Independence in Central America and Chiapas, 1770-1823

Independence in Central America and Chiapas, 1770-1823


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Central America was the only part of the far-reaching Spanish Empire in continental America not to experience destructive independence wars in the period between 1810 and 1824. The essays in this volume draw on new historical research to explain why, and to delve into what did happen during the independence period in Central America and Chiapas. The contributors, distinguished scholars from Central America, North America, and Europe, consider themes of power, rebellion, sovereignty, and resistance throughout the Kingdom of Guatemala beginning in the late eighteenth century and ending with independence from Spain and the debate surrounding the decision to join the Mexican Empire. Their work reveals that a “conflict-free” separation from Spain was more complex than is usually understood, and shows how such a separation was crucial to late-nineteenth-century developments.

These essays tell us how different groups seized on the political instabilities of Spain to maximize their interests; how Latin American elites prepared elaborate rituals to legitimize power dynamics; why the Spanish military governor Bustamante’s role in Central America should be reconsidered; how Indian and popular uprisings had more to do with tax burdens than with independence rhetoric; how the scholastic thought of Thomas Aquinas played a role in  political thinking during the independence period; and why Mexico’s Plan de Iguala, the independence program promoted by Agustín de Iturbide, finally broke Central American elites’ ties to Spain. Focusing on regional and small-town dynamics as well as urban elites, these essays combine to offer an unusually broad and varied perspective on and a new understanding of Central America in the period of independence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806162799
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/18/2019
Pages: 282
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

Aaron Pollack is professor-researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS) Sureste in Mexico. He is the author of Levantamiento K’iche’ en Totonicapán, 1820: Los lugares de la política subalterna.

Nancy Hancock is the director of Language Company Translations.

Read an Excerpt



Concepts, Ceremonies, Symbols, and Networks



The Kingdom of Guatemala, 1790–1812


Political rituals have been and continue to be necessary for bringing meaning and legitimacy to power. As Juan Carlos Garavaglia has indicated, even today the "theater of power" needs civil-religious ceremonies to sustain its authority, necessarily dependent on the loyal attitudes of citizens, constructed through symbolic mechanisms.

With independence from Spain, some of the newborn nation-states established rituals requiring that an oath of loyalty and obedience to the executive power, as well as to the laws created by the sovereign nation, be taken in the presence of the ruler. They copied, then, the ceremonies American populations had become accustomed to during the period of Spanish rule, though these had been performed absent the physical presence of the king. What had happened in those cases? How was the sovereign represented? Especially, to whom was fidelity sworn during the liberal Cádiz period when the Courts declared the nation to be sovereign?

In this essay I do not examine the continuation of colonial rituals in republican Central America. Suffice it to say that a large portion of the symbols, rhetoric, and dramaturgy used since the sixteenth century did not disappear with the start of the independent era, and for that very reason they should not be considered as superficial or tangential to the processes of state formation (see Avendaño, this volume). Rather, my intent is to show, through examples of several oath-taking ceremonies carried out in the Kingdom of Guatemala, how, notwithstanding the continuity in ritual practices, the semantic variants of sovereignty were represented ("made present" through the use of symbols). Stated another way, I am interested not so much in the liturgies in and of themselves as in the semantic changes with which the objects of political veneration were imbued during those ceremonies, as a means to observe the propagandistic and pedagogic intentions managed from the seats of power to ensure that both vassals and citizens could assimilate the reality of the absent sovereign.

In the American territories, oath-taking ceremonies began to be used in the sixteenth century, when the Hapsburg dynasty established that the raising of pennants would be used to proclaim new monarchs. According to the 1732 Diccionario de la lengua castellana, to take an oath (jurar) at that time meant not only "to appeal to God as a witness of what one affirms or denies," "to take a vow of something," or to have a "vice" (the vice of swearing) but also "to acclaim or publicly affirm the Prince as sovereign, with an oath of fidelity and those ceremonies that are meaningful thereto." A ceremony of this nature had to be public, so multiple strategies were developed in each part of the Spanish monarchy to assure that each corporate group might participate according to the position it occupied in the social hierarchy, thereby reinforcing established order.

