From the moment of my arrival I was struck with the devout character of the city of Guatemala. At matins and vespers the churches were all open, and the people, particularly the women, went regularly to prayers. Every house had its figure of the Virgin, the Saviour, or some tutelary saint, and on the door were billets of paper with prayers.
– pg. 165, INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN CENTRAL AMERICA, CHIAPAS, & YUCATAN (1839-1840), by John L. Stephens, Rutgers University Press, 1949
Flores, the vice-chief of the State of Guatemala, a Liberal, had made himself odious to the priests and friars by laying a contribution upon the convent at Quezaltenango. While he was on a visit to that place, the friars of the convent had excited the populace against him as an enemy to religion. A mob had gathered before his house with cries of “Death to the heretic!” Flores fled to the church, but as he was entering the door a mob of women seized him, wrested a stick from his hands, beat him with it, tore off his cap, and dragged him by the hair …
… They dragged him from the pulpit across the floor of the church, and in the cloisters threw him into the hands of the fanatic and furious horde, where the women, like unchained furies, with their fists, sticks, and stones, beat him to death. His murderers stripped his body, leaving it disfigured and an object of horror, exposed to the insults of the populace, and then they dispersed throughout the city, demanding the heads of Liberals, and crying, “Vive la Religion, y mueran los herejes del Congreso.”
– pgs. 155, 156, ibid.
Antigua was the second capital of Guatemala, founded in 1543 after the destruction of the first by a water volcano. Its history is one of uninterrupted disasters …
… The year 1773 was the most melancholy epoch in the annals of this metropolis; it was then destroyed, and, as the capital, rose no more from its ruins … About four o’clock on the afternoon of July 29, a tremendous vibration was felt, and shortly after began the dreadful convulsion that decided the fate of the unfortunate city … On the 7th of September there was another, which threw down most of the buildings that were damaged on the 29th of July; and on the 13th of December, one still more violent terminated the work of destruction …
– pgs. 213, 214, ibid.
When I visited Guatemala City for medical reasons in May of 2012, our hostesses took us to Antigua (Guatemala), which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua, which was the third capital of Guatemala (according to Wikipedia, contrary to Stephens), is about a half hour’s drive roughly southeast of present day Guatemala City. The Guatemalan leaders made a decision, when they moved the capital from Antigua because of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, some two and a half centuries ago, to preserve the place, as much as was possible, for posterity.
Antigua is now a scintillating tourist attraction. When you visit there, it is as if you are going back in time. The streets are cobblestones, and there is a powerful religious aura to the place. We visited a convent cum church which had been preserved and now partly transformed into a small hotel and restaurant. The chapel and sleeping quarters are still in place, and all the paintings, statues, and sculptures resonate with the deep Roman Catholic faith of Antigua’s (and Guatemala’s) history. In fact, there was a religious fanaticism in Guatemala which sometimes became terrible. But that is not the subject of this column.
I am contrasting what happened with Antigua to the Belizean disaster which struck early in the first United Democratic Party (UDP) term of office (1984-89). The UDP began, in an arbitrary and cold-blooded fashion, the violation and dismemberment of the most important public space in Belize City — our historic old capital. I’m referring to the Newtown Barracks.
There is a classic, highly successful Broadway play, later made into a movie, called Fiddler On The Roof. I would say the most significant theme of the play/movie is tradition(s). Beloved, traditions are so valuable where the preservation of a people’s culture, equilibrium, self-esteem, history, continuity and so on are concerned. The decision made at some level somewhere to destroy as many as possible of Belize City’s secular but sacred places and buildings had to do with the decision to uproot and replace the people who have called this land their home since Antigua was the capital of Guatemala.
Today, “they” are well on the way to turning the MCC Grounds into a gambling casino parking spot, and the hallowed Ex-Servicemen’s land and headquarters just north of The Garden have been under all kinds of attacks for years. These are on the western side of the Barracks. The eastern space of the Newtown Barracks was where our ancestors came to enjoy the seafront, to swim, to exercise and play football and cricket, and even to hold horse races. Yes, the Newtown Barracks was very, very special for the Creole people in Belize City. If there was anywhere we should have wanted to cherish and preserve in a pristine condition, it was the Newtown Barracks.
After Belize City was destroyed by Hurricane Hattie in October of 1961, British Honduras achieved self-government a little more than two years later. A couple years afterwards, the new Tower Hill sugar cane factory came on stream during years when a militant Belizean nationalism was spreading nationwide to include Belizeans in the Districts who had essentially been left out of things, so to speak, under British colonial rule.
Belize City, which had the only secondary schools, medical professionals, banks, and Supreme Court in the colony, was the administrative center of British Honduras. The District towns were isolated and much inferior to Belize City. But with self-government and the ruling People’s United Party’s (PUP) early focus on agriculture to replace forestry as the flagship of the modern Belizean economy, swampy Belize City’s economic dominance as the port from which hardwoods and chicle from our forests were being exported abroad, was about to decline.
Even though city residents swiftly rebuilt the capital after Hattie, the Government of Belize made the decision, in which it was supported by the British, to move Belize’s capital westwards and inland to the new Belmopan, a move which was made in August of 1970. Belize City’s colonial swagger began to fade in the new Belize. The Northern Districts of Orange Walk and Corozal, the sugar belt, rose quickly in industrial and financial prominence. Large amounts of Belize City’s population migrated to the United States in search of employment.
The venerable old slaughterhouse was moved outside of the old capital late in the 1970s. By then, almost all the public officers were in Belmopan. The UDP then violated and dismembered the Barracks in the 1980s. Returned to office in 1989, the PUP sold the much-loved old market in the 1990s. It was as if everything we had known was being removed and replaced.
And yet, with all that, today you can see a feverish activity in the Belize City economy from daybreak until nightfall on weekdays. Yes, gang violence has destroyed the old capital’s night life, and when we lost Palace Theater, we lost the world, but there’s a whole lotta things going on weekdays. Whole lotta things. In this brief essay I will not attempt to discuss all that has brought the population center back to business prominence, although it is for sure that tourism is a big part of the resurgence, featuring a lot of travel in and out of the city port. I will insist, however, that the Creole people who once cut and strut on the two sides of the Haulover Creek, are in massive social disarray. Our people often seem lost, and it is primarily because, I submit, our landmarks were violated and our traditions have been disrespected in various ways.
The irony here is that many of the critical decisions made with respect to Belize City since 1961 were made by, and with the consent of, Creole politicians. It may seem to you when you listen to Tony Wright on Thursday evenings that he is a nostalgic voice crying in the Belize City Creole wilderness, and you may well be right. But Tony Wright is an authentic musician/artist expressing his people’s pain, because he can’t keep that pain inside. The pain is tearing him up. Something went on here which seriously damaged our people’s psyche. The politicians don’t want us to talk about it, but we have to, because we are feeling lost and hurt as a roots people. Great wrong has been done to us.