José Recio

El Teso Village

Jan 2015

Father Lionel Guzman had been the parish priest of Cruz-Santa Church for thirty-seven years and was feeling too old to keep pace with the demands of his ministry. His hair had turned gray, and his muscles often ached, but his life as a rural priest helped him to stay slim. He was a Ladino, a descendant of the colonial Europeans, taller than the average man in town. Rarely did he wear a cassock outside of religious services, but he never failed to wear a large crucifix on a thin chain. In the past, it had not been unusual for him to walk several miles on dusty paths to visit a family in need, conduct a burial, a wedding, and so on.  A couple of years earlier, on a night of thunder and rain, someone knocked violently on his door. It was after midnight.

“Father Guzman!” a female voice called.


Born in the historical city of Salamanca, in the heart of Castile, Spain, José Recio studied medicine in Spain and later came to Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife. 

He put his pants and shirt over his pajamas.

“Who’s there?” 

“It’s Irma. My husband Ulil went to the woods at sundown to gather pine straws. He isn’t back. I have a bad feeling. Please help me.” Irma had married Ulil four months earlier; they were expecting their first baby.

He opened the door at once. Irma, a young, handsome Mayan woman, was wearing a dark-reddish huipil and nagua, and had covered her shoulders with a small green blanket. She looked apprehensive and was soaked.

“Please, help me.” 

He wasn't sure if this was a dream.

“Let me put my boots on and grab a couple of lanterns,” he said.

They walked hastily, in silence, side by side, near the mountain slope, holding their breath and their lanterns. She knew the area well because she had accompanied her husband many times to collect pine straws. They were basket weavers. She called her husband’s name; he called it too. But they heard no response, only the sounds of the wind and rain beating against the leaves of the trees. Suddenly, the priest stumbled over a large, blackened lump surrounded by bundles of pine rods. Probably a charred trunk of a tree, he thought. But Irma had fainted beside him, and when he saw it was Ulil, he knew that lightning had struck him.

It took several weeks for Father Guzman to recover from that shock. Gradually, though, he went back to his mission of gaining terrain over the Protestants in converting people to Catholicism. The Evangelists had already built a church, and this was killing him. Still, convinced that the Catholic iconography and practices made a better match for the native pagans than the Protestant liturgy did, at the beginning of 1981, he maintained his enthusiasm for the mission. To complicate matters, an armed conflict between the military forces of the Guatemalan Government and guerrilla groups was going on in different parts of the country, including the Highlands, cradle of the Maya Civilization, on the other side of the mountains. Although the actual fight had not reached their town, El Teso, an atmosphere of stress prevailed as news about the atrocities committed not far from there had filtered in.

Father Guzman had written to the Bishop asking for another priest for Cruz-Santa Church, which would be a blessing. The Diocese replied at first that it was not possible to honor his petition due to a shortage of priests and an extreme need for religious services, from those priests available, in the war zone. A response to his third letter arrived days prior to the celebration of the annual town festivities, in March. He adjusted his glasses to read it.

…it will now be possible to provide your church with the assistance requested.

He was reading to Ismael, his mestizo church administrator.  

         ...Father Francis Palenque, a young Jesuit with a clear vocation to help the humble with their spiritual needs, is expected to join the parish church of Cruz-Santa shortly. The letter was signed by the Bishop’s personal secretary. While reading, Father Guzman seemed not to notice his hands shaking. Ismael made him aware of it. The old priest was taken aback by the clerk’s remark, but he responded promptly, “Wouldn’t your hands shake, Ismael if you were as happy as I feel now?” They were in the vestry, which they also used as an office. The priest was standing by his desk, close to the window, and the clerk was fixing a candlestick hanging from the ceiling near the door to the main church.

Suddenly, the priest fell silent, released the letter onto his desk and sat in his chair. He looked weary. He now remembered that Ismael had noticed his hands shaking once before when he lifted the Holy Host during Consecration. Even Indalecia, the Mayan woman who was his housekeeper and cook for so many years, had seen his trembling. ‘Your hand shakes, Father,’ she had said once as he brought a spoonful of soup to his mouth. He wondered if other people had also witnessed this quivering. In fact, he was almost certain that Irma, who was just about to give birth, had also noticed it. Would it become a problem? He needed his physical integrity to continue his ministry.

