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Merciful Minvera! How a President from Xela Brought a Goddess to Guatemala

By Riley Lynch

Manuel Estrada Cabrera was born in Quetzaltenango in 1857 and elected mayor in 1891. Eight years later, he became President of the Republic. In addition to promoting roads, communications and foreign investment, he had an entirely new idea: Guatemala needed Minerva. Lots of Minerva.

In Roman legend, the goddess Minerva was born, fully grown and armed to the teeth, from the forehead of Jupiter. Associated with wisdom, commerce and progress, she symbolized Estrada Cabrera’s plans to modernize the country and promote it as the cultural heavyweight of Central America. A temple was erected in Guatemala City, and plans were laid for a giant festival called Las Minervalias, to take place in November, at the end of the school year.

During the inaugural Minervalias in 1899, at the height of ceremonies, a gust of wind brought down the roof of Guatemala’s first Templo de Minerva, startling but not harming a host of vestal virgins. Some saw the hand of God at work, smiting this outbreak of paganism. But the President was not easily discouraged. A new temple was constructed of sturdier stuff. It was the first of more than 20 to be built across the country.

The pomp and production of the Minervalias grew with each passing year. There were speeches, prizes, and parades. Poems were recited. Dictionaries were distributed. The president was proclaimed defender of La Juventud Estudiosa, which is to say, kids who do their homework. Picture a cross between Semana Santa, a political rally, a spelling bee, and a toga party.

Some wondered whether studious youth would be better off with more schools and fewer temples, but they did so quietly. The president didn’t invite contradiction: Elected to three terms, he was always the only name on the ballot. And when the Santa Maria volcano had the impertinence to erupt, killing thousands during the Minervalias of 1902, he issued a proclamation: A crowd gathered under clouds of ash in Xela’s Central Park were informed that the eruption hadn’t actually happened.

In 1920, congress declared Estrada Cabrera mentally unfit for office. He was sent to prison, where he died. He was buried in the cemetery of Quetzaltenango in a mausoleum made to look like his famous temples. Las Minervalias were never celebrated again.

Xela’s Temple of Minerva is located on the western edge of zona 3, where calle 4a and Calle Rodolfo Robles converge.

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