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Biography of an uncertain strait

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Daniel Quirós

“And how this fragile strip of land has captured the world´s attention, born out of earthquakes and volcanoes,” said with beautiful words the Costa Rican writer about the region where he was born and raised.

The idea of a united Central America, as literature suggests, is a great lie. What forms this frail strip of land, bordered by two oceans and two continents are seven countries as diverse in their geographies as in their culture and ethnicity.

Nevertheless, the Strip exists, containing the ruins of Tikal and Copan, among the lively and vibrant indigenous culture in Guatemala, Belize´s English and the “Miskita” communities in Nicaragua, with the Afro-American Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and the modern cities of San Salvador, San José, and Tegucigalpa.

Perhaps for that reason the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal spoke of an “uncertain strait”, land of history and frail mythology. This story goes back to the Spanish colonialism, when the area was part of the previous Guatemalan reign in 1540. At that time, the territory included Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, a part of Chiapas, and the Chiriquí province in Panama.

After the independence in 1821, the region became part of the Mexican Empire, and would later take part in the unification dream to form the Federal Republic of Central America, effective from 1824 through 1838. As the Republic disbanded, the region´s countries became closer to what they are in modern times.

¿What were those countries exactly?

Panama would remain a part of Colombia until 1903; and Belize, previously British Honduras, would gain independence in 1981. Modern day history and political books hold discussions about five, six or even seven countries in Central America. Even if it were seven countries, the total area is still small in comparison: 524,000 Km2, an area somewhat larger than California. It’s amazing how this small strip of land, born out of earthquakes and volcanoes, has amassed such global attention.

The Spanish Conquistadors brought with them dreams made of gold and glory which fueled Hernan Cortes through the Guatemalan Jungles as he searched for Tenochtitlan. Other important men that would tread these lands were Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Bartolome de las Casas, Gil Gonzalez Davila, and Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

Others would come with their swords in hand to slice the already reduced indigenous population. Still others would stand for the rights of the natives and would seek trading methods or peaceful colonialism.

Another type of conquest would arrive in the 19th century dressed as William Walker, an American Filibuster who in 1856 tried to conquer the area, reinstate slavery, and auto proclaim himself as president of Nicaragua. The city of Granada still bears the scars of those years, when Walker burned down its walls after being expelled by the isthmus’s armies, from which humble heroes such as Juan Santamaria were born, men that would die for young flags waving in the wind.

In the 20th century, several countries would join efforts to build the first interoceanic canal in Nicaragua, only to be defeated by the new northern empire, under whose influence was born Panama and later its famous canal. Fast forward to the Cold War and world news would show images of the revolutionary wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. In 1979, the Sandinistas would take the plaza in Managua, while the fight would continue close to the 21st century in El Salvador and Guatemala. Today another type of violence remains, partly unsolved from those years, but linked without a doubt to the lack of opportunities and poverty that has always lingered.

That is how this fragile strip of land, born from the convulsion of tectonic plates, still remains shaking; but also deeply beautiful, rich in culture, and spirit. This land saw the birth of literary masterpieces such as the Popol Vuh; and writers such as Ruben Dario, Salarrue, Miguel Angel Asturias, Yolanda Oreamuno, and Roque Dalton. This land was also the home of Rigoberta Menchu, Claribel Alegria, Carlos Cortes, Sergio Ramirez, Rodrigo Rey Sosa, and Horacio Castellanos Moya. How many more writers will be born out of the region’s 41 million people?

How many more pages will be written with ink, memory, protest, and acclamation?

Perhaps only the natural riches of the area come close to its immense cultural legacy.

Taking just 0.1% of the planet’s surface, the region holds more than 7% of its biodiversity. There are 900 species of birds in Panama alone, while Guatemala and Costa Rica house over 200 types of reptiles and mammals; each living among swamps and plains, lakes and volcanoes, tropical forests, high peaks, and shorelines extending from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and reaching the Isthmus of Panama. Visitors from all over the world come to ride a boat through the great lake of Nicaragua or the Tortuguero canals in Costa Rica.

Others climb the Cucumatanes mountain range in Guatemala or dive in the Honduran Caribbean, Bocas del Toro in Panama, or in Belize’s famous Blue Hole.

Even though it covers only 0.1% of the planet’s surface, Central America often seems larger to those of us who were born and raised there. Dario said it himself: “If the homeland is small, one dreams it big.” Because if it is real or not, imagined or concrete, it will keep growing in spite of being small, resisting all the forgetful temptations along the way.

Special Thanks:
Jose Edgardo Cal Montoya, Guatemalan Historiography Professor at the San Carlos University in Guatemala. Carlos Canas-Dinarte, Salvadorean History Investigator. Enrique Camacho Navarro, Central American and Caribbean Investigator for the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries, from the Mexican Autonomous University (UNAM).


The first steps
Central America’s first inhabitants came from two cultural traditions: the Mesoamerican, led by the Olmecas – who occupied Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras over 4,000 years ago – and those derived from the Caribbean cultural lineage, ancestors of Miskitos, Ramas, Sumos, Payas, and Tawahkas.

