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LOCATION: Guatemala
POPULATION: 13,002,206
LANGUAGE: Spanish and several Amerindian languages.
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism with ancient Mayan beliefs; Protestantism


More than 1,000 years before the coming of the Spanish, the Mayas established a number of city-states in what is now Guatemala. The largest of these, Tikal, covered 26 sq km (10 sq mi) and included some 200 major stone structures, including high-rise temples and palaces. By ad 1000, however, the Mayan cities had been abandoned, and it is said the majority of the indigenous population had moved to the highlands. Soon after Spanish troops conquered Mexico in 1521, they moved south and subdued the native inhabitants. For the next three centuries the captaincy-general of Guatemala was the center of government for most of Central America. The captaincy-general won its independence from Spain in 1821. Guatemala seceded from the resulting federation of the United Provinces of Central America in 1839.

José Rafael Carrera, a conservative, ruled Guatemala from 1838 to 1871. Carrera first appointed himself as the military arbiter of the state and then, in 1854, the presidency was conferred to him for life. However, in 1871 Miguel García Granados and Justo Rufino Barrios ended the conservative regime imposed by Carrera and inaugurated a prolonged liberal period in Guatemalan history.

Justo Rufino Barrios, a liberal, ruled from 1873 to 1885. During his term many indigenous communities lost their lands, which were developed into coffee and banana plantations. During Barrios's administration and later after the Guatemalan aristocracy lost power, the Roman Catholic Church was brought under civil control, and heavy investment in national infrastructure yielded roads, railways, and telegraph lines. In addition, Barrios opened the country to foreign capitals and fomented the cultivation of coffee, a commodity that became the principal export of Guatemala.

In 1898, Manuel Estrada Cabrera became provisional president and, after repeated reelections, maintained himself in power until 1920. Estrada Cabrera continued Barrios's developmental policies, and the country enjoyed economy growth. However, the first decades of the 20th century were marked by political and social instability because of the unequal distribution of wealth. In this dire context, the army decided to intervene. In 1931, General Jorge Ubico —known among Guatemalans as "the father"—seized power. Even though the economy improved during Ubico's term, socio-economic inequality remained unsolved. In 1944, social discontent led to a general strike forcing Ubico to resign. The social crisis experienced by the Guatemalan society opened political space for the reorganization of political parties and other social movements. In this context, Juan José Arévalo, who was elected president in 1944, came to represent popular claims for social justice and reform.

Jacobo Arbenz, another social-oriented military officer, was elected in 1951 to succeed Arévalo. In 1954 the Arbenz's government, considered pro-Communist by the United States, was overthrown with help from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Leftist guerrilla groups organized to oppose the right-wing military-dominated and U.S.-backed governments that subsequently ruled the country. In this context, a violent conflict broke in Guatemala in the 1960s and lasted until 1996, when the peace agreements were signed. The death toll of the civil war has been estimated to be between 130,000 and 200,000. Political violence also resulted in 50,000 "disappearances," 1 million internally displaced persons, 100,000 refugees, and 200,000 orphaned children. The root causes of the conflict can be traced to economic policies that marginalized the impoverished indigenous population, especially by restricting their access to land. These policies were implemented by a series of authoritarian and military regimes that were run by the nation's economic elites.

One of the strongest voices calling to end the war came from inside the country. A Quiché woman, Rigoberta Menchù, who had lost her father in the civil war, campaigned internationally against national reconciliation and for the respect for indigenous rights. In 1993 Mechù was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming an icon for ending violence in Guatemala. When the peace agreements were signed, with the participation of the United Nations, the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) was established to shed light on human rights violations related to the armed conflict. In 1999, the CEH's report acknowledged that between the years 1981 and 1983, the army identified Mayans as the internal enemy and concluded that the acts of the Guatemalan state against the Mayan people amounted to genocide.

In 2006 Guatemala entered into the Dominican Republic– Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States. A year later, Álvaro Colom, representing the National Union for Hope won the elections, campaigning to improve public education and healthcare, especially in rural areas. Despite national and international efforts to improve Guatemalans' living standards, distribution of income has remained highly unequal with about 56% of the population below the poverty line.