Father Guzman remained distracted for some time, looking out the window toward the big volcano. Then, he got up as if in a hurry.  “We have work to do, Ismael,” he said. “We better get going.”




The townspeople busied themselves setting up the stands for the market and decorating the streets with colorful paper flags for the annual festival. It was the hot season in Central America. An estimated two thousand people lived in town, most of them farmers, weavers and artisans of Mayan descent. It had had a more relevant past when the capital of Guatemala was in that valley, the Panchoy Valley, and magnificent buildings were raised in the city and the valley villages. El Teso still had an ancient bridge and a few Spanish colonial buildings, one of which served as City Hall and another as Court of Law, both located in the central plaza. The few narrow cobbled streets off the plaza were the ones being decorated.

It was during these days that Francis Palenque arrived in town. One morning he knocked on the door of the vicarage, adjacent to the church. Indalecia opened it, and they glanced at each other silently.

“I’m Father Palenque,” he said.

“Father...?” she inquired as if she hadn’t heard him.

“Francis Palenque. I just came on the bus,” he spoke in Kaqchiquel, the local indigenous language.

Indalecia was in the presence of a very young Mayan man.

“Welcome, Father Palenque. I’m Indalecia, Father Guzman’s housekeeper,” she said in Spanish.

“Sorry I didn’t let you know the exact time of my arrival,” he said, also in Spanish.

He was wearing a dark blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up; black, smooth corduroy pants; and dusty, military-type, black boots. For luggage, he only had a crumpled leather bag slung over his right shoulder.

“Father Guzman was expecting you at any moment,” Indalecia said.

Lionel Guzman was, in fact, anxious to meet him. But now, standing in front of him—short, slim, with dark hair and black eyes—in the lounge hall, he felt very old. This was a kid!

“You entered priesthood very young; I presume?” He said the first thing that came to his mind.

“I don’t remember ever wishing to do anything else.”

Father Guzman nodded. “I’m a Franciscan, a soldier of Christ,” he said.

They looked at each other silently.

“Well, welcome to El Teso,” Guzman said finally. “Indalecia, my housekeeper will take you to your lodging. I’m sure you would like to rest for a while.”

The church owned, in addition to the vicarage, a small house, used for guests and auxiliary clergy, where Francis Palenque would stay.




Palenque liked the church—a sturdy, concrete-and-stone construction, showing no particular architectonic style. Located on First Street, about one hundred yards from the central plaza, it stood in the middle of a broad esplanade with magnificent views of the big volcano.

“Built before the independence of Guatemala,” Guzman said as they walked inside.

“What was here before?” Palenque asked as he glanced at a large figure of Christ on the cross carved in wood and hanging behind the altar.

Father Guzman didn’t know what had been standing on that ground before the church was built.

“Nice work isn’t it?” he said instead, pointing to the figure of Christ.

“Yes, very nice.”  

Having walked around the entire church, Father Guzman led Francis Palenque to the vestry where they found the parish clerk at work.

“Ismael helps with everything from weddings to funerals, and he is also our administrator,” he told Francis as a way of introduction.

“Great,” Francis said, “I’m pleased to meet you.”

Ismael, a few years younger than the old parish priest, was a stocky man, of a healthy appearance, and well grounded. He lived with his wife, not far from the church; they had no children. The two men shook hands.

“Father Palenque was asking what was here before this church was built,” Father Guzman said.

“As far as I know,” Ismael responded, “nobody has ever heard of anything important being on these grounds before this church.”

“It’s a good question, though,” Father Guzman said. “See what’s happening now with the old bridge,” he added, turning to Ismael.

 They each sat on wicker chairs around a coffee table placed in the middle of the vestry.

 “Indalecia will bring us coffee and biscuits in a minute,” Guzman told them.

Francis Palenque stretched out his legs in front of him and crossed his hands on his lap.

“What is happening with the bridge?” he asked.

Father Guzman also stretched his legs slowly and leaned back.

“Two archeologists came here a couple of months ago and declared that the bridge is over one thousand years old,” he said.

“Interesting,” Francis Palenque remarked.

Lionel Guzman said nothing.