The Mayans
Estimations date their presence between the years 2000 B.C. and 1546 A.D. They were located throughout the region known as Mesoamerica, which encompasses the southern border of Mexico, and large parts of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.
• The Mayan population located on the lowlands could have reached 13 million by mid-8th Century.
• The highest authority in their society was the cleric class, and the Emperor was thought as a god among men. The base of the pyramid was made up of artisans, farmers, and slaves.
• They discovered and used the numeric value of zero, representing it with a snail.
• They were the first to eat foods such as chocolate, popcorn, and chewing gum.
• Guatemala still houses 23 different Mayan tongues which cannot communicate among themselves.

Authoritative past
Even though Central America knew authoritative governments since the 19th Century, the post-war context during mid-20th Century fueled the rise of dictatorships that extended through the 60s, 70s, and 80s; some of which wrote a dark chapter in the region’s history.

The light of the 90s
Central America was deeply transformed by the end of the 20th Century. Civil governments took control under a new democratic ruling and at the same time fought for the region’s economic integration, forming the Central American Integration System, SICA.

Population growth in Central America
1824: 1.3 million
1950: 9.2 million
1993: 31.3 million
2013: 44.6 million*
*Estimated number.

The pioneers
Electric energy: Santa Tecla (El Salvador) was the first city in Latin America that made use of electricity. In 1882 a teacher named Daniel Hernandez illuminated the park, which now has his name, with a machine he invented.
Industry: the two oldest enterprises in the region are El Angel sugar mill in El Salvador, born in 1882; and the Central American Brewery in Guatemala, maker of Gallo beer, which was born in 1886.
Construction: the first Central American building, Casa Ambrogi, was built in 1885 out of wood and stamped sheet in El Salvador. The building stood until June of 1996.
Press: among the first printed media that still exist to date are Diario de Centro América (Guatemala, 1880), La Prensa Libre (Costa Rica, 1889), and Diario CoLatino (El Salvador, 1890).

Cobblestone streets
86 destinations are part of the colonial route through Central America. Get to know some of the places that reveal a history based six centuries ago.
La Antigua (Guatemala)
Suchitoto (El Salvador)
Comayagua (Honduras)
Leon (Nicaragua)
Cartago (Costa Rica)
San Lorenzo (Panama)
Source: Visit Central America

Besides its lush nature, this territory is filled with customs and traditions that reflect the true essence of ancient civilizations. Through celebrations, rites, and beliefs, citizens still hold the legacy of multiple generations.

Folk dance
When talking about moving your hips to the rhythm of typical musical instruments in the region, each country holds many popular moves. These are the most important ones due to their originality and tradition.
Costa Rica
Punto Guanacasteco: national dance.
Swing Criollo: Cultural heritage, mixes swing with cumbia.
El Salvador
Carbonero: written by Pancho Lara, this song is second only to the National Anthem and is represented by a colorful dance.
Palo de Mayo: even though some say its roots go as far as the Egyptians, it was brought here thanks to the English, and is done in honor of the fertility goddess, Mayaya, which is represented by a fruit tree.
Tamborito: This dance and musical genre is composed of claps, drums, and a voice that brings life to the melody.
Tusa: its name comes from the corn on the cobb which male dancers offer their female companions in a joking manner.
Baile del Venado: a hunting ritual practiced by the ancient mayas, performed with masks and skins.


Folk story describes how the goddess of the moon and love, Ixchel, was the one who gave women the gift of sewing and taught them to include in their clothing the sacred Mayan symbols. The way they dress has become a way to show their local ethnic identity.
Ilobasco’s miniatures
In this Salvadoran region, pottery making dates as far as the 16th Century.
Baskets of the Embera
Women of the Embera and Wounaan communities, located in the Darien region of Panama, weave beautiful and fine baskets from palm and chunga fibers.

Holy Week
Central America is famous for its celebrations and parades during Lent season and Easter. One of the best known countries for its religious activities is Guatemala. Burial marches, Nazarene processions, and the meticulous creation of rugs made from sawdust and flowers are just some of this season’s festivities.

Holy Patrons
In this mostly Catholic region each country holds special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Guatemala: Virgen del Rosario
Honduras: Virgen de Suyapa
Costa Rica: Virgen de los Angeles
Nicaragua: Inmaculada Concepción de Maria
Panamá: Santa Maria la Antigua
El Salvador: Nuestra Señora de la Paz

Written legacy
The famous Popol Vuh (Pop Wuj) is the sacred book of the Maya-quiche culture. Written by the Indians that lived in the occidental plateau of Guatemala, it includes mythological accounts about the world’s creation, history of kings, customs of the people in the region, and the disastrous Spanish conquest.

Two popular legends
La Siguanaba
This is a ghostly character that haunts men – especially the unfaithful ones – in dark and deserted places. She is a beautiful woman that up close transforms into the rotten face of a mare.
El Cadejo
This mythical animal resembles a large and furry dog with red eyes and reveals itself to lone people walking the streets late at night. Legend speaks of two of them: one evil black one which attacks and a white good one that defends people.

From Avianca’s Hub in El Salvador, the airline offers 184 weekly flights to the different destinations in Central America: Belize, Guatemala, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

In that same way, daily direct flights are offered from Costa Rica to Guatemala, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama.

Avianca is a leading airline in Latin America who strives to offer a world class service to obtain traveler preference. Its route network includes 100 destinations in 25 countries throughout the American continent and Europe, served through its Hubs in Bogota, El Salvador, and Lima. Through its Star Alliance membership, the airline also offers worldwide connectivity options.

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