Tecún Umán

From New World Encyclopedia
Statue of Tecún Umán in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Tecún Umán (Tecún Umaán, Tecúm Umán, Tecúm Umam, or Tekun Umam) (c. 1500 - December 20, 1524) was the last ruler and king of the K'iche-Maya people, in the highlands of what is now Guatemala. According to the Kaqchikel annals, he was slain by Spanish Conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado while waging battle against the Spaniards in the grasslands of El Pinal (Valley of Olintepeque) on February 20 1524. Tecún Umán is considered the most representative of his people for his bravery and dignity because he fought to protect his land and his people.

He was declared Guatemala's official national hero on March 22, 1960, and is commemorated on February 20, on the anniversary of his death. Tecún Umán has inspired a wide variety of activities ranging from the production of statues and poetry to the retelling of the legend in the form of folkloric dances to prayers. Despite this, Tecún Umán's existence is not well documented, and it has proven to be difficult to separate the man from the legend. In the process of the European Colonization of the Americas much history was lost due to the destruction of Pre-Columbian artifacts and the suppression of any indication that civilization pre-existed the arrival of the European conquerors and settlers.

Battle of El Pinal

In the middle of November of 1523, the Estremaduran captain Don Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras had been sent on an important mission by Hernán Cortés to discover and conquer the lands south of Mexico. For this journey, Alvarado was given three hundred soldiers, a hundred and twenty archers and gunmen, one hundred and thirty five horsemen, and several hundred Cholutec and Tlaxcaltec allies.[1] Arriving in Guatemala in 1524, the Spanish conquistadors discovered natives who were of ethnological Maya and Nahuatl origin, the most powerful presence being K'iche'. At that time, Alvarado allied himself with those of the Kaqchikel, who had long been bitter rivals of the K'iche' nation. Prior to setting foot in Guatemala, the Kaqchikels had already surrendered to the Spaniards in 1520 and asked for assistance in defeating their enemies. Cortés had sent messengers to the K'iche' state of Q'umarkaj, requesting their peaceful submission to Spanish rule and a cessation of hostilities towards the Kaqchikel. The K'iche denied their requests and quietly prepared for battle. When the army arrived at Xelaju (modern-day Quetzaltenango) the K'iche' steward of the town sent word to Q'umarkaj. The K'iche' chose Tecún Umán as their commander against the Spanish troops, and so it was that he and his 8,400 warriors met the aggressors in El Pinal, where they were defeated.

The legend

The legends say Tecún Umán entered battle adorned with precious quetzal feathers, and his nagual (animal spirit guide), also a quetzal bird, accompanied him during the battle. In the midst of the fray, both Alvarado and Tecún, warriors from worlds apart, met face to face, each with weapon in hand. Alvarado was clad in armor and mounted on his warhorse. As horses were not native to the Americas and peoples of Mesoamerica had no beasts of burden of their own, Tecún Umán assumed they were one being and killed Alvarado's horse. (While another version says he merely attacked the horse in an attempt to knock Alvarado down, having no prior illusion that both man and animal were one and the same.) He quickly realized his error and turned for a second attack but Alvarado's spear pierced through his opponent's chest and into his heart. It was then his nagual, 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, it would die, making the quetzal a symbol of liberty.[2]

Another account claims a much more complex confrontation of religious and material forces.[3] In this version Tecún Umán himself literally transformed into a quetzal or in some variations an eagle adorned with three crowns of gold, precious diamonds and emeralds. Other natives had attempted to kill Alvarado, but he was protected by a powerful maiden, commonly associated with the Virgin Mary. Tecún called upon his own magic, and in the intention of killing Alvarado, struck Alvarado's horse dead. Upon learning he had killed only the beast and not the man, he had attempted to correct his mistake, but was quickly impaled by Alvarado's spear.

