Los Altos

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Los Altos

Los Altos, a region in western Guatemala, bounded on the north and west by Mexico and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. The Sierra Madre crosses the region from northwest to southeast, producing a great deal of geographic and climatic diversity. The surface elevations of its area of 9,200 square miles range from near sea level to more than 12,000 feet in the northern uplands of the Cuchumatanes; its fertile mountain valleys, at altitudes of about 8,000 feet, have been home since pre-Columbian days to a dense population of Maya descent. Its population, estimated to be about 3.5 million in 1990, is about 40 percent of the national total.

When the Spaniards arrived in 1524, Los Altos was dominated by four distinct and warring ethnic states: the Mam, the K'iche', the Kaqchikels, and the Tz'utujils. After a bloody and protracted war, Pedro de Alvarado finally imposed Spanish rule in 1528. Following his death, the region functioned as the alcaldía mayor of Zapotitlán, a subdivision of the Audiencia of Guatemala. Crown officials and missionaries were charged with consolidating Spanish political-military and spiritual control over the area and, more important, with collecting the royal tribute from the conquered communities.

Devoid of mineral and agricultural wealth, Los Altos attracted relatively few Spanish colonists. Thus, left relatively unmolested, its Mayan communities were able to recover successfully from the demographic disaster that accompanied the Conquest. Most continued to engage in subsistence agriculture and textile weaving on their communal lands.

The Bourbon Reforms of the eighteenth century substantially altered this traditional pattern. The indigo boom of the latter half of the century integrated the region into the expanding Central American economic network. Attracted by the growing commercial opportunities in cloth and food staples, new Spanish as well as mestizo colonists established themselves in the area, often at the expense of indigenous land and labor. As a result, urban centers such as Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán became dynamic centers of economic and, later, political activity.

By the early nineteenth century, these new colonists had consolidated their hold on the region. Quetzaltenango, the most prosperous village, became the focus of a vigorous regionalist movement whose chief goal was to secure for Los Altos greater political and economic autonomy vis-à-vis the financial and administrative control of the capital. Led by the Quetzalteco patricians, the efforts of Los Altos finally crystallized in 1838, when the region became the sixth state of the Central American Federation. The Federation collapsed, however, and the area was forcibly reintegrated into Guatemala by the Conservative dictator Rafael Carrera in 1840. Following Carrera's temporary ouster in 1848, the region again seceded, but the movement was easily suppressed by an army under the orders of the Liberal government in Guatemala City. In 1871 Los Altos General Justo Rufino Barrios led the revolution that restored the Liberals to power in Guatemala for the next seventy years. Barrios became Guatemalan dictator in 1873 and proceeded to develop the economic infrastructure of Los Altos as well as to encourage the cultivation of coffee, the new cash crop destined to become the mainstay of the nation's economy. The piedmont area of Los Altos remains an important coffee-producing region.

Juan José Arévalo's revolution of 1944 tried to relieve the plight of the indigenous people, but despite numerous decrees, the Liberal land tenure system remained intact. Under Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1951–1954), thousands of acres were distributed among peasants, vagrancy laws were abolished, and a national syndicate of peasants was organized.

In 1954, however, those gains were lost to a military coup which restored to power the Liberal land-owning elite, who were this time allied with the military. While paying lip service to reform, the new regimes continued to dispossess peasants and encourage the growth of large agro-export enterprises. Organized resistance has been met with brutal repression by the army.

See alsoBourbon Reforms; Guatemala; Indigenous Peoples; Maya, The; Quetzaltenango.


Hazel Ingersoll, "The War of the Mountain" (Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1972).

Carol Smith, The Domestic Marketing System in Western Guatemala (1972).

Jorge H. González, "Una historia de Los Altos, el sexto estado de la federación centroamericana" (M.A. thesis, Tulane University, 1989).

George Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatán Highlands, 1500–1821 (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Benítez Porto, Oscar Rodolfo. Guatemala y el estado de los altos: Estudio histórico-político. Guatemala: s.n., 1998.

Lutz, Christopher. Territorio y sociedad en Guatemala: Tres ensayos históricos. Guatemala: Centro de Estudios Urbanos y Regionales, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 1991.

Taracena Arriola, Arturo. Invención criolla, sueño ladino, pesadillo indígena: Los Altos De Guatemala: De región a Estado, 1740–1850. Antigua, Guatemala: Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, San José, Costa Rica: Porvenir, 1997.

                                     Jorge H. GonzÁlez

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