20 October 1944. The ousting of Dictator Jorge Ubico marked the start of the 10 yearlong Guatemalan Revolution which saw progressive reform under the governments of Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, only for all this work to be undone by a US-sponsored CIA-backed coup in 1954.
Every year on the same day crowds march to the main square of Guatemala City to protest and demand reform.
I tagged along to see what was going on. I saw students from the University of San Carlos – a hardcore university deeply rooted in the history of Guatemala and the fight against military governments during the armed conflict.
There were organizations from the countryside, women’s rights organizations and an assortment of people with demands against the government.
The march started off at El Trebol, a huge intersection of some of the main roads that run through the city, and a notoriously dangerous place. I finally managed to get a picture of an extorted red inner city bus with the smiley on the back window (albeit not the scariest one I have seen).
Along the way groups of bandana-clad students were running up along the pavements graffitying any untouched corrugated metal shop front.
I managed to speak to one of the graffiti kids, Marco Antonio, a student of journalism from USAC. They’re pretty brave guys. Getting caught spray-painting carries a 125,000 quetzal (12,500 pounds) fine, he told me.
The University of San Carlos is an amazing place and I am looking to write about it in more detail, but all the students have a strong connection with their history, which is marked by forced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and violence at the hands of government-sponsored death-squads. I think they have a right to be pissed.
They were dressed up like Ku Klux Klan brothers. Except colourful and not so racist.
Yellow and black were architecture students, green were agronomy, and I can’t remember the rest.
I managed to meet fellow political science students – red and black.
As we walked down the pedestrianized 6th Avenue and the police presence got stronger the student’s reaction to the police patrols was pretty insightful.
A la gran puta… ¡La puta! ¡La puta! ¡La puta, puta putaaaaa…!
Quite like a Guatemalan football match really. More on that later.
The students stopped off at a memorial to their student union leader from the 1970s, Oliverio Castañeda de León, who was assassinated on the pavement of 6th Avenue on the very same day in 1978. His last public words, as he spoke to the gathered crowd in front of the national palace, were also his most famous:
Ellos pueden matar a nuestros dirigentes, pero mientras haya pueblo, habrá revolución
They can kill our leaders, but as long as there are people, there will be revolution
We eventually arrived at the central square by around midday. I still had time to go to Santiago Atitlan, a beautiful traditional Guatemalan town by Lake Atitlan, a three hour bus ride from the city. I had a mission there concerning the occult and pagan activities, but that story will have to wait.
On my way to the bus stop I got distracted by the sounds of marimba music coming from a bar, El Portal.
El Portal is one of the most famous bars of Guatemala City, a den of revolutionary activity which was the watering-hole of Che Guevara and countless other Guatemalan revolutionaries, including Oliverio. I made my through the crowd of students and past Oliverio’s shrine.
I pushed open the saloon doors and immediately sensed I wouldn’t make it far anytime soon. I caught the eye of particularly revolutionary looking bandito with a Che-flatcap who I had spoken to earlier in the day.
I joined his table and immediately met the extended family and friends.
Bienvenido a la lucha popular
Welcome to the people’s struggle
I can’t remember his name for the life of me, so I’ll just call him The Cousin. He was a human rights lawyer and professor at the University of San Carlos. His cousin Erik was also a former student as was the young protégé sitting at the table. Also at the table were the mother and aunt of The Cousin. He also seemed to know everyone else in the packed room.
We were drinking Mixta, a mix of light and dark beer, and eating pocitas (literally; little ones) that are small portions of food served alongside the beer. Guatemalan tapas if you will, one of which was black pudding. Nothing like home comforts.
I stepped outside to take a call from a friend of mine.
The conversation lasted longer than I thought it might, and as I was speaking Eric rushed out of El Portal.
We were worried
I liked these guys.
We talked about all sorts – USAC, the armed conflict, the time when The Cousin tried to throw a box full of fireworks at George Bush when he visited Guatemala in 2007, and the current situation of Guatemala today. They had a lot to say about Manuel Baldizón, leader of the political party ‘Lider’ and quite likely to be the next President of Guatemala. Rumours link him with drug-trafficking and some argue his political campaign is funded by dirty money.
Erik had this to say however:
Prefiero un narco a un militar
I prefer a narco to a military man
This is an understandable viewpoint in a country which has suffered generations of dictators and army generals running the show. Judging from his statement, elections in Guatemala involved finding the best of a bad bunch.
