Brief History of Guatemala’s Only Public University: Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala
While there are several universities in Guatemala, there is only one public university in Guatemala, La Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala.
Founded more than 300 years ago, this academic institution is the oldest university in Guatemala. It is home to leaders, intellectuals, and some of the most important political figures in Guatemala have been born.
So, let’s learn a little bit about the best university in Guatemala, its history, how it came to be what it is today, and how it has changed and marked Guatemalan society since the beginning.
Background of The University in Guatemala
The Spanish began the process of conquering Guatemala in 1524, when the conquistador (conqueror) Pedro de Alvarado arrived in the country. With more people coming to the “new world” through the years, there were some commodities that weren’t present here but were needed, like universities or superior education schools.
For that reason, in 1548, Francisco Marroquín—the first licenced bishop of Guatemala—asked the king of Spain permission to establish a university in the capital city of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, known today as Antigua Guatemala. The petition of Bishop Marroquin was backed up by the City Council, the Royal Court, and several religious orders.
But the permission wasn’t granted fast enough, and the need for superior and complete education was more and more urgent, so authorities established the first Colegios de Artes, Teología y Filosofía (Schools of art, theology and philosophy). The first one was established in 1620 under the name of Colegio de Santo Tomás de Aquino, which was founded with the economic help of Bishop Marroquin before he died.
Later, at the beginning of the 16th century, el Colegio de San Lucas por la Orden de la Compañia de Jesús, el Colegio Santo Domingo y el Colegio Tridentino were established. All these establishments had the authorization to grant university degrees, but they weren’t universities.
The Establishment of the University in Guatemala
It wasn’t until January 31, 1676 that king Carlos II promulgated the permission for the foundation of the University, but the document came to Guatemala on October 26 that same year.
On January 7, 1681 la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala opened its doors to 60 students, with the option of these seven majors:
|Moral Theology||Teología moral|
|Scholastic Theology||Teología escolástica|
|Two Languages||Dos lenguas|
It also granted the titles of bachiller (bachelor), licenciado (graduate), maestro (master) and doctorado (doctorate).
In July, 1687 Pope Innocent XI gave the Pontificia (Pontifical) title to the University, changing its name to Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (Royal and Pontifical University of San Carlos of Guatemala).
In June, 1773 the city of Santiago de Guatemala was destroyed by a massive earthquake, so the authorities decided to move the capital to el Valle de la Ermita (Chapel Valley). They renamed the capital la Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción (New Guatemala of Ascend), to where the University moved in 1777 after several years of discussion about it.
The University in Guatemala During the Independence of Guatemala
As a center of studies and education, la Universidad de San Carlos was heavily involved in the Independence of Guatemala as a cultural and intellectual center of the region.
It was thanks to the University that news of different edicts and declarations of independence were socialized in the region. Teachers and students had the same ideals on freedom, equality and fraternity, and the fight for independence of other countries in the region were supported by it, and later emulated when searching for Guatemala’s own independence.
The University in Guatemala in the 19th and 20th Century
Once Guatemala won its independence, a new government structure was necessary, and students and teachers of San Carlos were heavily involved in the creation and support of a Republican Government in Guatemala.
During this time, it was in San Carlos where the first Human Rights Declaration for Guatemala was written. The University in Guatemala was slowly becoming home for intellectual minds and freedom seekers, something that the conservative government understood as incorrect. Mariano Rivera Paz, the first president of Guatemala, decided to suppress the “liberal” studies and topics in the University.
Later on, president Rafael Carrera signed a contract with the Holy See, to establish that the education in Guatemala had to be according to the Catholic religion, and the name of the University in Guatemala changed once more to Pontificia Universidad de San Carlos de Borromeo.
But even when the name was more religious, the students of the University were fighting to revive the liberal movement again, which they achieved with the help of Miguel García Granados and Justo Rufino Barrios.
When the liberal movement won, it was decreed that primary education must be laica, gratuita y obligatoria (secular, free, and compulsory), and on 1875 when Justo Rufino Barrios became president, he overrode the contract signed by Carrera, creating the University of Guatemala.
During this time el Consejo Superior Universitario CSU (Higher University Council) was created—and it still exists to this day—made up by the rector, the highest authority of the University, the vice rector, and the deans of each school. During this time la Universidad was dependent on the government.
Also, it was during these years that the separation between high school and superior education took place in Guatemala, and the University in Guatemala began to grant just the bachelor and doctorate.