Guatemala is slightly larger than the U.S. state of Tennessee. It is bounded by Mexico on the north and west, by the Pacific Ocean on the south, and by Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador on the east. Eastern Guatemala also has a small Caribbean Sea coastline. The southern half of the country is mountainous, except along the Pacific coast. Some 33 mountains are volcanic, and the area is also subject to earthquakes. The northern third of the country consists of lowland rain forest.

Guatemala had a population of about 13 million people in 2007, making it the most populous country in Central America. The population was divided about evenly between Amer-indians and ladinos, a term applied to those who have adopted the Spanish language, dress, and lifestyle, regardless of race. Ladinos may be of pure Amerindian ancestry but are more often mestizos, people of mixed Amerindian and European descent. About 1% of the populations are of purely European ancestry. Blacks, along the Caribbean coast, make up perhaps another 1% of the population.


Spanish is the official language of Guatemala. Guatemalan Spanish is carefully enunciated and formal, even old-fashioned at times, with an emphasis on politeness and respect. Some words are of Amerindian origin. Many Amerindians speak Spanish poorly or not at all. Indigenous men are more likely to know Spanish than are women, and younger people more often speak Spanish than do older ones. There are 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, the principal ones being Quiché, Cakchiquel, Kekchí, and Mam. Carib is spoken along the Caribbean coast by the Garifunas, or Black Caribs, the descendants of fugitive slaves and Carib Amerindians. Because of this idiomatic diversity, many official documents, such as those related to the peace agreement of 1996 that ended the civil war, were written in Spanish as well as in more than 20 types of Mayan dialects.


Guatemala's folklore is based on Amerindian cultural beliefs as well as old traditions brought by the Spanish conquerors. According to Quiché legend, for example, the first four humans were made of corn paste into which the Heart of Heaven breathed life. To assure good growing weather before spring planting, the seed is blessed at a special planting. The night before the planting, the men burn incense in the fields and sprinkle the ground with a brew made from fermented sugarcane, while the women pray at home before lighted candles. In the morning, women go to the fields with food for the sowers and place their candles at points representing the four winds.

The shaman (Mayan priest) is a man or woman credited with being able to mediate with the unknown forces that govern human destiny, to predict the future, and to cast spells. He or she is also a healer (curandero) who practices herbal medicine.

The Amerindians of Central America believe that every person has an animal counterpart called the nagual who shares his or her destiny. Tecùn Umán, a heroic Quiché warrior who, according to legend, was slain by Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish leader, had for his nagual the colorful quetzal, Guatemala's increasingly rare national bird.

Particular places serve as shrines for particular gods. The Amerindians of Alta Verapaz, for example, are careful when approaching a hot spring to leave kindling beside it for the god who boils the water. In return, it is hoped, the god will not cause fever by heating the Amerindian's blood.


Some 67% to 80% of all Guatemalans are Roman Catholic. Within this faith, however, the Amerindians have preserved ancient Mayan beliefs. Their gods, who govern aspects of life like weather and crops, are worshipped under the guise of saints; Jesus and Mary, for example, are identified with the Sun God and Moon Goddess, and the cross is associated with the Four Winds of Heaven. Cofradías (brotherhoods), rather than Catholic priests, are in charge of the religious life of an Amer-indian community. Fiestas are the major form of public worship and sometimes conform to the 260-day Mayan religious calendar. Worship is orthodox among ladinos, but routine church attendance is often not possible because of a shortage of priests. Most priests in Guatemala are foreigners.

Perhaps 25% to 33% of the population is Protestant. Protestant missionaries, generally with ties to organizations in the United States, have been very active in Guatemala since the 1880s. Both mainline denominations and evangelical or fundamentalist groups are represented. Protestants are critical of folk Christianity and especially deplore the drunkenness that accompanies fiestas.


Pilgrims from all over Central America come to Esquipulas on January 15 to worship at the shrine of the Black Christ, a sculpted balsam-wood image, 1.5 m (5 ft) high, whose dark color resembled the complexion of the Amerindians before smoke generated by candles and incense turned it black. A temple, completed in 1758, houses the effigy, which is girdled in white satin, embroidered with gold, and laden with jewels. Also important is the pilgrimage on February 2 to the village church in Chiantla, famous for its silver image of the Virgin Mary.

