Nobel laureate Garcia Márquez’s Colombian hometown hopes to make magic out of his legacy

The world will bid farewell to Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez on Monday in a star-studded event in the marbled halls of Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. Literary luminaries from around the globe and heads of state will be in attendance.

In Aracata — his birthplace and the inspiration for “Macondo,” the mythical setting of his most famous works — locals were still debating how to best honor the man they call simply, El Nobel. Plans to carry an empty coffin down the street were shot down out of “respect for the family,” local officials said. The state governor says he will attend Monday’s “symbolic wake,” but as of late Sunday, it’s unclear who, if any, national figures will show up.

In a way, it’s a fitting farewell to the author who died Thursday at the age of 87. Despite finding in this dusty town an endless source of stories and lore that he wove into global best-sellers, García Márquez only set foot here twice in the past 30 years.

The town, which he dubbed la tierra del olvido or “the town of forgetting,” seems to have taken its name to heart, said Gilberto Tejeda, a local historian, teacher and author.

Aside from his childhood home, which was recreated from scratch seven years ago, there is very little left of the author’s past, he said. The telegraph agency where his father worked, and which played a central role in Love in the Time of Cholera, is a forlorn and dusty museum. The kindergarten where García Márquez learned the alphabet belongs to a child welfare agency and is now a cafeteria.

“The place where Colombia’s only Nobel in literature learned how to write, where he learned the letter ‘A’ — it’s a restaurant,” Tejeda said. “Imagine that.”

The town is hoping that in death El Nobel might change that.

“The national government and even international governments are looking at us right now,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, Aracataca’s secretary of education, culture and sports. “We haven’t been orphaned by his death; he’s left us a legacy that we have to take advantage of.”

Along with rescuing the city’s literary history, the town of 18,000 needs more mundane amenities like a water-treatment plant, a sewage system and hotels of a caliber that can cater to literary pilgrims, he said.

Town Mayor Tufith Hatum — who is expected to attend the Mexico City event along with President Juan Manuel Santos — has asked that all or part of García Márquez’s ashes be brought here. But the author’s family, who has lived abroad for decades, hasn’t said where he will be put to rest. Many are betting that his remains end up in Colombia’s seaside town of Cartagena where his parents are buried and where García Márquez had a home.

Even so, García Márquez credits Aracataca with making him a writer. He spent his first eight years here when the village was a banana boom-town, full of outlaws, barefoot laborers and U.S. executives with the United Fruit Company who lived in a compound “behind metal gates like an enormous electrified chicken coop,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir Living to Tell the Tale.

The author recounts how his beloved grandfather, Nicolás, his grandmother, Tranquilina, and his eccentric aunts filled his head with family lore and local legends.

He wove many of those tales into books such as Leaf Storm and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the process, he helped define a literary style known as magical realism. In his world, it rained yellow butterflies, babies were born with pig tails and the blood of the murdered ran uphill to loved one’s homes.

“I cannot imagine a family better-suited for my vocation as a writer than those in that lunatic house,” García Márquez wrote.

The author often said the magical realism tag was a misnomer — that life in Aracataca was truly stranger than fiction. In his memoir, he recounts the night a mule trotted through town carrying a decapitated rider as the man’s head floated down the creek. There was the day a wayward bull tore through the family home goring furniture. And there was the blind aunt who navigated by sense of smell. Even “Macondo,” the name of his fictitious village, was the real name of a nearby banana plantation.

During the 1960s and 1970s, García Márquez was a frequent visitor to the town, gathering inspiration for his life’s work and earning a reputation as a legendary partier.

Rubiela Reyes, a local tourist guide, said she remembered García Márquez, her uncle and dozens of their friends drinking for three days straight as they brought in a parade of vallenato musicians.

“I knew him before he was El Nobel,” she said. “My earliest memory of him is as one of the drunks.”

Life changed for the author and journalist in 1981. That year, he went into exile after being accused of being a collaborator of the now-defunct M-19 leftist guerrilla group. He spent the next decades living between Mexico, Colombia and sometimes Cuba.

In Havana, he had a house beside his longtime friend Fidel Castro, who he had met when he was a reporter covering the bearded-guerrilla’s rise to power in 1959.

The two remained close until the end and García Márquez irked many here by never publicly challenging the dictator. Castro described García Márquez as having “the goodness of a child and cosmic talent.”

Politics in Aracataca lean conservative. Here, they don’t talk about El Nobel’s political views.

“His politics were terrible,” Tejeda, the historian, explained. “But as a writer, he was the best in the world.”

In 1982, that was confirmed when García Márquez won the world’s top literary prize. He did a victory lap through Aracataca the following year but then didn’t come back for another two decades.

Nicolás Rafael Arias, 78, García Márquez’s cousin and one of his few relatives in town, said global obligations and his deteriorating health kept him away. But it was also the crowds.

“He never regretted being from Aracataca,” Arias said. “But he couldn’t handle so many people.”

His final visit in 2007 — to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publishing of One Hundred Years of Solitude — was a bitter-sweet event. It was supposed to herald a turning point for Aracataca, which has struggled to be folded into Colombia’s growing tourism circuit. Gárcia Márquez and his wife arrived on a passenger train that was slated to begin regular service. There were also hopes that if the Nobel laureate spent the night, it might inspire real hotel construction.

But García Márquez only spent about two hours in town before fleeing the hoards of well-wishers.

Arias shows pictures of that day where a tense-looking García Márquez is being escorted through a sea of outstretched hands like a rock star or a professional boxer.

“He told me that day ‘These aren’t my people, they’re going to asphyxiate me,’” Arias recalled.

Seven years later, the only train that runs along the track is hauling coal, and there are no stars on the few hotels in town.

But Aracataca is hopeful again. On Friday, García Márquez’s childhood home saw more than 700 visitors — a record for the museum. And there are hopes that a monthly tourist train might start a “Macondo route” and bring visitors from Santa Marta — a colorful port town about 55 miles away.

Arias said his cousin put Aracataca on the map and that his books will keep drawing those looking for the real Macondo.

“Because of El Nobel, we’re known globally,” he said. “The honey of García Márquez will keep attracting all sorts of bees.”