What a journey during my 54 years in Antigua Guatemala by Elizabeth Bell
Growing up in Palo Alto and spending a year in Malibu in 1968, I then left my position as Vice President of Malibu Junior High School to move with my parents to Antigua Guatemala. My father had visited previously as Research Manager of Sunset Magazine and had fallen in love with the uniqueness of the colonial capital. Antigua was still very “ruined” and there was a special air in the city as local antigüeños loved its charm – perhaps a bit hidden then.
In November 1969 the Guatemalan Congress passed the Protective Law of the City and established the National Council for the Protection of Antigua Guatemala. Preservation was new to us as we began to learn about the diverse areas it included – we heard, in disbelief, that Antigua would become a tourist destination, and could not imagine why tourism would be drawn to its “ruins”. My friends began work at the CNPAG in 1972 and my husband worked there in 1974 when he died in a motorcycle accident leaving our loving son, Julio. Becoming a young mother/widow affected my personal life. I was able to graduate from the University of San Carlos the year of the 7.5 earthquake in 1976 which brought me closer to my future husband and father of my second dear son, Alex. That marriage was short-lived. I went to the University of Washington for graduate studies, and then, working at the CNPAG, I immerged myself into preserving the city in 1978 attending the International Centre for the Conservation & Restoration of Cultural Property (Rome) and the Centro Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía (Havana).
In the late 70s, there were so few of us who were pioneers in preserving the monumental character of the city I have become to love. Experts came from all over the world to teach us – Paris, Lima, Mexico, Madrid, Rome, Jerusalem – it was so exciting! Our CNPAG core team worked daily to establish policies and did our best to “rescue” the 40+ original monuments abandoned in 1773 and countless works of art. I was particularly dedicated to teaching locals about the importance of preserving the city’s heritage – not only its buildings and traditions – but also learning more about the city in almost every way. Drawing on my leadership skills from my childhood, I set up educational programs in the 1980’s with more than 10,000 kids attending every year. Over decades, I became a Cultural Heritage expert and continued to write books – the first written with my 2nd husband in 1978 and constantly revised since. Many books continued, Spanish, Italian, coloring books, Holy Week, articles and then interviews and more.
It was suggested to me to start Cultural Walking Tours of the city and I founded Antigua Tours in 1992 – that was before the internet! After 30 years I remain passionate as I tour and enjoy meeting so many people – some very famous people and others not-so-famous. We have contributed to many restoration projects including the 1680 Juan de Correa collection of the paintings of the Apostles at San Jose Catedral.
A professional highlight was receiving the highest Gold Conservation Award as a historian and author “Orden Diego de Porres” by the CNPAG in December of 2011. It has also been an honor to work on countless foundations and groups involved in improving the quality of life for many. Spending time daily on projects that help others adds up over the years! I have acquired a very special passion for the city! My love and gratitude particularly go to my sons, Julio and Alex, who have accompanied me for most of my journey in this remarkable city, and countless others. Thank you.