Guatemalan americans

by Maria Hong


The most populous country in Central America, Guatemala is located in the northern part of the Central American region. Its land mass encompasses 42,042 square miles (108,889 square kilometers), bordered by Mexico to the north and west, El Salvador and Honduras to the south and east, the Pacific Ocean along its West Coast, and Belize and the Caribbean Sea to the north and east. The southern half of the Republic of Guatemala mainly consists of beautiful mountain highlands and plateaus, which are susceptible to devastating earthquakes. The northern region contains the department of the Petén, a sparsely populated lowland tropical jungle. There is also a narrow Pacific coastal plain and a small Caribbean lowland area. Most of Guatemala's population and its major cities, including the capital, Guatemala City, are located in the southern region.

Guatemala has a population of about ten million people and the largest indigenous population in Central America. Although estimates of the indigenous population vary greatly from as low as 40 percent of the total population to as high as 85 percent, most sources estimate it at over 50 percent. Most of the indigenous groups are Mayan, although small numbers of Pipil Aztecs live in the southern and eastern areas and Xincas in the east. More than a racial classification, the term indigena (indigenous) refers to cultural and linguistic groups. The population of Spanish-speaking ladinos consists of the small Caucasian elite class; the substantial number of mestizos of mixed Spanish and indigenous race; minorities of African, Chinese, and Arab descent; and indigenous people who no longer consciously identify themselves as such. Guatemala's smallest ethnic group is the Garifuna, descendants of African and Carib people formerly from the island of St. Vincent who reside along the Caribbean coast.

Guatemala's official language is Spanish. However, the Maya speak over 20 distinct languages and numerous dialects, and many do not speak Spanish. The four main Mayan languages—Quiché, Mam, Cakchiquel, and Kekchi—are spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Other indigenous languages include Kanjobal, Chuj, Jacalteco, Ixil, Achi, Pocomchi, Central Pocomam, Eastern Pocomam, and Tzutuhil. These languages are spoken by distinct indigenous groups.

Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, many Mayan Guatemalans have traditionally practiced a syncretist form of Catholicism, blending Catholic and Mayan rites and beliefs. Since the 1950s, Evangelical Pentecostal Protestantism has been on the rise in Guatemala, and it surged in popularity during the 1980s. Two modern presidents have been Evangelical Pentecostal Protestants and up to one-third of the population now practices this religion.

Guatemala's national symbol of independence and pride is the quetzal, a brilliantly colored tropical bird native to Central America. According to legend, the quetzal lost its voice after the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century.


Guatemala's roots lie in the great Mayan civilization, concentrated in separate city-states established throughout what is now southern Mexico and Central America. From 2000 B.C. through 900 A.D., Mayan civilization accomplished much in the areas of astronomy, written language, architecture, the arts, and religion. Some of these achievements remain for us to appreciate today, such as the immense stone temples and pyramids at Tikal in the Petén.

However, the Mayan city-states were also very militaristic, usually warring with each other and devoting much of their energies and resources to military efforts. This penchant for warfare may have contributed to the mysterious disappearance of Mayan civilization by 900 A.D. By the time the Spanish arrived, there were about one million indigenous people whose violent feuding facilitated their conquest. By 1650, most of the indigenous people had been wiped out by disease, war, and exploitation, and their numbers had dwindled to about 200,000.

From 1523 to 1524, the Spanish, led by Pedro de Alvarado, colonized many Mayan city-states. De Alvarado became the first captain general of Guatemala, which then encompassed most of Central America. In 1821, Guatemala gained independence from Spain, and in 1824 it joined the Central American Federation. In 1838, the Federation disbanded, due mostly to a revolt against it led by an indigenous general, Rafael Carrera, who then seized control of the newly independent nation of Guatemala.

In 1871, a liberal caudillo or military dictator, Justo Rufino Barrios, took power and ruled as president from 1873 to 1885. Barrios enacted anti-clerical legislation, began to establish a national education system, and fostered the inception of Guatemala's coffee industry. Guatemala was ruled by a succession of military dictators until the last caudillo, Jorge Ubico, was overthrown in 1944. Shortly thereafter, Juan Jose Arevalo, a university professor exiled to Argentina, was called back and elected president. Arevalo instituted political democracy in Guatemala, encouraging organized labor, the formation of a social security system, and industrialization.

Arevalo's successor, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, introduced a radical agrarian reform program that redistributed land from wealthy landowners and much of the holdings of the U.S.-based United Fruit Company. United Fruit had dominated the commercial banana industry and exploited peasant workers since the early twentieth century. Arbenz's challenge to United Fruit and his support of Guatemala's Communist party resulted in conflict with the company and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. In mid-1954, Arbenz was overthrown by a U.S.-supported, largely CIA-directed revolt, led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas.

