Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/9

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Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part II, Chapter II: Customs and Manners, -Tobacco, -Morning Calls, -Occupations of a Domestic Man, -Scenes in the Plaza, -Evening Parties, -Gambling, -Superstitions, -Marriages and Funerals, -Almoneda or Auction.


Customs and Manners,—Tobacco,—Morning Calls,—Occupations of a Domestic Man,—Scenes in the Plaza,—Evening Parties,—Gambling,—Superstitions,—Marriages and Funerals,—Almoneda or Auction.

Among the various occupations which employ the time and attention of a traveller in a foreign land, few are more amusing, and if properly exercised, are capable of being made more instructive, than to observe the variety of customs which that imperious tyrant, general usage, has imposed upon its inhabitants. We are generally too apt to exult in the thought of our own superior civilization, and while we smile sometimes contemptuously at what we deem the absurdities of other nations, forget that we ourselves are no less under similar bondage, and act oftentimes in a way equally opposed to unsophisticated nature.

Still there are fashions in Guatimala which it would require more than common charity to speak of with respect, and among these stands foremost the immoderate use of tobacco by both sexes. In private or in public—alone or in society, the Guatimalian must have his cigar, and the lady her cigarrito.[1] His proudest accomplishment is to strike a light with his pocket match, neatly cased in silver, and present his lighted cigar to her genteely, and she in return, permits him to spit in every corner of her room, without molestation. A gentleman consumes daily from fifteen to twenty puros, and a lady of moderate pretensions to celebrity, fifty cigarritos. Here far from being “destructive of society's chief joys,” the “pernicious weed” gives a zest to every conversation, and supplies all those vacuums which, in English society, are filled up by gazing on the carpet. No business can be transacted, no bargain made, without exchanging the cigar, and both in the streets and public places of amusement, the ladies are to be seen smoking as composedly as in their own houses.

A history of the occupations of a domestic man during one day, will lay ,open in great measure the habits of the more respectable families.—At six he rises, and if it be one of their numerous feast days, accompanies his wife to mass, at which rich and poor, masters and servants indiscriminately kneel without distinction of rank or place. Returning about seven they take chocolate, which answers to our breakfast, with this exception that it is not made a social meal. Each one enters the comedor at the hour most agreeable to himself, and is then supplied with his cup of chocolate, made very thick and sweet, which with a small loaf of bread, an egg, a little fried meat and a glass of clear spring water serves him till dinner.

At this hour during the warmer months, the habit of bathing, for which the houses afford so many conveniences, is very general, but in any other way the inhabitants appear to have the greatest aversion to the application of water. For weeks together the most respectable inhabitants never wash their hands, faces or teeth, and the slightest sickness serves as a pretext for delaying the operation as well as that of shaving, frequently for months; so that you have only to look at a gentleman's beard to know how long he has had a cold, or to a lady's face to discover when she last fancied herself indisposed.

From ten to twelve are the usual hours for morning calls and receiving visits. These possess in general the same characteristics as in other parts of the world. Friends meet as lovingly, talk as scandalously, hate each other as cordially and lie as gracefully here, as in the most polished cities of civilized Europe. The only points of difference are, that the ladies shout out their observations in the highest note of the gamut, becloud each other's beauties with the fumes of tobacco, and part with an embrace as cordial as the majority of modern English kisses. These parties generally meet in the lady's bedroom, the gentlemen dressed “a la Inglesa” with coats cut any thing but anatomically, and the ladies in black silk, with lace mantilla for the head, splendidly worked silk stockings, and shoes almost diminutive enough for the Empress of China. Modesty and prudery are here understood to be synonymous, and subjects are freely discussed in mixed parties to which common delicacy would seem to forbid the slightest allusion.

At one they dine on soup, rice, vegetables and meat of various kinds cooked in as many different ways, with dulces or sweetmeats for a dessert, of which about 200 different sorts are prepared. Fish frequently appears towards the close of the meal, and fruit is introduced before the cloth is drawn. Scarcely any wine is drank. In many of the most respectable families it does not even make its appearance on the table. The whole concludes with a recitation, miscalled a thanksgiving. Well-bred people in Guatimala, like well-bred people in England, naturally feel that any thing like serious thanks to their Maker would subject them to the charge of fanaticism, and therefore arrange matters so that this service is merely understood to say that dinner is concluded.

From the comedor each individual adjourns to his bedroom to take the siesta and digest his dinner. So universal is the practice that from two to three the streets are deserted. Old and young, masters and servants, are alike reclining on beds and sofas. The very domestic animals at this hour are to be seen stretching themselves in the sun, and, partaking of the infection, “join the general troop of sleep.” Between three and four things begin to revive, and first one and then another, yawning, rubs his eyes, and strolls to the clock to see how time has passed during his slumbers. Towards four the comedor again becomes frequented for chocolate, after which the occupations of the day are once more resumed.

