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Tela was founded in 1524 by Cristóbal de Olid, one of several Spanish conquistadores who vied for dominance in the new-found colony. In fact, not long after founding Tela, Olid was betrayed by his own men to his main rival, Gil González Dávila, who had Olid beheaded.

The precise day of Tela’s founding was May 3 – the day of the Holy Cross, so the town was named Triunfo de la Cruz, which was eventually shortened to Tela. (Later, a Garífuna community established east of the city adopted the full original name, which it still has today.) Through the early 1900s, Tela survived largely on small-time banana farming. In 1913 the United Fruit Company acquired the Tela Railroad Company and in exchange for building the railroad was awarded rights to most of the farmland around Tela. For the next half century, workers – eventually organized in unions – battled with United for better wages and working conditions. It is a fight workers are still waging, though international oversight has improved workers’ rights considerably.