During the next 30 years, most of the agrarian and labor reforms achieved under Arevalo and Arbenz were undone by a succession of mostly military rulers. Since the 1960s, leftist guerrillas have attempted to undermine these regimes, while right-wing paramilitary death squads have fought back against the guerrillas by brutally repressing the civilian population. According to Amnesty International, at least 20,000 civilians were killed by the death squads from 1966 to 1976.

During the late 1970s, a popular resistance movement to the military governments began to operate through a collaboration among ladinos, indigenas, peasants, labor leaders, students, journalists, politicians, and Catholic priests. In response, the army and paramilitary counterinsurgency units stepped up their repression efforts. From 1980 to 1981, guerrilla forces encouraged and sometimes coerced large numbers of highland indigenas to join them in their armed revolutionary efforts. The army retaliated by massacring whole indigenous villages; kidnapping, torturing, and murdering people suspected of supporting the guerrillas; and scorching peasant crops and homes.

Although the army's terrorism techniques affected all sectors of the resistance movements, indigenous communities suffered the brunt of the violence of the 1980s. Most authorities have called the military efforts an ethnic genocide campaign, stemming from pervasive discrimination against indigenas in Guatemalan society. In addition to destroying indigenous villages, the government army forced more than one million indigenas into military-controlled "model villages" and "reeducation camps," and conscripted men into the army's civil defense patrols.

Violence in the villages peaked under Efrain Rios Montt, a Pentecostal Protestant, who became president through a military coup in 1982. By the army's own count, the counterinsurgency movement destroyed 440 villages and damaged numerous others between 1980 and 1984. Widespread terrorism continued under Rios Montt's successor Brigadier General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who became president in 1983. In 1984, the Guatemalan Supreme Court reported that around 100,000 children had lost at least one parent in the massacres.

In 1985, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, a Christian Democratic Party leader, won the presidential election, initiating a transition from military to civilian government. Cerezo tried unsuccessfully to carry out reforms, and political killings by the right-wing death squads continued. He was succeeded in 1991 by Jorge Serrano Elias, an Evangelical Protestant and former member of the Rios Montt regime.

Although right-wing violence persisted, Serrano's government reached a tentative accord with the major guerrilla coalition, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and police and military men were arrested for death-squad activity for the first time. In 1993, Serrano and military leaders attempted to dissolve Guatemala's Congress and suspend the constitution. After a short period of political turmoil, the Congress elected Ramiro de Leon Carpio, a former human rights ombudsman, as president.

De Leon Carpio resumed the peace talks between the government and the URNG, which had been going on intermittently since 1991, and he has made significant breakthroughs in the peace process. On March 29, 1994, the government and the URNG signed three peace agreements brokered by the United Nations. Among other provisions, the agreements call for human rights investigations and monitoring, guerrilla demobilization, and prosecution of human rights violators.

Despite the achievements of the peace accords, however, widespread violence, including abductions, torture, and executions by army and paramilitary men, continues in Guatemala. In the political arena, the Guatemalan Republican Front, the right-wing party of Rios Montt, gained many seats in the Congress and Rios Montt himself was elected to the Congress in August of 1994. Members of the Party of National Advancement, another conservative party that opposes de Leon Carpio, also won many Congressional seats. In December of 1996 the long civil war finally ended when rebels and the government announced a peace treaty.

Sixty-three percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. In this mostly rural, agrarian country, two percent of the population owns over 64 percent of the arable land. Peasants survive by farming sub-subsistence land or by doing seasonal migratory work on coastal coffee, sugar, and cotton plantations. Among Central American nations, Guatemala has the highest infant and child mortality rates, the lowest life expectancy, and most malnourished population, with rampant severe hunger.

The efforts of activists such as Guatemalan Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum have focused international attention on the oppression of indigenous people in Guatemala. However, an apartheid-type of oligarchic system remains entrenched with the government and other power centers controlled by a small European-descended minority. The long armed conflict has resulted in the disappearnce or murder of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of over a million more. Although several hundred thousand Guatemalans remain uprooted within Guatemala, hundreds of thousands have fled to the United States and Mexico to escape the violence since the late 1970s.


Until 1960, the United States did not keep separate statistics on the number of immigrants from Guatemala, and figures reflect migration from the entire Central American region. However, it is fair to conclude that few Guatemalans immigrated to the United States before 1960, since the numbers for all Central American immigrants were small.

