To my generation our southernmost district of Toledo, due to its distance from our main administrative, commercial and population centres, the previously poor service by road and other communication networks, and the persistent level of poverty, appeared to be remote. This sense of remoteness which some commentators have argued was more psychological than physical, has hitherto hindered development in the once “Forgotten District.” With rapid advancement in communications and transportation infrastructure and services, this once sleeping giant, Toledo, has awakened and has become acknowledged nationally and internationally for its prominent role in our national development.
Our school children of today learn of the bounty of Toledo’s natural resources, its agricultural and industrial potential, its rich culturally diverse heritage, of her leadership in sustainable development and environmental conservation efforts. Consider the contribution of her daughters and sons to our academic, cultural, economic, intellectual and social legacy. Cities of the Ancient Maya rise majestically above its natural parks and protected areas. Toledo has led the way in advancing Belize as a reputable Ecologically Friendly and Heritage Tourism destination. Toledo in recent decades has come centre stage in our national discourse on how to balance conservation and the Right to Development. Landmark legal decisions have been handed down from the highest judicial authorities of the country on matters regarding the land rights of the indigenous Maya while huge multinational companies rush in to explore for that elusive energy resource we refer to as “Black Gold”. Housewives in Europe ask for its superior chocolate products by name and their youth enjoy productions from artists from villages like Barranco or access research authored by Toledo’s distinguished citizens.
Then there is the international dimension. Toledo, because of its geographic location as our Western and Southern Boundary, is subject too frequently to encroachments by both terrestrial and maritime poachers, who create at times incidents which further give urgency to the international efforts to find a durable solution to the border controversy with Guatemala and to have Honduras finally drop its maritime claim to the Ranguana and the Sapodilla Cayes.
When the usual observer reflects on Toledo’s present day political and social activism, there can be no doubt that this hitherto regarded “Forgotten District” is now mainstream in our national agenda. Yes, today undoubtedly Toledo is on the world’s stage.
In the field of sports, talent from this previously “Forgotten District” came to national prominence in 1972, with names such as Simon “Pancho” Paulino, Lawrence “Changs” Nicholas, Terrence Genus, Michanto Sanchez, Byron Zuniga, Miron Augustine, John Paul Garcia, Simon “Oak” Martinez, Jacinto “Tash” Guiterrez, John Diaz, Charles “Chuck” Gutierrez, James Flores, Frank Taylor, Pike Avila, Maurice “Burra” Flowers and Jet Lambey. These were the names of the players who comprised the Toledo selection which competed in the Football Inter-District Competition. They were recognized as one of the power house districts on the football scene.
The team was led by the Gutierrez brothers – Tash and Chuck. Tash leading the forward line with Chuck playing midfield and creating opportunities for his brother Tash and the rest of the Toledo selection’s forward line. The Gutierrez brothers were awesome, exciting and elegant in their playing. How could we have hidden Tash and Chuck and the entire Toledo selection from our view? They came to prominence during a play-by-play live commentary on the country’s then only radio station, Radio Belize, and this was the rise of the Gutierrez brothers and the rise of the Toledo selection.
During the 1978 Inter-District the Orange Walk selection, led by Enrique Carballo and Stud Hendricks, needed only a draw to become the Champion of Champions. In the standings they had to get past Toledo with a draw to win the trophy. And so Orange Walk faced off on that memorable Sunday against the Toledo selection. During the first half of the match the Guiterrez brothers with all their moves and shakes could not penetrate the Orange Walk defence wall led by Wellington Ramos, and when the referee’s whistle sounded the first half ended in a scoreless tie.
The Orange Walk selection was only ten minutes away from securing the championship as the game was still scoreless. Tash Gutierrez found an opening in the Orange Walk defence and landed a crucial blow to a devastated Orange Walk team when he found an opening and created a pass to Frank Taylor, who converted it to the game’s only goal. The game ended 1-0 in favour of Toledo, so Orange Walk had to go up against Stann Creek who trounced them in the playoff game to become the Champion of Champions.
That year the Toledo selection, a hitherto unknown team, created havoc in all the District towns and their super star, their Toledo hero, Tash Gutierrez, took home the Most Valuable Player Award.
Tash Gutierrez recalled to me that he remembered a game in which the Toledo selection played against the Stann Creek selection in Stann Creek and that this was one of the most enjoyable and memorable games of his career. He recalled how they were losing 2-0 and late in the second half Joseph Avila, John Paul and himself scored three late goals as they defeated the Stann Creek selection 3 goals to 2. Tash laughed as he recapped this game play-by-play. He said he could even remember someone listening to a radio on the sidelines from which he heard the voice of Evan X Hyde clearly broadcasting the game for Radio Belize.
Tash said to me in his quiet, sneaky and eloquent way that he knew that he was a good footballer, he loved his Toledo selection but that he wanted to feel how it felt to be a champion. So he decided he would play for the Mighty Avengers. Now imagine Tash’s situation. Today we enjoy looking at NBA games. His predicament then would have been analogous to the unfulfilled aspirations of NBA superstars such as Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Elgin Baylor, George “The Iceman” Gervin and Patrick Ewing who, despite all they have accomplished in their super star professional basketball careers, have never won a championship ring.
At that time Tash was working as a draughtsman at the Ministry of Natural Resources and residing in Belmopan with his family. This was also a deciding factor in playing for the Mighty Avengers, he recalled. He wished to play for a team which would keep him close to his home and family.
He said that Mighty Avengers was the best team he ever played on. He recounted his first game he played with the Mighty Avengers when Papi Smith told him, “Young boy, no worry, I will get the ball for you. Relax.” Tash characterized Papi Smith as the best footballer he played with and the best footballer he has ever seen play. He said, while laughing, that “The only team that beat the Mighty Avengers that year, can you believe it?”, he said in his quiet style, “was my Toledo selection.” In the second game the Mighty Avengers played against Toledo he recalled how they trounced the Toledo selection 3-0, embarrassing the Toledo team and that during play he said to Papi Smith and Pillis Neal, “Take it easy, this is my Toledo team, I am not here to embarrass them,” and so they began to pass the ball around among themselves, finishing the game 3 goals to nil.
Tash told me of his sojourn in the northern extremity of our country. While there he played with La Victoria of Corozal, the team which finished in 2nd place during the 1979 Inter-District competition.
You may ask how I moved from the Toledo selection to mere Tash Gutierez. Any good team has a good star player and Tash Gutierrez was theirs. Tash recounted how the Toledo selection was always good in the first half of the competition but failed in the second round. He also recounted fond memories he had with his Toledo teammates. He recounted that he never drank alcohol nor smoked neither cigarettes nor marijuana in his entire career, as he realized he was a role model to his district and country.
While talking to a prominent Toledo figure he complained that Tash Gutierrez left the entire Toledo District twisting in the wind and recounted to me the song Four Walls by the late Jim Reeves. I can understand how the Toledo District must have felt when Tash Gutierrez left them seeking a championship ring and the spotlight of the Mighty Avengers. I now quote from the song:
“Out where the bright lights are glowing, you’re drawn like a moth to a flame; you laugh while the wine’s overflowing, while I sit and whisper your name. Four walls to hear me, four walls to see, four walls too near me, closing in on me. Sometimes I ask why I’m waiting, but my walls have nothing to say, I’m made for love not for hating, so here where you left me I’ll stay.”
The Tash Gutierrez-led Toledo selection will always be remembered for their exuberance, their excitement and their eloquence.
And, on that note, I will return. Hold tight!