Sensuous Guatemala: TILE

by Ken Veronda

Universidad Rafael Landivar campus, Quetzaltenango photo by harry díaz (flickr.com/photos/harrydiaz)

Universidad Rafael Landivar campus, Quetzaltenango
photo by Harry Díaz (flickr.com/photos/harrydiaz)

No, not floor or wall tiles, nor mosaics. Not bath tiles or tiles used for games. Tiles can be of ceramic, stone, metal, glass. Not these. I’m talking roof tiles, the Spanish Mission or barrel tile with the curved surface, an old idea brought here by the European conquerors who started making them with local clays, fired to that familiar terracotta brick red.

Roof tiles were pretty easy to form. Sit a naked worker down in the wet clay, and he can pat the stuff along his thigh to form the ideal shape to install on roofs, alternating up and down. Ah yes, a far better roofing than the native thatch that leaked, burned and rotted. Red clay tiles look prettier to our eyes, too, above whitewashed walls against deep blue skies and brooding volcanoes.

The market town of Chimaltenango—“place of walls,” white walls with terracotta roofs—was one of the prettiest stops along the Pan American Highway, an hour from the city at the La Antigua junction.

For tourists heading to Chichi and the lake, Chimaltenango was a first stop for picture-taking of the plaza and Colonial streets. Sidewalk artists sold their pastels and oils of the idyllic scene.

Idyllic, but deadly. Clay tile roofs atop rotting wood beams were heavy weights just waiting to fall, which so many did when each major earthquake hit Guatemala. Many families were crushed as they slept that early morning in 1976 during the last great quake, especially in Chimaltenango. Though distant from the epicenter, the town shook heavily and many tile roofs came tumbling down. The traditional practice since Colonial times was to build again with a heavier tile, but this time light-weight, less-expensive corrugated materials were used. Next big quake, fewer lives should be lost. But the town is no longer so picturesque.

Sure, mission roof tiles continue, especially atop churches and other Colonial buildings. If properly fastened on sturdy timbers, they’re safe and look great in your photos and paintings. As you travel around the Guatemalan highlands, take lots of those pictures of beautiful tile roofs—when you find them. On many cottages in little towns, they’ve already yielded to unattractive but cheap and safe Duralite.

A few years ago, I found a couple of handmade clay tiles dumped by a neighbor rebuilding with modern stuff. They’d been shaped on a man’s thigh, with handprints evident. A friendly artist painted macaws on the tiles for me, and I’ve mounted them narrow-end-up in our hallway. Fine souvenir of old mission tiles. Assemble your own terracotta tile souvenirs in your pictures, paintings and memories.

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