During the 1830s, only 44 arrivals of Central Americans were recorded. Between 1890 and 1900, 500 Central Americans immigrated to the United States according to records of legal migration. The numbers increased during the next two decades, with 8,000 arriving from 1900 to 1910 and 17,000 migrating between 1910 and 1920. Emigrants from Guatemala may have been seeking a better life following a devastating earthquake in 1917.

During the 1930s, the number of immigrants fell to less than 6,000 in the decade, due in part to quotas on immigration from Western Hemisphere nations enacted in the 1920s. However, since the mid-1950s the annual number of legally admitted Central Americans has steadily risen, with 45,000 arriving from 1951 to 1960.

Due to political upheavals and related economic crises throughout the region, large numbers of undocumented Guatemalans and other Central Americans have been coming to the United States since the late 1970s. During the early 1970s, several factors, including inflation, political turmoil and violence, unemployment, low wages, land scarcity due to inequitable land allocation, and the population explosion, especially among indigenous people, precipitated the mass internal and external displacement of Guatemalan campesino peasants, indigenas, and professionals. In February of 1976, an earthquake destroyed much of Guatemala City, causing some to emigrate. From 1967 to 1976, 19,683 Guatemalans immigrated to the United States, and the 1970 U.S. Census recorded a Guatemalan American population of 26,865 persons. The 1980 U.S. Census recorded 62,098 Guatemalan Americans, with 46 percent arriving from 1975 to 1980.

However, the vast majority of the Guatemalan American population has arrived since 1980. Official immigration statistics do not reflect the true number of immigrants from Guatemala since most arrivals are undocumented refugees. In 1984, there were an estimated one million Guatemalan refugees, with many displaced within Guatemala and hundreds of thousands fleeing to Mexico and the United States. Thousands also escaped to neighboring Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Since the 1920s or earlier, Mayan Guatemalans had traveled annually to southern Mexico to work on seasonal coffee harvests, attracted by the wages and low cost of living. Others possibly planned to sell contraband items upon their return home. By the late 1950s, ten to fifteen thousand men and women were crossing the border into Mexico and back every year. In the 1960s and 1970s, the number increased to around 60,000 annually; some of these settled in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, where Mayan communities also reside. After the massacres of Mayan villages in Guatemala, indigenas from the departments of Quiché, Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango, Itzabal, and the Petén fled to this region, and many seasonal workers remained in Mexico. Refugee camps were established in Chiapas and in Campeche and Quintana Roo. Due to the desperate economic and health conditions in these camps many Guatemalan refugees moved on to the United States, often enduring great hardships on the way. Migration spurred by these circumstances continues today.

Since they must cross the border illegally, the emigrants usually hire guides called coyotes, who facilitate the crossings for high fees costing up to $1,500 per person. During the trips many experience graft, robbery, rape, or imprisonment by people who exploit their precarious status. Some are smuggled to the United States by religious workers who also give them sanctuary once they arrive. Due to the expense of the trip, those who migrate to the United States are not generally the poorest of the poor.

According to the 1970 U.S. Census, 90 percent of Guatemalans in the United States were white. During the 1950s and 1960s most Guatemalan immigrants were middle class. Before the 1980s, most Guatemalan political emigrants were ladino activists and politicians from urban centers. After 1980 large numbers of indigenous people and campesinos fled to the United States from counter-insurgency campaigns in the western highland areas. Significant numbers of schoolteachers, student activists, journalists, and other professionals accused of being guerrilla sympathizers also migrated for political reasons. More than 300,000 Guatemalans have entered the United States illegally since 1980.

The United States has not recognized Guatemalans as political refugees. Most recent immigrants from Guatemala are considered economic migrants, and only one to two percent of Guatemalan requests for political asylum are granted. Many sources state that immigration officials view Guatemalan asylum cases less favorably than those from applicants from other countries where human rights abuses are common, because U.S. refugee policy is politicized. They say that the United States has historically granted asylum to people fleeing Communist regimes rather than those from countries the United States is friendly with. Immigration officials deny bias in assessing asylum cases.

Illegal migrants who are caught by the Immigration and Naturalization Service are usually deported back to Guatemala, where they may face dangerous situations as repatriates. Some Guatemalan migrants travel to Canada, where they can receive refugee status. Despite the threat of deportation, the difficulty of the trip to the United States, and problems here as undocumented persons, Guatemalans have continued to arrive in the United States and are one of the fastest growing American immigrant groups.