It looked like the University in Guatemala was finally regaining its freedom and voice after years of being suppressed. But then, in 1898, Manuel Estrada Cabrera ascended to power and under his dictatorial government the spirit of freedom and liberalism was again suppressed.
The University in Guatemala During Estrada Cabrera’s Dictatorship
Manuel Estrada Cabrera was president of Guatemala for 22 tumultuous years. Instead of finding support in the University, the students of the now named Universidad Estrada Cabrera were inspired by those before them to create a strong student movement.
The Law and Medical schools were the first ones to get organized, followed by the creation of a student driven political party. The process ended with the creation of la Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios AEU (Universitary Students Asociacion) in 1920, which still exists to this day.
The students of University in Guatemala were heavily involved in Estrada Cabrera’s overthrow and as a thank you, the autonomía (autonomy) of the University was regained.
It was until 1927 when the University changed its name again to Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala.
The University in Guatemala During Jorge Ubicos’s Dictatorship
Although the people selected Jorge Ubico as president in 1931, he became a dictator.
He, again, suppressed the autonomy of la Universidad and tried to wipe out those with different opinions, but the courageous students and teachers redoubled their efforts to make a stand against him with their voices, in the classrooms and outside them.
It was in 1944 where the tension was so high that several events led to the overthrow of Ubico’s government. The first one was the murder of María Chinchilla, a teacher killed by Ubico’s regime during a protest in June of that year.
After more tense months, all came to an end with the Revolution of October 20, 1944, where students, teachers, and military members worked together and completely overthrew the remnants of Ubico’s government in the country.
In November of the same year, San Carlos finally got it’s autonomy back, and hasn’t lost it again to this day.
The University in Guatemala in Recent History
After Ubico’s dictatorship Guatemala began to flourish in almost every sense, but soon a counter revolution began. While there hasn’t been another dictator, a lot of corrupt politicians have been appointed to office, and international interests have deeply hurt democracy.
One of the worst social and political events during the last few decades was the 36 year-long civil war.
During this time, a lot of intellectuals, students, and teachers were murdered or exiled by the military governments that had the political power. While studying in San Carlos wasn’t a death wish, if you were involved in social or political movements contrary to those that were in power you were in danger.
During those years, the students of the University in Guatemala were the biggest opposition to the military regimes of the time, and the ideals of freedom of speech and justice were louder than ever.
La Universidad took the side of “the people” and students, teachers, and administrative workers took part in social movements and protests. During this time many student lives, including Manuel Colom Argueta’s, were lost under the responsibility of the government for being opposition leaders.
After the signing of a peace treaty in 1996, Guatemala began its democratic era, which hasn’t been free from corruption.
Sadly, the era of intellectuals and freedom fighters that were part of the University of Guatemala never came back, giving place to corruption and selfishness inside San Carlos.
And while a new group of students have begun to rise and win back student spaces like the AEU, there is still a lot of work to go back to those glorious days where being part of this house of studies meant you cared for social injustice and wanted a better country.
The University in Guatemala Today
To this day, la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala is 341 years old, is the only public University in Guatemala city—and in the whole country—and the cheapest option for superior education for all Guatemalan citizens.
The Universidad de San Carlos comprises these faculties:
|chemical sciences and pharmacy||ciencias químicas y farmacia|
|economic science||ciencias económicas|
|legal and social sciences||ciencias jurídicas y sociales|
|medical sciences||ciencias medicas|
|veterinary medicine and zootechnics||medicina veterinaria y zootecnia|
Its superior schools are:
|high school teacher training school||escuela de formación de profesores de enseñanza media|
|physical and mathematical sciences||ciencias físicas y matemáticas|
|political sciences||ciencias políticas|
|social work||trabajo social|
All these faculties and schools have representation in 20 of the 22 departments of the country, which means people don’t have to leave their communities for most of the careers that the University offers.
While there are several commemorations for important dates in the university, like January 31 each year, one of the most famous ones to this day is La Huelga de Dolores. This event, literally translated to the “Hurt Strike,” happens every year on the Friday before Holy Week—popularly known as viernes de dolores (hurt Friday). A desfile bufo, a satirical parade, takes place and students from el comité de huelga (the strike committee) participate to share their discontentment and opposition to the government, and talk about social injustice. This parade has taken place since 1898.
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