“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

About “The Dance of the White Demons”

Every Guatemalan school child learns about the K’iche’ warrior, Tekún Umám, who met the Spanish invasion headed by Pedro de Alvarado at the plain of Olintepeque near Xelajú (Quetzaltenango), and was defeated in what would be the first of numerous Spanish victories against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. But every recounting of this moment in history is fogged by colonial intent.

The Plain of Olintepeque
The plain of Olintepeque

The popular versions of the story are based on Spanish chronicles that are suspect in detail and narrative, and have led many to think of Tekún Umám as merely legend. The fantastical elements of what has come to be his story are beautiful and distinctive, and undoubtedly one of the reasons he was made a symbol of national sovereignty in 1960 (along with his nahual, the quetzal). I was unwilling to discard these elements I love, but they certainly conspire to hide the fact that descendants from Tekún Umám’s line are alive and hold in K’iche’ oral history details about the invasion that are quite different than what every schoolchild is told.

Guatemala’s population is 90 percent indigenous in rural areas, and 65 percent indigenous in urban ones. In the years after the 30+ years of armed internal conflict that became genocide more indigenous voices have been heard in academic, activist and artistic circles, and it is my hope that they will become more readily available (and translated into Spanish or English) in coming years. I found only one brief retelling of the Tekún Umám story by one of his descendants, Hector Javier Tecúm from Santa Cruz del Quiché, and that influenced a number of my choices in telling my story.

Nevertheless, I took great liberties in my story. I made Tekún Umám younger than he was accounted to be, and gave him no siblings (which is unlikely); I make reference in my story to unreliable “facts” (early Spanish tellings have 30,000 K’iche’ battling Alvarado’s forces, more recent ones say it was 8,000, but there is no credible count); I use the Nahuatl-influenced names for Utatlán and achiotl; and even give a nod to Miguel Ángel Asturias’ 20th century poem “Tekún Umám” which is not particularly accurate except in that way in which poetry finds truth even within historic lie.

I even changed the weapon with which Alvarado purportedly killed Tekún Umám — in popular telling, a spear — because the Spanish are recorded to have used early firearms in the invasion, and not only do I consider it unlikely the leader would have been fitted with anything else, but believe it to be a revisionist attempt to make the face-off seem less lopsided.

K’antel is a wholly invented character. While albinism is not as routine in Guatemalan indigenous peoples as it is in the Cuna people of Panama, it does occur at a rate higher than that of the general population.

There was, in fact, a Dance of the White Demons — no longer commonly danced though elements have been incorporated into the Dance of the Conquista— which is believed to have existed well before the arrival of the Spanish. I have never seen its mask.

I consulted the following books and articles (and online abstracts and web sites) in my research (none of which are without issue, starting with the fact that only two are written by K’iche’):

Tekún Umám:

Historic Maya food, clothing, masks & dances, and other quotidian life details:

Contemporary K’iche’ and 20th century genocide: