POPULATION: 10 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; various Mayan languages; Carib
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism with ancient Mayan beliefs; Protestantism
The Maya Indian civilization, thought to have evolved in about AD 100, established a number of city-states in what is now Guatemala. The largest of these, Tikal, covered ten square miles and included two hundred major stone structures, including high-rise temples and palaces. By AD 1000, however, the Mayan cities had been abandoned for reasons that are still not clear. The ancient Mayan civilization was very advanced and had a sophisticated knowledge of science, art, and astronomy.
After Spanish troops conquered Mexico in 1521, they moved south and controlled Guatemala. The area won its independence from Spain in 1821. Guatemala seceded from the resulting federation of the United Provinces of Central America in 1839.
During the 1800s, many of the native Indian people lost their land as it was developed into coffee and banana plantations.
In 1954 the government, considered to be pro-communist, was overthrown with help from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. Leftist guerilla groups organized to oppose the military-dominated and U.S.-backed governments that subsequently ruled the country. Between 1960 and 1996, some one hundred thousand people lost their lives as a consequence of the fighting between the army and the guerrillas. Many other Guatemalans fled to Mexico and the United States.
Guatemala is slightly larger than Tennessee. It is bounded by Mexico to the north and west, by the Pacific Ocean to the south, and by Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador to the east. It had a population of about ten million people in 1994, making it the most populous country in Central America.
The southern half of the country is mountainous, with some thirty-three volcanic mountains. The northern third of the country consists of lowland rain forest.
The people are divided about evenly between Amerindians and ladinos. This word describes those who have adopted the Spanish language, dress, and lifestyle, regardless of race. Ladinos are usually mestizos, people of mixed Amerindian and European descent. About 1 percent of the population are of purely European ancestry. Blacks, along the Caribbean coast, make up another 1 percent of the population.
Spanish is the official language of Guatemala. There are twenty-one 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 Indians.
Guatemala's folklore is based on Amerindian cultural beliefs as well as Spanish traditions. According to Quiché legend, for example, the first four humans were made of a corn paste into which the Heart of Heaven breathed life.
To assure good growing weather before spring planting, seeds are 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. The women pray at home before lighted candles. In the morning the women go to the fields with food for the sowers and place their candles at points representing the four winds.
The shaman, or Mayan priest, is a man or woman who is able to bargain with the unknown forces that govern human destiny. Shamans are believed to be able to predict the future and 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.
Particular places serve as shrines for various gods. The people of Alta Verapaz, for example, are careful to leave kindling beside a hot spring for the god who boils the water. In return, it is hoped, the god will not cause fever by heating their blood.
About 67 to 80 percent of all Guatemalans are Roman Catholic. Within this faith, however, the Amerindians have preserved Mayan beliefs such as worshipping gods who control weather and crops. Jesus and Mary, for example, are identified with the Sun God and Moon Goddess. The cross is likened to the Four Winds of Heaven.
Cofradías (brotherhoods), rather than Catholic priests, lead a community's religious life. Fiestas are the major form of public worship and sometimes conform to the 260-day Mayan religious calendar. Routine attendance at church is difficult due to a shortage of priests
About 25 to 33 percent of the population are Protestant. Protestant missionaries have been active in Guatemala since the 1880s.
Pilgrims from all over Central America come to Esquipulas (January 15) to worship at the shrine of the Black Christ. This icon is a sculpted balsam-wood image of Jesus. A temple housing the statue was completed in 1758. Also important is the pilgrimage on February second to the village church in Chiantla, famous for its silver image of the Virgin Mary.
The city of Antigua's Holy Week, in late March or early April, is the largest and most festive celebration in Latin America. It leads up to a Passion procession on the morning of Good Friday. Chichicastenango celebrates the day of St. Thomas (December 21) with a week-long fiesta that includes ritual dances of the Quiché people and the Palo Volador in which costumed men dangle by ropes from a 60-foot-high (18-meter-high) maypole.
The Garifuna of the Caribbean celebrate their arrival in Guatemala with Yuriman, a simulation of the first farm plantings. The reenactment is held in Livingston each year from May 13 to 15. This festival is accompanied by singing, dancing, and hand-clapping. Like the other nations in Central America (except Panama) Independence day is celebrated on September 15, in honor of the region's declaration of independence from Spain in 1821.
