Tecum Umam

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Tecum Umam (also Tecún Umán or Tekum Umam) was a legendary figure of Guatemalan and K'iche' history. Despite a debate over his historical reality, Tecum Umam is at once a symbol of the state and a symbol of the peoples within the state. Whether in the candlelit ceremonies of sacerdotes Mayas or in the chambers of the national congress, Tecum Umam's presence is felt in nearly every niche of the daily life of the Guatemalan people. He is celebrated by poets and invoked in ritual and festival contexts throughout the highlands. He has been raised to the status of national hero of Guatemala and commemorated on its currency. And he is known as the defender of the K'iche' people and a symbol of indigenous resistance because he refused to surrender to the Spanish conquest of his homeland.

The legendary meeting of Tecum Umam and Pedro de Alvarado

(CC) Photo: Travis Church
Statue of Tecum Umam located in Zona 13, Guatemala City

The legend of Tecum Umam says that he commanded the thousands of K'iche' warriors who met the army of invading Spanish and indigenous warriors under Pedro de Alvarado on the plains of El Pinar in February of 1524. In the midst of the fray, Tecum Umam and Alvarado met face to face, each with weapon in hand. Alvarado was mounted on a horse and clad in armor while Tecum Umam wore the feathers of his nagual (animal spirit counterpart), the quetzal. A battle ensued that claimed the life of the K'iche' hero.

Taking to the sky in the form of an eagle, Tecum Umam struck down Alvarado's horse believing man and animal to be one and the same. He realized his error and turned for a second attack but Alvarado's spear pierced his opponent's chest and Tecum Umam fell to the ground dead. Then a quetzal landed on the fallen hero's chest, staining its breast feathers red with blood; the bright colors of the quetzal continue to remind us today of the great deeds of Tecum Umam.

This legend is often held to be largely apocryphal[1] and it is rejected by many Maya cultural activists on the grounds that it "has been created to assert Maya stupidity and ignorance"[2][3] but it is also widely assumed to ultimately be built around the actions of a real person.[4][5] Evidence to support both claims is found in a number of indigenous and Spanish documents that have surfaced over the years. The legend's absolute accuracy notwithstanding, Tecum Umam 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 to the defender of the K'iche' for protection.

Tecum Umam's Legacy

National Hero

Tecum Umam was declared an official National Hero of Guatemala on March 22, 1960[5] and is the only figure to have earned that title. He is celebrated annually on February 20 and is memorialized by prominent statues in Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango. Tecum Umam'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.

(PD) Image: Gov of Guatemala
The Q 0.50 bill, featuring a bust of Tecum Umam to the right of his nagual.
(PD) Image: Gov of Guatemala
An older version of the bill, lacking the Maya-style pyramid structure behind Tecum Umam.

Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias memorialized the K'iche' hero in a poem that bears his name.[6] Employing Asturias' characteristic use of themes borrowed from Guatemala's indigenous cultures and his unique style of magical realism, the poem finds the seeds of liberty in the person of Tecum Umam. The poem thus elegantly reflects the broader themes of Tecum Umam's heroic status as they are expressed through a national discourse that glorifies him as the common ancestor of all Guatemalans, the embodied fusion of Spanish and Maya.[7]

A bust of the K'iche' hero is also featured on the front of the most recent versions of Guatemala's 0.50 Quetzal bill. To the left of Tecum Umam is the Resplendent Quetzal for which the currency is named. This is the national bird of Guatemala as well as the nagual of Tecum Umam. The bird's bright red chest and the elegant tail feathers are both significant in the legend outlined above.

Tecum Umam's presence on this bill places him in the company of some of the most important figures in Guatemalan history. He joins the ranks of other heroes and founding fathers that are featured on Guatemala's currency, among whom are Justo Rufino Barrios, a military leader in his own right and president of Guatemala from 1873 until 1885; Mariano Gálvez, chief of state of Guatemala from 1831 until 1838; and Francisco Marroquín, an early defender of the rights of indigenous peoples.

K'iche' Hero

Tecum Umam is not only an official hero of Guatemala - he is also an important figure in a number of ritual and festival contexts within the indigenous communities of Guatemala. Among the best known of these contexts is the Baile de la conquista or "Dance of the conquest" that is performed in many Maya communities as a part of the celebration for the feast day of the town's patron saint. Costumbristas also evoke Tecum Umam in several ways as a part of traditional religious practice.

© Photo: Ignacio de Wit
The Baile de los Moros in Sololá, Guatemala.