According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there are 268,779 persons of Guatemalan origin in the United States. The 1990 Census also listed 225,739 foreign-born persons from Guatemala, reflecting the large portion of recent immigrants among Guatemalan Americans. However, the actual number of Guatemalan Americans is higher than the census figures, since many are migratory and/or undocumented and thus reluctant to have contact with officials. In reality, there are probably over half a million Guatemalan Americans, and they are the second largest group among Central Americans after Salvadorans.

Guatemalan Americans have settled primarily in cities with large existing Latino communities. The greatest number—probably over 100,000—are in Los Angeles, where the biggest concentration of Central Americans in the United States resides. There are also significant numbers of Guatemalan Americans in Houston, Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., southern Florida, and San Francisco. Smaller enclaves are found in Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix/Tucson, and other cities in Texas and North Carolina.

During the early 1980s, Phoenix/Tucson became an important center for the Sanctuary Movement, a group of mostly Christian religious organizations that provided sanctuary to illegal migrants from Guatemala and El Salvador. These groups supported migrants in their efforts to gain legal status and helped them obtain work and housing. However, most Guatemalans moved on to other areas cities or towns outside of Arizona.

The communities in Chicago and New York expanded considerably during the mid- to late-1980s. In these cities, Guatemalan Americans tend to be inconspicuous, blending in with the more established Mexican or Cuban American populations, for fear of being detected by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In the San Francisco Bay area and Washington D.C., Central Americans predominate among Latinos. A number of wealthy Guatemalan Americans live in Miami, the commerce gateway to Latin America.

Many of the Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles live in or near the Central American-dominated Pico-Union district. Once primarily a Mexican American area, Pico-Union is now characterized by businesses that cater to Central Americans, including bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, and social service organizations. A substantial portion of the Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles and in southern Florida are Kanjobal Mayans. In Houston, there are over a thousand Mayans from the provinces of Totonicapan and Quiché. These indigenous communities represent the best-documented Guatemalan American populations.

Guatemalan Americans have met with both hostility and empathy from the general American public. Many of the negative reactions by "established" Americans have focused on immigration issues. During recent recessions and concurrent waves of anti-immigrant sentiment, Guatemalans and other Central Americans have been depicted as economically threatening migrants who overwhelm government social services and undermine American labor by taking low-paying jobs. However, others have described newly arrived Central Americans as resourceful contributors to the economy.

The U.S. government's refusal to designate Guatemalan emigrants as political refugees and its persecution of Sanctuary Movement workers can also be interpreted as an unsympathetic stance toward Guatemalan Americans. On the other hand, grassroots supporters and many major city governments have defended recent Guatemalan immigrants. In the mid-1980s some members of Congress and at least a dozen cities, including Los Angeles, St. Paul, and Chicago criticized President Ronald Reagan and his administration's federal policy concerning illegal Central Americans and limited city cooperation with INS officials.

Relations with other Latino groups near whom Guatemalan Americans often live have been similarly mixed. The more established Chicano communities have expressed both resentment and support for the newer residents. Sometimes there is rivalry among Central American and Mexican groups for jobs, and cultural differences can preclude social interaction among people of different national origin. A number of Native American groups have been very supportive of indigenous Guatemalan immigrants to United States and empathize with their struggle against genocide and cultural obliteration.

Although there are many Guatemalan Americans whose ancestors came to America generations ago, the key issues facing the group in the near future are generally linked with immigration and their previous lives in Guatemala, since the majority of Guatemalan Americans have arrived since the mid-1980s. Most Guatemalan Americans face a host of challenges in the areas of work, health, and cultural preservation due to their undocumented status and the terrible economic and political conditions they left behind.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Guatemalan Americans comprise a very culturally diverse group of people. Within Guatemala there are about 23 distinct ethnic groups that speak different languages and maintain unique cultural traditions. The majority of these groups are Mayan; and ladinos, or Hispanic Guatemalans, constitute a separate population as persons of Spanish language and culture. Guatemalan Americans represent a broad cross-section of this multicultural society, and assimilation processes, traditional beliefs, and customs vary from group to group. Given the diversity of the Guatemalan American population, it is impossible to generalize about the group as a whole.

Immigrant Mayan American communities have maintained their traditional practices the most visibly. Hispanic Guatemalans have tended to blend in more with other Latino cultures and very little information about them or third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Guatemalan Americans exists. For instance, no studies have been conducted on how traditions are being passed on beyond the second generation. Further inquiry into these areas is needed and will probably occur as the recent wave of immigrants matures into second- and third-generation adults.