Let us then take a walk into the street and see what is passing there. The daily market is about over, and contains only a few stragglers buying at a cheaper rate the refuse of the day's sales; ten or a dozen half naked Indians are basking in the sun; three or four soldiers are reclining against the pillar of the piazzas, humming a revolutionary air; and a little further on are two or three devoted Catholics most devoutly kneeling before the image of a saint, and apparently in a state of the most perfect abstraction. In a little while the tinkling of a bell is heard, notifying the approach of the Viaticum. ,Instantly high and low, poor and rich, are on their knees; till as its feeble sound dies in the distance, one by one they rise and pursue their way.

The costume of the street varies little from that of the house. The ladies, who in a morning are to be seen only in black, now parade the streets in dashing silk gowns, and without any covering for the head, while the fashionable beaux lounge by their sides in printed cotton jackets and Spanish cloaks, with one end carelessly thrown over the right shoulder. The shops, although generally well supplied with goods, possess no attractions. All are without windows, and nothing is displayed; the open door way being half covered with cloth to keep out the sun.

Returning to our temporary home as the evening sets in, we find the gentlemen just come back from an excursion to the suburbs, on their pacing mules or horses; each rider seated on a saddle rising three or four inches before and behind, and armed with an enormous pair of silver spurs. Before the saddle is a large skin of some shaggy coated animal, hanging down to the heavy Spanish box stirrup, or still heavier and indescribable one of iron, over which lies the long taper end of the bridle, made of narrow slips of hide twisted into a cord, and so long as to serve the purposes of a whip. To this is affixed an enormous bit, under which the poor beast writhes and is effectually subdued.

By about seven o'clock the last gleam of twilight has disappeared, and the servants enter with the lights, reciting most devoutly the “Bendito,” which may be thus translated, “Blessed and praised be the holy sacrament of the altar for ever and ever.” In another hour the sala has assumed its evening character. Cloaks and swords occupy the corner of the room—a small table at the further end is surrounded by a party busily employed at “monte,” (a game of cards,) amidst clouds of smoke,—and at the other end some lady, regardless of the noisy tongues of the gamblers, is playing a popular air upon a wretched marimba, or still worse piano, accompanying it with her voice. The miserable light yielded by two thin, long-wicked tallow candles, in massy silver candlesticks, throws a gloom over the apartment, strangely in contrast with the light-hearted gaiety of its occupants. Formal parties are rare; friends drop in towards the evening without ceremony, amuse themselves for an hour or two, and retire generally without taking any kind of refreshment.

In some respects a strong parallel might be drawn between the domestic manners of the old families here, and those of country towns in England, about a century ago. The uncarpeted floor, the heavy clumsy furniture, the well supplied wardrobe, the stock of china, carefully exhibited, are all characteristics of those days; while the rigid habits of economy, the unbounded hospitality to strangers, unaccompanied by any thing like splendid or showy entertainments, and especially the great degree of familiarity which subsists between mistress and servants, all concur in exhibiting that less refined and simpler state of society which existed in such places at the period referred to.

In some respects however, they have made sufficient advancement, especially in the art of gambling. Their favourite game, “monte,” appears to have little attraction, besides the facilities it affords for the indulgence of this detestable vice. In families, the farthest removed from what is termed by them high players, I have seen ten and twelve pounds sterling, lost and gained by individuals, in a few hours.

In insincerity also, they are by no means behind their European brethren, since there is not probably a country in the world where words and feelings have less connexion. Mortal enemies, even where their enmity is notorious to all the world, will meet and embrace after the customs of the country, with every external appearance of intimate friendship. By this procedure nobody is deceived. It seems to be an understood regulation, that whatever may be the workings within, nothing shall disturb the serenity of the surface, so that even in time of civil war, when factions and party spirit are at their height, and the deepest hatreds are cherished, the external quiet of society remains unmolested. Were this all it might be tolerated; but the moral effects of systematic deception, are too melancholy to make one wish to see tranquillity purchased at so high a price.

About ten o'clock the different members of the family sit down to a supper, differing little from the dinner, eat heartily of its various dishes, and with stomachs loaded to a degree that would make most people tremble for fear of apoplexy, retire to bed, and in half an hour are all soundly asleep. In the more religious families recitations of about a quarter of an hour in length, and mostly to the Virgin, are practised on those evenings when there are no visiters.

The superstitious and intolerant feelings of an uneducated population are lamentably visible among the lower orders. As the archbishop passes in his carriage through the streets, the poor Indians are to be seen on either side most devoutly kneeling, and so ignorant are they of the object to which they bow, that they repeat the ceremony not only when the empty carriage rolls by, but oftentimes when some other of the few clumsy vehicles kept by the wealthier inhabitants rumble along the pavement. Of this our own experience furnished an amusing, or I ought rather to say, melancholy proof. In this instance they bent the knee quite as devoutly to a coach full of obstinate heretics, as they could have done to the pseudo successor of St. Peter himself.

