views updated


LOCATION: Honduras
POPULATION: 7,639,327
LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; local dialects
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (95%); Protestantism (Methodist, Church of God, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Assembly of God churches); native religions combined with Christianity


A series of archeological excavations have demonstrated that the country now known as Honduras was once an important zone of the Mayan empire during the pre-Columbian period. The most prominent treasure among the great number of vestiges and ruins discovered in the region is Copán, a major Mayan city that flourished during the Mayan classical period—5th through 9th centuries—in that area. The city of Copán is well known for producing astonishing sculptures, most of which were used to decorate the central plaza of the city. These works of art have been considered some of the finest pieces of art in ancient Mesoamerica.

In 1502, in his fourth and last voyage to America, Christopher Columbus landed in Honduras and, two years later, the Spanish conquest began. Trujillo and Gracias were the most important cities during the three centuries of Spanish rule in Honduras. Throughout this historical stage, the Spanish crown administered the zone with an iron fist, depleting its natural resources and neglecting its aborigine population. In addition, multiple diseases, brought by the Conquistadores and slave laborers from other countries, made the native population under Spanish control drop to an estimated 8,000 in 1541.

Once Honduras ran out of gold and silver, the region became neglected by the Spanish. Consequently, English pirates harassed the area, and the Caribbean coast was effectively out of Spain's control. Spain granted Honduras independence in 1821. However, in 1822 the United Central American Provinces decided to join the newly declared Mexican Empire of Iturbide, which would collapse after less than a year. To fill the vacuum that followed the fall of the Mexican Empire, a new political organization was born: the Federal Republic of Central America. However, after 15 years of existence the Federation came to its end and, following its disintegration, Honduras became an independent nation again in 1838.

After Honduras achieved its freedom, the country fell under the grip of dictators and experienced some 300 internal rebellions, civil wars, and changes of government. The country's constitution was rewritten 17 times between 1821 and 1982.

The 20th century was marked by political and economic instability. Probably the most unusual event in Honduras was the so-called Soccer War. The conflict, also known as the 100 Hours War, was a five-day war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. Even though the tension between both countries was rooted in political differences, mostly because of the great flow of immigrant from El Salvador to Honduras, it was a soccer match between both nations that triggered an armed conflict. During the 1980s, Honduras served as a haven for anti-Sandinista contras fighting the Marxist Nicaraguan government and as an ally to Salvadoran government forces fighting leftist guerrillas.

Economically, Hondurans have relied heavily on exports, particularly bananas and coffee, making them vulnerable to shifts in commodity prices. In addition, Honduran dependence on natural resources has made their economy highly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which killed about 5,600 people and caused approximately $2 billion dollars in economic damages.

In 2008, Honduras was considered the second poorest country in Central America, with sharp income inequalities and unemployment rates close to 30%. Because of this uneven distribution of wealth and lack of opportunities, many Hondurans have migrated to other countries seeking better quality of life. Consequently, Honduras is the fastest growing remittance destination in the region, with inflows representing over a quarter of GDP.


Honduras has a long Caribbean Sea coastline to the north and a small Pacific Ocean coastline on the south, along the Gulf of Fonseca. Guatemala is its neighbor to the west, El Salvador to the south and west, and Nicaragua to the south and east. The Bay Islands lie in the Caribbean. Excluding the coastal areas, Honduras is a mountainous country: more than three-fourths of the land area is occupied by cordilleras with small, scattered, but numerous valleys where forests give way to agriculture and livestock raising. The nation's largest port and its largest industrial city lie in the Caribbean lowlands. Rainfall is plentiful in Honduras, and there are many rivers.

The climate is generally hot with high humidity in its coasts. The temperatures vary according to the altitude of each particular zone. For instance, in the lowlands the average temperatures are about 25°c (82°f) while in the mountains, average temperatures are close to 14°c (58°f).

According to archeological excavations, Honduras has been inhabited since the 1st century ad. Copán city confirms that the region was one of Mayan civilization's main centers. Therefore, it is possible to assess that most of Amerindians living in Honduras are Lenca—indigenous groups related to the Mayan and circum-Caribbean populations.

With just over 7 million people, most of them in the highlands, Honduras is not a crowded country. About 90% of all Hondurans are mestizos, of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. Of the remainder, about 7% is Indian, 2% is black, and 1% of the population is white.


