Out-of-this-Barrio Kiddieland – San Andres Xecul, Guatemala

Out-of-this-Barrio Kiddieland: A Guatemalan Town’s Disney Makeover to Spruce-Up its Barrio Atmosphere
San Andres Xecul, Guatemala

Typically third world – San Andres Xecul town’s introductory description should have been a discouraging nightmare. The disconnect here is its proverbial “hidden gem”, the town church gracing Guatemala’s tourism promotion brochures detached from its impoverished setting, the filling in between the void, covered-up by advertisers, as one goes into the details of traveling.

Transitionally morphed between a shabby urban barrio and provincial village, my first impression was intimidating. It has nothing much to distinguish it from any typically blighted shantytown setting like the favellas of Rio or the world famous slums of my hometown Manila.

View Over the Church and Winding Access to the Village
View Over the Church and Winding Access to the Village
A sigh of relief, the impression generated was gone once I was inside. A noticeable observation timed on my visit that may easily and eerily be considered its brush to fame is the absence of the products of out-of-control population that goes with the impoverished landscape – indolent men drinking beer and women gossiping by the roadside, or swarms of children eyeballing strangers or barraging tourists. Everybody seemed to be preoccupied. Literally, I, the camera-toting tourist, was snubbed. Crews repaving the streets are the only distraction to the normally dull day-to-day goings on in the streets.

This struggling town can only afford so much. The precious funds it could muster to spruce up its image have been lovingly allocated to its most cherished house of worship, like a child, its pride and joy.

Blaringly obvious, buildings are constructed to bare-essentials, left to bare wall blocks, not plastered or even painted over, mushrooming around the very unusually retouched church and its accessory chapels.

Tourists specializing in third world wonders should agree that San Andres church has an impishly cartoonish character that this town should’ve been aptly nicknamed the Kiddieland Town. It may well be the only church infused with innocent humor, one would ever see in this country, or anywhere else.

Extra larger than a chapel, squat as other local colonial churches, but eccentric for its kindergarten Baroque-style finish, the basic retablo set-up façade seems to be a workmanship of a pre-school child allowed loose with his whimsical imagination and artistic wit, left unsupervised by the parish priest.

Angels are like muppet creatures emerging out of the surface, frozen in time, more like worms crawling out of the earth after burrowing under. Some sit on cornices, legs dangling out. Saints and jaguars became 3D cartoon characters.

Countryside pasture colors make up the chromatic scheme. Solomonic columns became twisted candies with twined cherries. Angels wear milk-strawberry skirts and developed agave blue wings. Overall, it’s dominantly painted in brilliant squash yellow, outlined with deep broccoli greens and bloody Roma tomato reds. The dome is what everybody agrees with, painted like a beach ball.

The Town Church
The Town Church
Inside is a small cramped nave, with a dingy unmemorable altar.

A smaller chapel facing the church is situated about 300 meters up across a steep hill. Finished in the same manner but less mischievous, the chapel is painted in banana yellow and mint green decorated with the thorny vegetal ornamentation. Trimmings are painted in onion red. Inside is an encased image of a crucified Christ flanked by sorrowful angels.

A much smaller chapel not to be mistaken for a police outpost is accessible on the left side on the way down the road, completing the size-gradation package from small to extra small to extra-extra small. What drew my attention is because of its yet another vivid color scheme. The wall is splashed with a pineapple yellow accented in watermelon red dado and apple green trim.

A glass-encased image of a sophisticatedly sculpted crucified Jesus with jewelry-studded wrap – the most expensive loincloth in the world – is being spruced up of botanical specimens by the locals.

Curiously, on the way down the road connecting the church and the earlier chapel are lurid aqua painted rows of lavaderos or public laundry with its washing compartments and an octagonal fountain.

The Town Chapel
The Town Chapel
A chicken and egg type of question came to my mind while I’m gazing at this town church’s odd architecture when the image of Disneyland popped out. Who took the cue from whom? And who inspired whom?

There’s actually no relation. While Disneyland is the mother of all spoofs and kitschy imitations with all its corporate sophistication and popularity, San Andres Xecul’s Church is the epitome of folksy native architecture appropriate for its surrounding and conceptualized within the locals’ limited vernacular resources in all its humility. Although, one can’t help notice both their childish playful quality, Disneyland used the European model, San Andres, its local Mayan flavor, rich and deep in the tradition of rainbow colors and geometric shapes.

Nevertheless, Walt would have flipped over in his grave and another idea would have been added to his amusement parks.

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