“From a madhouse to a monastery”: Twenty-Five Years of Guatemala’s Magna Terra Editores

We turned into a McDonald’s of books . . . It was madness!

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Guatemala’s longest-lasting publishing house, Magna Terra Editores. Founded in November 1994 by poet and novelist Gerardo Guinea—and now run by him and his son Paolo—Magna Terra has published more than two thousand books and has propelled the careers of writers across three generations. As the press nears its bodas de plata, early this month I sat down with the two editors to talk about Magna Terra’s beginnings, the press’s many houses, and transitioning from a hectic McPress to a much more Zen indie house that boasts some of the best books produced in the country. Its author list is undoubtedly proof of this.

—José García Escobar

In the early 1990s, when Magna Terra was nothing more than a dream, its founder, Gerardo Guinea, and his family were exiled to Mexico City by the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). He was one of many. Other famed Guatemalan writers, such as Luis Cardoza y Aragón and Raúl Leiva, also chose to live abroad given the local political climate. After all, the government often persecuted writers. Otto René Castillo, Luis de Lión, and Alaíde Foppa are just a few of the many intellectuals the government and army killed during the war. While in Mexico, Gerardo had the chance to visit and become familiar with local publishing houses. He met with Joaquín Diez-Canedo of Joaquín Mortiz Editorial, now part of Grupo Planeta, and Carlos López of Editorial Praxis. As he watched the editors working, the books piling up on the shelves enthralled him. He wondered, as the talks of peace in Guatemala became more frequent, if he could create something similar at home.

Gerardo admits that the Chilean writer Gladys Valdez and the Argentine philosopher Horacio Cerrutti were the ones who finally pushed him to form Magna Terra. So, in 1994, Gerardo and his family returned to Guatemala. That same year, without having an actual office, he put out a collection by the Spanish philosopher Ignacio Ellacuría.

“I was studying to be a doctor,” says Gerardo’s son Paolo, now a poet, justifying his absence from the tale. “And I used to play in a rock band; I wasn’t even that focused on my career,” he says, faintly smiling.

Soon after Paolo quit medical school, he joined his father, and both moved Magna Terra to an apartment compound owned by Paolo’s grandmother in Guatemala City’s Zone 6. Paolo doesn’t like the word complejo de apartamentos. He thinks it’s too much of a fancy word for what the building truly was. He calls it a palomar—a dovecote. For our non-Guatemalan readers, a palomar is a building with many rooms, each frighteningly smaller than a regular room, and where, more often than not, entire families live in each room. Magna Terra, however, wasn’t just a publishing house; it was a commercial printer as well. Inside that little room, the Guineas had paper cutters, wooden tables, and an old, secondhand printing press the size of a dresser. Gerardo and Paolo had to walk sideways if they wanted to fit in that minuscule room. There was no other way, they claimed. Though there were many printing companies in Guatemala City, thousands in fact, none produced books that met the Guineas’ high standards. Finally, Paolo’s father divided his time between Magna Terra and working as an editor for local newspapers. It was, despite some hardships, the perfect epicenter for Magna Terra, the editors argue.

“We couldn’t have been poorer,” Paolo says. “But suddenly, things began picking up.”

New clients began calling Gerardo and Paolo. NGOs, lawyers, and groups of activists, as well as writers like Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize-winning author Víctor Muñoz, were among those who enlarged Magna Terra’s young but impressive roster. This duality is a must in Guatemala if publishing houses want to survive, Gerardo insists. Nonfiction keeps the boat afloat; literary fiction keeps the sailors focused and passionate.

The growth of the press was such that they united forces with a commercial printer, InfoPress. Both companies later rented a house in Barrio Gerona. “I live in Gerona,” I say, excitedly. “Where in Gerona did you end up?”

“Somewhere on 13th street,” Gerardo says.

“Houses are big over there,” Paolo adds, happily.

