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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.2 (2004) 239-276

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Firewater, Desire, and the Militiamen's Christmas Eve in San Gerónimo, Baja Verapaz, 1892


San Gerónimo's far-flung children—both those still living in the village or surrounding settlements and those who have migrated to the capital of Guatemala City—take great pride in the unrivaled reputation of their communal celebrations. Celebrations for San Gerónimo's patron saint, for Christmas Eve, for New Year's Eve, and for Easter Sunday are all marked by elaborate observances complete with costly fireworks. The village, renowned for its production of sugar and high quality moonshine and liquors, is also famed for the music and dancing that accompanies these festivities, both secular and religious, into the wee hours of the morning. Many Chomeños have credited these traditions to San Gerónimo's unique heritage, having been home to thousands of African slaves and their descendants since the early seventeenth century. The massive Dominican-owned sugar plantation that once dominated the geographic and social landscape underwrote a major part of the [End Page 239] extraordinary power of that religious order in colonial Guatemala and Chiapas.1

Although all-night dancing and drinking accompanied most major celebrations, not all celebrations turned out according to script. Perhaps the most spectacular of such deviations occurred on Christmas Eve, 1892.2 Some time around midnight that evening, an alarm sounded in response to what appeared to be an arson attack in the La Joya section of the cane fields. Owners and trusted employees ran from the midnight mass to put out the flames and then returned to the service.

Later that night, however, a vicious attack against two young revelers turned San Gerónimo's centuries-old social order upside down, according to the alleged victims. Under cover of darkness, the hacienda's youthful third-generation English owner, 23-year-old Enrique Douglas Harris, and a 19-year-old visiting English friend, Dudley Gosling, were beaten senseless and left unconscious in the middle of the street.3 They claimed to have been seeking harmless conversation [End Page 240] with the daughters of Srta. Jesús Santos, described as a 30-year-old single mother. However, the young hacendado and his friend reported that when they called upon Santos at her home, they were set upon by a group of local men enrolled in the newly uniformed and armed militia unit, allegedly under the leadership of a 19-year-old from Antigua, Ricardo Rodríguez.

Few witnesses disputed that the confrontation actually took place. Harris's visiting friend received, by all accounts, a deep wound to his forehead—a disfiguring and permanent memento of his adventure in the "wild tropics." The details of the case, however, were the subject of widespread and overt dispute, as were the alleged participants' intentions and motives and the propriety of their behavior, given the time and place. Nearly 150 pages of sworn testimony were collected in documenting this most unruly and historic of Christmas Eves in San Gerónimo.

Were the events of this evening—alternately hilarious and pathetic, profane and sacred, drunken and deadly serious—a bizarre example of social inversion in a place where the centuries-old social hierarchy was tempered by rum-shop conviviality, workplace feats of strength or violence, and ritual acts of sacred brotherhood? Was this another typical Christmas Eve midnight mass competing with all-night drinking and dancing? Or were these bloody events signals of a more sustained threat against the old social order?

Before we can make any sense of this particularly raucous Christmas Eve celebration, we need to place the protagonists into the broader context of San Gerónimo's history.4 The lives of these revelers come into sharper focus when we consider several related themes drawn from disparate sources: the role of slavery in a distant colonial past, nineteenth-century struggles over San Gerónimo's municipal status (first with the Dominican authorities and then with their English successors), and contemporary...


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