Lya and Luis Cardoza y Aragón. September, 1946.

Guatemala: The Lines of Her Palm

Luis Cardoza y Aragón

Translated by Michelle Suderman


I. A Mouthful of Pollen The Prime of My Life

On October 20, 1944, the revolution that was transforming Guatemala reached boiling point, and I crossed the border on the twenty-second. A plane dropped us off in Tapachula, Mexico. The pilot wanted to warn us, but at the same time, avoid upsetting us. He was worried, and I think he read the papers the following day fearing he would find some tragic news item about us there. On saying our good-byes, the simplicity of his manhood found, Mexicanly, the right words. He said to us, earnest and forthright, "Be sure you don't get carried away by the tiznada...."* We traveled on to Tuxtla Chico-very near the dividing line itself-to have our travel documents stamped. I had decided to make this radical change in the space of a few seconds, in the Mexican capital. Carrying very light and improvised baggage, I cut ages off my life. Just a few months earlier, along with some newfound friends who had recently arrived as exiles in Mexico City, I had taken certain steps while awaiting developments in Guatemala. With them, and with a gun in hand, I returned to my homeland. News on the situation was garbled. The border detachment did not place any obstacles in our way on entering the country. We were prepared to do anything.
We rented an automobile, distributed ourselves within it strategically, fearful of some ambush, and struck out for Malacatán. Armed groups stopped us along the roads and stuck their guns in through the windows, pointing them at us. We would identify ourselves and they would wish us a good trip. The grassroots movement had spread across the country and any of the small military garrisons that had not surrendered were in a state of expectancy. Malacatán was jubilant, armed, tense with enthusiasm and determination. They put us up for a couple of hours to give us supper. Then we would continue on our journey toward San Marcos and Quezaltenango.
The Malacatán garrison remained indecisive and the townspeople were on the verge of attacking. The garrison chief, a young officer, had quartered himself with his men; they were well-armed and had abundant ammunition. Our intervention averted bloodshed. With a small white flag in hand, we went to parley with the officer. We explained the situation to him, his duty toward the people and the fact that the entire country backed the revolution. It was not easy convincing him. He was skeptical of the news we brought him, but we were able to persuade him within the agreed time limit. Otherwise, the town leaders would have attacked, inadequately armed and with little solidarity. The officer had to be dealt with, within quarters. Who knows what might have happened. We emerged from headquarters bearing the good news, and a group of volunteers formed the new garrison. The officer was not given any trouble, and withdrew to his home.
We returned to our lodgings where the town had prepared supper for us. The enthusiasm was at a fever pitch. The campesinos hugged us, bought us drinks. A marimba started playing Guatemalan sones. Firecrackers, gunshots into the air, shouts of joy, pealing church bells. It was suddenly all too much for me: my land, that was in my bones, came flooding to my eyes. I began weeping and sobbing. What heartrending joy, what anguished and jubilant tenderness. Boys and girls, old people and children, women asked the marimba to play the national anthem. I had not heard it for many, many years. I was deeply moved, singing it with my people on that unforgettable occasion. I do not consider myself either patriotic or sentimental: I was simply made aware, once again, of how definitive our childhood and the power of our homeland truly are. Two hours later, it was already the dead of the night and we were traveling toward the heights of San Marcos. The garrison was ours, according to what they had told us in Malacatán. We took along four uniformed soldiers from the town. As we were not sure they were really on our side, we gave them the worst of the rifles and carefully distributed ourselves inside the car. From San Marcos-now with another car, an escort and two officers-we continued on to Quezaltenango, the second-largest city of the republic, also in hands of the revolution. The roads were heavily guarded and we were stopped frequently to have our papers examined.
By dawn we were in Quezaltenango. We arrived in the capital city the following night. When we passed through Patzicía, the town was still panic-stricken due to the revolt of landless farm laborers. Some partisan of the defeated side had incited the uprising, luring supporters with promises of land. There was talk of an indigenous movement against the Ladinos-Europeanized Indians and Mestizos who deny their indigenous roots. This bloody mutiny was brutally repressed. The Antigua and Guatemala City Red Cross organizations, along with soldiers and armed civilians from these cities as well as from Chimaltenango, patrolled the town.