Work began piling up. They later moved to a place in Zone 2—in a city of farting buses and loudmouthed vendedores, Zone 2’s quietness is almost otherworldly, perfect for such meticulous editors. Soon they started hiring more and more people: messengers, graphic designers, a secretary, you name it. Gerardo quit his job. In a matter of three years, they went from working part-time in a crowded room to owning a respectable publishing and printing house with more than forty employees and began forming a relationship with clients who, to this day, still work with them. Writers followed them loyally, too. Mario Monteforte Toledo, Ramírez Amaya, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Payeras, Augusto Monterroso, and Méndes Vides are just a few of them. Admittedly, in the early nineties, Guatemalan writers didn’t have much to choose from. During the armed conflict, the government not only pushed many writers into exile, but also created a hostile environment for writers and artists in general. However, Gerardo and Paolo’s professionalism forged a new era for Guatemalan literature.

Quickly, however, prosperity tipped them toward madness.

With new clients there came more demand, and they were forced to buy new machines and hire more people. In the late nineties, Magna Terra owned printing presses the size of small swimming pools to help them keep up with the high demand for books. And it became a vicious cycle. To pay its workers, the rent, services, and repairs, Gerardo and Paolo agreed to any job imaginable, including what they call bomberazos—books that needed to be edited, diagrammed, designed, printed, and glued in less than ten days.

“To complete every single book, we had to supervise its production, which is made up of 300 to 400 small tasks,” Gerardo says. “If one fails, it’ll create a domino effect.”

Gerardo and Paolo wince and frown thinking of that time, and I can almost hear the machines grinding, the guillotines slamming, the hurried steps of dozens of stressed workers. I can almost see Paolo drinking his umpteenth cup of coffee. I can almost see Gerardo with bags under his eyes, pushing his glasses to the top of his nose, as he enters his twelfth hour behind the computer. The smell of fresh paint makes its way into my nose, and I’m unsure if I’m imagining it, or if I, alongside Gerardo and Paolo, have gone back to that crowded shop in Zone 2 and have been infected by the same maniacal energy that moved the two editors for days straight.

“That is why, pretty soon, we were working twenty-four seven. This includes weekends, holidays, Christmas,” Paolo adds.

“We turned into a McDonald’s of books,” Gerardo says. “No son pajas—I’m not lying. It was awful. It was madness.”

Madness put Magna Terra at the brink of insolvency. Paolo and Gerardo, quite understandably, refuse to call this a golden era. While there were times when the Guineas worked for several months non-stop, sometimes they found themselves without a single client breathing down their necks for up to six weeks. Gerardo estimates that, at that time, Magna Terra cost them approximately $600 a day. And they say that they went on to pay up to $10,000 for repairs on their pool-presses. So whenever there was a drought, the publishing house teetered towards extinction. Bank loans kept them alive. They admit they still don’t know how they pulled it off. And they never abandoned their literary ambitions. But they were in dire need of a change. So, in the 2010s, they began selling their machines and hiring companies to do the heavy lifting for them. The goal: limit Gerardo and Paolo’s work to editing. But there was one inconvenience: finding a printing house that would make books with the same care as they did.

“We spent a month walking around Parque Morazán, looking for the right partners,” Gerardo says.

“We sat with people, and we told them, ‘We want our books like this, this, and this,’” Paolo says. “The good thing about spending twenty years doing things by ourselves (despite that murderous work pace) is that we know when people are trying to fool us.” Paolo smiles. “All those lies you hear from printing houses, we told those same lies. We invented them!”

In March 2016, they sold their last machine.

When I walked into Magna Terra in early July, I couldn’t have found a more relaxed office. Even Bach’s Cello Suite No.1, coming out of Paolo’s office, seemed unbothered by the noise outside. When Gerardo and Paolo began selling the machines they used for years, they also moved back to Zone 1. They found, in Guatemala City’s downtown, a multi-space house with a garage, a small garden, a living room, four offices, and two rooms used for storage, with enough space to house Paolo’s piano in its own room.

