Guatemala City

views updated

Guatemala City

Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, whose 2002 population was estimated at 2.5 million. The New Guatemala of the Assumption, better known as Guatemala City, was founded officially in Ermita Valley on 2 January 1776 as the seat of the Realm of Guatemala. The former capital city of Antigua (Old Guatemala), situated 25 miles from the present capital, was destroyed by a series of earthquakes in 1773. The cooperation of all levels of society was needed to move the capital. One notable aspect of the move was the forced relocation of seventeen Indian settlements to the new city in order to provide it with a labor force and essential products. The landless mestizos rapidly populated the new city, and as of 1778 the city had a population of 10,841. In order to assist the development of an adequate infrastructure, the Spanish crown halted the collection of taxes from the new city for ten years. One of the principal tasks was to provide drinking water.

The rebuilding of the Guatemalan capital during the last days of the colonial era was motivated not only by the earthquakes that devastated the original city but also by Bourbon political reforms of the last half of the eighteenth century. However, because of strong church as well as popular opposition to the relocation and the lack of resources, the new city did not achieve the physical stature or population size of Santiago until well after independence. In its physical as well as social structure it imitated the urban centers of Spain. Political independence in 1821 brought no significant improvement in living conditions for the city's population. On the contrary, in 1829 the wars of the United Provinces of Central America were waged in its streets, and in 1834 the president of the United Provinces, Francisco Morazán, moved the seat to the city of San Salvador.

With the triumph of Rafael Carrera in 1838–1840, the city experienced a second period of modest growth and stability as capital, first of the state of Guatemala, and after 1847, of the republic of Guatemala. The cultivation of kermes and the export of cochineal and coffee had a favorable impact on the city's economy. Projects begun in colonial days, such as the cathedral, were finally completed. The national theater (Teatro Carrera) was also inaugurated during this period.

With the arrival of the Liberals to power in 1871 and the impetus of a thriving coffee economy, the number of public projects grew as the functions of the state administration were expanded to meet the demands of the country's growing industry. New methods of transportation in the city were introduced, such as the horse-drawn tramway and the urban rail system. President José María Reyna Barrios backed efforts to beautify the city through the construction of new buildings and avenues.

During the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920), Guatemala City experienced one of its worst disasters. In 1917–1918 it was almost totally destroyed by earthquakes. The poor were obliged to live in camps until the end of the 1920s. The ruin of the city was one of the factors contributing to the overthrow of Estrada Cabrera in April 1920. Subsequent governments applied themselves with little success to the task of rebuilding. The dictatorship of Jorge Ubico (1931–1944) initiated some of the most important infrastructural projects for the city, such as underground sewers. The present government palace was also built under Ubico.

The revolution of October 1944 brought about infrastructural development focused on athletic activities as well as new laws that encouraged people to rent houses in the city. Perhaps one of the most important urban reforms attempted in Guatemala in the twentieth century, the tenant law was stopped short by the counterrevolution of 1954. The earthquake of 4 February 1976, like the previous earthquakes, brought about changes and alterations in the city. Neighborhoods of low-cost housing grew due to the government's policy of selling inexpensive lots on which the victims of the disaster could build new homes. During Guatemala's thirty-six years of civil war, thousands of indigenous and peasant people fled to the city, constructing informal homes on the outskirts. Since then the growth of the city has been augmented by the concentration of industrial and state administrative centers. The original city occupied an area of approximately 3.5 square miles. As of the early 1990s it encompassed between 35 and 40 square miles. Besides its agreeable climate, one of the Guatemalan capital's strongest attractions is the natural beauty of the valley in which it is situated. Amid Guatemala's peace process (1994–1996), former mayor Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen won the presidency in 1996, owing to his constituents' decisive support. Following his term as president, Arzú returned to serve as the city's mayor from 2004 to 2007.

The city has a municipal development plan, "Guatemala 2020," that aims to improve transportation and revitalize the downtown, but it has experienced a recent crime wave, and, as is the case with many cities of Latin America, its deficiencies in public services are appreciable.

See alsoAntigua; Carrera, José Rafael; Coffee Industry; Mestizo.


As of 2007 a comprehensive history of Guatemala City remains to be written, but Gisela Gellert and J. C. Pinto Soria, Ciudad de Guatemala: Dos estudios sobre su evolución urbana (1524–1950) (1992), is a useful beginning. On the movement of the city from Antigua to its present location, see Inge Langenberg, Urbanisation und Bevölkerungsstruktur der Stadt Guatemala in der ausgehenden Kolonialzeit: Eine sozialhistorische Analyse der Stadtverlegung und ihrer Auswirkungen auf die demographische, berufliche, und soziale Gliederung der Bevölkerung (1773–1824) (1981), and her briefer summary, "La estructura urbana y el cambio social en la ciudad de Guatemala a fines de la época colonial (1773–1824)," in Stephen A. Webre, ed., La sociedad colonial en Guatemala: estudios regionales y locales (1989), pp. 221-249. See also María Cristina Zilbermann De Luján, Aspectos socioeconómicos del traslado de la Ciudad de Guatemala (1773–1783) (1987); and Pedro Pérez Valenzuela, La nueva Guatemala de la Asunción: Terremoto de Santa Marta, fundación en el Llano de la Virgen, 2 vols. (1964).

Additional Bibliography

Bastos, Santiago. Poderes y quereres: Historias de género y familia en los sectores populares de ciudad de Guatemala. Guatemala: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), 2000.

Camus, Manuela. Ser indígena en ciudad de Guatemala. Guatemala: Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), 2000.

Dym, Jordana, and Christophe Belaubre, eds. Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007.

Lida, Clara E., and Sonia Pérez Toledo. Trabajo, ocio y coacción: Trabajadores urbanos en México y Guatemala en el siglo XIX. México, D.F.: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2001.

Morán Mérida, Amanda. Condiciones de vida y tenencia de la tierra en asentamientos precarios de la Ciudad de Guatemala. Guatemala: Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 1997.

Myers, David J., and Henry A. Dietz., eds. Capital City Politics in Latin America: Democratization and Empowerment. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002.

                                Oscar PelÁez Almengor

                                      Gisela Gellert

About this article

Guatemala City

Updated About content Print Article