In an attempt to slow the advance of coronavirus, Guatemala´s president has ordered seniors to stay home. I find myself a prisoner and with nothing to do. Therefore, let me recount for you the sad history of the first San Marcos la Laguna, Sololá to pass some time.
The rain is unrelenting. It´s also right on schedule. You see, today is May 15th, the feast day of the farmer, San Isidro Labrador (laborer). In Panajachel, where I usually celebrate San Isidro, the Catholics associate the Saint with the onset of the rainy season. They say, he takes away the sun and brings on the rain. This year, however, there will be no celebration for San Isidro.
I wish the rain would calm the coronavirus. With that hope, it´s somewhat comforting to hear the rain pelting the aluminum roof. But only somewhat comforting, for I know a little about this narrow valley´s tragic past, gleaned from a language study conducted by Julia Becker Richards. I also live along Jaibalito´s east-side river Pasiwan (“within the canyon”) and have seen that river´s brutal force and destructive potential.
Few in Jaibalito know the misfortune that befell the settlers of the first San Marcos la Laguna, which was located within this valley between 1580 and 1721. The people of San Marcos and San Pablo, however, have kept that history alive through their oral traditions.
The Marquenses came from the coast, a place called Paquip, which means the “land of the pacaya palm”. Pacaya, sometimes called “mountain maize” for its resemblance to corn, is a delicacy eaten in salads. Pacaya fronds decorate the entryways to festivals and parties. When I came to Guatemala 15 years ago, the location of Paquip (had it still existed) would have been the former sugar plantation, San Jeronimo, now part of the rubber plantation Santa Cecilia, belonging to Patulul, Suchitepéquez.
The Maya of Paquip spoke kaqchiquel, strongly tinged with tzutujil. The oral record states that they exited the coast in 1547 and relocated to Cerro de Oro, Santiago Atitlán. Legend has it that they ran from menacing mountain lions sent by a vengeful God for their stubborn refusal to convert to Catholicism. Another version has it that the threat was vampire bats. However, since Jorge de Alvarado had only completed the Conquest of Guatemala a mere 20 years earlier, it´s also possible, that the labor and tribute demands of an abusive Spanish landlord (encomendero) at the coast, may have spurred their flight.
Santiago Atitlán, Sololá
1547 was a significant year for Lake Atitlán, a fact which perhaps better explains the Marquenses´ departure that year than does the cited language study or oral tradition. When Pedro de Alvarado defeated the tzutujil nation in 1524, the population of the lake towns was around 48,000. Infectious diseases, for which the Maya had no acquired immunity, forced labor (repartimiento), and the harsh exactions of the encomienda system had reduced that number to 5,600 by 1547. In that year, the Spaniards formed the municipal governments of Sololá and Santiago Atitlán.
In 1547, the Spanish friars gathered the Maya of Lake Atitlán into one urban center, Santiago Atitlán. From there, the Spaniards could better control, convert, and exploit their subjects. The Spanish abuses were tremendous. Spanish encomenderos had power of life and death over the Maya, who became virtual slaves.
There was much movement of the Maya and their villages in 1547. Possibly the people of Paquip moved onto land at Cerro de Oro vacated by the relocation of others to Santiago. However, it is more likely that in 1547, the Spaniards dominated their lives too. Probably the Spaniards forcibly moved them, as they did the others, to work on the Spaniards´ haciendas, to construct their roads, public buildings, and the Catholic church of Santiago Atitlán, to pay excessive tribute, and to facilitate the Marquense´s own conversion to Catholicism.
San Marcos Paquip (Jaibalito)
In any case, the people from Paquip arrived on the shores of Lake Atitlán at Cerro de Oro, where in 1580 the Atiteco, who owned that terrain, evicted them. They then crossed Lake Atitlán to the Payan Chicol Valley (today Jaibalito), in those days also tzutujil territory. The newcomers mixed with kaqchiquel speakers from the mountains around San José Chacayá, and, in 1584, they founded San Marcos Paquip, named for their ancestral home. Near the end of the 17th century, the name changed to San Marcos la Laguna.
Payan means camino (path) or caminar (to walk) Col is thread. I presume, then, Payan Chicol refers to a narrow path or valley. Ancient place names and their Spanish substitutes are usually synonymous. For instance, the modern name Jaibalito is the diminuitive of the name of a larger valley to the east, the Jaibal. Hence Jaibalito is still the little valley.
Another example of the enduring nature of an ancient name is Guineales, part of the hot-lands of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. Guinea is a class of banana. However, in Mexico and many parts of Guatemala, guinea refers generally to all types of bananas and plantains. The old name of Guineales is Pasagul, the “land of bananas and plantains”. Pasagul is also name to Jaibalito´s west-side river.
The Annals of the Cachiquels
The Annals of the Caqchiquels (alternatively known as the Annals of Xahil, Memorial of Tecpán-Atitlán, or Memorial of Sololá) describes a colonial tribute collector´s visit to the valley. He arrived at a place called los Zapotes, where there were seven giant zapote trees. Today, there´s still a spot in Jaibalito called Tzantulul (at the end of the zapotes). Although Tzantulul today has only one zapote,tree extant, Tzantulul is probably the place referred to by the Annals.
When the weather is right, there are few better places to live than this valley. The Marquenses, who came from the coast, undoubtedly had moments of great happiness here. However, the valley sits at the termination of a very steep arroyo canyon, which acts as a funnel. When the rain is torrential, things go crazy and mud oozes, then flows, down the mountainsides.
In recent years, this has happened twice. With Hurricane Stan, October 4th and 5th, 2005, the Pasagul cut a deep gorge through the west-side of town. With Tropical Storm Agatha May 29th, 2010, the Pasiwan overflowed its banks, taking out 16 homes in its raging torrent.
About 15 years ago the men of Jaibalito dug a well near the center of town. There they unearthed chunks of San Marcos Paquip´s colonial church along with human skulls and bones at a depth of six and seven meters. These burials don´t sound like deliberate interments to me. Mud-slides apparently took these victims, perhaps as the victims slept. Locals claim the skulls were unusually large. That´s probably just legend-building. Unfortunately, townspeople paid a drunk to bury the bones in the Santa Cruz cemetery, so we will never know if these victims were from the first San Marcos la Laguna or from earlier tzutujil settlements. More than likely the bones now lie at the bottom of Lake Atitlán.
Present-Day San Marcos la Laguna
Three times mud-slides completely devastated Paquip: 1688, 1702, and 1721. With the final destruction, the former coastal people sought refuge within a small valley a few kilometers to the west of Jaibalito. Finally, in 1724, the Audiencia of the Corregimiento of Sololá-Atitlán granted the Marquenses land formerly belonging to San Pablo la Laguna. In 1726, the descendants of Paquip founded the second San Marcos la Laguna, in its present location. This San Marcos still survives, but just barely.
The Marquenses continue to struggle as they have for half a millennium. They are land poor and isolated. The folks of San Pablo still hold deeds to much of their land. Kaqchiquel San Marcos therefore continues to fight with its tzutujil neighbor San Pablo over borders. Despite San Marcos´ troubled memories, however, the town has named its synthetic ball court Estadio Pakip, to keep alive this resilient people´s unfortunate, yet proud history.