The quetzal became symbolic to the indigenous cultures of Mexico and of Central America from their very beginnings. The Toltec, Aztec, and Maya recognized the bird for its beauty, grace, and singularity of form. Its feathers, used prominently in the royal headdresses of the kings and nobles, became the most valued objects of those cultures and other pre-Hispanic groups. The word "k’uk," which means quetzal in ancient Maya, was incorporated into the names of various Mayan kings and nobles. One of the most famous of these kings was Yax K’uk Mo’ (First Quetzal Macaw), who came from one of the Mayan city-states to the west, perhaps Quirigua or Tikal, and founded Copán.
The Republic of Guatemala uses the resplendent quetzal as a symbol for cultural and national identity and prominently features the bird on its national emblem, identifying the Republic as a free nation and unifying its various peoples and communities. After the Liberal Revolution of 1871, the image of the quetzal was incorporated into the national coat of arms and flag. References to the bird are peppered throughout Guatemala's national anthem, in which the quetzal is compared with the condor and the royal eagle and is described as a palladium or protector of the soil.
The word "quetzal" has been used in many place names. For example, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest and most important city, was the site of the seminal battle between the troops of Pedro de Alvarado and Tecún Umán, leader of the Maya. Quetzaltenango means “The place inhabited by many quetzals,” and the flag of the city includes a resplendent quetzal in a tree.