Unfortunately, ever since the invasion of Guatemala, this wonderful country has undergone periods of darkness, and its history has led us into our present state of corruption and impunity. Our elders have taught us about the importance of history, as they form a part of our root system and have led us to where we are today.
By dispelling myths and emphasizing the continued existence of the Maya, we bridge the historical narrative with contemporary challenges in Guatemala. Join us in expressing gratitude to the resilient Maya elders who, despite oppression, preserved their traditions, providing us with invaluable wisdom for the modern world.
This is the first of a series of posts and articles aimed to educate and inform you about Guatemala's history and its impact on the Maya people.
Centuries of oppression in the Maya traditions
Since the dawn of ancestral memory, many original nations lived on what we now call the continent of America. This land was their home; it cared for them and watched their history, living alongside them in battle and peace. It was this way until the ocean gave way to three boats, La Pinta, La Niña, and La Santa Maria, which, within their wooden walls, housed the Europeans who had arrived in this area by pure luck.
In 1517, 25 years after arriving in America, they found their way to the Yucatan Peninsula, and it wasn't until 1524 that they landed in Guatemala. During these years, they made their initial contact with the different Maya nations and were led by the bloodthirsty and violent Don Pedro de Alvarado. This character is well-known for his nickname, Tonatui, which means "sun," and many attribute this to the fact that he was white like the sun. Our Maya elders transmit another story, though; they say that they called him that way because he burnt and scorched anything in his way.
It was not unusual for the Maya to welcome new nations to their homeland, as this had occurred previously. When they welcomed outsiders, they would give them food and drinks, particularly cacao, to help them recuperate from their long trips. It wasn't until the travelers recovered that the Maya would start talking to them and try to connect, and in this communication, it was customary to offer them presents.
These gifts would frequently contain some gold, which was fantastic news for the Spaniards, and when they realized how wealthy this region was in gold and precious metals, one of their primary goals became to steal it. In fact, more than 100 tons of gold were shipped from America within the first 50 years of the invasion, leaving blood and destruction behind. Unfortunately, many of these gold artifacts were of spiritual, cultural, or artistic value. They proceeded to exploit these gold mines to become as wealthy as possible, despite the Maya's words, because they were stealing not just the gold but also the spirit of their mountains.
And it was not only precious metals that were taken from the hands of the original nations, it was their names, their beliefs, their spirituality and practices, their land, and indeed their whole way of life.
One crucial aspect of this invasion that only a few people know is that it was a lot harder than what many believe to be true. Many times in the modern-day, when picturing what many call the Spanish conquest, we are given an image of these “mighty Europeans” dealing with “savage, uncivilized, and ignorant people” who would only wear rags and spears. However, the real story is very different, as the Maya held much knowledge and wisdom and were also warriors. They knew their land very well and understood how to protect themselves in the mountains and jungles of this area. This made it very hard for the Spaniards to invade the area, as for example, it took 173 years after they arrived in Guatemala for them to be able to invade the Itza nation, located in what is now known as Flores in Peten.
What aided the Spaniards' ability to invade the area was that their boats not only carried people but also illness, which the Maya had no immunity to and resulted in multiple epidemics. Some estimate that the Spanish disease caused the majority of deaths in Maya territory, accounting for around 90% of all deaths.
However, it is also essential to note that the Maya did not become extinct because of this invasion, as popular belief says. They are still here, and the Maya nations that were present since ancient times are still alive, with many practicing and spreading their wisdom. Even after years of oppression and attempts to wipe them off the face of the planet, they remain strong and live in the land that was once theirs.
Resilience Beyond Oppression: Stories of Maya Heroes
During these times, many Maya heroes dedicated themselves to the protection of the land and their nations. Some of these important figures are Kaji’ Imox and B’eleje’ K’at, Kayb’il B’alam, Atanasio Tzul, and Tukum Uman. The hero that is known the most in these lands is Tukum Uman, now known as Tecun Uman. He was one of the rulers of the K’iche’ Maya people. He was declared national hero of Guatemala on March 22, 1960 for all of his efforts to protect this country from the invasion, and is commemorated every year on February 20. There are several versions of his narrative. However, the version of Maya elders told through oral tradition says that during the battle, Tukum Uman was performing an ancient method in which you may transform into your animal of power (Nahual). He was Tz'ikin, therefore, he transformed into the quetzal in order to spy on the Spanish battle lines, but the Spaniards were intrigued by the bird and killed him in flight. When he fell to the Earth, they saw him converted again as a man. For this reason, when you look at the breast of the quetzal, it is red, representing where he was killed.
Ever since the invasion of Guatemala, which only ended 202 years ago, this wonderful country has undergone periods of darkness, and its history has led us into our present state of corruption and impunity. Our elders have taught us about the importance of history or learning about our individual and collective story, as they form a part of our root system and have led us to where we are today. To understand the current state of our country and society, we need to go back to the beginning, where it all started. In these moments, let us take some time to remember and thank our elders, who, no matter how much oppression they faced, they still understood the importance of maintaining their tradition alive, and it is because of them that we have this wisdom that serves as a guidance to our modern world.
Image source: https://www.spanish.academy/blog/tecun-uman-the-national-hero-of-guatemala/