Spanish is the national and official language, but English is often understood along the Caribbean coast, and Bay Islanders speak English as their native tongue. Black Caribs (Garifuna), descendants of freed black slaves and Carib Indians, speak a language related to Carib. Miskito, who are of mixed Indian, African, and European descent and live along the Caribbean coast, speak an Indian tongue with contributions from West African and European languages.


Among the folkloric beliefs found throughout Central America is the identification of a human being with a spirit (nagual), usually an animal, so closely connected that both are believed to share the same soul. If one dies, so will the other. Similarly, a witch or other evildoer is considered able to assume an animal form. These beliefs are of Indian origin and, since Honduras does not have a large Indian population, are not as strongly held as in Guatemala, for example.

Folk stories tell of a variety of spirits, many of whom live in wells or caves. El Duende is an imp with a big sombrero and a taste for pretty young girls, whom he courts by wearing red trousers and blue jackets and by tossing pebbles at them. Curanderos are faith healers who can cure nervous ailments and can dispel the vista fuerte, or evil eye, which is often held responsible for children's illnesses. The god of the Lenca, the largest Indian group in Honduras, was Icelaca, who appears as a many-eyed, two-faced stone idol. La compostura, a Lenca rite dedicated to the land, consists of offerings to an altar in the shape of a wooden frame on which pine boughs are placed in the form of a cross. Plants on display symbolize the spirits to whom the rite is dedicated.

Lempira was a 16th-century Indian chieftain who fought the Spanish; he is much admired in national mythology, and the national currency is named for him. A hymn to Lempira has, as its chorus, the words: "Hondurans! WiThepic lyre/and brightly clad/we intone a hymn to Lempira/to the patriot of heroic valor."


Nearly 95% of the population is Roman Catholic. Protestants account for about 3% and are growing rapidly because of active proselytizing by evangelical groups, such as the Methodists, Church of God, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Assemblies of God.

Although nominally Catholic, many Hondurans have incorporated pre-conquest indigenous traditions into their religious practices. The rogación is a special Mass, or procession, asking for rain. Each community has its own patron saint. The guanacasco is a celebration of the patron saint visited by saints from neighboring communities. Copal (a tree resin) is burned for incense, an ancient Mayan custom, and there are offerings to the sun. Pilgrimages to saints' shrines are common. Most houses will have an image or picture of a saint displayed on a wall.

Black Caribs, although chiefly Methodist, retain many African elements in their religious practices. Digui is a rite for the dead. Although most Miskito now belong to the Moravian Church, they formerly worshipped Wan-Aisa as their Supreme God. Yu Lapta was the Sun God, Kati the Moon Goddess, and Alwani was the Thunder God.


As in other Latin American countries, Christmas (December 25) and Holy Week (late March or early April), culminating in Easter Sunday, are the chief religious holidays. A Christmas tradition is the posada, a celebration held nightly beginning on December 16.

Just over the border in Guatemala, Esquipulas is the home of a dark-skinned wooden sculpture of Jesus that draws pilgrims from Honduras and other Central American countries to a celebration that begins on January 15 of each year. The feast day of the Virgin of Suyapa, Honduras' patron saint, is on February 2. A tiny wooden image to which miraculous powers have been attributed since the 18th century is on display at the basilica in Suyapa, a village near Tegucigalpa, the capital. Another manifestation of the Virgin is celebrated on 8 December (the day of the commemoration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception) at Juticalpa, with a procession bearing her image as the climax. Between December 25 and January 6, Garifuna men celebrate Yancunú with dancing, singing, and the wearing of masks to bring prosperity in the new year.

Of the secular holidays, the most important are Independence Day on September 15 and the birthday of Francisco Morazán on October 3. Morazán was the last president of the United Provinces of Central America, a federation that only lasted from 1823 to 1842.


Baptism of infants is standard and is usually followed by a celebration. Among the upper- and middle-classes, dating is restricted. A prospective suitor is carefully checked out, and engagements of several years are common. Perhaps half of all Honduran couples, however, live together without a marriage license or a religious ceremony. A novena is commonly held after death, usually at home. A second novena may be held six months later.


Honduran customs are more conservative and traditional than those of the United States. A great emphasis is normally placed on courtesy and proper dress among the upper- and middle-classes. On the other hand, friends are more demonstrative than in the United States. Men often embrace on meeting and departing. Women often embrace and kiss one or both cheeks, or at least touch cheeks.

Since most people are named for a saint, they celebrate their saint's day as well as (or in place of) their own birthday. Friends and relatives are invited to the home.