 “It seems the Government has money available,” Ismael intervened. “We guess it comes from the Americans, to invest in this valley. The plan is to re-channel the flow of water running underneath the bridge and build a road along its current course.”

“And get rid of the bridge altogether, right?” Palenque guessed.

“Yes, but many oppose the idea of knocking down a historical bridge. Besides, most people believe a road would bring soldiers into town, and that scares them,” Ismael said.

“I can see why,” Francis Palenque said.

 Father Guzman got up to open the door for Indalecia, who arrived holding a tray with the coffee.

“It’s their river; people say,” he commented as he returned to his chair.

“Isn’t that true?” Palenque remarked.

 Father Guzman tried a piece of sweetened bread and drank a sip of coffee.

 “Yes and no. Yes, because, in their eyes, the Government will deprive them of the water they need to grow their crops and no because a road might benefit the village at large,” he said.

“Where does the Church stand on this?” Palenque asked.

Father Guzman dipped another biscuit in his coffee and took it to his mouth carefully to avoid shaking. Ismael took the thread again.

“Cruz-Santa is not alone in this dilemma. The parish of Piedras Blancas is also affected by this plan.”

“I see,” Palenque nodded.

All three continued chatting while drinking their coffee.

The next day, Francis Palenque went back to the church by himself. Now, it looked brighter. Several indigenous women were washing the floor, setting bouquets and chandeliers around the altar and polishing the pews. They had turned on the lights. Palenque smiled at them.

“I’m Father Palenque, the new priest,” he introduced himself. “Who uses these pews?” he asked smiling.

“These are for the important people,” one woman answered.

“Where are the pews for the ordinary people?” he inquired still with a smile.

The woman looked surprised as if he should know better.

 “They prefer the benches,” she finally replied.

“I guess so,” he said and waved them goodbye as he continued his solitary route through the church.




Every year, Father Guzman said a solemn Mass at noon to honor the patron saint.  Attired in a colorful chasuble, he headed a slow-paced procession from the back of the church toward the high altar along the central aisle. This year, Francis Palenque walked behind him. He wore a regular black cassock and held a tall, light-weight metal cross. Six children in white tunics, who spread incense throughout the four cardinal points followed. Open mouthed, the peasants looked at Father Guzman as if he were a deity. He was happy to see his church full of people. He saw Irma standing in the back; she would soon give birth to her baby. He glanced at Dr. Julian Bruno, the general practitioner, a man in his mid-fifties who lived in Piedras Blancas, six miles away, but never failed to attend the yearly solemn mass in El Teso. He greeted the people in the pews by slightly bowing. When he reached the altar, he made a genuflection and turned his attention to God’s matters. At the end of the mass, he blessed his congregation. “The Lord opens the doors of our Faith to all,” he concluded.

That day, the market was at its best: an amazing display of shapes and colors and smells of chilies, tortillas, grappa, and coffee. Father Guzman swung by in the early afternoon. For him, moving around those crowded stalls was a reminder of the passing of time. The swineherd sold the same kind of baby pigs as he had done from years back; only now, his body stooped and new wrinkles appeared on his face. Father Guzman thought about himself getting old, when he heard a voice calling him. It was Irma. She was standing a few yards away. Colorful baskets hung from her shoulders. Father Guzman’s eyes moved from the baskets to Irma’s natural curves, and he felt sexually aroused. He squeezed his crucifix between his fingers and prayed. Irma signaled him to move to First Street, and he went there, wondering what she wanted him to see.

A juggler, surrounded by a circle of admirers, performed. Lionel Guzman came across another circle of people standing around a man who talked to them. He got closer and recognized Francis Palenque. “I’ve been in the Highlands, and I realize there is no compassion for the humble and poor there,” he was saying. Lionel Guzman guessed that was the reason Irma asked him to come to this street. Francis seemed credible. Sooner or later, the old priest reflected, all of us will have to face reality. One only had to listen to the clandestine radio broadcasting from Cuba to know that the fight was not between Christians and pagans but the powerful and the oppressed. Francis spared no effort to connect with the townspeople; it seemed to Father Guzman. He also thought the wise thing to do at that moment would be to leave him alone, and he moved away.