For size and scope, Antigua's Holy Week (late March or early April) pageantry is unrivaled in Latin America. Events reach a climax with a Passion procession on the morning of Good Friday. A bright carpet of flowers and dyed sawdust lines the route. Chichicastenango celebrates December 21, the day of St. Thomas, with a weeklong fiesta marked by ritual dances of the Quiché and the Palo Volador, in which costumed men dangle by ropes from an 18-m-high (60-ft-high) maypole.

The Garifuna of the Caribbean celebrate their arrival in Guatemala with Yuriman, a simulation of the first farm plant- ings, in Lívingston each May 13–15. Singing, dancing, and hand clapping accompany this festival. Like the other nations of Central America (except Panama), Guatemala celebrates September 15 as Independence Day to commemorate the region's declaration of independence from Spain in 1821.


In Guatemala's villages, both a midwife and a brujo attend a child's birth, the latter to pray for long life and good health and protection against the evil eye, which can be cast on children by a stranger or a blue-eyed person. A breech delivery or one with an umbilical cord around the neck is considered a sign of good fortune. Baptism is the only Church sacrament in which Amerindians normally partake. An attendant godmother and godfather are essential to the ceremony. Amerindian babies are carried on their mother's back and breast-fed whenever hungry. Children wear clothing identical to their parents and are put to work at an early age.

In conservative ladino society, group boy-girl activities begin at about age 14, but real dating does not begin until later. A girl's 15th birthday indicates that she has come of age and calls for a special celebration. A boy's coming of age is recognized when he turns 18. A young man still asks a girl's father for her hand in marriage. Engagements of several years are common.

Although actual arranged marriages, with no say by the prospective partners, are rare among Amerindians, a youth's father may seek out a tertulero, or matchmaker, to find him a suitable bride—a girl under 16. Once an arrangement is reached, the young man provides a dowry. There is a betrothal feast, and there may be a marriage ceremony performed by a village priest if available, followed by a feast.

At Amerindian funerals the Mayan priest spins the coffin at the grave to fool the devil and point the deceased's spirit toward heaven. Yellow is the color of mourning, so yellow blossoms are hung in the form of a cross on the grave, with accompanying candles burning. Food is placed at the head of the grave for the spirit of the departed. Amerindians toll church bells for the dead to acquire merit with the gods.


In Hispanic countries, when people stop to greet each other there will probably be some physical contact as well as words exchanged. Both acquaintances and friends generally shake hands when meeting and parting. Men may pat each other on the back, and women often embrace and kiss each other on one or both cheeks. Men and women will generally do so only if they are relatives. When talking or simply standing or sitting in a public place, people tend to come closer to one another than in the United States. When talking, people may gesture more than in the United States and even touch the other person on the arm or shoulder for emphasis. Family and friends will drop in on each other, especially on Sundays and holidays. These are brief, informal stops.


In 1990 it was estimated that the poorer half of the population was receiving only 60% of its daily minimum caloric requirements. Infant mortality is high with 27 children out of 1,000 births dying during the first month of life. Gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments take a heavy toll because of poorsanitation as well as poor nutrition. In rural areas, few people have access to drinkable water.

Perhaps the main feature that characterizes Guatemalan society is the economic and social gap among its inhabitants. Guatemalan urban elites have access to a good quality of life, having access to e-mails, cell phones, beepers, and computers, while in the rural areas indigenous inhabitants still conserve pre-Colombian patterns of daily life.

Because of rural overpopulation, the urban areas have swelled with migrants, many of them in illegal squatter settlements. Peasants mostly live in two-room, dirt-floor adobe structures or ones that use poles for walls. The roofs are made of palm leaves, straw, or tiles. Their small farm plots may be several hours' walk away.

Guatemala's road network is not extensive and, especially in mountainous areas, the roads are seldom paved. Most people rely on secondhand buses—formerly U.S. school buses—for more than purely local transportation. Automobiles range from old, patched-up Japanese models to the luxury cars of the elite.


