Tecún Umán: The National Hero of Guatemala
Since 1961, Tecún Umán has been celebrated as a Guatemalan National Hero. Every February 20, the government and other groups host celebrations and activities to honor this exceptional human.
Keep reading to find out why!
Who was Tecún Umán?
Tecún Umán was born around 1500 in the territory today known as the Guatemalan highlands—there are some of the most beautiful volcanoes and valleys in Guatemala. He was killed in battle on February 12, 1524.
He was one of the last leaders of the K’iche’, one of the Maya groups that lived in that area who, according to several registers, were part of the few indigenous communities that opposed the Spanish when they came into the territory and didn’t surrender to them.
Historical evidence suggests that Tecún Umán was the son or grandson of one of the four lords that ruled the K’iche’ during that time. He was expected to prove himself by leading the K’iche’ army of more than 7,000 soldiers.
There are several versions of the legend of Tecún Umán.
One of the most popular descriptions is that the hero entered battle dressed in Quetzal feathers. His nahual—a natural spirit protector—was also a quetzal that accompanied him through the battle.
In another version, Tecún went to battle dressed in feathers, and when he began to fight, eagle wings sprouted from his back and feathers began to cover his body. He wore three crowns: one of gold, one of pearls, and one full of precious stones.
When Tecún reached the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, he attacked Pedro’s horse, thinking they were one creature. The conquistador used that moment of confusion to strike the K’iche’ prince with a finishing blow.
When Tecún died on the battlefield, his nahual companion, full of grief, perched on his chest and soaked its beautiful green feathered chest with our hero’s blood. That’s why male quetzals have a red chest.
On the historical side of things, while almost everyone in Guatemala knows about Tecún Umán and facts about his life, the proof of his existence and epic battle is almost nonexistent.
Pedro de Alvarado, the one who killed Tecún, and the one who could have provided more details about the fight—only mentioned that one of the four lords died in the combat when he wrote letters to his superiors.
Although Alvarado didn’t talk about him, Tecún is mentioned in other sources. A collection of stories called Títulos de las tierras or “Land Titles”, tell about the stories of the Mayan communities before and after the conquest. In these texts, there are similar situations as those that are present in the legends, specially in Título K’oyoi and in the Popol Vuh, which is considered a sacred Mayan text and was translated by friar Bartolomé de las Casas.
It is important to note that the name Tecún Uman, or its varian Tecum Umam, is actually a warrior title and not a name. Because all of this took time during the Guatemala conquest, most of the key documents were destroyed by the Spanish, when they sacked Mayan cities like Iximché.
Guatemala’s National Hero
How is it possible that Tecún Umán is considered one of few indigenous Guatemalan heroes?
In 1959, a group of people asked the congress to name Tecún Umán a national hero. On March 22, 1960, the National Congress of Guatemala declared Tecún Human a national hero, a patriotic symbol, and “paladin” of the Guatemalan army.
Some congressmen showed their discontent with the hero’s new designation for several reasons. A paladin is a “volunteer” fighter in a war, which Tecún was not. Also, he didn’t fight against the Spanish for Guatemala, but for his people, the K’iche’. And lastly, Guatemala is the product of the Spanish conquest, the reason why Tecún Umán fought against the Spanish.
However, the Guatemalan government at the time was commanded mostly by the military, who had to find characters and symbols to teach the younger generations patriotism and love for the country, and Tecún was the perfect example of it.
It is also important to bring attention that some Mayan and indigenous groups in Guatemala don’t support the idea of having Tecún Umán as a national hero, especially because of the poor way these groups have been treated by the militia and the government.
Racism and classism are still present in Guatemala, and it’s important to broadcast the voices of those groups that have been directly affected by it.
How is Tecún Umán Honored Today?
Since 1961, every February 20 has been Tecún Umán Day. People around the country, especially in public and private schools, honor his memory. Many students sing this song that has been taught through generations.
Some schools and collectives also perform el baile de la conquista (the conquest dance), an ancient performance that had its roots in el baile de los moros (dance of the Moors) and was adapted to retell the events that took place during the conquest.
Miguel Angel Asturias—famous for being the first Guatemalan to win a Nobel prize in literature—wrote a poem about the hero. It’s a magical experience to read or listen to this amazing poem while drinking a good cup of Guatemalan hot chocolate.
Throughout the republic, Guatemalan artists built Tecún Umán statues.
One of those statues is in Guatemala City. Made by the artist Roberto González Goyri, and installed in 1965, this 21.3ft (6.5m) statue oversees one of the busiest boulevards in the city.
FUN FACT: This statue now wears a huge face mask, to promote protection against COVID-19.
Another of the most famous statues is in Quetzaltenango, one of the most important cities in the Guatemalan highland. This one was sculpted by Rodolfo Galeotti Torres. Here are some photos for you to appreciate the monument:
Another monument is in San Lucas Toliman, in the department of Sololá. This one was sculpted by Daniel y Manuel Coló. It has a height of more than 5 ft (5 m) and is on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan.
From 1964 to 1998, a Q0.50 bill with the face of Tecún Umán circulated in the country.
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