The Pipiles: Hanging on Time

The Pipiles arrived from central Mexico in about 600 A.D., most likely driven out by the dominant Toltecs. Given the similarity of place names, it is believed that the Pipiles originated in the current state of Puebla. The Pipiles are Nahuat-speaking people and some settled in coastal Guatemala and Nicaragua, as well as El Salvador. Some also settled in Honduras. Settled is a polite way of saying invaded – they were not welcomed by the Chortis and Lencas and entered by force. The Pipiles were the dominant political force in El Salvador for at least 400 years and took over the old Mayan ceremonial centers, adding a few monuments of their own. This lasted until about 1050 A.D., when a Quiche – Putun (Chol) – Aztec – Chorti coalition defeated the Pipiles and re-established Mayan control over the ceremonial centers. The Pipiles then concentrated themselves in Sonsonate around Izalco and in Nonualco, south of Lago Ilopango, Panchimalco with other Pipil villages spread throughout the country.

Early in their history, they became one of the few Mesoamerican indigenous groups to abolish human sacrifice. Otherwise, their culture was similar to that of their Aztec and Maya neighbors. Remains of Nahua culture are still found at ruins such as Tazumal (near Chalchuapa), San Andrés (northeast of Armenia), and Joya de Ceren (north of Colon). The Salvadoran variety, however, is endangered, and has already vanished elsewhere in Central America. The Spanish established Panchimalco as a village, and built its famous colonial church, one of the most important historical monuments in El Salvador. Its original construction date, circa 1725, make it the oldest surviving colonial structure in El Salvador. The church, consecrated to the Holy Cross of Rome, and bearing that name (Santa Cruz de Roma), has been damaged in the various earthquakes that have shaken El Salvador through the centuries, beginning with one registered in 1736.

The church consists of a single nave covered by a roof supported by 16 wooden beams. It contains an altar reredos done in the French baroque style, but its most well-known feature is its bleached white colonial façade. Like many colonial churches, it fronts a central square centered around a large cypress tree. The clay floor is not original, but marks a restoration completed in 1970. The church was declared a national historic monument by the Salvadoran congress on February 27, 1975. The first Spanish attempt to subjugate this area failed in 1524, when Pedro de Alvarado was forced to retreat by Pipil warriors. In 1525, he returned and succeeded in bringing the district under control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which retained its authority until 1821, despite an abortive revolution in 1811. It was Alvarado who named the district for “El Salvador” (The Savior). Panchimalco is known for its indigenous population and its festivities. Together with Izalco, Panchimalco is considered one of the last two remaining bastions of indigenous people or “Indians” in El Salvador.

Villagers still weave and wear colorful native textiles and maintain many indigenous traditions. However, the native language is not one of them. As of the last few years, no Nahuatl speakers remain in Panchimalco. The festivities held in Panchimalco are colorful and religious in nature. The Flower and Fronds Fair (Feria de las Flores y Palmas) celebrates the Virgin Mary devotion of the local Catholic church. The cofradías or “co-fraternities” are civic organizations in support of different church festivals, and they organize the various carnivals and celebrations. The procession of the Holy Cross of Rome is the town’s official Patronal festival. The dance of the Moors and Christians is an odd vestige of a tradition brought over by the Spaniards, which celebrates a Spanish victory over Muslim invaders during the Dark Ages. Each year the village celebrates its two patronesses, The Virgin of the Rosary and the Virgin of the Conception, just as the region welcomes its long lush rainy season. The Blessed Virgin in both her manifestations can be saluted and adorned with local springtime flowers.

Boy plays "Las Chamcacas" at holy festival in El Salvador

Customarily the fronds wave over the statues of the patron saint like the plumage of supernatural birds. La Capitana, a leading woman in the village, takes charge of the Virgin of the Conception statue, with a holy vigil through the night. At 4am the music begins and both groups meet before the church, winding through the streets and returning for a special mass.

The name of Panchimalco Indian Village means ‘sight of flags and shields’ in the Nahuat language, which is the native language of El Salvador. The location of the village has been important since the pre-Colombian times. Panchimalco is a site protected by UNESCO and is located just below the rock formation known as “La Puerta del Diablo”.

Class of Pipil Nahuatl

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5 Responses to The Pipiles: Hanging on Time

  1. akamonsoon says:

    Beautiful costumes and very interesting history!

  2. Rosalilian Alvarez says:

    Thank you , for sharing such a beautiful post of my native land El Salvador.

  3. Hollie Pipiles says:

    I took Interest in this. Trying to find out more about my family history. My great grandparents came to America from Greece, so it makes me question if they originated there or not.

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