THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Payasos Azules

by by Sam Adler-Bell

illustration by by Robert Sandler

The distance from the village to Colomba is “twenty minutes by pickup.” Described that way, always. As if there weren’t any miles between the two places. No distance or space, only the passing of time and the passing of wispy too-green trees that shelter the road, and the passing of volcanic mountains that assault the horizon, and the careful passing of a rolled cigarette, the wind whipping the smoke into tiny tornadoes in our wake, between a man who looks sixty but is forty, who speaks the clearest, kindest Spanish to me, and an American in t-shirt, bandana, jeans. The bed of the truck is split into foot-by-foot rectangles by a sturdy metal grid, which makes standing not only possible but comfortable. Luis, that is his name, asks where I’m from, the lit cigarette, nearly dispensed by the wind, a tiny flame pinched between his thumb and forefinger, which he sucks between breaths, like he’s shushing a baby. Los Estados.

But he didn’t expect that, which is a relief. The American traveller’s perverse desire to be unrecognizable as such. Thought I was French. Something about my accent, the syllables I swallow. And there’s something about the speed, our precarious perch above the whipping-by road, that makes the conversation easy. About the recent tremors, the looming rainy season, about grown kids in the capitol and errands in Colomba. I tell myself we’re sharing something. That our faces are lit by the same anxious joy, that his eyes widen at Santa Maria as she looms on our right, that his hands wrap white-knuckled around the rails, that he audibly hoots when we bump over a bump. But probably the ride is commonplace for him. A series of resting moments between one place and another. Between work and more work. A weakness indulged-in with an inarticulate stranger.

And we pass only other pickups. And it takes twenty minutes, exactly.

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We’ve only found one bar in Xela where we can smoke inside. It’s called ‘Pool and Beer.’ Which, like ‘King and Queen,’ another bar we like, and ‘After Hours,’ the name on the package of my favorite brand of cigarettes, is difficult to pronounce in a way that most Guatemalans will understand. In English, with a Guatemalan accent. For the first few weeks, I emphatically roll the r’s in ‘After Hours,’ and the clerk looks at me blank, so I learn to point silently at the blue and orange package behind the counter, like a shy toddler at a candy store. A week before I return to the states, I hear someone else order them for the first time. [They have a maple-y taste, which I like but other people don’t seem to.] He says “payasos azules,” and the clerk grabs the box, places it on the counter. Blue clowns. That’s what they’re called.

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Some Mayans in the Western Highlands pay tribute to a folk saint named San Simón. I have been told that San Simón was a beloved priest who was ex-communicated from the church for boozing, smoking, and womanizing. I have been told that he represents a catholicized version of an indigenous god. I have been told that he is a deification of Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish conquistador who conquered Guatemala in the 1520s. In Zunil, a small town outside Xela, there is an effigy to San Simón—a mannequin with light complexion, wearing cowboy boots, hat, and aviator sunglasses. He has a colorful quilt over his legs and a string tie around his neck. Believers and tourists bring him offerings of liquor and cigarettes. An attendant pours my bottle of Quetzalteca Especial down a hole in his face. There’s a lit cigarette attached to his hand. It smells maple-y. My friend Amaro tells me San Simón will bring me good luck in my sex life and business endeavors. Outside a pair of young men peddle cupfuls of the liquor, which passes through his plastic body and collects in a bucket under his chair. Drink some, Amaro tells me. It’s blessed.

In the late 1920s George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, hired Edward Bernays—a nephew of Sigmund Freud and the father of modern public relations—to help market cigarettes to women. Following the advice of psychoanalyst A.A. Brill, Bernays popularized the notion of smoking cigarettes as an expression of women’s liberation. In 1929, he hired models to smoke and march in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York, thereby undermining a social taboo against women smoking in public. Photos of the march were published around the world: fashionable women escorted by fashionable men, lit-cigarettes trailing smoke in their wake.

He called them ‘Torches of Freedom.’

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The bar where we can smoke is called ‘Pool and Beer.’ And they have both of those things. They also have straight cues and flat tables and a good stereo. They have heavy-bottomed glass ashtrays, which Cristian, the bartender, places on our table when we walk in. Cristian usually sits and talks with us about hip-hop, animated, cutting lines in our smoke with his gesturing hands. But today, there’s a group of Danish tourists at the bar ordering tequila, speaking to each other in English. Cristian pours them shots into little plastic cups, which look like the ones that come with cough syrup.  He makes vaguely conspiratorial faces at us from behind the bar. We don’t know what they mean. But we like him. He is youngish, probably twenty-something, but we’re not sure, handsome. Most young guys in Xela wear their hair in stiff faux-hawks, shellacked into place with Moco de Gorila hair gel. Amaro’s hair has spikes that feel like wooden shims. Cristian’s hair is wavy and long. Moco de gorila means ‘gorilla snot.’

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In the mid 1950s, the United Fruit Company hired Edward Bernays—nephew of Freud, father of PR—to engineer an anti-communist propaganda campaign against the government of Jacabo Árbenz Guzmán. Arbenz was Guatemala’s second democratically elected leader in history. He and his predecessor had presided over ten years of liberal reform. It was called the ‘Democratic Spring.’ Arbenz protected free speech and legalized political parties and trade unions. He was born in Xela. In 1952, Árbenz implemented an agrarian reform program, redistributing uncultivated portions of fertile land from corporations to peasant farmers. The move jeopardized United Fruit’s agricultural monopoly in the country. At the time, United Fruit owned 42 percent of the arable land in Guatemala.

