The Highlands Feature


The Heroes of Santiago Atitlán

In this American Idol–ized world, a visit to Santiago Atitlán puts renown and heroism into true perspective.

Oklahoma native Father Stanley Rother (1935–81) arrived as a missionary in Santiago Atitlán in 1968. During his 13 years here, he translated the New Testament into and celebrated mass in the local Tzutuhil language. As time went on, he began to decry the treatment of Guatemala's indigenous peoples at the hands of the army and paramilitary forces. On July 28, 1981, the priest was murdered, presumably by paramilitaries, in the rectory adjoining the parish church. Although Rother is buried in Oklahoma, his heart is interred in the church here. A nascent movement to have Rother beatified and eventually canonized has been undertaken by officials of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City ( Click on the site's "Cause for beatification" link for information. Rother's writings were compiled posthumously and published in a book, The Shepherd Cannot Run: Letters of Stanley Rother.

Turn the clock ahead to December 1, 1990, when, by all accounts, a night of drunken revelry on the part of soldiers posted near Santiago turned tragic. Townspeople assembled just outside of town after midnight December 2 to discuss what could be done about harassment from army forces. They had witnessed the deaths of hundreds of their fellow citizens throughout the war. When soldiers appeared to break up the meeting, members of the assemblage began to hurl stones. Soldiers fired into the crowd, killing 11, many of them children, and injuring 40. The massacre drew national outrage, and townspeople petitioned to have the military forces removed from the town. President Serrano Elías himself apologized and complied. To this day, the Guatemalan army, whose internal security role was eliminated with the 1996 peace accords, does not set foot in Santiago Atitlán.

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