Strangers or heretics, for the words with them are synonymous, seldom receive so courteous a reception, especially the ladies, who, by their dress, are more easily recognized as foreigners. At them, or rather their bonnets, stones and dirt are not unfrequently thrown, accompanied by the elegant word “cochinas,” which, being translated, signifies that respectable community, the swine.

Even the better educated are slaves to the superstitions of the church of Rome. To images of saints and to church doors every passer by takes off the hat, and at ten in the morning when the bell tolls to announce the raising of the host in the cathedral, the streets and shops, salas and kitchens, are alike filled with devout kneelers.

The etiquette connected with visiting the archbishop partakes a little of the same character. As the visitor enters, the archbishop rises to meet him, and presents his finger, on which is a valuable diamond ring called “La Esposa” the bride, signifying the church. This is humbly kissed by the kneeling visitant and the ceremony is renewed every time.

On his saint day crowds of beggars surround his gate for alms, and willingly afford him the opportunity to perform works of charity, numerous enough if number would suffice to merit heaven. This tribe, mostly composed of the very worst part of the population, thrive and flourish on this propitious soil. Every individual has his saint day, on which besides receiving the congratulatory visits of his acquaintance, and the trifling presents of his more intimate friends, he feels himself particularly bound to assist every drunken vagabond who appears at his gate to solicit alms. At other times one day in the week is set apart for this service, and a certain number of pensioners receive their weekly pay.

Marrying and giving in marriage here, as in other countries, is distinguished by peculiar customs. When the consent of parents has been obtained, if the lover have no previous establishment he takes a house, and the parents of the lady place in it at their own expense a handsome bed and plentiful supply of household linen. This having been done, the intended bridegroom, on the day previous to the celebration of the nuptials, sends to his future wife, dresses, jewels and ornaments in proportion to his wealth. The ceremony is generally performed before day light on the following morning, and all attendant expenses are paid by the parents of the bride. The newly married couple then adjourn to the house of the lady's father, where they reside for fifteen or twenty days.

The other rites of the church are conducted in the same way as in other Catholic countries. Funerals are very expensive, owing not only to the number of individuals who take part in the ceremony, but also to the splendid dresses in which bodies are interred. The wealthy throw away considerable sums in the indulgence of this foolish vanity, and not unfrequently expend a sum equal to £50 sterling upon the interment of a new born infant.

The most splendid funeral I witnessed in Guatimala, was that of a rich Canonigo. The friars of the different convents, two by two, led the procession, one bearing a massy silver cross, and the others lighted wax candles, the canonigos and the doctors following in their robes. After the bier walked the priests and curas two by two, the chief of the state, the friends of the late canon, and the principal military officers. Between the house of the deceased and the place of interment, a distance of about 500 yards, were arranged at equal distances in the street, four large tables covered with black cloth, and holding six immense wax candles in massy silver candlesticks On each of these the body, extended upon a splendid bier and clothed in the richest robes was placed. The procession formed around it, a mass was sung, and holy water thrown upon the body by one of the doctors, after which the whole moved on to the next resting place, where the same formalities were observed. On its arrival at the cathedral the body was placed in the middle aisle, the members of the procession ranged themselves on either side, with their lighted tapers,—crowds of spectators knelt in front, and other crowds stood in silence behind, as with one consent every voice began to sing the solemn mass. This imposing ceremony lasted for some hours, after which the corpse was deposited in one of the vaults below the cathedral.

The lower orders generally bury in the “Santo Campo,” or consecrated ground behind the cathedral, where many simple memorials to the dead have been erected. After the funeral an “almoneda,” something like an auction, takes place of the goods of the deceased. The various articles of furniture are arranged in the room, and ticketed with a small paper, on which is written the lowest number of dollars for which the article can be disposed of. An Indian is then placed at the window near the street proclaiming with a loud voice the almoneda within. The public then enter to view the goods, and any one choosing an article at the affixed price is permitted to take it after it has been publicly exposed to the offers of a higher bidder. If after three days any of the articles remain unsold, they are re-ticketed at two-thirds of the former price.

Among the curious collections which are thus exhibited to the public eye, are to be found numbers of wretched pictures, statues of saints, devotional books, relics, and antique domestic articles of solid silver, carrying the spectator back in imagination to the time when the commonest utensils of a tradesman's house were composed of this precious metal. Such was literally the case only thirty years ago; while at the present moment so great is its scarcity, that a bankrupt and tottering government plunged in civil war, is vainly attempting to establish by the most despotic measures, a paper currency.

  1. A diminutive cigar, made by rolling a small portion of tobacco in the leaf of maize; ten of these are esteemed equal to a common cigar, called for the sake of distinction, puros.