In Pre-Columbian times Quetzaltenango was a city of the Mam Maya people
called Xelajú, the name derived from "Xe laju' noj" meaning
"under ten mountains". The city was said to already be over
300 years old when the Spanish first arrived. Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado
defeated and killed Maya ruler Tecún Umán here. When Alvarado
conquered the city for Spain in the 1520s, he called it by the Nahuatl
name used by his Central Mexican Indian allies, "Quetzaltenango",
generally considered to mean "the place of the quetzal bird".
Quetzaltenango became the city's official name in colonial times. However,
many people (especially, but not only, the indigenous population) continue
to call the city "Xelajú" (pronounced shay-lah-WHO) or
more commonly Xela for short, and some proudly, but unofficially, consider
it the "capital of the Mayas".
From 1838 to 1840 Quetzaltenango was capital of the state of Los Altos,
one of the states or provinces of the Federal Republic of Central America.
As the union broke up, the army of Guatemala under Rafael Carrera conquered
Quetzaltenango making it again part of Guatemala.
In the 19th century, coffee was introduced as a major crop in the area
and the economy of Xela prospered. Much fine Belle Époque architecture
can still be found in the city.
In 1848, Quetzaltenango won its independence from Guatemala, becoming
the capital of "El Sexto Estado de los Altos". However, the
Guatemalan army crushed the movement after two years of independence.
Recently, the city has become a popular destination for foreign students
studying the Spanish language.
Some of the
most celebrated people in Guatemalan history were originally from Quetzaltenango
including Otto René Castillo, who is considered the most influential
writer in the country, President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who was overthrown
by the CIA in 1954, and Jesús Castillo, the best known marimba
composer in Guatemala and the world.