Certain practices like the celebration of quinceñeros, the formation of soccer leagues, and the organization of patronal fiestas have been maintained in most of the newer Guatemalan American neighborhoods. Specific Guatemalan American groups in Los Angeles, Houston, and southern Florida have received the most attention from sociologists and the media. The following sections on these three communities illustrate how some Guatemalan traditions are being preserved, transformed, and lost through the process of acculturation.


Until the late 1970s, Los Angeles's Pico-Union district was populated by Mexican immigrants, Chicanos, African Americans, and European Americans. Some Central and South Americans began arriving in the mid-1950s, and after 1980 an influx of Central Americans settled the neighborhood. These Central American immigrants, including university students, teachers, clergy, and campesinos, came from all classes and political persuasions. New residents could shop at Latino-owned businesses such as grocery stores, botánicas selling religious articles and herbs, dance halls, informal vendors, and record companies specializing in Latino music.

Among the Guatemalan immigrants were Mayan Chujes, Quichés, and Kanjobals. The Kanjobals from the highlands of Huehuetenango near Mexico constitute the largest Mayan group in Los Angeles, with a population of about 4,000 in 1984. Many call themselves Migueleños after their home-town of San Miguel Acatán. The first Kanjobal immigrants to Los Angeles came during the late 1970s in search of work, and large numbers followed during the early 1980s, when Kanjobals were targeted as guerrilla sympathizers, and both guerrillas and the army pressured men and boys to fight on their sides.

Coming from an agrarian society, the Kanjobals have made many adjustments to living in urban Los Angeles. Many had not used electricity or cars before. Women who had washed their clothes by hand in rivers became accustomed to coin laundromats. Both men and women encountered unfamiliar appliances such as refrigerators and strange products like hot dogs and commercial cleaning agents in the supermarkets.

To avoid deportation to Guatemala, many have become inconspicuous by passing for Mexican American. For example, women generally do not wear traditional clothing such as the bright embroidered blouses called huipils outside the home. Rather than using colorful cloth rebozos to carry infants on their backs, they now use baby carriages.

Deeper forms of integration into American society may be more elusive. Jacqueline Maria Hagan, who researched Houston's Mayan community, noted that assimilation can be intimately tied to legalization. Legal status affords the opportunity to develop bonds with the established society in areas like higher education, sports, stable jobs, and access to banks and other institutions. As undocumented immigrants, many Guatemalan Americans cannot interact with mainstream society in these areas.

A few organizations in Los Angeles have formed to promote and preserve Guatemalan and Mayan American culture. A group called Integración de Indígenas Mayas (IXIM), sponsors a range of political and cultural activities to foster community solidarity among Mayans in southern California.


There are approximately 30,000 Guatemalan Americans living in Houston. As in Los Angeles, most Guatemalans emigrated after 1980 to escape political violence and economic repression. Both Hispanics and indigenas migrated to Houston, including Mayans from Quiche and Totonicapan in the southwestern highlands.

The thousand or so Mayans have maintained many of their traditional social and cultural customs, and indigenas from Totonicapan can depend on a well-developed community for support upon arrival. Life-cycle events such as birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals are celebrated with the involvement of the whole group.

One such event is quinceñeros, which is like an elaborate coming-out party for girls celebrating their fifteenth birthdays. Quinceñeros is observed by most Guatemalan American groups, although only wealthier families may be able to afford it. Sometimes padrinos, or godparents, of the celebrant from the same locale but of higher social standing participate in the event. Padrinos have traveled from Totonicapan to Houston to honor quinceñeros celebrants and to give away brides.

The marimba, an ancient Mayan instrument made of hormiga wood native to Guatemalan forests, is played by bands at Guatemalan American holiday fiestas and special events throughout the United States. Marimba bands play both popular songs and sacred music and may play all night during certain occasions. The music is often accompanied by festive folk dancing. Another instrument native to the highlands is the flutelike chirimías.

Sports and church activities also spur much communal interaction in Guatemalan American communities. Soccer is the most popular national sport, and Guatemalan American men have formed soccer leagues in Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, and other cities. In Houston, the Community Soccer Club has played against other immigrant soccer teams on a weekly basis and the sports events have served to raise funds for fiesta in San Cristobal Totonicapan. In Los Angeles, Mayan Americans also play basketball, and both men's and women's tournaments are organized.

Some traditions have been lost upon settlement in the United States. Totonicapan is known as the capital of artisan production in Guatemala, and most of the male immigrants to Houston were previously craft tailors, weavers, or bakers. Since those skills were not transferable to the Houston workplace they have had to make the transition from cottage industry production to wage labor. Women, however, still buy traditional garments from Totonicapan for special events.