Guatemala's families are close-knit and generally the only dependable source of help in a society where church and state have a limited impact on daily life. Among ladinos, the nuclear family of father, mother, and children is most common, but a moderately prosperous household often includes other relatives and servants or orphaned children. The extended family forms the basis of the Amerindian community. Amerindians rarely take mates outside their own linguistic group and village. Recently married couples typically live with the husband's parents.

Despite Guatemala's rapid population growth and the resulting division of land into ever-smaller plots, children are greatly desired, especially among Amerindians. During the late 1980s, the average number of births per woman completing her childbearing years was almost six. Ideally, a ladino woman does not work outside the home, but economic necessity has forced many to do so. Amerindian women tend gardens and household animals. Many earn cash by handicrafts or, in the city, domestic work.


The clothing of many ladinos is similar to that of modern Westerners, but almost every Amerindian community has its own style of dress. Indeed, an individual's village can be identified by the design of the cloth. It is estimated that there are at least 325 major patterns in the traditional dress that is still everyday garb—particularly among women—in Amerindian villages. These are hand-woven articles made on pre-Spanish looms or foot-powered treadle looms introduced by the Spanish.

However, traditional clothing is worn more frequently by women than men, and more often by poorer Guatemalans in general. Western-style dress is more frequent among people with a higher standing in their communities. Lately, secondhand clothing from the United States, sold at bargain prices, has become popular. It is not uncommon to see traditional garments worn together with a college tee shirt.

The typical dress of Amerindian women usually includes a huipil, which is a smock-style blouse; a skirt with a belt; a tzute (scarf or headdress); and a rebozo (shawl). Men may wear brightly colored trousers and a shirt with a belt or sash, a tunic or vest, a jacket, a straw hat, a shoulder bag called a morral, and sandals (Amerindian women normally go barefoot). Most Amerindian men, however, now wear manufactured clothing largely indistinguishable from their ladino counterparts.


Guatemalan food is generally simple and not highly spiced. Corn tortillas, rice, beans, tamales, and plantains are the staples. Tortillas and black beans are served at every meal. A classic method of preparing meats is to cook them in water before adding sauce or seasonings. An essential seasoning of Mayan foods is squash seed toasted and ground to a powder. Coffee is lighter and more watery than the brew Americans and Europeans are used to drinking.


Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 7 and 13, but enforcement is lax in rural areas, and one out of every five children of those ages was not enrolled in school in 1991. Many do not complete the primary-school cycle because they must work to help their families. The adult literacy rate was only 55% in 1990. Amerindians are at a particular disadvantage since Spanish is not their mother tongue.

Six years of secondary school can lead either to a university education or specialized job training. There are six universities. Chief of these is the State University of San Carlos, in Guatemala City. The constitution guarantees it autonomy and not less than 5% of the national budget. The university, which charges no tuition, has more than 50,000 students, many of whom must work part-time while pursuing their studies. Most of the private universities are in Guatemala City, including the Francisco Marroquín University. The private Universidad Rural is based in Chimaltenango.


Native music developed from a blend of Spanish and Amer-indian influences. But, Guatemala is better known for its traditional dances, which are often a kind of musical drama that recalls a historical event with the use of costumes and masks. These are performed at fiestas in honor of the local saint. The Deer Dance symbolizes the struggle between humans and animals. The Dance of the Conquest recalls the victory of the Spanish over the Amerindians.

Tikal and other monumental sites are testimony to the architectural accomplishments of the Maya. The Spanish influence can be found in colonial-era churches, sculptures, and paintings. Guatemala's best-known 20th-century painter is Carlos Mérida.

The Maya had the most advanced system of writing in the Americas among indigenous peoples. A Spanish priest, Francisco Ximénez, translated the rarest and most sacred book of the Quiché, the Popol Vuh, in 1680. This work is a treasure-trove of Mayan beliefs and practices. Because of the heavy hand of the Inquisition, the first history of Guatemala, written by Antonio de Remesal and published in 1619, was ordered "thrown to the stables." Even Don Quixote had to be smuggled into the colony. Rafael Landival, a Jesuit, wrote the poem Rusticatio Mexicana while in exile in Italy. This was the outstanding Guatemalan work of the colonial era. Famous authors of the 19th century include Jose Batres y Montùfar and José Milla y Vidaurre. Enrique Gómez Carillo (1873–1927) was a novelist and poet. The novelist and poet Miguel Ángel Asturias received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967.


