At most any time of the week, the plaza at the center of the town of Antigua, Guatemala would have been abuzz with activity. How many times over the several days since arriving had I been approached by shoe-shine boys begging to polish my shoes (in spite of the fact that I was wearing sandals), by brightly-bedecked Mayan women offering dazzling scarves and weavings? How many young lovers had I seen perched like pairs of doves on the edge of the center fountain, cooing and chortling? I had watched a raucous political rally of a small band of blue-and-yellow t-shirt wearing young adults, calling for the ouster of some local government official. Only the night before I had listened to the warble of marimbas punctuated by the sharp crack of fireworks exploding overhead.
But on this Sunday morning, all was quiet on the plaza. Pigeons scuttled about the empty benches. I headed for the corner coffee shop that had become my daily portal into this vivid, vibrant culture. I was in Guatemala for three weeks to immerse myself in the study of Spanish. In addition to the weekday 5-hour class sessions, I had imposed upon myself the additional goal of finding at least one local person each day to engage in conversation. The coffee shop at the southwest corner of the plaza had become the prime laboratory for assessing the effects of my malformed Spanish on unsuspecting (and always good-natured) citizens.
I was delighted to find the coffee place open this early on a Sunday. I ordered my usual, a café Americano (black) and pan dulce (sweet roll), and headed out into the plaza to keep company with the pigeons. I had an hour or so to kill before morning mass began in Antigua’s storied cathedral, hunkered along the far side of the plaza.
Approaching one of the benches facing the fountain, I became aware of a tendril of faint melody rippling through the morning air. It could almost have been a bird, so wispy and fleeting did it seem. But within a few seconds I could make out the accents and inflections of text. Whether woman, man, girl or boy, I could not have said. Rotating my head, I discovered that the song was wafting over the plaza from the direction of the cathedral. My eyes then caught what I had missed initially—a human figure crouched in shadow on a low set of stairs leading up to a side chapel or office.
Crossing the cobblestone street into the shadow of the massive edifice, I approached the singer. It was indeed an older man. He continued his singing, though between phrases he nodded and smiled at me, his mouth missing about as many teeth as it held. His clothes were baggy and tattered, sandals held together with duct tape; his face was thin but sprouting a full grey beard. His hands held together a shawl wrapped over the top of his head. Two eyes shone faintly from its recesses.
As I listened, people began arriving for mass, most ascending the main steps to my right to enter the rear of the cathedral. A few waved at the singer from a distance, he in turn nodding or raising a hand. At one point a pair of women, chatting and laughing, came up from the street and approached the man. One of them greeted him, stopping to drop some coins in a paper cup which sat on the pavement in front of him, and which to this point I had not even noticed. The singer stopped, made some reply to the woman, and the two laughed. The women then turned away, heading toward the cathedral steps.
Now was my chance. I started by offering him what remained of my sweet roll. I had some quetzales in my pocket, but somehow the food seemed a more personal gesture.
“¿Como está, señor?” I began.
“Bien, gracias. Bienvenido a Antigua, amigo!”
Welcome to Antigua. His response reminded me that at 6’5”, with thoroughly Gaelic skin and a floppy Tilley hat, I was unlikely to be mistaken for a native Guatemalan.
“¿Como se llama?” I continued. The old man answered, whereupon I was struck with the instant, bone-chilling fear so familiar to those wading into a new language: I had absolutely no idea what he had said. Whether impaired by his dental circumstances or other physical factors, his diction was on another level from that of my tutor back at the language school.
“Otra vez, por favor,” (again, please), I persisted boldly. His response, which was an instant replay of the first time, flew by me again like a proverb rendered in ancient Hindi. In a small panic, my brain cycled through its catalog of common Hispanic male names—José, Juan, Marcos, Jaime, Esteban, etc—but could find no recognizable harbor.
“Todavía no puedo entender,” I offered in dismay. I was rapidly getting to the bottom of my meeting-a-new-person vocabulary barrel.
He could see that I was foundering, on the verge of disappearing beneath the waves. He gestured toward me and then back to himself, patting a spot above his breast. I realized he was drawing attention to the pen in my shirt pocket. His fingers then beckoned me closer. He was asking to use my pen.
I handed him the pen and fished from my backpack a small notepad, which I also gave him. I really had no idea what to expect. Was he an artist as well as a singer, who was going to make a drawing and then hope that I would buy it from him? This practice was one I had seen in other countries of Latin America.
What I did not expect—and this realization was later accompanied by great shame—was for him to write. I had not even entertained the possibility that an old man who survived by begging at a popular tourist site in a small town, in one of the most impoverished countries in the Western Hemisphere, could be literate.
He held my notepad in one hand, his other carefully guiding the tip of the pen over its small surface. Within 30 seconds, he handed it back to me. What I saw on that page contained a lesson I hope never to forget. Not only had he written his name—Margarito Perez—but it was in the most beautiful, elegant handwritten script I had ever seen. The “M” at the beginning reminded me of the first letter in an illuminated manuscript. Each of the two words ended with a sweeping, graceful flourish. It was as close to calligraphy as is possible using a 99-cent ballpoint pen.
“Margarito” is the male version of the more common female name, “Margarita,” which in turn means “daisy” or, more generally, “flower.” I returned the next week to visit Margarito at the cathedral. I took him a cup of coffee and we shared a sweet roll. It was still hard to hold much of a conversation. But it didn’t much matter. I had discovered one of Antigua’s many exquisite, hidden flowers.