Antigua (La Antigua Guatemala)

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Antigua (La Antigua Guatemala)

The appellation came into being several years after devastating earthquakes in July and December of 1773 forced Spanish crown officials, over church and local opposition, to move the capital of Spanish Central America from Antigua, then known as Santiago de Guatemala, to the present site of Guatemala City.

Capital of the audiencia of Guatemala from 1541 to 1773 (for all but several short periods) and the most important city of the region, Antigua was conceived out of natural disaster. Santiago en Almolonga, its predecessor, was founded in 1527 on the lower northern slopes of the dormant Agua volcano. As the first permanent capital of Guatemala it lasted but fourteen years. In early September 1541, after three days of heavy rain, a mudslide exploded down the steep slopes of Agua, largely destroying the settlement's Spanish core.

Within months of the destruction of the old city (known as Ciudad Vieja), and after much debate, local authorities decided on a location in the Panchoy Valley, about 3 miles north of Santiago en Almolonga. By late 1541, the city's cabildo (city council) had begun to supervise laying out the new city.

All of the Indian slaves and many naborias (dependent servants) held by the city's Spanish vecinos (citizens) were freed in 1549–1550 by order of the audiencia president, Alonso López De Cerrato, as part of his efforts to enforce the New Laws, promulgated by Spain in 1542. Angry at losing their labor force to emancipation, Santiago's Spanish vecinos were further incensed when the religious orders persuaded large numbers of these freedmen and their families to establish barrios in the shelter of their monasteries, on the perimeter of the Spanish city.

Thus, within a decade of its founding, Santiago had a Spanish core abutted on three sides by Indian communities. It was a microcosm of the Spanish ideal of "two republics," whereby Spaniards and Indians lived and worked beside each other while maintaining separate statuses and social identities. However, because the Indians, highly vulnerable to Old World diseases, began to decline drastically and were seen as incapable of hard labor, small numbers of African slaves were introduced into Spanish Central America before 1550. Confined at first to rural mines and sugar plantations, black, and later mulatto, slaves were brought to Santiago's Spanish households.

Due to the shortage of Spanish women, the Spanish community absorbed a number of Indian women. It also admitted some casta (mixed) offspring, especially legitimate children of both sexes and illegitimate mestizas (female offspring of Indian—Spanish unions). Mestizos not taken into the Spanish community either retained the casta status or entered the Indian group.

By the 1560s and 1570s, free castas, free blacks, and even poor Spaniards began to spill into the Indian barrios adjoining the Spanish city. Such intrusions led to Indian displacement, Indian-casta unions, and an increased likelihood of either Indian Hispanization or flight to rural areas to escape both tribute payment and the onerous labor obligations associated with Indian tributary status. These factors, combined with the impact of epidemic disease, resulted in the decline of Indian tributary populations and barrio self-rule.

Santiago in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a large urban center of over 30,000 inhabitants. It had a large multiethnic artisan population and served as a center for both the distribution of imported trade goods and the collection and sale of Indian tribute items for crown and individual encomenderos (recipients of Indian tribute). Santiago also served as an entrepôt for the export trade in cacao, hides, tobacco, and indigo.

Antigua has enjoyed a varied existence since its destruction in 1773. During the late eighteenth century (and later), its colonial ruins served as a source of architectural details (doors, grills, etc.) for the buildings of the new capital and elsewhere; its crumbling walls, as a source of saltpeter for making gunpowder. In the early nineteenth century, Antigua was one of Guatemala's main centers of cochineal production. By the 1850s, the city and its fertile surrounding lands began to be intensively devoted to coffee production.

Despite the post-1773 dismemberment of Antigua's colonial architectural heritage and the important role of coffee cultivation, the city in recent decades has been recognized by regional and international bodies as a cultural monument worthy of preservation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Antigua a World Heritage Site in 1979. Set amid spectacular natural surroundings, its numerous colonial ruins, public buildings, and houses rebuilt in the colonial style have made Antigua a tourist center and a magnet for a sizable resident foreign community. The 2002 census reported 19,938 residents in the city of Antigua and 41,097 in the broader municipal.

See alsoEarthquakes .


Important and accessible studies on Antigua's architectural history are Sidney David Markman, Colonial Architecture of Antigua Guatemala (1967).

Verle L. Annis, The Architecture of Antigua Guatemala, 1543–1773 (1968). Antigua's social and population histories are analyzed in Christopher H. Lutz, Santiago de Guatemala, 1541–1773: City, Caste, and the Colonial Experience (1994). Important aspects of the city's sixteenth- and seventeenth-century socioeconomic and political elite history are covered in Pilar Sanchiz Ochoa, Los hidalgos de Guatemala: Realidad y apariencia en un sistema de valores (1976).

Stephen A. Webre, "The Social and Economic Bases of Cabildo Membership in Seventeenth Century Santiago de Guatemala," (Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 1980). The destruction and move of the capital city are described in María Cristina Zilbermann De Luján, Aspectos socioeconómicos del traslado de la Ciudad de Guatemala (1773–1783) (1987). Manuel Rubio Sánchez, Monografía de la ciudad de Antigua Guatemala (1989), is one of the few studies to adequately consider the city's history after the 1773 earthquake and the move of the capital to what is now Guatemala City.

Additional Bibliography

Alvarez P., Rafael V. Terremotos en Antigua: Secuencias y secuelas. Guatemala: s.n., Centro Editorial Vile, 2001.

Little, Walter E. Mayas in the Marketplace: Tourism, Globalization, and Cultural Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Santos Pérez, J. Manuel. Élites, poder local y régimen colonial: El cabildo y los regidores de Santiago de Guatemala, 1700–1787. South Woodstock: Plumsock Mesoamerican Studies, 1999.

                                     Christopher H. Lutz