In the American case, the physical absence of the king was remedied by the use of various symbols, among them the funeral catafalques built during the ceremonies in memory of fallen monarchs or the portraits and royal pennants displayed during the proclamation of their successors. What happened when the Courts meeting in Cádiz proclaimed the sovereignty of the nation in 1810? Some symbols and liturgies were maintained in the public readings and oath-taking ceremonies surrounding the implementation of the Constitution of 1812. The significance of sovereignty was no longer the same, however. At least in Guatemala, the portrait of the king and the royal pennant were placed in positions of lesser importance than that of the constitution, which represented the voice of the nation.

This chapter also stresses that in the Kingdom of Guatemala the shift in notions regarding sovereignty that took place around 1810, moving away from those that dominated during the Bourbon period, should not be interpreted in linear form, simply as a step from a notion of absolute power to one of a liberal-constitutional hue (see Rodríguez, this volume). Although political propaganda used during the funeral ceremony of Charles III and especially in the oath-taking ceremonies for Charles IV (1790) underscored the submissive relationship between subjects and the monarch, in the rituals themselves there was no shortage of expressions that appealed to the pactist imagination. At least two political traditions were therefore present when oath-takings for the Cádiz Constitution were organized.

Obviously, these political traditions, like Cádiz constitutionalism, were not homogenous doctrines, unbendingly unified in their principles. On the contrary, they were understandings of the world which, though they shared a common denominator, showed many nuances; their categorical architectures had changed over time, their meanings modified through appropriation and reappropriation on both sides of the Atlantic.

For ceremonies of oath-taking to King Charles IV in the Bourbon period, I analyze the report penned by the priest of the Nicaraguan city of Granada, Pedro Ximena. That report was written in 1790 and published in the capital of the kingdom in 1793 in a press owned by Ignacio Beteta. The object of the report was, as mentioned by its author at the end of the text, to promote respect, submission, and loyalty toward the Spanish monarchs. To understand the ceremonial process better, I allude first to the funeral services of Charles III also celebrated in Granada. The example of the oath- taking ritual I use turns out to be extremely interesting, because it quashes any expectation that the festivities would be a demonstration of unanimity regarding the absolutist principles of power. In the case of ceremonies during the captivity of Ferdinand VII (1808–9) and for the Cádiz Constitution, I depend fundamentally on news published in the Gazeta de Guatemala. Like the report written by Pedro Ximena, the Gazeta intended to create consensus among vassals around obedience and loyalty toward the authorities. As the only newspaper in the Kingdom of Guatemala at that time, the Gazeta did not limit itself to sharing illustrated eighteenth-century paradigms with its readers or to providing news about the "heroic" Spanish resistance to the French invaders. The Gazeta also attempted to inform vassals about the new political structure of the Spanish monarchy that was then under construction in Cádiz, exciting their adherence to it.


On May 22, 1789, the Granadan priest Pedro Ximena received a circular from the bishop of León, Nicaragua, Juan Félix Villegas, which was accompanied by a royal dispatch of December 14, 1788, in which all parish priests and ayuntamientos were instructed to celebrate a royal funeral in memory of King Charles III. In response, the ayuntamiento declared mourning, which required the population to adopt an appropriate form of dress beginning on May 28, and ordered that funeral services be held on the following day. Beginning at 3:00 on the afternoon of the twenty-eighth, the bells in the parish church and the other churches of the city rang sixty times. News regarding the death of the monarch thus circulated, and all public performances were prohibited.

In the parish church a funeral catafalque was prepared, "which although bare of symbols, hieroglyphics, emblems, epigrams, elegies and other elegant decorations of ingenuity and art, nonetheless showed in the simplicity of its pomp the noble affection of the patricians" of Granada who had financed it. The Granadans adorned the catafalque with black linens and designed its center to include two sections: one, on the bottom, displayed "a crimson pillow bordered with gold braid" containing a crown "as the sorrowful remains and pitiable relics of inexorable death." Above it, a hat decorated with gold and a baton with a handle of the same metal, "unmistakable signs of royal power," rested on another pillow.

