Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mi Dia de Tecún Umán (My Tecún Umán Day)

Courtesy guatexplorer.com.

Dia de Tecún Umán is the Martin Luther King Day of Guatemala. Tecún Umán was the last ruler and king of the of K'iche-Maya people, whose life and death is celebrated in Guatemala every February 20th with parades and food.

According to legend (there is very little actual evidence), Tecún Umán was killed on February 20, 1524, while defending his land and his people from the Spanish conquistadores.

Across Guatemala, there are many paintings, statues and poems (the most famous by Miguel Angel Asturias Rosales, a Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan writer) memorializing Tecún Umán, and his image graces one side of the 50 centavos coin (currently about 6 cents).

50 centavos coin.

The national bird, the quetzal (which is also the name of the currency here) is a symbol of Tecún Umán’s heroism.

"[Tecún Umán] was mortally wounded and blood covered his chest. The Quetzal, who never submitted itself to captivity, wanted to keep Tecúm Umán’s spirit alive. So, the bird flew and landed with its own chest on the blood of the brave Maya chief. For this reason, people say, the feathers on the chest of the Quetzal are red.

"Until recently, it was thought that the resplendent Quetzal could not be bred or held for any long time in captivity, and indeed it was noted for usually killing itself soon after being captured or caged. For this reason, it is a traditional symbol of liberty. However, a zoo in Mexico has kept this species since 1992, and in 2004 breeding in captivity was announced.” ["Quetzal/Pharamachrus Mocinno." Zooms Edible Plants. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.]

The Dia de Tecún Umán is one of indigenous pride for Guatemalans. The school children participate in a colorful parade, where queens and kings reign supreme.

The traditional clothing (traje) that the kids wear is from their family village or community of origin, recognized by the colors and design of the huipil (Maya blouse) and pants. Apparently, no two huipiles are identical (like snowflakes), as each is woven and embroidered by hand.

“Through the choices of design, material and finishing technique, information can be read about the weaver's birth-place, religious background, social position, weaving skill, and personality. Indigenous women can read the complex encoded messages in each other's huipiles at a glance.” [“Huipiles.” Nim Po't. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.]

The traje are worn by many of the Maya around the country, but often it has been replaced by the more western look, especially among men, perhaps because it's too expensive, or the access to western style via the internet has increased the drive to blend in.

“The daily lives of Mayan women of Guatemala represent the continuance of the customs and traditions of the ancestors. They also represent new survival strategies as they face challenges brought on by shifting political, economic, social and natural factors. One may say that they adopt from their ancestors what is necessary for survival while looking for alternative ways to adapt to changing circumstances. Their lives vary greatly, depending on their particular socioeconomic or political status, the regions in which they live, the time period, their religion, the personal decisions that they make and other factors. However, speaking in general terms, Mayan women's everyday lives are a struggle for survival against poverty, hunger, discrimination and violence from within and without. They are on their feet daily from dawn to dusk, tending to a multitude of domestic tasks. However, they also keep their eyes on the future. At times, however, their traditional ways come into conflict with modern Ladino society, and Mayas are obliged to make difficult choices." [ALF. "Cultural Dress of the Maya." Adventure Learning Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014]

After the parade, the kids at school sell delectable treats that their parents no doubt spent hours preparing. I experienced many new ones that day.


  1. Loving your entries, Julie. This one is spectacular because it encompasses past, present and future.

  2. So sweet, Annabel. Thank you!! I hadn't thought of that…