“We went from a madhouse to a monastery,” Paolo says, and then there’s only silence.

Across Magna Terra’s impressive run, they have published books by Mario Payeras, Carolina Escobar Sarti, Luis de Lión, Javier Payeras, Maurice Echeverría, Byron Quiñónez, Gloria Hernández, and Jessica Masaya; national-award-winning authors such as Margarita Carrera, Francisco Morales Santos, Mario Monteforte Toledo, and Rodrigo Rey Rosa; young poets such as Julio Serrano Echeverría and Alan Mills, the latter a member of 2017’s Bogota39 (alongside Valeria Luiselli and Samanta Schweblin); and Prince of Asturias Award in Literature-winning author Arturo Monterroso. For eleven years, they put out Revista Magna Terra, a cultural magazine edited by writer and reporter José Luis Perdomo, the author of the much celebrated La última y nos vamos, a collection of his interviews with authors such as Eduardo Galeano, Octavio Paz, Günter Grass, José Saramago, Nadine Gordimer, and Andrés Neuman.

Gerardo Guinea Diez is a Guatemalan poet and novelist. For the last thirty-five years, he has worked as an editor and journalist. He has been published in Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, the United States, and Guatemala. In 2000, he received the César Brañas National Poetry Prize. His book Ser ante los ojos was translated by Jean-Jacques Fleury and got published as Etre sous le regard by L’Harmatann, in Paris, France, in 2003. In 2006, his book Poemas para el martes won the Luis Cardoza y Aragón Mesoamerican Poetry Prize. As a novelist he has written El árbol de Adán (Editorial Normal), Un león lejos de Nueva York (F&G editores), La mirada remota (F&G editores), Fiticón (Magna Terra Editores), Un cisne salvado del diluvio (winner of the Juegos Flores Hispanoamericanos Quetzaltenango Prize), and El acertijo de Maria Callas, 2019. As a poet, he has published other books such as Raíz del cielo (Editorial Praxis, Mexico), Casa de nosotros (Letra Negra), Salvo la incertidumbre—an anthology—(Editorial Cultura), Cierta grey alrededor (Magna Terra Editores), País con lunita (Editorial Germinal, Costa Rica), and Poemas irlandeses (Editorial Praxis). He won the Miguel Angel Asturias National Prize in Literature and was a finalist for the Rubén Darío International Poetry Prize (Nicaragua) and the Praxis Poetry Prize (Mexico).

Paolo Alejandro Guinea Ovalle was born in Guatemala in 1975. He is a poet, editor, musician, and transactional coach. He has published Matriz de olvido (Editorial Cultura, 2000), Voz en off (Magna Terra Editores, 2004), Circo y Estadística (Magna Terra Editores, 2009), Caballitos (Editorial Cultura, 2014), Después de Dios también hay miedo (Catafixia, 2018), and Luz hacia el trigo (Editorial Cultura, 2018). In 2019, he put out his latest book, Luz desatada (Magna Terra Editores). His work has been included in anthologies such as Voces de Posguerra (Fundarte), Algarero Cultural 18: Antología de poetas guatemaltecos y dominicanos (Editorial Cultura), Microfé (Catafixia Editorial), and El futuro empezó ayer (UNESCO/Catafixia Editorial). His work has appeared in cultural magazines such as Algarero Cultural, La Ermita, Magna Terra—un viaje hacia las ideas, in the journal Nueva York en Guatemala, and in digital magazines such as Te Prometo Anarquía, esQuisses, Barrancópolis, and Nómada. He has taken part in several poetry festivals, such as the first and tenth International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua. In 2014, he put out an album of classical music called Ápices. In 2004, he won the Fundación Myrna Mack Poetry Prize. He currently works as an editor at Magna Terra Editores.

José García Escobar is a journalist, fiction writer, translator, and former Fulbright scholar from Guatemala. His writing has appeared in The Evergreen Review, Guernica, and The Guardian. He’s Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for the Central American region. He works as a journalist with Plaza Pública.


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