The Abandoned Lands
The Abandoned Lands
The tangled early century web enmeshed these lands between the Río Motagua and the Meredón Mountains. Two great banana companies wanted fincas in this valley that grew giant racimos. United Fruit pitted Guatemala, Cuyamel pitted Honduras in a dispute over this never-defined territory. They won concessions for plantations and for railroads. Sometimes they received the same lands.
Samuel Zemurray, with monies borrowed from that Boston Octopus (United Fruit), bought Cuyamel Fruit Company. But soon he reneged on his deal. He became its greatest adversary, its Black Widow.
Mr Zemurray’s domain stretched from his port town, Omoa. The rail line of his web ran through the fincas to Cuyamel, his company headquarters, through the fincas to Tegucigalpita, through the fincas to Cuyamelito on the shores of the San Ildefonso. And he threw that line, extending his web beyond towards that great river, the Río Motagua, through territory Honduras claimed.
Ah, but this land Guatemala had given to another. With the help of United Fruit, it tore his rails up, forcing Zemurray’s retreat to that tributary town.
After 20 years of tribunal negotiations, it no longer mattered to them which country owned what land. Cuyamel merged with United in ’29 and Mr Zemurray would later be its president.
Such international trivialities were flies in their now-common web. Both Companies were well-fed.
We arrive by lancha at the shores of the Río San Ildefonso, near Cuyamelito, Honduras. The late morning sun glints off the pickup truck’s windscreen as it approaches us.
Into that village of few stores. More passengers climb in back. A woman hoists a tub, a large tote bag of cheese and buttery cream. We squeeze our legs between.
Swaying down this rocky road, dodging water-filled potholes. Past groves of citrus, cacao, corn, bananas and coconuts. Past pastures of cattle and egrets. Past fallow fields.
Who owns this land now, since those many years when Cuyamel, when United abandoned their plantations? What happened to those railroads you had wrangled to build to this village and clandestinely beyond into your fincas? Have they long rusted and rotted into the swampy land?
Or has it become this road that we now jolt along on our way to Tegucigalpita at the foot of those Meredón Mountains?
The red truck drops us aside the glaring highway on the outskirts of that village. We seek shelter from the afternoon sun in the shade of a roadside parada. After a long while a bus pulls up.
Over several rivers to the next town, Cuyamel. A bunch of students – uniformed in white guayaberas, navy skirts and navy pants – get on. They talk in shouts, sucking on candy pops.
And along the coast, the blue Caribbean glistening coolly in the sun. Through the Garífuna village of Masca. To a hot and dusty stop on the highway: Omoa.
A road of little shade leads past the old fort of San Francisco and homes with swampy yards, to the beach. There restaurant champas and hotelitos, a lone discoteca fill the once sea-bottom.
Families play in the crystal water of this tranquil bay. Their steps disturb the sand rippling on the ocean floor. Fishes scurry from their feet.
Out in the bahía, fishermen row canoes, placing their nets. One returns, a meter-long marlin stretched in the hull. Its purple skin gleams in the sun. The man brings it ashore and cuts its head off. Families group around him, saltwater dripping from their shorts, t-shirts, dresses.
The Meredón Mountains roll off to the West in green row after heat-hazed rows. A storm coming from the north blankets them in thick clouds.
~ ~ ~
On that road between highway and fort, we sit in the shade of a palm-thatched refreshment stand. Señor Riera teaches me the history with his wisdom of eighty-two years. Yes, he remember the days when he was a child. The sea used to lap against the walls of that fortress. Yes, he remembers those days of the Banana Companies here
Don Edmundo is quick with his white smile, the glint of lively eyes. With his café-con-leche-colored hands, he shows us how large those giant banana branches were. One was so huge, a man came from the States to personally supervise the building of that crate, the shipping of that special racimo. I can almost hear the workers’ voices, the clatter of passing wagons, the rumble of that train.
1933 – a triple plague blackened this valley. Sigatoka arrived by banana rails from Panamá, destroying the trees’ leaves. Mata muerte attacked the roots. And being pushed, pushed, pushed to produce those great racimos, the earth lay exhausted.
The rails and massive steam locomotives were shipped to La Lima, United Fruit’s hometown in Honduras. Villagers cried seeing those silver lines ripped up. The workers received the cookie-cut housing. Concessioned lands returned to the government. None of that did the campesinos receive.
The people suffered. The only work they’d known was now disappeared. They had no milpas (farm plots) to feed their families.
After a few years, the wharf fell into the receding sea. Puerto Cortés had become the port.
Now these days the people work fishing or in the maquiladora sweatshops in Puerto Cortés, San Pedro Sula. All the Company housing is gone except – don Edmundo compares memories with an elderly Afro-Honduran who has joined us – except one executive’s house in Cuyamel. No, none remain here in Omoa.
The locomotive left behind one locomotive – Nº 2, a mere babe compared to the giants they took away. It is now behind the Fort Museum.
~ ~ ~ ~
In the dusk I return to the sea and its new beach. But as I pass the museum … I sneak into the gate left ajar.
There, under the waning moon, the Nº 2 and its fuel hopper pull up onto a concrete platform. The black paint is dulled by the weather and years. Their ragged metal rusts into the marshy ground that seeps up to those rails that now lead to nowhere.
LORRAINE CAPUTO is a wandering troubadour whose poetry appears in over 400 journals on six continents, and 23 collections of poetry – including In the Jaguar Valley (dancing girl press, 2023). Her writing has been nominated for the Best of the Net. Caputo has done literary readings from Alaska to the Patagonia. She journeys through Latin America with her faithful knapsack Rocinante, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth.