The story of the Indian Municipality Building started before the earthquake. The Canadian Chargé d’Affairs, Clive Carruthers, was a geologist by trade and had a degree in archeology, which was his hobby. Before the earthquake happened, he met Rick Bronson, who is an archaeologist who had done extensive archaeology in Italy, Libya, and Turkey. Rick had come down to Guatemala for the first time in his life because it has such a rich store of archeological remains. He and Clive became friends.
On weekends, instead of going to cocktail parties in the diplomatic circles, they would go out into the highlands and throw bones with the brujas (sorceresses) and hang out with deeply traditional people, as was their curiosity.
At one point they went up to Sololá where they happened to stumble upon this event, a dance called the baile de los conquistadores — the dance of the conquistadores, a traditional dance, this one made in the culture of the Kaqchikels. Somebody who is wealthy, for a Kaqchikel Indian, would throw this baile once every four years — a ten-day festival with traditional costumes. The dance was between Pedro Alvarado and Tecún Umán. Pedro Alvarado was a lieutenant of Hernán Cortes, who came down in the early 1500s, after the initial conquest of Mexico. The Spaniards came in with horses and sent emissaries to the largest tribe, the Quiché, and the king of that tribe, Tecún Umán. Tecún Umán did not kill the emissaries, but he poked their eyes out so they couldn’t find the way back. The Spaniards, in alliance with the Kaqchikel and some other tribes, invaded and quickly dispatched Tecún Umán with a musket. That was how the initial conquest of Guatemala happened with the conquistadores. The baile de los conquistadores is a very elaborate dance, somewhat exaggerated as to the exact happenings but kind of following the general gist of the story.
The guy who threw this dance was Estéban Chuj, the former mayor of Sololá. He was also a prominent member of the community. In those days, it was dangerous for a Kaqchikel farmer to go to Guatemala City and sell his corn, because the likelihood of getting ripped off or taken advantage of was high. Estéban Chuj was a broker for all those corn growers. In Guatemala City he would help expedite things and get about five percent of the sales. He made his place in the community like that.
Estéban Chuj also made an agreement with the government to have a national military reserve, where once a month they would assemble all the young male Kaqchikel kids and march them around the cornfields, especially around the football field where the Soy Dairy is now. That was their favorite marching ground. The kids would have wooden rifles. Estéban did this so the army would not come in and conscript them.
Rick and Clive got to know Estéban Chuj through the dance and went up to visit him a couple of times. Sololá was one of the last remaining Indian municipalities and Rick and Clive were very curious about its operation. When the earthquake happened on February 4, 1976, Rick volunteered, for a dollar a year, to become Clive’s man on the spot to manage all the NGOs that were using Canadian funds. Rick’s job was to help coordinate that and to make sure none of the NGOs ran head trips on the Indians.
Peter Grey, Melvyn Stiriss, and I went down, and we were trying to get materials. Plenty had raised $15,000. We figured that for $500 a house we could build thirty houses. But there was no wood available. You had to own a sawmill to get wood. Even if the money did show up — where were we going to get the materials to build those houses? Then we heard about the Canadians coming down with a forest of wood. We approached the Canadian Embassy and got to know Clive and Rick.
The Guatemalan government asked the relief agencies to simply pick, based on their budgets, a village, small town, or a community that their budget would fit and take charge of that area — rather than have duplication of effort. So Rick and Clive flew around in helicopters looking at the damaged areas and found San Andrés Itzapa and San José Poaquil, which was something they thought they could take a bite out of. The Canadian International Development Agency sent a ship with 320 semi trucks of wood. So, we approached them to buy materials — I asked if they would consider selling us enough materials to build thirty houses. They said they were more interested in our carpentry skills than in selling us any wood, because nobody down in Guatemala knew how to frame buildings with the kind of materials that were being shipped down — essentially 2x4s, 2x6s, and 4×8 sheets of plywood.
They engaged us to help them and we set up a prefab factory. After about six weeks, which was our original commitment, I told Clive and Rick that I had a family back home and I wasn’t sure if I could stay in Guatemala for any length of time. Then Clive asked if my wife and Annie, my youngest daughter, who was three months old, would be willing to come down. That’s what kind of started it. She did come down with, I believe, Michael Marschark, Louis Eberle, and a couple other volunteers who were some of the first to come down along with our original Plenty group.