Ladinos tend to become shopkeepers, government employees, or laborers in private industries. The fincas, or large plantations, employ both ladinos and Amerindians for seasonal labor during the harvest. The sizable part of the population outside the modern economy continues to till small plots for subsistence, supplemented by income from handicrafts and seasonal plantation work. Many migrants to the cities, unable to find employment, take to street vending. It was estimated in 1992 that 46% of the labor force was unemployed or underemployed. The minimum wage was under $3 a day in 1994.


Soccer is a national passion, played even in the most traditional and remote Amerindian villages. Guatemala City has the largest soccer stadium in Central America.


Fiestas continue to provide popular entertainment and to reflect much of the creative life of the people. They all include music and dance, eating and drinking, and fireworks. Cinemas, found only in the major cities, mostly play U.S. films dubbed or subtitled in Spanish. Television fare includes dubbed U.S. programs and variety shows and telenovelas (soap operas) imported from Mexico and Venezuela.

Guatemala is the heartland of marimba music. Almost every town has a marimba orchestra, which includes the accompaniment of a brass band, and no wedding is complete without marimba music. The repertoire includes many Mexican numbers. Amerindians employ other instruments for their rites, including the pre-Conquest drum and flute.


Guatemala's handspun and woven textiles are among the finest in the world. Made by highland Amerindians, they display brilliant colors and intricate designs, both in the form of raw cloth and finished garments. Cotton, wool, and silk are the traditional fibers for clothing, although acrylics have been introduced. Blankets and rugs are also made from these fibers, while hats, mats, hammocks, and baskets are made with different types of cane and reed as well as fibers from the maguey cactus. Ceramics are produced both by pre-Conquest methods, molding clay by hand and using natural clays and dyes, and with the potter's wheel and glazes and enamels introduced from Spain. Jade jewelry dates from ancient times. Wood-crafted products include traditional masks, carved squash gourds, and colonial-style doors and furniture.


About 2% of the population owns some 70% of the cultivable land. About 65% of the original forest cover has been destroyed, and about 30% of the land is eroded or seriously degraded. Only 33% of the population has regular access to health services. Domestic violence occurs but receives little attention. The labor code makes legal strikes difficult, and women, usually found in low-wage jobs, are paid significantly less than are men. These statistics explain why more than half of Guatemalans live under the poverty line.


In 1954, only educated women were given the right to vote, while male suffrage was universal. The vast majority of women from rural areas—especially indigenous women, who were illiterate—were denied the right to vote for the next 20 years.

Throughout two decades of political violence, women accounted for 23% of the cases of execution and 12% of the "disappearances" that were a consequence of the state's counterinsurgency policy between 1978 and 1996. In 1984, women searching for their "disappeared" family members formed the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), while other women, such as Rigoberta Menchù (Nobel Peace Prize 1992) and Helen Mack (Right Livelihood Award 1994) stood out for their individual fights for justice.

In 2007, 34.6% of illiterates in the country were women, of whom approximately 60% were indigenous in rural areas. In some communities, female illiteracy is as high as 90%. Higher dropout rates are found in rural areas among indigenous girls who are required to do heavy domestic work when they are very young. In terms of access to social services, employment, and salaries, women continue to labor under severe disadvantages as compared to men.

In addition to exclusion in education and labor, Guatemalan women suffer high levels of violence that go largely un-punished. Guatemala's legal system is rife with provisions that minimize the seriousness of violence against women. In 2003 alone there were 4,500 cases of rape and 9,000 cases of domestic violence and, in 2005, 600 women were murdered. However, the estimated impunity in such cases reaches 97%.

In terms of representation and civil participation, and despite the creation of a Women's Parliament in 2004, only 14 of the 158 members of the national congress were women as of 2008.


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—revised by C. Vergara