After the Conquest by the Spanish in 1697, many Indians in Petén fled to the forest. Others, including non-Itza', were congregated in mission towns. By the twentieth century, San José and nearby San Andrés were the only towns in northern Petén with significant numbers of residents who spoke a Mayan language. Early in the twentieth century, a group of Itza' fleeing political repression settled in the town of Soccotz, just across the border in Belize. There were a number of Mayan-speaking people living in villages and ranches surrounding Lake Petén Itza'. Almost all these groups, however, have assimilated to Hispanic-Ladino culture. Today, San José is the only town in Petén that maintains its Itza' identity.
San José is a crowded, nucleated town climbing up the steep hillsides from the shores of Lake Petén Itza'. Traditional houses are rectangular, made of wattle and daub with thatched roofs. Houses are internally divided by framed cloth partitions into a central living area with sleeping quarters on the sides. External kitchens are smaller buildings of the same construction. Cement-block, tin-roofed construction is increasingly common.