At 5:00 on the morning of the twenty-ninth, an artillery company began to fire cannon salvos that would be repeated every half hour, throughout the day and the following night. At 8:00 in the morning, the leaders of the religious orders of the city, together with the parish priest, received some of the Granadan corporative bodies at the doors of the church: representatives of the ayuntamiento, the town elite, and members of the militia. Cannons fired volleys and soldiers presented military honors in the plaza. After mass, the priest delivered a memorial speech and then "reminded the people of the sublime virtues of the dead man, inspiring in all most tender feelings of submission and respect for the sacred personages of the kings."

The ceremony ended with a funeral oration, during which those present lit candles. According to Ximena, all of this sorrowful setting, full of the sights and sounds of bells and cannons, canticles, religious ceremony, military honors, and of course the catafalque, generated an atmosphere of sadness and mourning. In any event, those were the sensations the Granadan authorities intended to engender among those present.

With the king before his vassals, made present through the elaborate funeral bier, fragile and impotent in the face of death like any other worldly being, the organizers made an effort to compensate for his condition by extolling his virtues, his defense of the faith, or the grace he had achieved during his life. In this way, rituals of power were converted into means of diffusing such values through the community. Pedro Ximena himself stressed it: "The panegyric for the dead is a call to the living to see among the sad remains of death the final end of human greatness."

But the continuity of the monarchy had to be celebrated with a ritual that would emulate on a political level what occurred every year in the religious realm: the resurrection of Christ. The Granadan ayuntamiento, in coordination with militia officers, organized the oath-taking act, or "royal homage," to the new monarch, Charles IV, as well as the festivities that would accompany it, beginning on April 11, 1790. It is unclear why the city of Granada celebrated the oath-taking ceremony nearly a full year after the royal funeral; the decision probably depended on coordination among the different corporate bodies but especially on their budgets.

By edict, the organizers invited everyone in Granada, along with the Indians and ladinos of nearby towns, to prepare for the occasion. The royal standard-bearer ordered the construction of a kiosk near the town hall, which would sustain the portraits of Charles IV and his queen, especially painted by José Palavicini, a native of Lima and a Granadan resident. They were two full-length portraits, resembling, according to Ximena, "live images, if moving the eye closer to them did not distinguish reality from appearance." Both figures appeared seated "under a magnificent canopy, rugs and pillows at their feet." The king was painted with a scepter and crown of gold. The portraits and the pennant became the central images in the festivities (described below).

Once blessed in the parish church, the standard-bearer carried the royal pennant to a platform that had been constructed in the middle of the central plaza. Members of the ayuntamiento, royal officials, and Indian mayors formed the retinue that followed to the plaza, where they swore fealty to the new monarch, as the standard-bearer pronounced his name, fluttering the pennant at the sound of rounds fired by the artillerymen. According to custom, members of the ayuntamiento threw coins to the crowd as a sign of the generosity of the new monarch. Members of the militia then formed an honor guard around the portraits, and the standard-bearer placed the pennant in their midst. The celebration began immediately afterward and lasted for five days: parades, concerts, free beverages, dances, and nocturnal illumination turned the tranquility of Granada upside down. The most impressive religious ceremonies, the mass and the Te Deum, took place on April 12. Existing social hierarchies were reproduced inside the church itself during these ceremonies, as the most distinguished elements of the city positioned themselves in their respective seats. Militiamen and artillerymen fired volleys in honor of the new king.

Amid the uproar, the portraits were constantly honored. At a dramatization performed on the thirteenth, representing the subordination of Aztec and Inca power to the Hispanic monarchy, the men who played the roles of Moctezuma and an Inca king kissed the hands of the monarchs and knelt, depositing scepters and crowns at their feet. Militiamen dressed as battle-hardened Amazons did the same, kissing the hands of the royal portraits. Further, on the last day of the festivities the images, placed in a carriage, joined a procession, and thus their subjects brought them to life.

