Happy Birthday, Xela

Some 488 years ago (give or take), Pedro de Alvarado and his band of marauding Spaniards engaged in a long and serious battle, slaying the  possibly-factual indigenous hero Tecún Umán and gaining hold of the highland city they would later call Quetzaltenango.

Of course the city had been around for some time already – historians put the founding of Xelajú (the original Mam name for the settlement, although it was under Kaqchikel control by the time the Alvarado arrived) some 300 years before the arrival of the Spanish.

So really, we should be celebrating Xela’s 788th (give or take) birthday. But anyway.

Quetzaltenango’s had an illustrious trajectory since Colonial times. The city’s spawned presidents (Barillas, Cabrera, Guzmán), guerrilla leaders (Rolando Morán) and artists of international renown (Otto Castillo, Luis Xicara and Rodolfo Torres). Most importantly, Juan Guttierez, the founder of international fried chicken chain Pollo Campero, was also born here.

It’s a city that we love for its anachronisms – the absurd, failed experiment which was the Sexto Estado (where Quetzaltenango tried to be the capital of a separate country – three times) and the Ferrocarril de los Altos (a multimillion-dollar boondoggle of a railway that ran for a little over 40 kilometers, took 31 years to build and functioned for just over three years). Spectacular failures that the city takes great pride in.

But we love Xela mostly because not everyone does, and those of us who live here couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It doesn’t have that gringo bubble-comfort that Antigua does, or the eye-popping vistas of the lakeside villages, but there’s something about Xela that if you get it, you really get it. Like an old friend and long-time Xela resident said “I’ve never met anyone that left their heart in Antigua, but have met plenty that left it in Xela.” Xela’s the ugly chick with the cool personality, the song you have to listen to 10 times before it starts to grow on you. We love its cobbled streets, its chilly nights, the bustling markets, adobe shacks and gaudy belle-epoque architecture. We love the little bars and cafés, the just-enough-but-not-too-much pace of life, the cultural activity and most of all, we love feeling like we’re actually in Guatemala, while still having a few comforts from home close at hand.

So happy birthday, Xela – 488 or 788, nobody’s really counting. Whether we were born here, are just passing through or decided to make you our home, we’re just happy you exist.

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