Close relations between Guatemalan home villages and Mayan American communities also sustain cultural practices on both ends. Many Guatemalan Americans have close family members remaining in Guatemala. Often they communicate regularly with them by sending letters and cassette tapes back and forth. In the 1980s, couriers traveled monthly between Houston and San Cristobal Totonicapan to deliver news, money, and goods. As they have achieved temporary or permanent residency status, some Guatemalans in Houston have been able to make the trips themselves. Items typically transported include traditional clothing, Guatemalan foods and spices, and occasionally things like wedding bands or other special celebratory objects.

Some families have moved out of the Houston Totonicapan community after gaining legal status and saving enough money. Researcher Hagan saw this as part of a shift toward adopting American Texan culture, which included buying new types of cars and women modernizing their hairstyles and clothes.


A small farming town 25 miles inland from the East Coast of Florida called Indiantown is home to several thousand Guatemalan refugees. Along with other migrant workers, the Guatemalan Americans here harvest sugar, oranges, cucumbers, and other crops during the winter growing season. Indiantown derived its name from the Seminole Native Americans who used to inhabit the area, and is the center of the Guatemalan American population of southern Florida, which extends to other small towns like Immokalee.

Most of the Guatemalans in Indiantown are Kanjobals, although there is a small non-Kanjobal speaking group from the mostly ladino town of Cuilco. The Kanjobals first arrived in late 1982, when a Mexican American crew boss brought some refugees from Arizona to Indiantown to pick crops. These workers subsequently led family and friends from Kanjobal communities in Los Angeles and Guatemala to the area, and the town became a refuge from both the civil war and urban environments.

As in other Mayan American communities, the tradition of going to the weekly market to exchange news and gossip and buy fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables has been supplanted by going to supermarkets. However, other customs remain intact and the Kanjobals maintain a visible ethnic presence.

Kanjobal marimba players from Indiantown played at the U.S. Folk Festival in 1985 and they also received a grant to teach Kanjobal American teenagers traditional music. The local Catholic Church and Mayan American associations sponsor an annual fiesta in honor of the patron saint of San Miguel Acatán. Committees of men and women organize entertainment, sports, and the election of festival queens who give speeches in Kanjobal, Spanish, and English. Participants wear traditional clothing and teach children how to dance to marimba music. The dances traditionally involve costumed performances with masks made from paper maché, but in the first year of the masked dances, the masks were purchased from a local store. The patronal fiesta functions as an important gathering of Kanjobals who must work and live outside of Indiantown, and as an affirmation of identity.

Although many Mayan Americans have strived to preserve traditions such as these, others eschew former customs. Since acculturation is ultimately a personal choice, degrees of assimilation will vary from individual to individual. As in every other ethnic group, there are many like Mateo Andres, a first-generation Kanjobal American farm-worker who told New York Times reporter Larry Rohter that he sees no need to pass on Mayan languages or practices and hopes that his newborn son grows up "100 percent American."


Guatemalan Americans face the stereotypes that have historically plagued almost all immigrant groups in the United States. Like the Irish, Eastern European, Asian, and other groups that have preceded them, Guatemalan Americans have been scapegoated as new immigrants by nativists who depict them as docile, ignorant workers who do not mind being exploited, overwhelm American economic and social resources, and are of little value except as workers in undesirable jobs. During economic recessions, politicians have exploited this anti-immigrant bias to curry favor with constituents who want to blame their financial woes on vulnerable targets rather than coming to terms with the real sources of the problem.

Guatemalan Americans are also generally lumped together with other Central American and Latino groups as indistinguishable from one another. Although there is great diversity within and among the different Central American and Latino groups, the American populace tends to perceive them as one entity, and subjects Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Honduran, Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican Americans to the same stereotypes.


Savory sometimes spicy Guatemalan cuisine has its origins in pre-Hispanic foods. Mayan staples such as corn, beans, hot chile peppers, and tomatoes are still the staples of Guatemalan cooking. During the Spanish conquest rice and other European and Asian ingredients were introduced into the cuisine. Guatemalan cooking falls into three categories: the highland indigenous cuisine; the Spanish colonial style cultivated by ladinos; and the food of the Caribbean coast town Livingston. The last style of cooking developed with the culinary input of indentured laborers from India and Africa and it resembles the cuisine of Belize. Unlike the other two kinds of Guatemalan cooking, this type is tropical and uses a lot of seafood, coconut, and bananas in its recipes.

