By, David J Roman

The August edition of DasTors contained a few experiences I had with small businesses in Akumal, Mexico this past June. A week after I left Mexico, I stood before the doors of a small, stately home, dripping next to my warm motorcycle on the rain-flecked cobblestone streets of Antigua Guatemala. Hailed from the neighboring Lavandería (Laundromat), I learned that my thrifty hostess, Gilda, ran the next-door business during the day while hosting international students in her home by night.

Courtesy: David J Roman
Courtesy: David J Roman

During my stay in Antigua, I had lunch with Gilda, several of her friends, and her assistant manager, Lorena. Over home-cooked arroz con pollo they taught me of Guatemala’s past: They recounted how Antigua (pop. ~40K) was the country’s capital before an earthquake shook it to its knees in 1773 and the people established the city of Guatemala. Before Antigua, Ciudad Vieja claimed the title of Capital until a flood decimated the city in 1541. A severe hurricane had filled the nearby volcano Hunapú’s crater with water. When tremors from neighboring Volcán de Fuego split the crater, it formed a devastating lahar that earned the volcano its current name, Volcán de Agua.

Courtesy: David J Roman
Courtesy: David J Roman

Such natural disasters were a significant consideration for many Guatemalteco business owners with whom I spoke. A farmer unloading his truck one market day explained to me that infrastructure has always been a challenge, his people often occupied with preventing roads and structures from being washed away or fractured. The hiking guides and “taxi” riders of Volcán Pacaya recounted how they experienced the eruption earlier this year: huddled under tables and chairs as fire literally rained down around them.

The guides shared their continual struggle to earn a living, especially during the rainy season in which they only get 1-2 tours per week. They cited tours, corn, and volcanic rock art as their only sources of income. The steam plant farther down the mountain offers no employment to the local townspeople, hiring primarily engineers from abroad.

Courtesy: David J Roman
Courtesy: David J Roman

However, the trends in voluntourism are encouraging: New value drivers might be established with programs that form hybrids of touring, farming, and art. What if language schools or travel agencies in Antigua offered trips to experience more than just a hike? What if they could learn to grow corn, create lava art, or coordinate events to promote the indigenous businesses? As the Pacaya guides bade me farewell, the horizon seemed less cloudy.

Courtesy: David J Roman
Courtesy: David J Roman

On the chicken bus ride back, I was reminded of the dual motifs in the 1983 film El Norte: the appeal of “buena tierra” (good earth) and the danger of viewing others as just “brazos fuertes” (means to an end rather than people of value and unique character). My instructor at Ixchel Spanish School, Luis, regretfully acknowledged that many Guatemaltecos esteem the indigenous Maya lower than others in their society, which reflects in business circles as well. He explained some major factors for this, including the Civil War that raged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. Luis’ family heritage is in the town of Pastores, and he remembered those mornings during the war in which he would first go south to the city dump to check for acquaintances among the bodies of that day’s victims before proceeding north to school. He recalls the uncertainty which plagued everyone. He shared how one day his grandfather, the mayor of Pastores at the time, disappeared without warning. They never saw him again.

Lingering cultural tensions and social baggage aside, Antigua is bustling with new businesses, often fueled by tourism. When not teaching Spanish at Ixchel, Luis works on a new venture that is a variation on a traditional theme that runs deeply in his family. His father developed the family business of making boots into a boot factory well-regarded for its durability and style. Luis remembers riding along in his father’s truck all across the county, quite literally marketing their product in the town squares. One day near Guatemala City, his father was robbed of the truck and its cargo at gun point. Devastated by the loss, Luis’s family business sunk into a depression, his father refusing to sell abroad. Today, Luis is tailoring the operation to serve foreigners, delivering the same great craftsmanship tailored to a new set of needs. Next year he plans to join a booming trend by opening an internet café at his home in Pastores.

Looking back on my visit to Antigua, I remember fondly the beautiful colonial streets and squares I walked, heralded all week by fireworks for Corpus Christi and by pleasant afternoon rain showers. The warmth of my hostess’s generous family celebration of her son’s 30th birthday rings clearly in my memory, a testament to prosperity not just of possession but perhaps more importantly of community.

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