The confrontation between Tecum Umam and Pedro de Alvarado is the central theme of the Guatemalan version of the baile de la conquista[8] and acts as a symbol for the much larger conflict in which they were involved. The baile de la conquista of Latin America has its roots in the Baile de los Moros or "Dance of the Moors," which commemorates the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. As in other regions of colonial Latin America, priests encouraged the performance of the Baile de la conquista, which ends in the religious conversion of the pagans, as a way to help them convert the population to Catholicism. In Guatemala, Tecum Umam takes the place of the Moorish prince from the Baile de los Moros.

The dance reenacts the invasion led by Alvarado and the conquest of Guatemala.[9] It opens in Utatlán, the capital of the K'iche' kingdom, where Rey K'iche' (the king) receives news of the Spaniards' approach from Montezuma in the distant Aztec capital. Then the king sends his sons and daughters to Xelajuj Noj (Quetzaltenango) to recruit Tecum Umam to lead the army against the approaching foes. The following scenes depict first the K'iche' chieftains and then the Spanish officers swearing allegiance to their leaders and then reach their climax with the battle between Alvarado and Tecum Umam. Echoing the Baile de los Moros, the dance concludes as the "Quiché warriors now peaceably, even rejoicingly, embrace the religion of the hijos del sol."[9]

Tecum Umam is present as a powerful agent in a number of other ritual contexts as well. The activities leading up to the Baile de la conquista that are described by Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán[8] or Feliciano Charchalac and Paulino Mutz[9]are characteristic of broader practices. The sacerdote Maya, a Maya shaman, first invokes the name of God and then the village's patron saint, asking their forgiveness and explaining his (and his clients') purpose. Then, one by one, he calls on Tecum Umam or others from among a host of powerful figures (i.e. Maximón or in this case, Pedro de Alvarado) who are selected for their particular domains of influence. He offers them each tragos of alcohol and the smoke of copal, candles, and tobacco. Once he is satisfied that the benefactors are pleased with his offerings, the shaman explains why he has called on them, outlining specific needs or problems and asking for protection and good fortune on behalf of his clients and himself.

Did he ever actually exist?

Tecum Umam's status as either a man or a myth is a topic of lengthy and ongoing discussion. Historical research has demonstrated with some degree of surety that the man celebrated as a national hero of Guatemala probably did not exist quite as he is presented in the legend but there is also strong evidence to suggest that this character was not simply dreamed up. Ruud W. van Akkeren[4] defines two important questions that must be addressed on this issue:

  • How does Tecum Umam fit within the K'iche' power structure?
  • Was there really a historic duel between Tecum Umam and Pedro de Alvarado?
© Photo: Marco Palma
Statue of Tecun Uman located in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

The evidence

One piece of evidence about Tecum Umam the historical person comes from Alvarado himself in a letter written to Hernán Cortés. The letter is quite sparing in details, however - the legend in its current form appears to have come down to us indirectly from indigenous documents that were produced some years after Alvarado's conquest through Francisco de Fuentes y Guzmán, who recorded the legend toward the end of the 17th century.

Alvarado's letter to Cortés is the only contemporary documentation of his possible meeting with Tecum Umam that is available to us (the earliest indigenous documents that have been discovered date to 1550 or 1560). The letter doesn't reveal very much, however. In his description of his army's arrival in K'iche' territory and the first battle that ensued, Alvarado mentions that "in this affair one of the four chiefs of the city of Utatlan was killed, who was the captain general of all this country."[10] Alvarado does not provide a name for the K'iche' captain general; nor does he mention how or by whose hand the man was killed.

The K'iche' document cited by Fuentes y Guzmán, the Titulo del Ahpop Quecham, is now lost, but several other indigenous documents describe the arrival of Alvarado in what would become Guatemala. Prominent among them is the Título K'oyoi which describes the battle between the Tecum Umam and Pedro de Alvarado in terms very similar to the modern legend. This document also contains the earliest known reference to the K'iche' leader as "Tecum Umam."

What was Tecum Umam's place in the K'iche' power structure?

What little Alvarado writes about the opposing captain who died at El Pinal seems to fit well with both the descriptions given by indigenous accounts of the event and the structure of the precolumbian K'iche' state. The Popol Vuh[11] confirms the observations of Bartolomé de las Casas and the Título de Totonicapan,[4] 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 Tecum Umam 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.

Taken together, this is compelling evidence to argue for the existence of a figure like Tecum Umam. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that Tecum did indeed lead the K'iche' army against Alvarado but the Popul Vuh lists him as being "tributary to the Castilian people,"[11] which suggests that he lived through the initial confrontation with Alvarado's forces. Whether this man ever actually met the Spanish leader in battle is the subject of Akkeren's second question.

