The smallest and most mysterious of Guatemala’s four main ethnic groups is the Xinka, a non-Mayan indigenous community that dominated the southeastern part of the country between 900 and 1100 AD. Before the arrival of the Spanish, Xinka territory spanned from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the fertile highlands of Jalapa. Though linguistic similarities have been demonstrated between Xinka and Aztec languages, most scholars agree that the Xinka first emigrated along the Pacific Coast from the South American Andes Mountains. Physical evidence for this theory includes the discovery of rafts made from juncus plants only native to Peru and Bolivia. Regardless of their origin, the Xinka enjoyed a peaceful relationship with the Maya until the appearance of the Spanish conquistadors in 1524. Once the Spaniards arrived, they did not spare the Xinka from their efforts to subjugate Guatemala’s native peoples.
The Xinka got their first taste of Spanish conquest in May of 1524. This year, Pedro de Alvarado arrived with an army of more than 6,000 to the Xinka stronghold of Atiquipaque, which is located near present-day Taxisco. Despite fierce resistance, the Spaniards conquered Atiquipaque and several other nearby Xinka cities. It was not for another 50 years, however, that pesky Xinka rebellions a1nd guerrilla attacks were finally crushed once and for all. The Spanish soon enslaved the Xinka and forced many of them to travel east to help the Spanish army conquer El Salvador. The town of Los Esclavos (the slaves) near the city of Cuilapa in the department of Santa Rosa owes its name to this event.
Though as many as 200,000 people still self-identify as Xinka in Guatemala, much of their culture has been lost to the gradual incursion of the Spanish language. It was until recently thought that the Xinka language was doomed to extinction. However, efforts to promote Xinka pride and culture increased after 1995, when the Xinka people were recognized as one of Guatemala’s four main ethnic groups. As few as 200 elders still speak Xinka, a language that is being urgently documented before it disappears altogether. It is unlikely that any significant population will ever speak it as a maternal language again. Today, small pockets of Xinka can be found throughout the eastern departments of Guatemala in small communities near Chiquimula, San Juan Tecuaco, Santa María Ixhuatán, Guazacapán, Jumaytepeque, Taxisco, and Yupiltepeque.
This entry was originally written by author Eric Larson for Qué Pasa, a magazine based in Antigua Guatemala