The Town’s Biggest Event Since the Banana Fever Ended
By SIMON ROMERO
Published: March 7, 2007
ARACATACA, Colombia, March 6 — Long gone are the expatriate managers of the United Fruit Company, which made Aracataca into a thriving company town in Colombia’s banana-growing region in the early 20th century. Gone, too, are the Gypsies who would pitch their tents on the edge of town to sell contraptions like telescopes and false teeth.
But the most painful absence on Tuesday was that of Gabriel García Márquez, the native son for whom Aracataca was the inspiration for Macondo, the fictional setting for his epic novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Still, that did not keep Aracataca from celebrating Mr. García Márquez’s 80th birthday, which was Tuesday, with a military parade, a special Roman Catholic Mass and 80 fireworks set off at 5 a.m.
“We’re still waiting for the maestro to appear,” Pedro Javier Sánchez Rueda, the mayor of Aracataca, said hopefully in an interview.
This is a busy month for the author, who lives mainly in Mexico City and has quietly been battling lymphatic cancer for several years. In addition to his birthday, the governments of Colombia and Spain will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” later this month in Cartagena.
It is also the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Prize in Literature, which helped transform him into perhaps the most prominent living writer in the Spanish language.
Aracataca, struggling after decades of neglect and economic decline, is pinning its hopes for a revival on the attention surrounding Mr. García Márquez this year. Shortly after he won the Nobel, the Bogotá daily newspaper El Tiempo sent a reporter here, and he described Aracataca as “a ruined, backward town, without the tiniest attraction.”
A bit harsh, perhaps, but then again Aracataca, with about 50,000 residents, has not changed much in the ensuing quarter-century.
Most of its charming wooden houses with zinc roofs have been replaced with nondescript concrete homes. The train that once transported passengers and bananas to the coast rarely stops here anymore, its cars now filled with coal destined for export to the United States. Ragged children ask for coins and scraps of food outside the cafes on the town’s bucolic plaza.
Still, the telegraph office where Mr. García Márquez’s father worked remains standing, with a rusting old typewriter and a telegraph machine sitting on a desk beside some newer post office boxes. And there is the author’s home, a decaying wooden structure with a beautiful yard.
The home, where Mr. García Márquez listened to his grandmother’s tales of Aracataca’s history, has been turned into a struggling museum under the management of a starry-eyed poet, Rafael Darío Jiménez. Last week Colombia’s government promised money to improve the structure. Meanwhile, its highlight is a collection of graying snapshots of the author, including one with Graham Greene, both clutching cocktails.
Mayor Sánchez said he would like to find a sister city along the lines of Oxford, Miss., the home of William Faulkner, whose writing greatly influenced Mr. García Márquez during his youth. Faulkner created the fictional Yoknapatawpha County with the town of Jefferson — some say Oxford — at its heart.
Officials here rarely touch on the more brutal aspects of their region’s history, like the massacre of striking banana workers in 1928, a year after Mr. García Márquez, known by the nickname Gabo, was born. Instead they have tried to change the town’s name to Aracataca-Macondo in an effort to attract tourists, but failed when not enough voters showed up for a referendum last June.
Apathy, it seems, trumped an effort to make life imitate art, though a sign at Aracataca’s entrance already welcomes visitors to “the wonderful world of Macondo,” and businesses, like MaconSalud, a private health clinic, make liberal use of the name.
Mr. García Márquez’s only relative here, a cousin named Nicolás Arias, explained his opposition to the name change by saying, “Gabo was born in Aracataca, not Macondo.” Mr. Arias, 70, the owner of a small bar, said he was still “extremely proud” of the accomplishments of his cousin, who lived here until the age of 8.
In his memoir “Living to Tell the Tale,” Mr. García Márquez describes a trip he made to Aracataca with his mother in his early 20s, when he was struggling to eke out a living as a reporter after dropping out of law school. The flood of thoughts when he arrived inspired his masterpiece about generations of the Buendía family and their travails through seemingly endless civil wars and the decline of Macondo.
“I know it was the most important decision of all the decisions in my career,” he wrote of the visit.
Even after the fireworks went off and a mariachi band sang “Happy Birthday,” many people wondered where Mr. García Márquez was.
José Marín Marulanda, 56, the owner of a small restaurant, said he had heard that the author was convalescing in Spain. Alfonso Torres García, 43, a nephew of the author who came to the Aracataca celebration from Cartagena, where many of Mr. García Márquez’s relatives live, said his uncle might be in Havana visiting his longtime friend Fidel Castro. Mr. Arias said he was in Los Angeles.
A Colombian radio station, Radio Caracol, broke a few hearts of those still waiting for the author when it reported that he was quietly celebrating his birthday at his home in Mexico City.
“We’re going to have a fine celebration anyway,” said Jacqueline Jacobs, 43, a health official who proudly said her grandfather, an engineer and immigrant from the Netherlands Antilles, had helped build the infrastructure that made Aracataca a relatively prosperous town during the thriving days of the banana trade.
“We love Gabo and everything he has done,” she added.
Glimpses of the old, isolated Aracataca that inspired the author could still be seen. Gamblers lined up to play open-air roulette on a rickety table on a side street near the plaza. Bicycle taxis ferried passengers around town. One woman, Emma Molina Molinares, took a break from selling empanadas to recite some her own impromptu poetry, rhymes about life’s losses and gains, before a few visitors.
“Gabo and I have something else in common in addition to our way with words,” said a smiling Ms. Molina. “My birthday is tomorrow. I turn 48.”