This town of about 50,000 people is located on the south shore of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala’s central highland region and sits approximately 160 km. to the west of the country’s capital, Guatemala City.
Santiago Atitlán amazes its visitors with its cultural richness. This municipality, in the Department of Sololà, is home to the Tz’utujil, one of the smallest ethnic groups that made up the Mayan culture. Tzutujil means ‘The people that come from the corn flower’. This group settled down on the Atitlán Lake shore around 1250.
At first sight, visitors are captured by the beauty of the lake, the volcanoes, the church, the plaza, the park and the market, but if they take a closer look, they will find out that there is much more to see in this place which took the name of Saint James the Apostle.
In this place, all people of different political and religious beliefs, show respect for Maximón, a local deity. Its figure, rather short and draped in colorful scarves, is made of tied wood sticks and its mask, with no face underneath, is carved from the same wood. The Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, the principal indigenous authority of Santiago Atitlán, organizes several celebrations in honour of this deity. According to myth, Maximon has two wives, changes house every year, likes drinking and smoking, collects ties and uses perfumes. During Holy Week, the wooden idol is taken from his home-shrine, and paraded through to the town square where people beat him with sticks. Many ask him favors and advice for the year.
According to historical records, in 1585 the village was known as the Royal Crown Atitlán. Later, when this village, became the head of the township of the same name, whose jurisdiction included the southern part of the present Departments of Solola and North Suchitepéquez, its name was simply Atitlán. In the early decades of the eighteenth century, around 1730, the districts of Tecpanatitlán and Atitlán were grouped into one municipality of the Solola Department. The current name of the town is Santiago Atitlán and is related to the Saint James the Apostle Parish, founded by the Franciscan friars who evangelized the region.
The present church was built in 1547 and is one of the oldest in Central America. Hundreds of people go there to pray or to attend Catholic ceremonies. On special Catholic celebrations, mass is celebrated in the square in front of the church, while ordinary rites are attended inside. Natives have demanded that their priests speak Spanish and Tz’utujil, the language inherited from their wise Mayan ancestors.
The centenarian bell of this church is still in the bell tower . They say, that on the occasion of the December 1990 uprising, people went to the Catholic Church and rang the bell to wake up the rest of the town to fight against the army. People, succeeded in expelling the army and the local police, a singular event in the internal armed conflict (1960-1996) Inside the chapel there is the so-called Peace Park, erected in memory of the December 2, 1990 civil war martyrs. 250.000 people were killed, mainly by security forces and 45 000 were the ‘desaparecidos’, the victims of enforced disappearances. However not all the memories are sad ones.
Miguel Sisay , who is of Santiago Atitlán origin, recalls that when he was a child , adults used to tell him the story of the ‘Rain Maker’ a legendary character, who in the collective imagination, is figured as a white bearded man carrying a water flask with only a little water inside. He kept drinking the water, but the water never ended. According to legend, he invoked rain and he was used to set stones of fireplaces in order. Another legend is the one about Lake Atitlán’s spirit, who apparently wanders in the night through the narrow streets of this town.
With regard to children’s activities in Santiago Atitlán: besides weaving fabrics and making regional dresses, the children of Santiago Atitlán paint, sing and sculpt. Families make their living by trade, tourism, agriculture and fishing in this ancestral and magical scenic location.
Francisco I. López