April marked the beginning of the rainy season.  Along with the rain, a Government military commissioner, Lieutenant Atilano, a tall, blond Ladino man in his thirties, with a strong voice, arrived in El Teso to supervise a military draft ordered by the President of the Republic. The rain kept falling relentlessly, and by the end of May, the streets were muddy and the milpa, the maize fields, flooded. The mayor, Ulmil Zunc,  a Mayan man in his forties with the air and ambition of a politician, issued an edict to notify the townspeople of the urgency to discuss a possible course of action to deal with the flood. He called for a meeting at the City Hall. The handcrafted ceiling of the room where they were meeting attracted glances of admiration.

“First thing is to prevent a mudslide,” the commissioner told the audience.

He, the mayor, and the police chief occupied seats at the front on a slightly raised platform. Ulmil Zunc grabbed a pen and made an entry in a notebook.

“With my respects, officer, we need more resources.” Zoylo, a small Mayan man, intervened as the representative of the local farmers.

“What do you need?” The lieutenant asked.

A silence ensued, except for the raindrops knocking on the window panels.

 “With the sewers clogged,” the physician said, “we fear an outbreak of dysentery.”

“If so, the Army will help to evacuate the sick,” the military man said.

Ulmil wrote something else in his notebook.

 “Sir,” Zoylo called. “The milpa is our wealth,” he stated humbly.

 “Don’t panic.” The officer said. “The new road will facilitate economic development,” he added.

He referred to a plan of the Government to pave a short stretch paralleling the ancient bridge to make a road that would link with the Pan American Highway. Ulmil added a new entry in his notebook. Dr. Bruno seemed attentive to whatever could apply to his cause, and Father Guzman, his fingers intertwined to avoid quivering, envisioned his dream to fill the empty niches on the front facade of his church with new stone sculptures.

“If I may say,” the physician raised his hand, “we need ambulances and another doctor.”

His words triggered utterances of approval from the benches, including the natural herbs medicine-man and the midwife. Many people, when feeling sick, chose to look for the local medicine man first, but if they did not improve they recurred to Dr. Bruno.

“Cruz-Santa...” Father Guzman then started to say, half dreaming. “The niches on the front facade... they are empty. Before I came, stone-carved figures of saints filled them, but now, now,” he repeated, “with Father Palenque aboard it would be possible to do... to fill them again.”

         His voice trailed off. Ismael, who sat by his side, kindly gripped his arm to reassure him of his hopes, and Francis Palenque, bemused, nodded from his bench. At that moment, Lieutenant Atilano looked at the clock, which hung on a wall in the room—almost an hour had passed—and grinned at the mayor; a grimace, the latter seemed to interpret as meaning it was the end of the discussion, no more talking.

“The meeting is now adjourned. Thank you all for your presence,” Ulmil said loudly. People picked up their waterproof ponchos from the racks by the sides of the Conference Room and headed toward the exit.

Outside, Ismael invited the old priest to come under his umbrella, and they walked home together.

 “It was interesting, the meeting I mean. Wasn’t it?” Ismael asked.

Father Guzman stooped and stepped on the pebbles awkwardly; he tried to keep his chin up.

“I hope this lieutenant will bring us some good,” he said.

“He said the Government will,” Ismael affirmed, and kicked a banana skin away.

“Thanks for the kick,” Father Guzman murmured.

 He couldn’t help himself; he walked with his neck thrust forward, looking down, with a meditative semblance. He wondered if his plans for his church would ever take off.

 “A lot of work remains to be done,” he said as he opened the door of his home and, after thanking Ismael for his company, he stepped inside.




On June seventeenth, the independent farmers gathered to perform their traditional ritual in the milpa fields, under the full-moon light, in preparation for the harvest. The rain had ceased, but sadness prevailed because the damage caused by the flooding meant a reduction in the volume of crops. But there they were, men wearing allegoric masks and women ceremonial huipiles embroidered with patterns of animals and flowers. They were at the point of initiating the traditional dance to honor their deity, Maximon, and ask Mother Earth for fertility when they saw a helicopter landing not too far from where they were. They witnessed men getting out from it and moving away across the countryside, some of them in military uniform.

