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About this painting by

Rafael González y González


Baile de la Conquista

[Dance of the Conquest]
1989, 16” x 20”


The Dance of the Conquest is the most popular of all the masked dances of the Maya of Guatemala. Logically, an outsider would not believe that a dance depicting the defeat of the K’iche’ Maya king Tecún Umán by the Spaniard Pedro Alvarado would be a popular theme among the Maya. Perhaps this can be explained in part by the common Maya belief that, although they were conquered by the Spaniards, they never surrendered.

But maybe this is the wrong way of looking at it. There is a subplot of the dance about Christianity. Perhaps the Maya regard it as the history of how they became Christians. Up until about the 1950s, almost all of the Maya were Catholic (with Maya religious beliefs incorporated into their devotions). It would make sense that they would be interested in history of how the Christian religion came to be part of their world.

The Dance of the Conquest, with its script and long speeches,  is more akin to what we call a musical, than to a dance. Until relatively recently, most of the Maya towns of highland Guatemala were fairly isolated, so the masked dance was the way the rural Maya learned about significant episodes in their history.

The scenes of the dance take place in many locations throughout Guatemala, but mainly in the plain outside of Xelajú (renamed Quetzaltenago after the conquest) where the battle takes place, and the K’iche’ capital of Utatlán. The dancers represent three distinct groups: Pedro Alvarado and the Spanish conquistadors, the K’iche’ Maya king Tecún Umán and his warriors, and the K’iche’ Maya royal family. At the front of the painting, masked dancers representing Pedro Alvarado and Tecún Umán confront each other with a sword and spear. Tecún Umán is identifiable because, on top of his headress, he always has a quetzal bird with its long green tail feather. The other important person in the dance, the Maya shaman, Ajitz, acts as advisor to Tecún Umán. The Ajitz is always dressed in red, and in the painting, he stands just behind Tecún Umán and Pedro Alvarado. In a back row stand the K’iche’ royal family. To their right are the musicians who play the tambor (drum) and chirmilla (flute with a sound reminiscent of an oboe), the traditional and only instruments used for this dance. In a nutshell, this complex story, which lasts more than three hours when performed, goes as follows: the Tecún Umán, hearing that Pedro Alvarado is approaching, prepares his troops. Pedro Alvarado sends an emissary asking Tecún Umán to surrender, but Tecún Umán refuses, even though he has prophetic dreams. They go to battle and Tecún Umán is killed. Next, the Spaniards burn a town they suspect of treason. Hearing this, the K’iche’ royals decide to convert to Christianity, and the play ends with their baptism (Bode 1961).

Few records exist of the conquest of Guatemala by Pedro Alvarado that are contemporary to the time in which it took place—two letters by Pedro Alvarado to Hernan Cortez, and mention in a couple of surviving Maya manuscripts.  Legend and historical truth have become inseparable for much that happened in that period, and it seems we shall never know how much or what is depicted in the Dance of the Conquest is true.


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