Rick and Clive did not want us staying in Itzapa because there was so much dust and typhoid and hepatitis and a number of other diseases going around. A group of Canadian monks came down and took over the running of the prefab factory we had set up in San Andrés Itzapa. They put us up in villages above San Andrés Itzapa. We started working on building schools in the villages around the volcano Acatenango. We built eleven schools in thirteen months, at which point Clive and Rick were steering us into doing projects with their favorite folks they had met over the years. They remembered Estéban Chuj and asked if we would, “consider relocating up in Sololá?” And of course we said, “Yes, we would.”
I had gotten to know Estéban because we had rented a place in San Bartolo, near where the Soy Dairy would later be built, from a Guatemalan deputado. Guatemalans don’t have a bicameral government; they have a congress. The congressmen are called deputados. The deputado in charge of the Sololá district was named Tejas. We rented his family house, which was a big adobe villa with cracked walls in it. We didn’t want to stay inside, but we set up tents around it.
We built a school in El Tablón. Then we got to politicking about rebuilding the Indian Municipality in Sololá (Municipalidad Indígena de Sololá).
The Indian Municipality was a one-story adobe structure right on the square. The walls were badly cracked and there was a danger of it falling apart. The Guatemalan government wanted to put a National Bank in that spot because it was prime real estate. The government was trying to get the Indian Municipality to accept a different location that was three or four blocks off the square, to which the municipality, the cofradías (sacred brotherhood) and alcaldes (municipal magistrate) did not want to move. So Clive came to their rescue in the politics and got an agreement to rebuild on the same site.
Estéban Chuj and I flew up to Canada to find funding for the Municipalidad. That was quite a trip. Estéban had never been further than Guatemala City. The two of us left Sololá about 3:30 in the morning and drove to Guatemala City. We got on an airplane and by 11:00 in the morning we were in Miami. We had about a three-hour layover there. Estéban insisted on staying in his trajé; he did not wear Western clothing. He was wearing sandals. It was in the middle of winter and we were on our way to Ottawa where we were going to stay with Larry McDermott on the Canada Farm in Lanark, Ontario. I said, “Estéban, maybe we should take a taxi to a shopping center and buy some socks for you.” He was, “No. No no. I’m not getting any socks.” “Okay.” So we caught our plane and flew into Detroit. Changed planes there, but we didn’t really experience the cold because we were in the airport and all those little tunnels and gangways that came up to the plane. But when we landed in Ottawa, you had to go down a stairway and walk fifty yards to the terminal building. We got in around midnight and it was about twenty below zero. The wind was blowing hard. We got off the plane and walked into the terminal and there was Larry McDermott and his wife and another couple. We all hugged and were greeting each other and Estéban was sitting there yanking on my sleeve saying “Don Dennis. Don Dennis. Maybe can we go buy some socks?” It was that cold.
We went into the Canadian International Development Agency and got approval to build five community buildings, including the Indian Municipality, for a total of around $90,000. I asked if we could get a truck to help us do all of this. So they took us down to the Chevy dealer and we bought the truck we called the “Sixty.” It had a Detroit diesel engine in it and we drove that to the Farm, filled it up with medicines and other supplies, and drove it down to Guatemala. That is how we started building the Indian Municipality.
In the course of that time — it took us nearly a year to build it — we had forty guys almost everyday there working with us.
While we were doing this Clive introduced me to a guy named Fernando Tezahuic Tohon. Fernando had been elected to be the new deputado from Sololá. He was the first Maya deputado in the history of the country. Clive found him to be very interesting. He’d gone to the Catholic schools in Sololá and in Patzún, where he was from, and to a Christian school in Waco, Texas. He wound up teaching in the Catholic school in Sololá, and starting a few other schools for Indian kids on his own in Patzún. People told him, “If you run for Congress you will win. We will support you.” He ran and he won. I got to know Fernando pretty well. He was very popular. He was on TV a lot. He would wear traditional Western suits but he always had a piece of Indian trajé on him. It might be chaqueta (jacket) under his suit coat or a Todos Santos collar or some other piece of Maya men’s clothing. He became very popular.