The next day, the story of the helicopter, along with Irma’s just born baby boy, Ulil junior, became the talk of the town. The appearance of the helicopter brought forward different interpretations. Some people voiced the existence of communist pockets nested in the town, and the soldiers had come to remove them. For others, the soldiers arrived to help with the forced draft, and the civilians were Government agents. And a few opined that El Teso was in the crosshairs of the Government for an unknown reason. Perhaps the mayor knew what was going on, many peasants wondered.

Ulmil informed the townspeople that the civilians who descended from the helicopter were Canadian experts in matters of oil drilling; the Government had expanded the search for oil to include the Panchoy Valley, starting in El Teso. As for the soldiers, they were in town only to help the lieutenant—as many had guessed—supervise the ongoing enlistment.

The parish priest summoned Francis Palenque and Ismael to the sacristy to talk about the plans to expand their church. It was one of those days of down-pouring rain, and they could hear the drops splashing on the roof. They had coffee and pastries, as Father Guzman liked Indalecia to serve every time they met there to talk. Father Guzman took his cup to his mouth with great care, holding it with both hands to avoid spilling the coffee because of his shaking. He was not trying to hide it anymore.

“There are many things we need to do,” he said after he took a sip.

“As Dr. Bruno said last month in the big meeting, we need ambulances, and another doctor—”

Father Guzman cut Ismael short to introduce his list. “A new baptismal font, a granite altar table, statues to fill the niches on the front façade—”

 “More schools, potable water, a lot of things we need,” Father Palenque interjected. “A matter of priorities, I guess,” he added.

“What would be your priority?” Ismael asked him.

“Unity; a single voice,” Palenque answered. The other two looked at each other wondering.

 “Speaking of unity,” Father Guzman said after a few moments, “Julian and I plan to write to the Bishop detailing our needs for our church and his medical practice.”

 “I suppose you should write to the Government rather than the Church,” Ismael said.

         Father Guzman tried to cross one leg over the other, but he felt awkward performing this move and desisted.

         “The President of the Republic and the Bishop sometimes dine together,” he said and tried again to cross one leg over the other and again failed to do so. “I guess I must accept certain physical limitations,” he added. “As for the kind of unity you speak about, Francis, I find the concept difficult to explain in a letter.”

With no other matters to bring up for discussion, they ended their meeting.




Meanwhile, a handful of young recruits had deserted the imposed military draft and escaped to the mountains. Still, there were many townspeople who saw a great opportunity to prosper under the Government wings. Under a prevalent atmosphere of uncertainties, a public protest took place. Zoylo managed to convene about fifty farmers at the old bridge on the day scheduled for its demolition. Standing up and holding each other’s arms, they surrounded the bridge to manifest their opposition to its demolition. Soon, the lieutenant, the mayor, the police chief, and a crowd of observers, including the two priests, gathered at the scene. The officer called Zoylo to negotiate an agreement. Ulmil announced the outcome through a megaphone: “The lieutenant acknowledges your interest in saving this bridge, which will remain a historic landmark.”  Following those words, Zoylo and his people dispersed peacefully.

Coincidently, Ulmil’s daughter was getting married to a diplomat, at noon, on that same day, in Cruz-Santa Church. Father Guzman performed the religious ceremony and afterward attended a reception set at the mayor’s home. Tables and chairs were set around the yard, and people moved freely throughout the entire property, chatting, laughing, eating and drinking. Marimba music was played by local musicians. At the old priest’s arrival, he spotted a table in the shade and was on his way toward it when Dr. Bruno met him midway.

 “Hey, Lionel, listen, I’ve got news for you.” Privately, the doctor and the priest addressed each other by their first names.

“Let’s sit down first, Julian,” Father Guzman said, pointing to the table in the shade.

“Shall I bring you a drink?” the physician asked.

“Punch with a splash of gin, please.”

Father Guzman reached the table while the physician went to get his drink. Two more people were sitting there; they greeted the priest with a smile, but Guzman did not engage them in conversation.

“What news do you mean?”  he asked the doctor as he joined him at the table.

The other two people respectfully bowed to them and moved away from the table.

 “The Government has agreed to concede everything we asked for in our letter to the bishop.”

“I can’t believe—”

“Not only to that. There is a grant to create a garden in the esplanade of your church, as well,” the physician added.

Lionel Guzman looked at him with surprise.

 “But I haven’t requested that,” he said.

