Father Rother & the Santiago Massacre

For 13 years, Father Stanley Rother of Oklahoma worked in Santiago de Atitlán, translating the Bible and reciting Mass in the local Tz'utujil language, and establishing a small hospital to serve the community. He was first assigned to Santiago de Atitlán in 1968 after he became an ordained Catholic priest of the Oklahoma Archdiocese.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his work, he received death threats, and Rother was summoned back to Oklahoma in January 1981, only to return days later. On July 28, 1981, four men entered the church rectory and shot him. Rother was one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala that year, and parish members built a memorial in his living quarters.

Throughout the 1980s, Santiago suffered heavily under the military campaign to combat alleged subversives, guerrillas, and communists. More than 1,000 people from Santiago were killed or disappeared during this time.

On December 1, 1990, a group of drunk soldiers in civilian dress went to the home of a shopkeeper and threatened to break the door down. The family's screams were overheard by neighbors who, perhaps emboldened by the memory of Father Rother, chased the soldiers away. Someone rang the town bell, and nearly the entire village gathered in the plaza, where they met for several hours.

At 4am, 3,000 shouting people woke the soldiers sleeping at the nearby military base. When a couple of villagers threw rocks over the barbed-wire fence, the army opened fire, killing 11 villagers (of whom three were children) and wounding 17.

Government officials who arrived the next day were presented with a petition signed by more than 20,000 people. The petition demanded that the army withdraw from the area. The killings and the villagers' response had drawn international attention, and the government chose to remove the troops rather than risk an international scandal and the loss of considerable amounts of tourist and foreign aid dollars. To this day, the Guatemalan military is banned from establishing any sort of presence in Santiago.

The site of the massacre is now a small park called Parque del La Paz, or Peace Park. A memorial celebration is held here each year on December 2.


The Mayas' introduction to Catholicism often came with the threat of immolation, hanging, or beheading, and they soon rationalized that this new religion could easily be superimposed with their own. When they saw the statue of Mary crushing a snake under her foot, they prayed to Gukumatz, the creator snake god.

The Maya also brought their own saint to their brand of Catholicism. Maximón (pronounced "Ma-shi-mon") was a pre-Columbian Maya god of the underworld known as Maam, or Grandfather. The modern name is a blend of Maam and his other name, San Simon. Maximón symbolizes male sexual virility and brings rain to fertilize the earth. He's known as the saint of gamblers and drunkards, and is thought to give wealth and worldly success to his followers.

Despite the Catholic church's attempt to demonize the dark-skinned Maximón by equating him with Judas, he is still found in churches, shops, and homes across Guatemala. He is now depicted as a 20th-century mustached man wearing a black suit, red tie, and wide-brimmed hat, and is represented in life-size wood statues, small dolls, or pictures on votive candles. He's given offerings of tobacco, alcohol, Coca-Cola, and a tropical plant with orange-red berries.

Maximón's feast day is October 28. On this day, and on the Wednesday of Holy Week, he's carried through the streets on the shoulders of his followers. In some villages he's hung from the main church's cross at the end of the ceremony. Maximón's more scandalous side forces most followers to keep him out of public view for the rest of the year, for fear that his famed sexual desires may run amok. He is kept in the house -- and sometimes the outhouse -- with his whereabouts changing regularly. In most towns with strong Maximón traditions (including Santiago de Atitlán and Zunil), locals will bring you to see him for a small tip. If you go, be sure to bring a cigar or some rum to leave in offering. In most cases, you'll also have to pay a small fee for each photo you take. Most touts want Q5 to Q15 (65¢-$2/35p-£1) to take you to see Maximón. You may be charged an extra couple of quetzales per photo, depending upon who's minding the saint and how much he thinks he can get from you.

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