A more radically different version states Tecún Umán had an opportunity to kill Alvarado but ultimately failed and was slain by one of Alvarado's subordinates, a soldier known by the name of Argueta.[4]

Historical evidence

The true existence of a historical Tecún Umán is subject of ongoing debate. One piece of evidence to suggest he lived comes from a letter written by Alvarado to Hernán Cortés. However, the letter 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 Utatlan was killed, who was the captain general of all this country."[5] Alvarado did not provide a name for the K'iche' general; nor did he mention how or by whose hand the man was killed. Several other indigenous documents describe the arrival of Alvarado in what would become Guatemala, including the Título K'oyoi which describes the battle in terms similar to the modern legend. This document also contains the earliest known reference to the K'iche' leader as "Tecum Umam."[6]

The Popol Vuh[7] confirms the observations of Bartolomé de las Casas and the Título de Totonicapan, which record that four lords ruled the K'iche' at the time of the Spanish conquest. The first-born son of the Keeper of the Mat (the most powerful of the lords) was expected to prove himself by leading the K'iche' army and was given the title "nima rajpop achij," the same title given to Tecún Umán in the Título K'oyoi. This is all tied together by the genealogy of the K'iche' lords that is given near the end of the Popul Vuh and a section of the Título de Totonicapan, which both refer to the son of the Keeper of the Mat as "Tecum" at the time of Alvarado's arrival.[6]

A second explanation for the absence of greater detail in Alvarado's letter is that Tecún Umán actually did battle with one of Alvarado's subordinates, by the name of Argueta. This suggestion is based on the claim of Argueta's descendants that the lance they keep as an heirloom of their predecessor is stained with the blood of the K'iche' hero.[4]


It is believed that "Tecún Umán" was more than likely not the ruler's name at all but may have functioned as a sort of title. The earliest recorded appearance of the name is in the Título K'oyoi in which he is referred to as "nima rajpop achij adelantado Tecum umam rey k'iche' don k'iq'ab'." Translated, this phrase means: "Great captain-general Tecum, grandson of the K'iche' king Don K'iqab'." Therefore the word "uman" or "umam" simply means "grandson of" and is not part of Tecún's name at all. It has been suggested that "umam" may have been a reference to his genealogy, or the name may have originally been derived from another title given to the hero, "q'uq'umam," meaning "ancient one of quetzal feathers," or it might have come from the indigenous name for a prominent local volcano: "Teyocuman."[4]

Baile de la Conquista

The Guatemalan Baile de la Conquista ("Dance of the Conquest") is a traditional dance borrowing its structure from the Spanish Baile de los Moros ("Dance of the Moors") which commemorates the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. The dance is known to have been performed throughout regions of colonial Latin America, when Catholic priests encouraged the dance to aid in the conversion of various native populations.[6]

In Guatemala, the dance recounts the early events of the conquest, centering on the confrontation between both Tecún Umán and Pedro de Alvarado, which in turn serves as a symbol for the much larger conflict in which they were involved. The dance reenacts the invasion led by Alvarado and the conquest of Guatemala. To fit the traditions of the Baile de los Moros, the role of the Moorish prince is replaced with that of Tecún Umán. It has therefore been suggested that the structure of the dance forced them to create a leader for the native armies, with Tecún Umán created specifically for that purpose.[4] This theory is generally given little credence, in light of the observation that such documents as the Título K'oyoi appeared long before the first performances of the Baile de la Conquista.[8]


Tecún Umán was declared a National Hero of Guatemalan on March 22, 1960 and is celebrated annually on February 20. Tecún Umán's namesakes include a small town in the department of San Marcos on the Guatemala-Mexico border as well as countless hotels, restaurants, and Spanish schools throughout Guatemala. He is also memorialized in a poem by Miguel Ángel Asturias that bears his name.[9] In contrast to his popularity, he is at times rejected by Maya cultural activists who consider his status as a national hero a source of irony, considering the long history of mistreatment of Guatemala's native population.


  1. Antorcha.net, La Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España—Capítulo LXXXII. Retrieved December 23, 2008.
  2. Animal Diversity Web, The Resplendent Quetzal. Retrieved December 23, 2008.
  3. Authentic Maya, Maya Warfare.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 van Akkeren, Tecum Umam: ¿Personaje Mítico o Histórico? Retrieved December 23, 2008.
  5. de Alvarado, 1969.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Citizendium contributors, 2008.
  7. Tedlock, 1996.
  8. Bode 1961.
  9. Palabra Virtual, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Poema: Tecún Umán. Retrieved December 23, 2008.

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