A Visit to Padre Alaminos in the Albaicin
The story goes (and it is true) that one year in the early 1960s during the great heat of March (before Holy Week), my father saw a priest on a crowded Guatemala City street corner. In those days priests and nuns were easily recognizable. As he was driving on his own my father stopped and asked: “where are you going Father?”
The priest, a Spaniard and a contemporary of my father’s, was a missionary and was waiting for a bus to take him down to his church of Capuchinas, on 10th avenue in downtown’s zona 1. This chance encounter was the beginning of a life-long friendship between my family and this priest, Padre Javier Alaminos.
As a missionary, Alaminos had taken the vow of poverty and led a simple life. My parents “adopted” him and soon my whole family was attending mass at Capuchinas. The Padre was spending holidays with us and even joining us on outings to the swimming pool or the sea. As a child I remember going into a rather fierce Pacific ocean or the pools at San Martin Jilotepeque with the Padre and thinking: “Nothing can happen to me if I am with Alaminos.”
My parents were founding members of a movement which encouraged Christian families to grow strong together and this movement became one of Padre Alaminos’s missions during his more than 40 years of working in Guatemala. By the end of his long tenure there, Padre Alaminos had worked hard to establish a large community center in Quetzaltenango (Guatemala’s second largest city) which carries his name to this day. The Alaminos Center serves city residents with classrooms, a kitchen and a large multipurpose room, in addition to twenty-four rooms on the second floor where individuals in need can stay.
During my recent visit to see Padre Alaminos in Granada, he received almost daily phone calls from former parishioners and friends in Guatemala. This did not surprise me at all since Javier Alaminos is not only charismatic but kind and has always maintained a nurturing and generous spirit. He gave his heart to Guatemala and it in turn gave him more than he ever imagined was possible: adventure, friendship, challenges, accomplishments and purpose.
In the late 1990s, after a “peace” agreement had been signed which officially put an end to four decades of civil war in Guatemala, a time when violence and genocide were hallmarks Padre Alaminos was confronted with a terrible story.
One day, the young son of the Padre's laundress witnessed a crime and went to the police station to report it. This turned out to be a mistake and soon the laundress was receiving threats that her son should keep what he had seen to himself. A short time later the boy vanished and his mother received a package containing a handkerchief. Wrapped inside were her son's eyes.
Distraught with grief, the laundress went to see the Padre and that Sunday Alaminos spoke out forcefully from the pulpit, saying: “This savagery must stop!”
Although he’d managed to walk the tightrope of warring Guatemalan ideologies for decades by keeping out of politics, Padre Alaminos' sermon that day sealed his immediate fate and became a self-inflicted death sentence given the animosity of the persons who had committed these crimes and the general climate of impunity in which they operated. This is how Padre Alaminos's time in Guatemala came to an abrupt and unexpected end.
Again, my father proved to be an essential part of his story and Padre Alaminos took refuge with him while the Church hierarchy decided where he should go next. The Church authorities
suggested the Padre retire but Alaminos could not conceive of such a notion.
“I am a priest,” he told them. “This is my vocation, this is who I am and what I must do. I cannot stop being a priest.”
In the end, the Padre convinced Church authorities to let him return to his native Andalucia. Several churches in the labyrinthine, white-washed streets of the Albaicin, the old Arab quarter of Granada, had been neglected and Alaminos asked to be allowed to resuscitate them.
Because of immigration, much of the city had returned to its Moslem roots and in 2003 a large mosque was inaugurated there. This is how Padre Alaminos came to be living in the parish house of an old church, San José el Alto, whose church tower, formerly a minaret, is older than anything in the Alhambra. His garden is home to a pomegranate tree (the symbol and meaning of Granada), a persimmon tree, a lemon tree, an old walnut tree, some roses, the curling tendrils of a climbing grapevine, as well as jasmine, which is especially fragrant at night.
During the last decade my father has been to visit Padre Alaminos several times. He treasures an old photograph of my Guatemalan great-grandfather and his sons sitting in the Alhambra looking pleased and happy. This September my father went to see Alaminos for what he thought might be one of his last
confessions. The confession was not brief, and according to Alaminos it went on for days. It was mostly a lot of reminiscing between old friends who share a passion for Guatemala and memories of their work there and a people they love.
Then in October I turned up. In the velvety cool evenings I could look across to the lit up Alhambra. The roses bloomed in the parish garden not far from a Moorish arch. I had been to Granada several times before, but never with leisure time like this. Finally I had a chance to spend some time with the Padre Alaminos and accompany him on his daily rounds.
On Sundays, Padre Alaminos usually gives mass at San Nicolás, San Miguel and San José but recently much of his energy has been taken up with restoring many of these buildings so the first two are presently closed. All these churches were once mosques and when Isabel and Ferdinand expelled the Moors and Jews in 1492 they converted all the religious buildings into churches. Church records for the parish, dating back to the late 15th century, are kept in a special room by the Sacristy of San José el Alto.