When Fernando learned we had all this experience in radio, he asked us if we could help put a radio station in the Municipality. He’d helped engineer the politics of building the Indian Municipality — kind of paved the way — in and along with Clive Carruthers. We went to the equivalent of the FCC in Guatemala, headed by a Capitán Altan. We went through the channels and got a permit license to broadcast on FM. They weren’t that hot about us but they gave us an FM license because nobody had an FM radio. This was about two years after the earthquake. You’ve got to understand that the politics prior to the earthquake were simmering and gaining heat as far as the guerrilla factions were concerned. Then came the earthquake, which was an ego death for the entire country. All the conflict was put aside; there was a kind of referendum for peace because no one could deal with politics because of the disaster that had hit the country.
To get the radio station in, Albert Houston, Plenty radio tech, got the sound system from WBAI, a liberal radio station in New York City. We got the whole deal from them because they had gone to transistor radios. An old tube mixing set, amplifiers, and everything were parked on the forty-fourth floor of the Empire State Building. That is where they lived before we got a hold of them, brought them on down to Guatemala, and built the radio station. José Chuj, Estéban’s older son, came to the Farm, learned how to be a disk jockey, and got schooled in running a radio station.
That was the first Mayan-speaking radio station in the country. After we put it in Albert came down and put a 120-foot freestanding radio tower in. It is still there in Sololá and is still being used. It was very popular. Our whole idea was to have Mayan-speaking teachers who could be at the radio station and broadcast lessons over the radio and have teacher assistants in the villages with radios there. It was a pretty empowering radio station. We bought a couple of thousand little hand held FM radios and sold them for a quetzal (the national currency) or three quetzales a piece, so people could listen to the radio station. That is how it got started.
An inspiring event happened. We left about 9:00 at night with some shamans, Estéban Chuj, Jesús Par, and about ten Kaqchikel cofradías (brotherhood in charge of sacred images, pilgrimages, and ceremonies). We climbed a volcano, Volcán Tolimán, and got up there just before sunrise. It was well-advertised throughout the community that we were going to do this. When the sun came up, they did an ancient Maya ceremony up on top of the volcano. Those guys hadn’t been up there in years so this was a kind of renovation of the whole Maya tradition. The difference was that we had our two-meter FM radio so we were able to do a phone patch right into the studio. When the sun came up we started shining mirrors across Lake Atitlan towards Sololá and Santa Catarina and Panajachel and all around the Kaqchikel part of the lake that was listening. They told the people to come flash their mirrors back and the whole hillside was glittering, sparkling with mirror flashes from across the lake. That was a magical trip.
The radio station was very popular. Of course they played a lot of three-man marimbas most of the time. When the civil war started happening the Army came in and ripped the station all out. They did not want a radio station broadcasting in Kaqchikel, when they couldn’t understand what was being said. I found this out later when I went down in 1984.
People flashed their mirrors back and the whole hillside was glittering, sparkling with mirror flashes from across the lake. That was a magical trip.Dennis Martin
What happened with Fernando was that in 1981 or ’82, when things were really heating up, he was the fourth secretary of the Congress. He had gotten promoted because he was so popular. Ríos Montt came into power and there was a lot of pressure to put down the growing rebellion. The vice-president of the country also served as the president of the Congress. That is how that works. He did a fiery speech about how he knew Indians and knew how they thought and he railed on and on. That got Fernando really mad and he got up in Congress and said, “You have no right to talk about how you know what Indians want. You are not an Indian. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. You shouldn’t do this.” Then Fernando was told by three of the senior deputados in the Congress who liked him, “Fernando, we have to tell you, you’ve got to get out of the country by midnight. Otherwise they are going to come and kill you.” So he went home and told his wife and kids that they were going to go to Disneyland. They packed their bags and left.
I think about the longest anyone else from Plenty had been there was a fourteen-month tour and my family had been there a little over three years. We had taken so much Flagyl (antibiotic and anti-protozoal medication) over that period of time for amoebas and what not that it became a health issue. So we came back and Clifford Figallo went down and took over for a while, until everybody had to leave.