The indigenous and Spanish styles are much more prevalent and are somewhat intermixed. They make use of many of the vegetables and fruits native to the New World. Some of the most popular ingredients include chayote or huisquil, a pear-shaped vegetable with firm, deep to pale green skin, which can be boiled, fried, mashed, baked, or used in salads and deserts; cilantro or culantro, a green, leafy herb otherwise known as Chinese parsley or fresh coriander; and cacao, a chocolate made from local cacao beans sold in small cakes or tablets, which is used in cooking and to make hot chocolate.

Tortillas and black beans are among the most common foods in Guatemala. In indigenous villages, women often make the tortillas the traditional way by grinding corn with a rounded pestle on a flat lava stone called a piedra or metate and baking the flat corn disks on a dry, clay platter known as a comal. (This process is very time-consuming and generally cannot be sustained in the United States.) The black beans, which are difficult to find in the United States, are prepared whole, pureed, as soup, or paste and can be eaten at all meals. On the Caribbean coast and in cities the beans may be eaten with rice.

There are many varieties of tamales, which are essentially dough with meat and/or vegetables wrapped and steamed in a corn husk, leaf, or other wrapping. The dough can derive from cornmeal, flour, potatoes, or green bananas. In Guatemalan towns, women sell home-made tamales in markets. Chuchitos are a delicious type of cornmeal tamale made with chicken, pork, or turkey, tomatoes, and chiles.

Chilaquiles/as consist of tortillas stuffed with cheese or other ingredients dipped in a batter and then fried or baked. They can be served with a savory tomato sauce. In the chilly Guatemalan highlands, caldos or soups are frequently made and consumed.

These Guatemalan American children hitched a ride on top of a van to participate in the Central America Ethnic Pride Parade in Chicago.
These Guatemalan American children hitched a ride on top of a van to participate in the Central America Ethnic Pride Parade in Chicago.
Soup ingredients can include beef, chicken, lamb, potatoes, carrots, chayotes, onions, mint, eggs, tomatoes, beans, garlic, cilantro, and epazote, a mildly antiseptic herb, which also has medicinal purposes.

Turkey is native to the Americas and was raised, eaten, and sacrificed as a ceremonial bird in Mayan times. In Guatemala, turkey is still prepared and eaten during fiestas and national holidays. Another festive meat dish is pepián, which is eaten on Corpus Christi Day in June. Pepián consists of beef stewed with rice, spices, and vegetables such as tomatoes, green snap beans, chiles, and black peppercorns.

Plantains or plátanos are commonly eaten in the cities and in the more tropical areas. This very versatile fruit/vegetable, which looks like a banana, can be eaten ripe or green (but always cooked) and is alternately boiled, mashed, pan-fried, and deep-fried. Ripe plantains are sweet and can be prepared as a dessert with chocolate, cinnamon, or honey.

Sweets are quite popular in Guatemala and there is a wide variety of desserts and sweet breads like pan dulce, a sweet corn bread. Hojuelas are fried flour crisps drizzled with honey, which are sold in cities and in village markets. There are also prepared drinks like boj, a fermented sugar cane liquor drunk by Kekchi indigenas in Cobán. Atol de maíz tierno is a popular beverage made by boiling the paste of young corn, water, cinnamon, sugar, and salt.


Since the 1930s, most men have worn European-style clothing, but women of the highlands still wear the brightly colored garments distinct to each Mayan village. The wearing of traditional clothing or traje típico has evolved into a way to preserve ethnic identity and pride in both Guatemala and in the United States. Mayan American women may wear traje at home and especially at cultural events like fiestas, church meetings, and weddings. The huipil is a multicolored, intricately embroidered blouse. The corte is an ankle-length brightly woven skirt that may also be embroidered. Traditionally, hair is kept long and worn in a braid or ponytail. On festive occasions women may also wear colorful beaded or silver necklaces and sparkly earrings. The cloth for traje típico is traditionally hand-woven on a loom, but today machine-produced cloth is widely available in Guatemala, although the hand-woven might be preferred for special occasions.


Guatemalan Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, as well as Guatemalan holidays like Semana Santa and patronal festivals. Totonicapan immigrants in Houston sometimes travel to San Cristobal to celebrate their town's patron saint fiesta La Fiesta de Santiago, Christmas, and Semana Santa. Semana Santa is based on the Catholic Holy Week. The week-long festivities reflect the blending of Mayan and Catholic rites and include costumed allegorical dramas that depict the Spanish conquest. During the week, participants cover the streets with alfombras, literally carpets, made of colored sawdust arranged in intricate patterns. The celebration reaches its climax on the last day when the parish priest leads a procession of the townspeople across the alfombras.