“It’s a gift from the Government.”

Lionel Guzman meant to say something when Irma showed up unexpectedly.

“I didn’t expect that man to be here, at this wedding,” she said.

“Who?” Dr. Bruno asked.

“The lieutenant.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Father Guzman wondered.

“Yesterday I went to my stall in the market,” Irma replied. She was carrying her baby astride on her hip; she glanced at Father Guzman as she talked. Irma's presence, her baby sitting on her hip, her maternal breasts bouncing with her agitated breathing, everything about her triggered his sexual arousal. Silently, he prayed and held the hanging crucifix tightly in his hand. “He looked at me with lust,” she added. “I’m a widow and the mother of this baby. I hate him.” She started sobbing. “Zoylo and Father Palenque think he and the other foreigners are here to oppress the poor and favor the rich.” She wiped her cheek. Father Guzman, his mouth half open and his lower lip visibly trembling, cast his eyes on her; only his eyes expressed his amazement. Just then, the newlyweds along with some of their guests and the lieutenant approached them.

“For the bright future of El Teso,” the lieutenant shouted, raising his glass.

Irma barely got a hold of her temper. She adjusted her black hair, which was tied back in a thick braid, and holding her baby tightly against herself, moved away. The tension dissipated, and the party went on.

When ready to leave the party, though, Father Guzman was feeling sick. It had been a long and emotional day. First, the protest about the old bridge in the morning; then, the wedding in church at noon; and finally, the evening celebration and Irma’s scene. He tried to get up from his chair, but his muscles cramped, and his legs froze. Dr. Bruno tried to help.

“I’ll take you home. Get some rest, and you’ll soon feel better,” the doctor said.




Julian Bruno had arrived in Piedras Blancas some fifteen years after Lionel Guzman had started his parish mission in El Teso. To care for his patients the physician traveled from village to village by bicycle until he bought a Honda motorcycle, which he still had, and later a black Volkswagen Beetle. The two men became friends.

The old priest got better after a few days. He wondered what was wrong with him, but he didn’t dare to ask the doctor. Not that he was afraid of dying, rather he was afraid of becoming crippled and, therefore, unable to complete his plans for the church. The temple, Cruz-Santa, or his vision of an improved inside and outside building, had become a symbol of his achievement as the village’s priest.

 “My hand trembles, Francis,” he confided to the young priest when he visited him during those days of home rest.

They were in the vicarage, a rather unpretentious dwelling: one bedroom, a dining area, a kitchen, one bathroom, and an extra room used as a little office. Both seated by a window from where they could see the volcano across the esplanade. Guzman rang a hand bell to call his housekeeper.

“A glass of brandy?” he asked Francis.

“No, thank you.”

“I will,” he said. “Please,” he added, looking at his housekeeper.

Indalecia, a single, virtuous woman, had served as his housekeeper for two decades.

“Why don’t you ask the local medicine man?”  Francis wondered.

“Ask what?” 

Francis Palenque stretched his legs in front of him.

“Does he know of a healing brew for your shaking?”

“I’ll ask Julian when I’m ready.”

Indalecia came back with a bottle of brandy and two small glasses on a tray. Francis served Father Guzman the liquor. 

 “I need a steadier hand than mine to deal with these times,” the old priest said.

“I’m here to help,” Francis said.

“Things are more complicated than I had anticipated.”

“Things never remain pure in times of war,” Francis said with a smile.

“Sure, but I particularly worry about our community.”

It was evening, and the room, facing north, stayed cold. Father Guzman rang the bell again to request a blanket.

 “What’s the trouble?” Francis asked.

“Irma speaks of a split in people’s opinions about what’s going on in town,” he said.

  “Differences in point of view are inevitable,” Francis replied.

  Indalecia returned with a small wool blanket.

“None of us should get political,” said Father Guzman, comforted now by the blanket extended over his belly and by the brandy in his system.

“But we must get involved somehow,” Francis probed.

Father Guzman turned to him as if troubled.

“You aren’t a communist, are you?” he asked point blank.

Francis did not flinch. He grabbed the bottle and served Guzman more liquor.

“Irma speaks of the ‘oppressed,’” Father Guzman insisted.