We trundled along the dusty road, cracking jokes to distract our thoughts. I was lost in thought and silent; my head and my heart, in constant motion. I felt the impelling force of the people and rediscovered fields and towns that I had often roamed through on horseback as a child. At a bend in the road, the Agua Volcano jumps into view at a distance. I had not seen it in a quarter of a century and it held my childhood, my youthful parents, Antigua. I courted the Volcano with my eyes, my hands gripping the 30-30, and I did not hear what my companions were saying. As if I had found a tender young child of mine who had been lost to me for good. The car sped along revealing landscapes that to me, were without equal in this world, and their memories that, to me, were without equal in this world. Over there, at the foot of the Agua Volcano, Antigua and my parents' house, where I would have liked to live all my life and die all my death. My mother, a widow now, in the huge old house, listening to the eternal cantata of the fountain's dark green water in the garden, jubilant with flowers and vines. My father's ghost in the hallways, the ghosts of my brothers and sisters, as children, and my own, playing and shouting. I heard the jingling of my mother's keys, hanging at her waist, and I saw her hands working the earth under begonias and rosebushes. I would reach her, reach the maternal womb, my mother and my kindred, the following day. For the moment, we were heading toward the capital city.
Due to the political violence, my mother was living in anguish over my return. She ached with my presence and with my absence, a very old lady now, bowed down with years, very active and her alert head completely white. In the afternoon I caught a bus on the Guatemala City-Antigua route. I remembered the road I had traveled on foot and on horseback, by bicycle, stagecoach or automobile, in every one of its bends and mountains, ravines and villages, groves of trees and tiny plants. Toward dusk, the vehicle was nearing the entrance to my town, the Matasano bridge that spans the absent Pensativo River. The first houses came into sight, washed in bright quicklime colors, the clay tile roofs spotted with mold, the cobbled street, La Concepción fountain, the convent and the church in ruins. Across the street, my grandparents' house-door ajar, allowing me a glimpse of the garden-where as a child I went on expeditions and played circus along with unforgettable friends, while my pretty girl cousins smiled at our childish feats. When I got off at the corner closest to home, I recognized the stones worn down by my own shoes, the silence, the stains on the Cathedral walls, the gutters, the windows. I remembered the design on the cement walks of my house with complete accuracy. And standing before the door I had not passed through in so many years, I remembered the latchkey, short and round, and how to turn it to open the latch; the knocker's little hand, the mail-slot, the wood, the cord to open the door without knocking. At the end of the street, the perfect triangle of the Agua Volcano, enormous, serene and blue, as always, not a single gray hair on its head, a cloud adorning the peak, golden in the afternoon sun. I pulled on the cord, pushed the door open and entered with my heart in my mouth.
The little dog-so very, very old-announced my arrival and came up, tired and belligerent, to stop me. Silently, my brother Rafael appeared. We embraced and said nothing to each other. Having taken two steps across the threshold of my home, I was overcome by tears. It was all too much. My mother came down the passageway, slowly, stooping, nearly blind. She already knew it had to be me. She was sobbing with joy, with worry, with who knows how many things, as I, too, was sobbing. This was the sweetest embrace of my life, and at that instant, it was worthwhile dying, it was worthwhile living. She felt overwhelmed, and we did not have to say anything to each other. Embracing her, I guided her a few steps further, to sit together on the centenary conventual bench in the passageway, facing the garden her own hands tended. I was a young boy again, next to my mother, in my old childhood home. I stretched out on the bench and put my head on her lap. She drew me close to her and I do not know how long we stayed that way, silent, our eyes motionless on the vines and geraniums, her hand resting on my head and stroking me, very slowly, from time to time. I still feel her hand, as I did then, in the most intense and peaceful and infinitely tender caress. If I had not experienced those indescribable moments in Antigua, in my parents' house, I would have missed the prime of my life.

* La tiznada-la chingada; the source of most misfortune in Mexican popular expression; in Mexican history, according to Octavio Paz, it is the stain of original sin, the rape of Mexico by Spain.

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