Bernays’s propaganda painted Árbenz as a communist puppet of the USSR and Guatemala as a grave threat to American security. With the cooperation of the CIA, his distortions were reported by media outlets across the country, stoking American fears and manufacturing consent for an intervention. Meanwhile, the CIA armed and trained a mercenary army in Honduras to execute a coup. In 1954, CIA forces invaded Guatemala, deposed Árbenz, and installed an exiled right-wing military officer as president. The New York Times called the coup “the first successful anti-Communist revolt since the last war,” finding “no evidence that the United States provided material aid or guidance.” Newsweek reported that Árbenz had been overthrown “in the best possibly way: by the Guatemalans.” The spring gave way to four dark decades of winter.

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In the mornings, I sometimes buy coffee from McDonald’s. Because they’re always open and they have to-go cups and I want to be able to smoke a cigarette in the park while I drink my coffee. Amaro tells me I am an agent of neo-liberalismo. Which I’m sure is true. The nutrient-rich volcanic soil in Guatemala’s highlands provides ideal conditions for the cultivation of gourmet coffee. The McDonald’s in Xela takes up the better part of a block. The supermarkets in Xela are owned by Walmart. Guatemalans drink instant Nescafe in their homes, watery and sweet.

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Guatemala’s period of guerilla warfare and state violence, which lasted from the early ’60s to 1996, is now commonly referred to as the “armed conflict.” Some people call it the “Civil War.” But that doesn’t seem right. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the conflict, and 93 percent of documented crimes were committed by the military. The state’s ‘scorched earth’ campaign in the early ’80s has been called a “genocide.” I am told, that during the worst of those years, people simply called it La Violencia.

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At 'Pool and Beer,' Cristian serves three types of a beer: an IPA, which tastes like soap, a stout, which tastes like an IPA, and an Irish Red which tastes like a fuller-bodied Budweiser. Microbreweries are not a thing in Guatemala. Most places only serve Cabro and Gallo, both watery but tolerable with lime and salt, and, if you’re lucky, Moza, which is darker but not dark-dark. All of these, it turns out, are manufactured by the same company, Cervecería Centro Americana, which is owned by the Castillo family, one of a handful of oligarchic dynasties that control most of the wealth and property in Guatemala. Some people in Xela express loyalty towards Cabro, which is bottled in the city and has a mountain goat on the label, but really it’s all the same. The oligarchy owns everything but the air, says Amaro. And the narcos own the rest. “Así es,” says Cristian. So we drink his IPA, which tastes like soap, and smoke my After Hours, which taste like maple, and play Nas and Calle Trece on the good stereo. When I ask Cristian how old he is, he says “cuando eras huevo, yo ya volaba.”

When I was an egg, he was already flying.

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The members of Guatemala’s elite counter-insurgency squad call themselves Kaibiles. During the course of Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, the Kaibiles were responsible for countless massacres against indigenous villagers suspected of supporting left-wing guerillas. In 1989, Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun doing missionary work in Guatemala, was abducted by a group of Kaibiles, tortured, and raped. She was given one hundred cigarette burns on different areas of her body. The Kaibiles’ motto—“If I advance, follow me. If I stop, urge me on. If I retreat, kill me”—is inspired by Henri de la Rochejaquelein, leader of the Vendéan Royalist rebellion against the French Republic in 1793. Their name is inspired by Kayb’il B’alam, an indigenous leader who rebelled against the Spanish during Pedro de Alvarado’s conquest.

In the 1960s, John F. Banzhaf III, the founder of Action on Smoking and Health, worked with Edward Bernays—that one—to help craft anti-smoking advertising campaigns and legislation. Banzhaf was among the first anti-smoking advocates to bring attention to the harmful effects of passive-smoking, better known as ‘second-hand smoke.’ In the 1970s, Banzhaf’s efforts led to the first indoor smoking bans. In 2009, Guatemala adopted one. And that’s why we can only smoke at Pool and Beer. 

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Santiago Atitlan—a small indigenous town on the banks of Lake Atitlan, situated in the cleavage of two enormous volcanoes, one of which I will climb, lungs screaming in my chest, coughing up blood that glints on the rocks, on a cool, clear day in early March—also has a San Simón effigy. He is made of wood, unmistakably Mayan, dressed in traditional clothing. He smokes a cigar, eyes his visitors warily. On December 2, 1990, the Guatemalan army opened fire on an unarmed crowd of a few thousand protesting villagers in Santiago. Thirteen were killed. Two-and-a-half weeks later, following an outpouring of public condemnation and international pressure, the army left Santiago Atitlan, ending a ten-year occupation of the town. Before they left, the soldiers erected a sign on the spot where the massacre took place. The sign reads: “Atiteco Friends, the Future of Your Village Is in Your Own Hands.” It remains unclear whether this was a warning or a benediction.

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The air in Xela smells like exhaust and sweet bread. My hands smell like cigarettes and something else and I don’t like the something else. My lungs are tight. Listen: the tinny insect whir of small-capacity motorbikes, laughing teenage lovers. Every kid over twelve has a girlfriend here. They meet each other on the elevated sidewalks, hold each other and flirt and show each other off because their parents are catholic or evangelical or ‘used to be your age’—and there’s no where else to go. Helmet under one arm, hand around her waist, she laughs, makes fun, pokes his rigid hair. The sweet breads come in different shapes. Soft rolls with the band of hard sugar on top. Wafer-y biscuits, flat and stiff, that you wouldn’t know had flavor unless you dipped them in coffee. I wish I had a coffee. One of the boys sees me from across the street. I’m hunched on the steps, smoking, periodically punching my chest, and I can’t tell if I’m menacing or about to be menaced. The kid is fumbling with something in his hand, looks embarrassed. “Vos!” He calls me. “Tenés fuego, vos? Tenés fuego?” He needs a lighter. But the literal translation flashes lewdly across my mind:

Do you have fire, bro? Do you have fire?