There has been less class conflict in Honduras than in the other Hispanic Central American countries. This is because the country has a relatively large number of peasants tilling their own plots rather than working as laborers for large estates and because the ruling elite has been willing to form alliances with others. However, social tensions have increased as landowners have accumulated more land in recent decades for cattle grazing.


At least two-thirds of the Honduran people live below the poverty line. About one-third has no access to healthcare, and about one-fifth of all young children are malnourished. At least 0.5 million more housing units are needed in Honduras. The typical dwelling is a two-room adobe bungalow with a tiled roof. Poor peasants, however, live in one-room huts made of bamboo, sugarcane, and corn stalks, with dirt floors, and most of them till small, marginal plots or work for wages on larger farms. Migrants from the country to the city generally live in crowded slums.

The upper and middle classes generally have domestic servants and live in houses with thick adobe, brick, or concrete walls. Many have grillwork over the windows and as part of the structure of balconies on the upper floors. Homes usually have no front yard but rather an enclosed patio.


Family solidarity is of basic importance and depends on mutual assistance from all its members. Families are usually large, since Honduran women give birth to an average of about five children each, and grandparents, plus aunts and uncles and their children, may also live under the same roof. Whether they live together or apart, the various branches of a family share and cooperate, finding work for unemployed members, extending loans, or taking in needy kin. As in other Latin American countries, compadres (godparents) also provide support to hard-pressed family members.


Most people dress casually, with the men wearing loose trousers and shirts and the women wearing one-piece calico or cotton dresses or loose blouses and skirts. Open sandals are a common form of footwear. The poor generally are clad in secondhand rather than store-bought clothes. Colonial costumes are worn only on special occasions like fiestas. On these occasions, the women may wear silk dresses or cotton dresses embroidered with silk, using old Mayan patterns and designs.

The Tolupanes Indians are the only group in Honduras whose dress is distinctive. The balandrán is a one-piece, sleeveless male article of clothing. Women wear brightly colored dresses and silver necklaces with brightly painted beads made of dried seeds and thorns.


Tortillas, made of cornmeal rolled into thin pancakes, are the staple of the diet, supplemented by beans, the chief source of protein. The poor generally eat tortillas and beans at every meal, generally supplemented with starches such as cassava and plantains. Rice, meat, eggs, and fish are served less often. Although pigs and chickens are raised widely in the countryside, their meat is reserved for special occasions. Green vegetables are not common in the average diet either.

Mondongo, a richly flavored tripe soup, is a popular Honduran dish. Other specialties include carrots stuffed with cheese, creamed beets and plantains, and corn dumplings in honey. The Caribbean diet is more exotic. The Black Caribs eat cassava in the form of big tortillas, and a mash made of ground plantains and bananas. Baili is a flour tortilla dipped in coconut soup with crab. Tapado is a soup made from coconut milk to which clams, crab, shrimp, fish heads, and plantains are added. The mondongo hondureño recipe includes cleaned beef tripe (innards), pig's feet, a number of vegetables, bread-crumbs, and a tomato sauce with spices and corn oil added.

Chicha is a homemade drink made of fermented corn. Also, Black Caribs make a drink out of fermented corn and sugar-cane. Regional dishes are also common. In the south the typical dish is the sopa de hombre (man soup) and in the west queso con chile (cheese with chili peppers). Throughout the country Hondurans also eat yucca con chicharrón.


At least 20% of Hondurans cannot read or write. Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 7 and 14, and more than 80% of all children of primary-school age are in school. However, fewer than half who are enrolled in public schools complete the primary level. The middle and upper classes generally send their children to private schools, often church-run. The chief institution of higher learning, the National Autonomous University of Honduras, is located in Tegucigalpa, the capital, and has branches in San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba. There are also three private universities.


José Cecilio del Valle wrote the declaration of independence for the Central American federation, which failed to survive. Father José Trinidad Reyes founded what became the National University in 1847. Juan Ramón Molina was an important 19th-century poet. Rafael Heliodoro Valle, a poet and historian, was the most respected literary figure of the 20th century. Other 20th-century Honduran writers include the novelist Argentina Díaz Lozanto and the poet Clementina Suarez.

José Miguel Gómez was an 18th-century painter. Among 20th-century painters are Arturo López Rodezno and Carlos Garay. The primitive landscape paintings of José Antonio Velásquez are much admired.

Drums and the flute were the musical instruments of Amerindians before the Spanish conquest. The main instrument now is the marimba, which is similar to the xylophone and is backed by other band instruments.