In villages, both a midwife and a brujo (shaman or witch) attend a child's birth. The brujo prays for long life and good health and protection against the evil eye, which Guatemalans believe 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. Amerindian babies are carried on their mother's back and are breast-fed. Children wear clothing identical to their parents and are put to work at an early age.
In conservative ladino society, boy-girl activities begin at about age fourteen, but real dating does not begin until later. A girl's fifteenth birthday marks her coming of age and calls for a special celebration. A boy's coming of age is recognized when he turns eighteen. A young man still asks a girl's father for her hand in marriage. Engagements of several years are common.
Among Indians, a youth's father may seek out a matchmaker to find a suitable bride for his son.
At Amerindian funerals a 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. Candles are lit. Food is placed at the head of the grave for the spirit of the departed.
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. Family and friends often drop in on each other, especially on Sundays and holidays. These are brief, informal visits.
In 1990 it was estimated that the poorer half of the population was receiving only 60 percent of the daily minimum caloric requirements. The mortality rate for children up to age five is sixty-eight per one thousand children. Gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments take a heavy toll because of poor sanitation and poor nutrition. In rural areas, few people have access to drinkable water.
Because of rural overpopulation, the urban areas have swelled with migrants. Many of these people live in illegal squatter settlements, or shantytowns. Peasants mostly live in two-room, dirt-floor adobe structures. The roofs are made of palm leaves, straw, or tiles. Their small farm plots may be several hours' walk away.
Guatemala's families are very close. They are usually the only dependable source of support in a society where church and state are both weak. 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 language group and village.
In spite of Guatemala's rapid population growth, children are greatly desired. In the late 1980s, six was the average number of children born by a woman.
The clothing of many ladinos is similar to that of modern Westerners. Almost every Amerindian community, however, has its own style of dress. In fact, a person's village can be identified by the design of his or her clothes.
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. Second-hand 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, for example.
Guatemalan food is simple and not highly spiced. One exception is pepian , which is a thick, spicy soup made with tomatoes, onions, chiles, and ground pumpkin seeds. 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 seeds 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 seven and thirteen. Enrollment is low in rural areas, however, and in 1991, one out of every five children was not enrolled in school. Many do not complete primary school because they must work to help their families. The adult literacy rate was fifty-five percent in 1990. Since school is taught in Spanish, Amerindians are at a disadvantage since Spanish is not their native language.
Six years of secondary school can lead either to university education or specialized training. There are six universities. The largest of these is the State University of San Carlos, in Guatemala City. The constitution guarantees it autonomy and 5 percent of the national budget. The university, which does not charge tuition, has more than fifty thousand students. Many students must work part-time while pursuing their studies.
Native music developed from a blend of Spanish and Amerindian influences. Guatemala is better known for its traditional dances. These dances are really musical dramas that, through the use of costumes and masks, recall historical events. The dances 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 twentieth-century painter is Carlos Mérida.
The Maya had the most advanced system of writing in the Americas. 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.
Rafael Landival, a Jesuit, wrote the poem Rusticatio Mexicana while in exile in Italy. This was the outstanding Guatemalan work of the colonial era. The novelist and poet Miguel Ángel Asturias received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967.
Although the country's constitution forbids employment of children under the age of fourteen, younger children are employed. Usually they work in family enterprises and in agriculture. 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. A large part of the population continues to farm small plots. Many such farmers supplement their income with the sale of handicrafts and seasonal plantation work.
Many migrants to the cities are unable to find employment and so, take to street vending. It was estimated in 1992 that 46 percent of the labor force was unemployed or under-employed. The minimum wage was less than three dollars a day in 1994.
Football (called soccer in the United States) is a national passion, played even in the most traditional and remote 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. Movies are found only in the major cities and mostly show U.S. films that are dubbed or subtitled in Spanish. Television 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. No wedding is complete without marimba music. Amerindians perform other music for their rites, and use pre-conquest drums and flutes.
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. 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 by molding clay by hand and using natural clays and dyes, as was done before the European conquest. They are also made with the potter's wheel as well as glazes and enamels introduced from Spain. Jade jewelry dates from ancient times. Woodcrafted products include traditional masks, carved squash gourds, and colonial-style doors and furniture.
About 2 percent of the population owns about 70 percent of the useful land. About two-thirds of the original forest cover has been destroyed, and about 30 percent of the land is eroded or seriously damaged. Only one-third 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.
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Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, eds. Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. 8th ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
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Guatemala in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1987.
Woodward, Ralph Lee. Guatemala. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio, 1992.
Wright, Ronald. Time Among the Maya . New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.