Tecun Uman – Every Guatemalan’s Hero

The irony of the town Tecun Uman is just beginning to settle in with me. We crossed the Guatemalan and Mexican border earlier today and I sit in the small town of Salvador Urbina in the Mexican state of Chiapas reflecting on some of the images I have been wrestling with from my time in…


The irony of the town Tecun Uman is just beginning to settle in with me. We crossed the Guatemalan and Mexican border earlier today and I sit in the small town of Salvador Urbina in the Mexican state of Chiapas reflecting on some of the images I have been wrestling with from my time in Guatemala.

Unlike Honduras, or El Salvador, Guatemala has a rich, vibrant, thriving and assertive indigenous population today. They are visible in the airport terminal, on the streets, and most noticeably in the marketing material for Guatemala. Starting at the airport I experienced a disconnect with these images and the reality I observed on the ground.

It continued through the streets of Guatemala City and into the Western Coastal plains and into the city of Tecun Uman, on the border with Mexico. The images of the Mayan indigenous cultures are prevalent throughout Guatemala, yet when you get a chance to see the true conditions of the indeginious community there is a great gap between their lives and the lives of non-Mayan Guatemaltecos.

The Indigenous as a Marketing Strategy

While I was visiting La Casa de Migrante in Tecun Uman, I learned about the Mayan Ki’chie warrior king known as Tecun Uman. The true existence of a historical Tecun Uman is subject of ongoing debate. However, Alvarado was a barbaric conquistador and one of the most horrible (incapable and incompetent) administrators of the Spanish colonial enterprise (judged by his contemporaries standards, no less!).

This is not my passing judgement but actually how he was seen by his peers during the time. His battle with Tecun Uman was epic and a turning point in the history of Central American resistance to the colonial enterprise. One piece of evidence to suggest that Tecun Uman lived comes from a letter written by Alvarado himself to Hernán Cortés.

The letter, however, is quite sparing in details, with Alvarado only mentioning of the battle that ensued: “in this affair one of the four chiefs of the city of Utatlán [presumably Tecun Uman] was killed, who was the captain general of all this country.” Whatever his real historical role or story maybe, Guatemala venerates him as the National Hero, and idealizes Tecun Uman as the ideal Guatemalan patriot. Here’s how the legend goes:

In the midst of the battle, Alvarado and Tecun Uman met face to face, each with weapon in hand. Alvarado was clad in armor and mounted on his warhorse. Tecun Uman attacked with the the desire to kill Alvarado’s horse. With the horse killed, and Alvarado knocked down, Tecun Uman was not ready for Alvarado’s next move. He quickly realized his error and turned for a second attack but Alvarado’s spear thrust was on its trajectory toward his opponent’s heart. The K’iche’ prince’s nahual, filled with grief, landed on the fallen hero’s chest, staining its breast feathers red with blood, and thereafter died. From that day on, all male quetzals bear a scarlet breast and their song has not been heard since. Further, if one is to be placed in captivity, the quetzal would die, making the bird a symbol of liberty.

The idea of nahual is most closest to the concept of “animal spirit”. To understand Tecun Uman’s fatal mistake, one way of understanding his action toward the killing of Alvarado’s horse is that it was his nahual and killing it would kill Alvarado. Today, Tecun Uman is seen in light of the ultimate freedom fighter, and the first true Guatemalan. This image of Tecun is a conceptualization embraced ardently by non-Mayans. I wondered if it is shared by the Mayan communities of Guatemala?

Can the real Tecun Uman please stand up?

Ana Luisa Montufar, crowned Miss Guatemala 2014, wearing a traditional Huipil a required portion of the contest in a nod to traditional Mayan culture found in Guatemala.

With indigenous Mayans being presented as the poster child of Guatemalan tourism, yet living such dismally poverty stricken lives, its hard to buy the national hero narrative of Tecun Uman. If the national hero comes from the same indigenous communities now present in Guatemala, why then do these same communities suffer from such incredible poverty, lack of educational and health resources, and worse, are looked down upon by well to do Guatemalans?