I was fascinated to read through some of these meticulous records of individual lives and to realize how incredibly useful all this information could be for anyone wishing to discover their roots or trying to understand the complex mixture of races and religions that melded together in medieval Granada and the Spain that came to rule and influence Spanish America from the late 15th century until the late 19th.
The Albaicin is full of convents and monasteries and Padre Alaminos also gives mass to several groups of cloistered nuns in his parish. Many of these have splendid views of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada from their gardens, as does Padre Alaminos from the tower in the parish house patio. While I was with him, I went to a baptism, a wedding, and several other masses including one on All Souls’ for a group of orphans or children who have been taken from families that did not look after them properly.
Arab children from former Spanish colonies in North Africa are often abandoned on Spanish soil and since no one claims them or wants them, they often enter into the welfare system and thus become part of the modern Spanish world. The nuns look after these children until they are twenty years old.
During this particular visit, the Padre gave mass in a fantastic old church full of golden altars, pink saints and familiar iconography. In that world, the Andalucian virgins are always pretty and the images of Christ always bloody and long suffering. The church altar was dominated by the “Virgin of the Column” the patron saint of this order.
The Padre had two helpers- a girl and a boy, and he knew most of the children’s names and they all seemed happy to see him. After his sermon, he sat down in a chair, with his two helpers flanking him, and spoke with his young audience about how all persons are innately good and have things they can share with others. Alaminos exhibits a calmness which comes with experience, coupled with a willingness to explain religious concepts in every day terms. Both these qualities make him an excellent religious guide for children. There was a great deal of singing and clapping and one of the boys, who might have been a Gypsy, clapped in his own syncopated way, in a much surer manner and quite different from the others. Watching this child, I thought of the painters Zurbarán and Murillo, whose own models had been found among street urchins nearly four centuries ago.
On Saturdays a couple of young seminarists come to help Alaminos out with mass. They often stay and have dinner with him afterwards and enjoy hearing about the Padre’s time in Granada’s seminary and in Central America. They were also interested in hearing about Savannah and thought they might like to come and serve as priests here. These days the number of seminarists is much smaller than in Alaminos’s time. It is also a much more lenient and comfortable life since, in the 1950s, seminarists were expected to shower in cold water and accept many privations as proof of their willingness to spend the remainder of their lives wearing the cassock.
On All Souls’ morning, the Padre and I went up the Paseo de los Tristes, the name of the road that leads up to the cemetery, beyond the Alhambra, to leave flowers for several family relatives and close friends. The cemetery was crowded with people bearing flowers and memories. Granada suffered greatly during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and many Republican sympathizers (whose side lost this war) were shot at this very cemetery.
On another November day Alaminos took me to Otivar, where he was born, in what is known as the Costa Tropical of Granada, where fruit like avocados, chirimoyas and oranges are plentiful, as well as olives. We visited the Palacete de Cázulas, where Alaminos grew up. His godmother was the Marquesa de Montenaro y Barcinos and she lost her only son during the Spanish Civil War. It was from this beautiful place that Padre Alaminos left home in 1957 to enter the seminary in Granada Many years later he wrote to his parents and the Marquesa from Cuba telling them he had become a missionary priest and was headed for the jungles of the Peten in Guatemala with 22 other young priests.
In those days, Flores, the capital of Peten, was a remote backwater with few basic shops and fewer luxuries. Little by little these missionaries began to convert and win over parishioners. They travelled on foot and by mule, saw jaguars and sometimes journeyed by canoe into the depths of the jungle. During one such trip, Padre Alaminos was so hungry he thought he would faint. When he reached a village a little boy came running to tell him there was a package waiting for him at the general store that also served as post office. A small Cessna had landed earlier that day and among the things it delivered was this box which contained canned goods and food. Alaminos was greatly relieved.
As Padre Alaminos drove us through the beautiful rugged countryside of his youth we saw mountain goats, pine forests and olive groves and listened to his descriptions of what it had been like over sixty years ago. We stopped to breakfast at a rustic mountain lodge where a fire was ablaze in the chimney. The main road through these villages leads to Almuñécar, once a Phoenician port, later an important Roman settlement and now a pleasant beach resort. Pedro Martínez Durán, an 88-year-old parishioner and Granadino, accompanied us on this trip.
Pedro, a widower, and Alaminos’s biggest helper, is also keen on technology. So when he heard that
Alaminos' family still had slides of his early days in Guatemala, Pedro convinced Alaminos that we ought to rescue them before they were lost forever. To this end we set off on a successful expedition into the hinterlands of Andalucia. Pedro is presently scanning all these slides and has promised to send them to me as soon as they are ready.
At age 85, Padre Alaminos shows no signs of slowing down or stopping his work anytime soon. Some of his parishioners recently brought him a basket full of Spanish delicacies and wine to celebrate the 55th year since his ordination. On November 4th, Pedro and Rafael Reina, a Sevillian painter of religious scenes and tiles, joined me in toasting Padre Alaminos. When I left at dawn some days later, Padre Alaminos was there to say good-bye to me and to give me his blessing. “Come back for Holy Week,” he said. “And bring your mother.”