Francis set the bottle of brandy back on the table. He had always identified himself as poor, born into a family of farmers from the Highlands.

“Let’s be clear,” he emphasized. “We Mayan are of sharp instincts; we are chapines; we are aware the authorities of this country impede our progress because if we did progress, these same authorities wouldn’t be able to manipulate us.”

The old priest leaned back on his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “I hope you don’t turn political,” he warned.

“I’m only a catechist.”

Father Guzman smiled at him. “I just want our church to look nice, as the House of God should look,” he stated with a gesture of conclusion.




Francis Palenque gave himself up to his catechesis with enthusiasm.  He convinced Dr. Bruno to sell him the Honda motorcycle since the physician hardly used it after he had bought his VW. He ventured into the Highlands—Sololá, Cobán, Petén—where the armed conflict was rooted. Father Guzman noticed an increase in the number of church attendants, which released him from the obligation of himself preaching to the unfaithful and gave him the opportunity to concentrate on improving the church’s looks. The development of a garden in the esplanade had started, but not so the other projects, for he heard from the Diocese the approval of these other projects would take longer. Francis Palenque realized the importance of spreading the right message among those receptive to hear it, and so he could promote unity. He understood the concept of economizing energy, and he was an advocate for the poor and oppressed.

“What we need is a training center, where we can teach people to speak with a single voice,” Francis suggested to Father Guzman.

The parish priest wrote to the Bishop requesting authorization, and soon after, an abandoned building located at the junction with the Pan-American Highway served as a Catechist Training Center.




“What part of the Gospel will you preach, Francis?” Father Guzman wondered.

         The two men strolled in the new and almost finished garden by the esplanade of the church one warm morning at the beginning of November. They were getting acquainted with the kinds of plants and trees already growing there.

 “Respect for human rights.”

Palo de jiote,” Guzman suddenly said.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m reading the label attached to this tree, here.”

Francis looked at the young tree, crooked and leafless.

“I see,” he said.

“It will grow into a tortuous tree,” Guzman said.

Slowly, he moved on. Then he stopped again and turned his head.

“Did you know that?” he asked.


“That the branches of the Palo de jiote grow in a tangle.”

“Yes,” Francis said.

They approached another young tree.

“It’s a cypress,” Guzman exclaimed. “It will grow up straight,” he added.

Francis nodded.

“I heard you,” the old priest said now.

“Excuse me?”

“Respect for human rights, you said.”

 They stopped walking and glanced at each other.

“Fairness, unity—” Francis began saying.

Lionel Guzman cut him short. “Those are difficult concepts to explain.”

They courteously smiled at each other and kept on walking.

“I guess you mean it sounds political?” Francis asked.

“The lieutenant may disagree with you regarding the way you impart catechism. It’s—”


“Yes, it isn’t straight, like the cypress.”

Francis stopped walking and began talking to the flowers as if they were people: “Love, as Christ taught us, consists in going the extra mile to do good without expecting any benefit for oneself,” he said emphatically.

 “That’s straight Christian talk,” Guzman approved.

“I know. I’m a Jesuit. But I’m not convinced that everything attributed to Christ’s teaching is right.”

At that moment, they heard Indalecia, standing by the vicarage door, who was calling Father Guzman.

 “Telephone,” she shouted.

The vicarage was one of the few homes in town with a phone, outside the households of the wealthy.

“Sorry, Francis, I must go back. We’ll continue our exploration of this garden later.”

He turned around, and with shuffling steps, he went to answer the phone. Francis went back to his own business.




Not everything that went on in town happened seamlessly. Prosperity did not reach all corners, and change was not always advantageous for all farmers.  Jealousies and revenge proliferated in the new El Teso. Families whose sons were involved in the civil patrols, away from the field, saw a decrease in the volume of production of crops. There were also unexpected outcomes. Irma went to live with the lieutenant. Under his wing, she led a group of women, embroidery and basket weavers she had organized into a cooperative, throughout the intricacies of exporting their articles.  Father Guzman could hardly take the blow of her decision. He had refused to keep her present in his prayers—he confidentially told Ismael.

