Colonial legacy remains strong in Guatemala’s streets

Peter Murtagh

Antigua’s architecture retains a distinct style despite damage from earthquakes

Doña Luisa’s is the place for breakfast in Antigua.

Cheery waitresses come and go across an open air, cobbled courtyard, tending to everyone’s needs with calm efficiency.

The smell of freshly baked bread infuses the air, which is also filled with chirruping sparrows.

They flit between a tall, mature yucca tree on one side of the courtyard, to a wall-hugging plant (identity unknown) on another side, and a pair of bougainvilleas – one bright purple, the other orangey-yellow – threaded through the balustrade of the first floor gallery and tumbling into the courtyard, their colours bringing a splash to the otherwise stark black and white of the walls and woodwork.

The place is cool (in every sense of that word) and relaxes one instantly.

It is doubly attractive to visitors because the bulk of patrons are locals, always a good indication.

Sitting on wobbly chairs at the metal and tile tables, scattered across an uneven courtyard, patrons are far from the madding crowds that throng Guatemala’s former capital city.

Antigua is a delightful place of cobblestone streets laid out in a rigid grid pattern with a square, Parque Central, at their centre.

The buildings are mostly low-rise, Spanish colonial style. Stucco facades are painted various shades of bright blue or orange or yellow and are often cracked and peeling, giving the city a sort of shabby-chic atmosphere.

Religious communities

This is reinforced by the large number of earthquake- wrecked churches and cathedrals, many religious communities that included sprawling monasteries or convents, spread over several blocks of the city – all destroyed, wholly or very substantially – by the series of 18th century earthquakes that spelt the end of Antigua’s status as Guatemala’s capital city.

Breakfast at Doña Luisa’s may be scrambled eggs and black beans; or fried eggs and ham, served slightly “eggs Benedict”style, under-cooked and runny and smothered in cheese; or pancakes and honey, or a big glass bowl of roasted grain and fruit with home-made sweet yoghurt and honey.

And, of course, there’s freshly squeezed orange and coffee.

Either way, none of it will cost you more than the equivalent of a couple of euro. The aroma of the bakery’s speciality (banana bread) wafting across the courtyard comes as a free, added bonus.

The restaurant is named after Doña Luisa Xicotencatl, a Nahua noblewoman. She was the daughter of Chief Xicotencatl the Elder, a ruler of Tlaxcala, a tiny autonomous republic in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest of Central America in the 16th century.

In 1519, Doña Luisa’s father gave her to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador whose rampaging visited a bloody end to the Aztec empire, in the process annexing large tracts of Mexico for Spain.

Cortés off-loaded Luisa on to Pedro de Alvarado, one of his most enthusiastic officers, a man whose subjugation of indigenous people through butchery led them to christen him tonatiuh, meaning sun or red sun – an epithet open to several interpretations, none of them indicating much popular affection for him.

That was left to Luisa. On acquiring her, de Alvarado bedded her and continued to do so, apparently to mutual satisfaction, for the rest of both their lives as they waged war together across Peru, Mexico and Guatemala.

High degree of respect

While they never married, Luisa was given the title Doña, Spanish for “Lady” and denoting a high degree of respect, and had three children, Leonor, Pedro and Diego.

(The girl married well – twice; the other two died, Pedro at sea going to Spain, Diego fighting in Peru.)

Their father was made governor of Guatemala in 1537 but died in 1541 trying to subdue a revolt in present day western Mexico.

Despite a blood- drenched career, his end came when a horse fell on him.

Luisa was already gone. She died in 1536.

One of Antigua’s many earthquake wrecks is Santiago Cathedral, a building that takes up most of one side of Parque Central. Stone steps lead to a large, sideways on, rectangular structure – a substantial building perhaps 60 or 80 meters in length and with a wide central aisle and single side aisle, and tall ceiling.

The interior is large, solid and impressive but not overwhelming. It is only when one realises that today’s cathedral is merely the entrance porch to the wreck that was destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, that one has an idea of the scale of ecclesiastic architecture in the Antigua of old and the position of the Catholic Church thereby suggested.

The ruins out back indicate a vast edifice. The central aisle was some 35 feet wide; two side aisles are each about 20 feet wide.

And at least 12 side chapels are discernible in the wreckage, along with ancillary buildings suggesting a large religious community.

In front of the altar, a dusty, rubbish-strewn hole in the ground is the main draw of the ruins today.

Kneeling figures

Down steep steps to an iron gate, peering in without light, one can just about see a retablo of the Cristo negro, the black Christ, at the far end of the square crypt. Christ crucified is flanked on either side by kneeling figures, four in all.

They are blackened by what looks like soot, or scorch marks, as though the entire room was smothered by a dirty fire and no one has bothered to clean up.

Under the retablo are burial chambers for three: one centre, one right and one left.

Doña Luisa, the native girl concubine to a conquistador now remembered for the eggs and ham and beans served in her name just around the corner, is buried in the chamber on the left.


Source: The Irish Times

Photo: Typical Antiguan street, with pastel-painted Spanish colonial homes and cobbles. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

Newsletter Sign Up

To get our free biweekly newsletter. Receive information about Latin American news in BC and in the world..