We decided to move on. I thought we were heading onto another bar in the city. As it turned out, we were heading back to the clandestine base for drinks and fried chicken (Pollo Campero).
As we were walking to the car we passed a military patrol. The reaction of Eric and the group was quite similar to the students.
At this point I started worrying we might bump into Geronimo, the special forces soldier who I had spoken to several weeks before. I had seen him in the main square earlier so I knew he was prowling the streets.
Meeting him whilst in these guys company would be like bumping into an ex-girlfriend whilst on a first date with that hot mamasita from across the street. But with automatic rifles.
Really really bad basically.
I kept my head down and kept going. Not much later I was in a car with the group listening to clandestine Guatemalan guerilla music. They were singing at full voice as we sped through the city. I was the only one who didn’t know the words.
We arrived at a gated community in what I was told was zone 11, and showed identity to the security guard who was guarding the complex.
There was a large group of people when we arrived at the house and Eric immediately brought out beers whilst someone else called up Guatemala’s most popular fried chicken place, ‘Pollo Campero’ for a delivery.
Whilst waiting for the chicken, I headed out with Eric and others to go buy some more beer at the shop round the corner. As we walked through the neighborhood, Eric stopped and pointed out a huge construction site of a half-finished concrete structure.
Es hermosa, ¿no? Nuestra nueva casa
It’s beautiful, no? Our new house
Apparently The Cousin was building a new house – 4 storey’s high, as Eric kept telling me.
My alarm bells started ringing.
Todos piensan que somos narco traficantes, pero no somos. Trabajamos duro
Everyone thinks we are drug dealers, but were not. We just work hard
Uh huh, okay, I was slightly concerned now. I had heard enough stories about drug dealers building huge mansions in the western town of Huehuetenango off of dirty drug money to be a bit suspicious. We got back to the house, shared out the beer, and ate chicken.
The Cousin then moved things outside. We passed through the garage which was housing a blood red sports car. Eric and the Cousin kept on telling me about the racing which they did with it every weekend.
The Cousin started blasting some music from the car as a large croup gathered outside with beers and food. The Cousin was getting noticeably drunk.
Before long, the security guard from the compound entrance walked up the road towards us.
¿Se puede bajar la música, por favor?
Can you turn the music down please?
The Cousin exploded…
¡HIJO DE LA GRAN PUTA!
SON OF A…!
¡ESO ES MI CASA! ¡ESO ES MI CALLE! ¡PENDEJO!
THIS IS MY HOUSE! THIS IS MY STREET! ARSEHOLE!
The Cousin broke into a foul-mouthed rant whilst the security guard retreated back down the street. Everyone backed off a bit.
Eventually The Cousin jumped into the car with a select crew and disappeared for half and hour. In the meanwhile, the mother reappeared and what she said really made my heart skip a beat (in the bad sort of way).
Por favor, no quiero más violencia. No más violencia por favor
Please I don’t want more violence. No more violence please
Uhhhh, this was like every gangster movie I have ever seen – The kind, naïve mother who treats her rampaging ultra-violent Mafioso son like an overgrown child who occasionally throws his toys out of the pram.
I was ready to leave.
Eric reassured me that The Cousin was a good guy who looked out for his family. At this point no reassurance was good enough, and, to me, the word ‘family’ meant ‘family’ Sopranos style.
The Cousin came back and immediately announced he had to Quetzaltenango.
It was 9 o’clock. Quetzaltenango is a four hour drive across the country.
I jumped in the passenger seat, sensing an opportunity to escape. The Cousin tried to reassure me everything was fine, and very seriously, maybe even passive-aggresively, he said:
Mi casa es su casa
(Like you even need a translation)
I may have been imagining things, but at that moment there were far too many gangster references coming up every 5 minutes.
No thank you.
He agreed to drop me off in zone 1, much to my relief, although that was only after some of the worse driving I have witnessed in a while (and that’s coming from someone who got kicked out of a go-karting party aged 8 for dangerous driving).
He swerved his way through the Guatemala City traffic cutting up buses, police and motorbikes at every opportunity. I finally stepped out of the car in zone 1, relieved to be in familiar surroundings, and said adios, with one final picture to remember the moment.
And that was my Día de la Revolución. I was glad it was over.