 In the midst of this landscape of changes, Father Guzman woke up on the night of December eleventh startled by people shouting and banging on his door. This sense of urgency triggered a flashback to the night in which Irma had lost her husband. He tried to jump out of bed to see what all the noise was about, but his body would not move. The people outside, though, did not wait for him to open the door; they knocked it down. Suddenly, Julian Bruno, Ismael, Indalecia, and a few other neighbors bounced into his room. They helped him to come to the window, and he saw, under a full moon, his church in flames. It was burning on all sides.

Father Guzman had never seen a more spectacular fire in his life. He was in a state of awe. Why had that happened?—he muttered to himself—those massive flames, that inferno, why?

 He felt pressure in his chest as if a tourniquet gripped his heart, and his eyes suddenly went blind to everything around him. He only saw a sequence of flashes of his life, like a parade, in front of him. Was God angry at him because of his sinful attitude toward Irma? But in spite of his weaknesses, he never trespassed on her limits. All his life as a priest he fought his lust—as he well knew. But he never failed to hold on the crucifix he always carried to ask for forgiveness. Occasionally, he doubted his religious vocation, but he was fully committed to doing God’s will. Why then this punishment?

         “Father Palenque’s headquarters is also on fire,” Julian Bruno said, and this shook the priest out of his trance, and back to see the flames. 

“Where is Francis?”  Guzman asked. Was Francis Palenque a rebel? Had he fooled the Bishop? Or did the Bishop know he was a rebel but sent the young priest to Cruz-Santa anyway? He felt overwhelmed by his own questions. 

“He was taken away,” Dr. Bruno responded.

Now the old priest felt betrayed. Francis had outsmarted him. He had ignited the fires on purpose, he thought, an act of revenge because he—Father Guzman—was not providing him with enough support in his crusade against those who oppressed the humble and the poor, like Francis himself. 

All of a sudden it looked as if he had regained his physical strength: he punched the panel of the window with unusual force.

“Is he a communist?” he asked infuriated, keeping his eyes on the flames.

“Please, Father Guzman, calm down. No, he isn’t,” Ismael intervened.

Hearing these words, Guzman felt that his just built-up wrath deflated like a balloon. Magically, his mind reverted to a happy time: he saw a flash of himself as a child, and his mother, sitting on a low chair in the kitchen, breastfeeding his baby sister. Calmness returned to him as he felt his nose filled with the smell of his mother’s breast milk. 

“Why then?” He was not sure what he meant by his question. Perhaps, why the church and the Catechesis Center were in flames?

“He is an advocate of a new Christ,” Ismael whispered.

The priest turned his head toward him—his face reddish from the reflection of the flames and his emotional turmoil. “What do you mean?” he asked, turning back to look at his church burning.

The fire blazed out of control, burning even the niches on the front facade. An expression of sadness now took over Father Guzman’s face. The building in fire was his dearest parish church, his life-long work, his only meaning in life. It was his dream, his legacy to God, and his testimony of his commitment to keeping El Teso as a model of a Community of Compliance. This destruction was an indescribable loss for him.

Filaments of ash floated in the air, and, propelled by the breeze, moved toward the new garden, their silhouettes, drawn against the moonlight, resembling a swarm of birds of ill omen.

“He is accused of him belonging to The Guerrilla Army of the Poor,” Dr. Bruno finally spoke.

“Is he a guerrilla?” the priest asked, his eyes fixed on the floating ash.

“No,” the physician said. “He is a catechist, but the rebels embrace his idea of the new Christ,” he added.

Lionel Guzman moved his head away from the window pane and turned to Julian Bruno. His body appeared rigid, and his hands trembled.

“Will the military execute him?” he asked.

“His teaching implies the poor can and should have access to power,” Julian Bruno said. “That’s why nationalist soldiers are in a rampant revenge, burning churches and catechist centers, and arresting the priests who preach in them, from the Highlands down to El Teso.” 

Other people arrived at the vicarage. Lionel Guzman hoped to see Irma among them, and his heart pumped stronger for a minute, but she was not there. He wondered which side she would join.

         “Julian, what is wrong with me?” he suddenly asked.

“You’ve got paralysis agitans,” the physician said.

Father Guzman nodded as if he understood the term.

 “Indalecia, would you please help me go back to bed?” he said.

She helped him to lie on his bed. With his crucifix quivering between his fingers, he let himself fall asleep.

© The Acentos Review 2015