Was there a duel?

The historical reality of the duel between the two captains is a matter of considerable weight. If the battle did not occur, then there is no real substance to the legend of Tecum Umam - he is no more a hero than the two K'iche' leaders who Alvarado burned upon his occupation of the K'iche' capitol several days after the initial battle. Alvarado's letter tells us that an important opponent died during the historic battle on the plains of El Pinal, but we must look elsewhere to learn whether this was Tecum Umam of the legend.

(CC) Photo: Eddie von der Becke
Masks for sale to tourists in the market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Several of the masks to the left feature quetzals and are thus associated with Tecum Umam.

One explanation of the legend is provided by Jorge Luján Muñoz and Horacio Cabezas Carache, who suggest that the legend actually originated in the Baile de la conquista.[4] They reason that the structure of the dance, borrowed from the Baile de los Moros, required a hero-leader for the indigenous army and that Tecum Umam was invented to fill this position. This claim is quite weak, however, in light of Barbara Bode's observation that the Baile de la conquista "was probably not enacted in its present form for centuries after the Conquest,"[9] long after the appearance of texts such as the Título K'oyoi. (Note that the first performance of the Baile de la conquista is occasionally cited as having occurred in 1542 by command of Marroquín. This claim is inaccurate and probably results from the confusion of the Baile de la conquista and the Fiesta del Volcán, a commemoration of the Kaqchikel leader Sinacán.[9][5])

A second explanation for the absence of greater detail in Alvarado's letter is that Tecum Umam actually did battle with one of Alvarado's subordinates, by the name of Argueta.[4] 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. Akkeren points out that the K'iche' lookers on may have believed Argueta to be the leader of the Spanish soldiers and later called him "Alvarado" upon learning the name of the Spanish captain.

Unfortunately, neither of these explanations gives a solid resolution to the issue of whether a battle actually occurred between Tecum Umam and Pedro de Alvarado. We do know that the legend was recorded in nearly its current form in the Título K'oyoi less than fifty years after the battle is said to have occurred, but this may be as close as we will come to answering Akkeren's pertinent question. It is quite likely that the truth is lost to the sands of time.

U b'i Tecum Umam - Tecum Umam's name

"Tecum Umam" was almost certainly not the proper name of the fallen K'iche' lord who Alvarado mentioned in his letter to Cortés, though it may have functioned as a sort of title. The earliest known appearance of this name is the Título K'oyoi which refers to the K'iche' military leader 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'iq'ab'."

The word "umam" is not part of Tecum's name at all - it simply means "grandson of." Without a referent, it doesn't make sense. This is reinforced by the absence of a second name in early documents. Van Akkeren[4] provides several insights on this topic. He suggests that "umam" may have been given the hero as a sort of a title in reference to his noble genealogy. Alternatively, van Akkeren suggests that this 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."


  1. Ronald W. Wilhelm. 1994. Columbus's Legacy, Conquest or Invasion? An Analysis of Counterhegemonic Potential in Guatemalan Teacher Practice and Curriculum. Anthropology and Education 25(3): 173-195.
  2. Kay B. Warren. 1998. Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 069105881 ; Pp. 155.
  3. Victor Montejo. 2005. Maya Intellectual Renaissance: Identity, Representation, and Leadership. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN0-292-70939-0
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Ruud W. van Akkeren. 2004. Tecum Umam: ¿Personaje Mítico o Histórico? Paper presented at Ciclo de Conferencias 2004, Museo Popul Vuh, Universidad Francisco Marroquín
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 J. Daniel Contreras R. 2004. Dos guerreros indígenas. In El Memorial de Sololá y los inicios de la colonización española en Guatemala. J. Daniel Contreras R. and Jorge Luján Muñoz, eds. Pp. 65-76. Guatemala City: Academia de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala. ISBN 99922-737-1-2
  6. Miguel Ángel Asturias. Tecún Umán. Archived November 12, 2005.
  7. Carol Hendrickson. 1985. Guatemala - Everybody's Indian When the Occasion's Right. Cultural Survival 9(2):22-23.
  8. 8.0 8.1 James D. Sexton. 1992. Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. ISBN 0385422539.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Barbara Bode. 1961. The Dance of the Conquest of Guatemala. New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University.
  10. Pedro de Alvarado. 1969. An Account of the Conquest of Guatemala in 1524 by Pedro de Alvarado. Sedley J. Mackie, ed. New York: Kraus Reprint Co.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Dennis Tedlock. 1996. Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. ISBN 0-684-81845-0