One of my guides in Guatemala narrated how he spent all his childhood and early adulthood throwing off his indigenous roots, hiding his ancestral home while living in Los Angeles and even going to pains to demonstrate that he no longer looked the “indigenous look.” He sadly reflected how even trying to pass off as an educated Guatemalan, who spoke English and was educated in the US, he was still considered “too indigenous.”

The reality is that the Mayans are the orphans of the Guatemalan state, both from its services and judicial system, and are scorned by whiter, read more Spanish, Guatemalans. In fact, former American backed dictator General Rios Mont lead a scorched earth campaign against the indigenous communities. Not to far away from Quezteltanango are the towns and villages where Guatemalan soldiers raped and murdered hundreds and thousands of indigenous folks simply because they suspected them as being part of the rebel movement during the 1980’s. Currently Guatemala is seeing delayed justice played out in the judicial system as Montt and other army officials are being brought to trial.

If convicted, Mont will be the first, and only so far, Latin American dictator found guilty of genocide in the Western Hemisphere. American involvement in this atrocity is extensively chronicled, and one of the leading advocates for Mont was President Ronald Regan, go figure, it wasn’t just dealing with the devil (Iran and the Ayatollahss in Iran-Contra affair) but with Satans Prince of Guatemala himself.

Its not just the legend of the Mayan king, Tecun Uman, but the general use of indigenous cultures and people and their treatment that really got to me. What doesn’t settle with me is the marketing and PR campaign instituted by the Guatemalan government (consciously!) to present themselves as an indigenous haven, when in fact the government carried out a campaign of genocide and collective punishment against the indigenous population during the 1980’s and that this population continues to be most discriminated and marginalized in the country even when this population makes up the majority of the population.

Exploitation: Colonial Policy of Dispossession

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In the US there is a constant debate about how Hollywood portrays minorities. Having friends in Hollywood positions me close to the constant conversations about diversity in Hollywood, in marketing, and the generally changing face of America to an image that is predominately less white. And the US is not far off from this idea of using indigenous communities to market places, there is a rich history of this sort of expropriation of indigenous peoples culture for profit by White America.

But in Guatemala the majority of the population is made up of people who look like Tecun Uman, who are not light skinned Hispanic heritage folks. The minority in Guatemala are the groups of folks who look like the white folks that make up Hollywood and Madison avenue marketing firms. The idea of a minority exploiting the majority conjures up images of colonization for me.

All across Guatemala, all I saw were light skinned Spanish heritage Guatemalans in television, news, and advertisements. Its as if the 70% of the indigenous population didn’t exist in the eyes of popular cultural heads. Politicians were predominately of Hispanic heritage. In fact only 3% of the Guatemalan parliament is made up of the indigenous community, which, again, represents 70% of the population. Where are the folks who look like Tecun Uman on television and in politics?

Ana Luisa Montufar from her 2011 Miss Earth contest, again sporting the traditional Mayan Huipil alongside with clay pottery.

I guess its not marketable to showcase how white a tropical jungle environment is, so to sell tourists on Guatemala it makes better sense to play up the exotic, especially if the exotic is so prevalent. I want to ask the Mayan folks about how they feel about this. Do they feel exploited? Do they feel that their representation in tourism material helps them? Do they benefit from the economics of having their cultures be the tourism marketing gimmick?

For me the best image of the place of the Mayan community is that of the women facing off with Guatemalan armed military police. It represents the tenuous relationship with the state, the courage and determination of the Mayan people, specifically of women in Guatemalan society. How the state cowers behind the bravado of weapons, shields, and helmets.

But instead we have these spiffy images of Guatemalan beauty queens dressed up in Mayan dress. In fact, as a conciliatory measure to the indigenous communities, it became a requirement for all Beauty contestants to wear an indigenous outfit during one of the main judging sections of the competition. So all these light skinned six foot women parade across the stage wearing indigenous outfits.


But when you walk around the streets of Sololo or Xela (read more about Xela, which also known as Quetzeltanango here), indigenous woman don’t look anything like the women in the beauty contests. What does that say to these young girls- “you will never be good enough to win a beauty contest, BUT your clothing is important to us, it is what makes Guatemala, Guatemala.” And what does that do the perception of beauty for the indigenous community?

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