This media culture, typically baroque in the midst of a Bourbon era, deserves further analysis. Differentiating each of the corporate entities (ayuntamiento, militias, distinguished residents, Indian justices representing their towns, and religious orders) during the oath-taking ceremony demonstrated the social hierarchies and the "state," that is, the place of each and everyone in the social order. The oath-taking ceremony took place in the principal Granadan plaza, which symbolized the center of political and religious power as well as that of the Creole elite, whose homes were in fact concentrated around it.

A very Bourbon embellishment — the constant use of the militias, with their firearms and artillery — can be noted in both the funeral services and the oath-taking ceremony described by Ximena. It is what some have called, in terms of both symbolism and the media, the beginning of a "military hegemony" or the "militarization of society" brought to bear by the Bourbons. If the chiming of bells had previously marked political, religious, and daily life for American residents, in the eighteenth century the authorities began to regulate their use and, in part, to replace them with cannon thunder.

The multiple symbols seen in the oath-taking ceremony reveal a very syncretic culture, something not unique to Granada but typical of ceremonies celebrated throughout Hispanic America. The king, in addition to being identified with the sun ("You are the sun," "The sun will come out for you," read some of the notes tucked into the columns that held up the ephemeral architecture honoring the royal portraits), was also associated with the pantheon of Greek gods. He was Apollo, and the queen, María Luisa de Borbón, was identified with Diana. Still, as Thomas Calvo has observed about eighteenth-century Guadalajara, this connection was not innocuous; rather, it added the Bourbon seal to the rendering of tribute to the monarchs. If in the Hapsburg period the sovereigns were identified as Christ-like sun kings, in the eighteenth century they evoked the "Apollo of Versailles." "This mythological reference," added Calvo, "erased the providential aspect that until then was at the center of the contract between the Divinity and the Catholic monarchy."

Other symbols included the ship, representing the Hispanic monarchy, and the Aztec and Inca "nations," who in dramatized form submissively recognized the new monarchs "as their legitimate kings and natural lords." But none of those symbols was as important as the portrait and the pennant in representing the monarch, his power, and his relationship with his subjects. The portrait was a simulacrum of the king, that is, a reproduction, a copy of a copy of his person, since he himself never visited the Kingdom of Guatemala. All in all, that simulacrum embodied the royal monarch to the residents of Granada, to such a degree that his image was the object of constant veneration. Political propaganda focused on the image sought to make the subjects aware of who their sovereign was, and speeches and poems written for the occasion strengthened these strategies. One might suppose that these spoken and written complements to the mentioned imagery would have availed themselves of an absolutist style, given a reigning Bourbon dynasty that did not hesitate to legitimize monarchical authority over the "dominions of its colonies" in America through absolutist and regalist theories: kings, considered demigods, derived their power not from an agreement with the political community but directly from God, who also had entrusted them with the protection of the temporal and spiritual power of the Indies, without any intervention from Rome. Notwithstanding the inclusion of some ideas that could be considered absolutist, the oath-taking ceremony contained other elements identified with the pactist vision of power (see Rodríguez, this volume).


Excerpted from "Independence In Central America and Chiapas 1770–1823"
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Table of Contents

List of Maps,
Preface to the English Edition,
Acknowledgments for the Spanish Edition,
By Way of Introduction to Central American Independence: A Historical and Historiographical Overview, by Aaron Pollack,
Representing Sovereignty in Oath-Taking Ceremonies: The Kingdom of Guatemala, 1790–1812, by Sajid Alfredo Herrera Mena,
The Costa Rican Concordia Compact, 1821–1823: A Constitutionalist Perspective on Independence, by Pablo Augusto Rodríguez Solano,
Theaters of Power in 1821: Swearing Loyalty to Independence in the Province of Guatemala, by Xiomara Avendaño Rojas,
Bourbon Reforms and Enlightenment in Chiapas, 1758–1808, by Christophe Belaubre,
Local Powers and Popular Resistance in Nicaragua, 1808–1813, by Elizet Payne Iglesias,
Totonicapán, 1820: One of the Tips of the Iceberg? by Aaron Pollack,
The Myth of Bustamantine Terror, by Timothy Hawkins,
List of Contributors,

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