The Guatemalan capital required 10 years from its founding to complete and included a cathedral, town hall, and Alvarado’s palace. Alvarado died in 1541 while in Mexico attempting to subdue an uprising. The city was destroyed shortly thereafter by a mudslide that rolled down Agua Volcano after an earthquake and heavy rains combined to unleash the contents of the flooded crater.
Guatemala’s capital was then moved a few miles away to present-day Antigua. It would serve as the administrative headquarters of the newly established Audiencia de Guatemala, which included the provinces of San Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Chiapas, and Guatemala. The city of Santiago de los Caballeros, as it was officially known, would grow to become the third-largest city in Spanish colonial America, surpassed only by Mexico City and Lima.
In 1776, a series of devastating earthquakes destroyed most of the city’s buildings and churches, leading to a final move of the Guatemalan capital to the Valley of the Hermitage, just over a mountain to the east, where it has resided ever since.
The colonial period is significant in that it completely transformed Guatemala’s physical and cultural landscape, establishing new cities and institutionalizing new economic and religious systems that would come to form the basis for a racist hierarchy persisting largely unaltered to this day. Guatemala’s history displays a striking symmetry throughout the years. The key to understanding many of the more recent tragedies to befall its people lies in understanding the significance of earlier events dating back to just before the conquest.
At the center of Guatemala’s new power structure was the Catholic Church, which arrived with the conquistadors and included various sects such as Franciscans, Mercedarians, Dominicans, and Jesuits. These were granted large concessions of land and indigenous people, allowing them to amass huge fortunes from the cultivation of cash crops including sugar, indigo, and wheat. This power structure was held in place by institutions established by the Spanish crown, namely the encomienda and repartimiento.
The encomienda was a grant of Indian labor and tribute, though not necessarily of land, over a geographical area. The encomenderos holding such a grant were allowed to tax the indigenous peoples under their care and to conscript them for labor in exchange for their promise to maintain order and educate the indigenous populace in the Spanish language and Catholicism.
The repartimiento, which is essentially indistinguishable from its predecessor, is a reformed version of the encomienda system, at least on paper. It put control of the distribution of workers into the hands of local magistrates and called for the donation of a percentage of laborers from populations close to Spanish settlements, between 2 and 4 percent of the indigenous population.
Further adding to the transformation of community organization in the conquered territories was the establishment of reducciones, part of the larger process of congregación, consisting of towns founded in the Spanish vein with the purpose of congregating indigenous populations into manageable settlements and assimilating them into the dominant culture and religion. They would also serve as a handy nearby source from which to pool labor.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com