Would the Real Independence Day Please Stand Up?

Guatemala, El Salvador and their sisters did not win independence on Sept. 15

At our house in Panajachel, July 4 is Independence Day for two reasons. As citizens of the United States, my sons and I observe it in some fashion. But July 4 is also the day that my youngest, Aaron Donald Coop, marks his birthday. This was not wholly by accident; for his cesarean delivery, we had a window of 10 days to choose from. One was July 4, so we went with that. If he’s ever Stateside on that day, I’ll tell him that the fireworks are in his honor.

His birth was, in its way, a manifestation of independence. With the cutting of the umbilical, he became independent of the placenta. To be sure, babies remain dependent in other ways, and true independency comes in stages. I see three independence rites marking the passage to childhood autonomy. The first is birth; the second is the day of weaning; and the third is that first day he or she can be left for a play date at a friend’s house, confident that Mom, Dad, siblings and home all continue to exist, even if they are not in sight.

Where we live, the holiday marking national independence is Sept. 15. This day is celebrated not only in Guatemala but everywhere between Shammu’s house in San Diego to the doorstep of South America (the Costa Rica-Panama border); only Belize is excepted. It is the day we associate with national independence, but in fact it recalls only the first of three separations that wrought the nation states we see today. Guatemala did not experience independence overnight; she had to be born, weaned and separated from her siblings. Independence was not gained once, but thrice: in succession from Spain, Mexico, and El Salvador.

The hubbub of September commemorates the first separation, which, for Guatemala and her neighbors to the east, was painless. The wars of liberation against Spain were waged elsewhere; Chile, Argentina, Mexico and the Andean republics all fought hard to sever the umbilical. What is now Central America was not even a theater of conflict. And so, there is irony in the martial flavor of the independence processions that traipse, tromp and even goosestep through Tegucigalpa, Managua and other capitals on Sept. 15.

The year of birth was 1821. Guatemala (then called Ciudad Real) was free of Spain, but not of Imperial Mexico, which had, at the moment of her own independence, inherited most of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which also encompassed California, the Great Basin, Texas, Cuba, modern Central America and oodles of islands.

The weaning came in 1823, when the six “sisters” of the former Kingdom of Coathemala—Ciudad Real, San Salvador, Comayagua (Honduras), León (Nicaragua), Costa Rica and Chiapas—declared independence from Mexico as the United Provinces. Emperor Augustín sought to keep them but succeeded only in retaining Chiapas. Agustín not only failed to retain his empire, but his life; in three years he faced a firing squad of Mexican republicans. Four decades later, another emperor, Maximilian, met the same fate. (Moral: If you are ever offered the Mexican throne, the prudent thing is to decline.)

Though not wholly bloodless, as had been the separation from Spain, this second separation was hardly a struggle by the standards of warfare. But the third and final separation was so sanguinary that Guatemalans rightly claim that their independence was purchased with blood.

Since my sons and I are also Guatemalans, we also observe Guatemalan independence. My boys are told that they must be equally proud of both patrias, and study the history of both. Living in Panajachel is helpful for this, since from our house we can look up at a mountain where an engagement in Guatemala’s independence struggle played out. The battlefield in San Andrés Semetabaj is today a semi-developed gated community overlooking Lake Atitlán. I have friends there, so I can always visit. There are no historical markers, much less a bronze monument. In fairness, though Guatemalan and Salvadoran forces slugged it out here, it was not the decisive battle. That occurred where Guatemala City’s San Juan de Dios Hospital now stands. But I’ve never found a marker there, either (although there might be one somewhere.)

By this time, 1837, Comayagua, León and Costa Rica had all broken away from the Federation, as the United Provinces had also been called. The rivalry between the two linchpin provinces, Ciudad Real and San Salvador, provided their opportunity. These three successions did not happen anywhere near Sept. 15 of any year; nonetheless, the date remains the national holiday for those three countries.

The president of the crumbling Federation was Francisco Morazán, an enlightened politician who has departments in Honduras and El Salvador named for him. His opponent, Gen. Rafael Carrera, is portrayed by artists with a bushy mustache and other ladino features. In fact, he was a skinny, illiterate 24-year-old Maya. Most of the money was on Morazán to win, but Carrera vanquished the Federals. His military genius is unrivaled in Central American annals.

Independence was costly for both men. Carrera became the first ruler of the Guatemalan nation state but was assassinated at 42. Morazán survived but died in ignominy; he renounced his Honduran nativity and considered himself Salvadoran, as only San Salvador remained loyal to the Federation until its reduction. Even today, El Salvador, a de facto nation state, is officially the “Republic of El Salvador in Central America.” This name is the surviving vestige of the Federation, the last entity Guatemalans fought to achieve independence.

The original Independence Day, in 1821, was like any other day back then. Sheep grazed, shamans chanted, looms were threaded, maize was shucked, and the eternal Xocomil rippled the glassy face of Atitlán. No convention was held, no parchment signed, no speeches given. It took weeks for the news just to arrive from Mexico. And when it did, it inspired shrugs, not parades.

One comment

  • Agusto

    In honor to the memory of Carrera and Morazan and based in history books, i would like to point and correct you that Carrera died at the age of 51 (1814-1865) due to dysentery; was not assassinated. Morazan died before Carrera, he was killed on 15 September 1842.

    Illiterate (look at the dates you published) or not, Carrera has to deal with plenty of situations during his time: poberty, liberales vrs. conservadores, British interests, US interests, balance between guatemalan rich people and poor people and spies like John Stephens (from whom probably you take the physical Carrera´s description).

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