More than half the labor force is not formally employed; it includes subsistence farmers, small shopkeepers, and self-employed craftspeople. Women often seek jobs as domestic servants or, in urban areas, act as street vendors. Men supplement their income from tilling their small plots by working on plantations for part of the year. The small middle class consists of professionals, merchants, farmers, business employees, and civil servants. The minimum wage was as low as $1.60 per day for farm workers in the mid-1990s.


As elsewhere in Central America, fútbol (soccer) is the most popular sport. The so-called Soccer War of 1969 followed matches between the national teams of Honduras and El Salvador; more than 1,000 Hondurans were killed in the four-day struggle. Honduras also has bullfights and, at fiestas, such traditional forms of sport as greased-pole climbing and the carrera de cintas, a horseback-riding race in which the rider must run a stick through small rings at full gallop, are common.


There are more than 20 folk dances, based on combinations of Spanish, Amerindian, and African influences. The Garifuna holds two fertility dances—sanvey and vanaroga—with different songs by men and women. The Miskito generally form a circle when making music and sing and dance in turn to the accompaniment of drums and other instruments. Social dances are also held. Salsa, merengue, and Mexican rancheras are also popular. Fireworks are part of every celebration. Television is still generally restricted to the cities, but radio reaches every part of the country.


Artisans carve objects ranging from wall hangings to furniture from mahogany and other tropical hardwoods. Baskets, mats, and hammocks are woven from plant fibers such as henequen. Ceramics include porcelain objects in the form of animals, especially roosters. The Lenca are noted for their pottery. Campa and Ojajana also produce distinctive pottery. Other handi-crafts include embroidery and leather goods, such as belts and handbags.


Nearly two-thirds of the Honduran people live in poverty. Tuberculosis and gastroenteritis are serious health problems, as are influenza, malaria, typhoid, and pneumonia. Most of the people do not have access to running water and sanitation facilities. Unemployment and underemployment are high, and the country is dependent on income from only two commodities, bananas and coffee. The crime rate surged in the 1990s and there has been widespread domestic violence against women.


Honduran women hold only 8.6% of the seats in parliament and earn one-third of the income of Honduran males. Honduran women have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region. It is estimated that 8 out every 10 women suffer from domestic abuse. Domestic violence remains a major public health problem; with an increase from 3,000 cases in 2000 to over 5,000 in 2001 in the capital alone.

With one of Latin America's highest HIV prevalence levels, Honduran women accounted for 61% of new HIV cases in 2005. In addition, Honduras has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Central America: 48% of women between 15 and 24 years old have been pregnant at least once and 59% of pregnancies occurred before the age of 17.

On a positive note, Honduran girls are gaining ground and are equally as likely to be literate and enrolled in primary school as boys. Between 1998 and 2001 the female illiteracy rate fell from 34.7% to 19.8%. However, women are not enrolling in higher education as much as their male counterparts do.

In addition to better education rates, the period 1995–2004 saw the publication of the Domestic Violence Act (1997), the act establishing the National Institute for Women (1998), and the Equal Opportunities for Women Act (2000). Even though the latter provides for a minimum 30% quota for women with respect to posts filled by popular vote, the number of women as titular deputies has remained extremely low. Also, women are poorly represented in public posts filled by appointment: in the government's cabinet there were only three women ministers and three women deputy ministers in 2008.


Adams, Richard N. Cultural Surveys of Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Detroit: B. Ethridge Books, 1976.

Alvarado, Elvia. Don't Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart. San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1987.

Euraque, Darío A. Reinterpreting the Banana Republic: Region and State in Honduras, 1870–1972. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Martínez V., Otto Wilfredo and María T. Flores. Legislación sobre la mujer: ley del Instituto Nacional de la Mujer, ley contra la violencia doméstica y ley de igualdad de oportunidades para la mujer. Tegucigalpa: OIM Editores, 2006.

Merrill, Tim L., ed. Honduras: A Country Study. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army: U.S. G.P.O., 1995.

Meyer, Harvey Kessler. Historical Dictionary of Honduras. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1994.

Mujeres en cifras, Honduras: indicadores socioeconómicos de la situación de las mujeres hondureñas. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Centro de Derechos de Mujeres, 2005.

Smith, Katie. The Human Farm: A Tale of Changing Lives and Changing Lands. West Hartford, Conn.: Kimarian Press, 1994.

Stonich, Susan C. "I Am Destroying the Land!": The Political Ecology of Poverty and Environmental Destruction in Honduras. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1993.

Thorpe, Andy. Agrarian Modernization in Honduras. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.

—revised by C. Vergara