Waiting for the Quetzal: Guatemala’s Endangered Liberty

click for more home The quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, was sacred in Mayan civilization, and its relevance as a symbol of endangered liberty has remained throughout the country’s turbulent history.

One day in the 6th grade, Sergio Miguel walked out the front entrance of his school to be confronted by the defacement of his country. His Latino classmates were holding a picture of a Guatemalan flag. With markers, they had scribbled all over it, writing offensive slurs. The quetzal, Guatemala’s national symbol, was perched precariously over the coat of arms; it was almost unrecognizable over their drawings. His peers jeered at him. Sergio wasn’t the same as most of the Latino kids at his school; his family came from Guatemala, not Mexico, and he said vos instead of tú. Sergio stood there, rooted to the ground he wished would just swallow him up at that moment. His Mexican classmates called him names, belittling his Guatemalan heritage. The next moment, he was overcome by fury and plunged into their circle, trying to pull the flag out of their hands while blindly swinging punches. The four of them left him with a bloody nose, clinging to the ruined, debased symbol of his identity.

Sergio recounted this story to me as we drove. He still paled with anger at the memory. Every time we slowed to a stop, he would carefully protect the beaded quetzal, which hung from his rearview mirror, from swinging. Why had he completely lost control that day, almost a decade ago? “This means so much to us,” he told me, spinning the quetzal’s tail feathers around. It was more than just the flag.


The word quetzal comes from the Aztec quetzalli, originally meaning tail feather, and by transference “precious” or “beautiful.” In ancient Mayan culture, the feathers of a male quetzal were once used as money, so it was forbidden to kill a quetzal because of its value. The bird’s glorious plumes were more coveted than gold, and only high priests and royalty were allowed to possess and wear them. A famous legend of the quetzal foreshadows its contemporary value.

During the Spanish conquest of Central America, the Quiche (Maya) successfully repelled several attacks although outmatched in weaponry. The quetzal was the nahuel (spirit guide) of Tecún Umán, a prince and warrior of the Quiche. Legend has it that a quetzal was flying overhead Tecún Umán the day he was battling against the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. On foot, Tecún Umán disabled Alvarado from his horse on the first strike. With a new horse, Alvarado then regrouped and attacked, plunging a spear through Tecún Umán’s chest. The quetzal flew down from above and landed on the fallen Quiche prince, dipping its chest in the warrior’s blood. According to tradition, this is how the quetzal acquired its blood-red chest feathers.

In the five hundred years since Tecún Umán fell to the conquistadors, hopes of a free Guatemala have been marred by colonialism, civil war, and genocide. After three centuries of colonial oppression, Guatemala declared independence in 1821 only to be annexed by Mexico for two years after which it fell under dictatorial rule for the better half of the 19th century. By the 1930s, American-run United Fruit Company had huge plantations in Guatemala, perpetuating indigenous peoples’ land rights violations since the times of the Spanish ruling class. When Jacobo Arbenz was elected president in 1952, his plans for social-democratic reforms and land redistribution of the holdings of United Fruit Company were swiftly toppled by an American-backed coup which ousted Arbenz in 1954. Declassified CIA documents reveal the US involvement in the coup, including assassination plots, paramilitary and economic warfare, provocation techniques, psychological operations, rumor campaigns, and sabotage.

With Guatemala’s young democracy struck down, the country was plunged into four dark decades of military rule, civil war, and genocide of indigenous peoples that unraveled the fabric of Guatemalan society. The deaths and disappearances of up to 250,000 Guatemalans during this period are still an open wound for current-day Guatemala, a bewitchingly beautiful country afflicted with inequality and violence. Security is every family’s chief concern. In 2014, there were 96 reported homicides per week, making Guatemala one of the most unsafe places in the world. Femicide is tragically common, and human, drug, and sex trafficking pulsate through this part of Central America. In Guatemala, one lives defensively, distrusting a society of perennial, normalized violence. History’s lessons have taught nothing else. Freedom remains a broken promise for a self-destructive society where anyone can become a victim.

Today, it is almost impossible to sight a quetzal in the jungles of Guatemala. Avid bird watchers will camp out for weeks in the sweltering heat, hoping for a glimpse of the enchanting tail feathers from amidst the treetop canopy only to be disappointed. The quetzal’s numbers are dwindling, and it is classified as an endangered species. In captivity, quetzals almost always die—they cannot be caged. The endangered status of the bird likewise applies to the notion of liberty it represents. True freedom is elusive in a country plagued by such a bloody history. A Mayan legend claims that the quetzal used to sing magnificently throughout the forest before the Spanish conquest, but has been silent ever since; it will sing once again only when the land is truly free.