Posted by: Paula Delgado-Kling | August 7, 2013

From the archives: Happy Birthday, José Manuel Marroquin

Before me, there was one other writer in our family. His name was José Manuel Marroquin. Yesterday, August 6, he would have celebrated his 186th birthday. Here’s some material, mostly about his character; researched historical material I will one day shape into some form of complete narrative.

August 23, 1897. “Yerbabuena,” the estate where Marroquin lived. It was in his study where he was at his happiest, amongst books and newspapers, with a window view of his sheep and his horses. He was a widower.

He penned a letter to his son, who was then in Paris, “My most thought of—My name has started to ring for the presidential race. Some people involved in politics came to see me on my birthday. They asked my permission to announce me as a candidate. I have resisted intensely, but have not been able to persuade them to forget about me. They described to me how our Conservative party is torn apart. My name is ringing—and now, even those who are not my friends say I’m suited to govern.”

His shoulders curved inward, a habit from decades of sitting at his desk. He was myopic and he adjusted his gold-rimmed glasses, and dipped the feather in ink. “I continue to entertain myself writing. Unfortunately, the novel I am working on does not attract me as much as the other three already published.” A crack came from the logs in the nearby fireplace.

“Yerbabuena” was isolated, a three-hour carriage ride away from Bogotá, and Marroquin was a celebrity in the kind of way a hermit writer can be. The cronies, who masterminded the Conservative party, viewed him as highly electable, as their way to gain power after several years of Liberal rule. They figured that Marroquin would be uninvolved and they could make him their vice-presidential marionette. The other name on the ballot, for president, was of an elderly man overtaken by Alzheimer’s. He could not come to Bogotá, the seat of government, because it was difficult for him to breathe in the high altitude.

Though a keen observer, Marroquin was naïve, and despite the façade that he did not want the job, he felt honored to be put in center-stage. Marroquin was elected vice-president without him having clarity of the civil war, which was then destroying the country. He was a patriot and believed that he could serve Colombia—with the help of the Divine Intervention, as he told people. He was not prepared to be a statesman.

January 1900. The Church of Saint Ignacio in Bogotá. Marroquin kneeled, his elbows on the pew ahead. He placed his forehead on his liver-spotted hands and rested the eyes. In the nearly three years since he’d been vice-president, 13,492 Colombians from both Conservative and Liberal sides had been killed in battle. Another 20,000 men had died from epidemics—yellow fever, smallpox, dysentery—which spread quickly in the battlefields. He felt responsible for this. That was enough bloodshed between Colombians.

“This wine represents the blood of Christ,” said the priest.

Marroquin’s mother had died when he was a toddler and he grew up with his aunt. Together they’d prayed the Rosary every night and it was then he felt safe, cocooned in her arms or within her shadow, cutting out paper figurines. As an adult, he attended mass nearly every morning and out of habit, he stood up to take Communion. He was pale and drained.

Marroquin was panicking: Intelligence confirmed the Liberals were waiting to receive arms shipments from Venezuela. The same cronies who’d put him in office were taking advantage of the elderly president to pass reforms as they pleased. There was chaos in military decisions which were resulting in victory for the Liberal rebels and disgrace for the government. Agriculture was paralyzed and people were going hungry. Foreign exports were at a standstill. It was also difficult to communicate with Panama, then a Colombian department which was days away by carriage, and the Americans, hungry for the canal, were funding and advising the separatist movement.

He swallowed the Communion waffle. With the protection of the Divine Providence, he decided it was his duty to take more control. With the decision made, the church organ fed his spirits and when he returned to take a seat in the pew, a grin lit his face.

That same afternoon. Marroquin’s home office, corner of Calle 12 in Bogotá. Marroquin offered the police chief, Aristides Fernandez, a cup of tea. Marroquin prided himself on reading people’s personalities, an instinct from his writing. This Señor Aristides was the illegitimate son of a merchant from a small town, somewhere where Marroquin had never been, but which no doubt was hot, had a church, and a Sunday farmers’ market on the plaza. Everyone knew Señor Artistides’s father refused him as his son and that was why his whole life, he sought society’s acceptance. Marroquin asked him as a guest in his home to prove to him he thought him worthy of his friendship.

“Señor Aristides, a petite four?” Marroquin asked, passing him a shining silver tray. Aristides noted the way the bite-sized cakes were arranged, each with its own paper dollie beneath it, and it was such luxuries that attracted him to the vice-president. He was impressed by Marroquin’s pressed suit, his small golden framed glasses, and the overwhelming number of leather-bound books on his desk, and each time, there were different ones. Aristides was aware that for as long as there had been a Colombia, Marroquin’s family had been part of the establishment: His great-great grandfather came to the New World to serve as a cabildo for the King of Spain and his aunt, who’d been his surrogate mother, married one of Simon Bolivar’s generals. Aristides told people from his town that he socialized with those “de la high,” and gave Marroquin as an example.

“Señor Artistides, these Liberals are rebels. I will not grant belligerent status to rebels,” Marroquin said. He paced his home office, his hands clasped behind his back. He rarely used the public office assigned to him at San Carlos Palace because amongst his books, he felt protected, and it was easier to have more candid conversations here. “Señor Aristides, there has to be stronger measures taken against Liberals. Their actions are shaming our government and we need results,” Marroquin continued.

Señor Artistides took his third petite four. He washed them down with more tea, and he held the cup with his pinkie erected. However, noting that Marroquin had not extended his pinkie, the police chief rearranged his grip and retracted the finger.

“Comprendido,” Aristides Fernandes said. He understood what Marroquin was implying: he was asking him to increase the authority’s presence on the roads and in the countryside, and to be firm about it, to frisk civilians if need be. The police chief had ascended up the ranks by proving himself useful to powerful people.

I’d formed the idea that Marroquin was a well-read sophisticated thinker and consequently, he was respectful of human rights. Marroquin’s love of literature was the reason he had won me over. His own writing showed his tender and compassionate side. The characters he depicted were human, experiencing love, suffering and lost. When Marroquin was my age, he and a group of friends put out a literary newspaper, “El Mosaico.” They spent some enviable hours reading submissions and drinking hot chocolate, forgetting all other appointments.

But behind the well-kept beard, Marroquin was a tiger. During his younger days, Marroquin ran an all-boys’ school in “Yerbabuena,” and his students were now congressmen and senators for the Conservative party. His boys passed Law 61, “the Law of the Horses,” which meant Marroquin could pass reforms that guaranteed him the allegiance of the military heads. I felt betrayed when I found out Marroquin’s presidency was tainted by cowboy-like policies of shoot-first-investigate-later. Through Law 61, army deserters were to be shot. Known Liberal agitators were to be rounded up and incarcerated. Post battle, the dead were to be incinerated right on the field, to avoid germs but also bad propaganda.

“Sir, as you say, the Liberals are rebels,” said Aristides, wanting to calm the vice-president’s rage. “I should insist to tell you, all of us are in agreement. The military and the police will recognize you as the president.” When Aristides chewed, his angular jaw circled reminding of a cow in a pasture.

The ambitious police chief and the writer-turned-statesman suited each other well. Keeping company with Marroquin upped Aristides’s social standing, while through Aristides, Marroquin did not need to be the face of torturing Liberals.

From his breast pocket, the police chief pulled out the senile president’s two seals, wrapped in dry banana leaves. “I am told there are only these two,” the police chief said. He’d obtained them through his spies, who worked in the president’s home.

“That’s a start,” Marroquin said, and allowed himself a measured laugh. The old man was bed-ridden, and now, without his seals, the cronies would find themselves having to come to Marroquin for any official business that required the president’s approval. It was the start of getting the house in order. Marroquin stashed the seals in his desk drawer, under a pile of papers, and asked, “Señor, you will join my daughter and me for dinner, won’t you?”

The police chief nodded. Marroquin’s daughter was often here when he came. She worried that because her father was widowed, he was lonely.

Marroquin opened his office door and called out, “Maye, dearest! We are happy to have Señor Aristides join us tonight.”

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