost perfect English made me nearly forget I was in Guatemala until he would shout a few words in Spanish to patrons entering the bar.

Here and there sits graffiti and signatures carved on the walls made by past and present customers who want to leave their mark. No one seems to mind and certainly not enough to ask anyone to stop. You sit at the rustic little bar for an hour or two and once you have become reasonably intoxicated and stupid enough the bartender suggest you try a few shots of ilegal Mezcal. Mezcal is a tequila-ish liquor that the bar employees claim to be the grandfather of tequila. It goes down like poison, but by the time they offer it to you it’s too late to say no anyways.

Perhaps the best part of the entire bar is closing out your tab. After a long night of drinking and conversation I fully expected to be robbed of what little dignity I had left with a giant bar tab, but that’s when you realize – you are in Guatemala and have been paying Central America prices. I close out my tab at about $40 (US) and escape with enough money to buy a cup of coffee in the morning.

cafenose

That moment when you realize you might actually DIE in Guatemala

I remember touching down in Guatemala. My wife and I hustled through customs and walked out of the airport. That’s when we were bombarded with people – people trying to sell bulk produced bracelets, food I couldn’t eat without shitting myself for a week, and shoe shines for my damned tennis shoes. I mean people were literally begging to give you a ride or just help out a little for a modest tip. I didn’t know who to trust, so I just waited for my ride, and tried to ignore the pestering of the city folk.

Guatemala

FINALLY my “shuttle” pulled up. By shuttle I mean a 1995 Honda Accord. Sure I thought it was a little sketchy, but the guy knew my name and had a very official “I’m a taxi” sticker on his car so I decided to hop in like a good little tourist. Anything to get me away from the guy with a scraggly beard who smelled like piss.

My wife and I hopped in the car and it wasn’t long before I realized we weren’t getting on the interstate. We were pulling into a neighborhood. A neighborhood in Guatemala City. A neighborhood with razor wire and busted glass bottles lining the top of cement barriers.

The driver, who looked like he had possibly murdered someone at some point, didn’t say anything. He just stopped the car and honked the horn. All the bad things and all of the warnings I had read and been told began to shout at me in my head. This was it – we were going to be robbed. My heart started to pound and I began shoving my I.D. and credit cards in my shoe. I thought I was going to have to leave my wife behind and make a break for it. If I was nervous I could only imagine the terror my wife must have been feeling.

Then it happened. The moment that changed everything. My stomach dropped and a guy opened the passenger door. “Sorry Guys! I’m Late” A lanky and clumsy guy from Azerbaijan hopped in the car. He was running late and was sharing the shuttle to Antigua.

We later found out that he even knew a mutual friend of ours. What a small world. Then on the radio, a sports program, Guatemala scored a goal. The driver screamed “GOOOOAAAAALLLLL!”

For the first time I saw him smile and I knew Guatemala was going to be alright.