Although they are not national holidays, preparations for fiestas that honor a town's patron saint are elaborate, and Guatemalan Americans dynamically maintain these traditions. Kanjobals in both Los Angeles and southern Florida celebrate the fiesta of the patron saint of San Miguel Acatán on September 29th every year.

In 1990, more than 900 people attended the patronal festival in Los Angeles, which involved the coronation of festival queens, serving traditional Guatemalan food, the awarding of trophies to athletes, and a Deer Dance. The ancestral Deer Dance is performed by people dressed as animals and different types of people. In Guatemala, 60 to 80 dancers participate in the dance. The costumes have religious meaning and prayers are said before the dance commences. Celebrants set off firecrackers and rockets and play music on the marimba and on a drum made of wood and deer skin during the dance.


The theory of health and illness common in Mesoamerica is based on a humoral dichotomy of hot and cold, which should be in balance. The idea is derived from the Spanish importation of the Hippocratic quadratic that also considered the forces of wet and dry. In her study of the health practices of Mayan Americans in Florida, Maria Miralles observed that they sometimes attributed their illnesses to an imbalance in hot and cold or to the weather and heat.

Many of the indigenous and rural refugees are not accustomed to relying on modern American medicine to cure their health problems. In rural Guatemala and in some cities, curanderos, or traditional curers, use teas, herbs, and other natural remedies to heal the sick. Curanderos are also consulted as spiritual diviners and healers. Some curanderos are specialists trained in bone-setting or the treatment of tumors. In Los Angeles, the Kanjobals can go to local curanderos for problems like stress or depression. However, curanderos have been mostly supplanted by U.S. doctors, because they cannot get licenses to practice medicine here. Promotores de salud or health promoters trained by Catholic Action missionaries to know first-aid and preventative medicine also work in Guatemalan villages.

In many Mayan cultures, birth ceremonies are extremely important and the infant is received as a part of the community. Babies are traditionally delivered by midwives, and it is considered scandalous to go to a hospital to give birth. However, in the United States women may go to hospitals to deliver in order to obtain birth certificates for their newborns, despite their preferences.

Curative herbs can be consumed or used in medicinal steam baths. In Guatemala, the herbs can be bought from herb vendors; here they can found at botánicas, although not all of them are available. Some of the herbs used are manzanilla or chamomile and hierba buena, a mixture from Mexico. These can be taken for stomach disorders or headaches. Medicines can also be purchased without a prescription at pharmacies in Guatemala. Guatemalan immigrants who relied on traditional curative practices may prefer them to those of the American medical establishment. However, many also go to clinics and hospitals to cure their ailments.


The journey from Guatemala to the United States is usually traumatic for emigrants escaping persecution or extreme poverty. Traveling by foot for up to thousands of miles with little money and few possessions, many become dehydrated, malnourished, and exhausted. Most refugees travel through Mexico, where they may stay in overcrowded refugee camps that provide little food and shelter and have poor sanitary conditions. Under these circumstances, refugees are susceptible to serious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis as well as parasites, gastrointestinal disorders, severe malnutrition, cracked and damaged feet, and skin infections.

Many refugees are also surviving the shock of experiencing extreme violence and subsequently suffer from mental health problems. Physical and mental health problems from conditions in Guatemala and the journey are compounded by the precariousness of the refugees positions once they settle here. Poor housing, underemployment, fear of deportation, and drastic changes can induce stress-related ailments such as ulcers and high blood pressure. Anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse (among men) have also afflicted survivors.

Undocumented refugees usually do not receive insurance from employers, Medicaid, or other government health-care benefits, and often do not have access to affordable health care. However, in Los Angeles and Indiantown, health clinics have been established for Guatemalan and other immigrants without papers. In Indiantown, a county-sponsored health clinic known as el corte operates a Woman, Infant, and Child program for family planning and gives vaccinations to migrant workers' children. A privately run clinic known as la clinica provides screening, acute episode care, chronic disease management, and laboratory and x-ray services on a sliding fee basis. Kanjobal immigrants use both clinics, although they may also use traditional remedies at home.

In 1983, several social service and ecumenical religious groups created the Clinica Monsenor Oscar A. Romero as a free health care center for Central American refugees in Los Angeles. It was formed to address the special needs of refugees who cannot go to public medical facilities where they risk being deported and who contend with language and financial barriers that keep them from going to other clinics.


Spanish is the official language of Guatemala and is spoken by most first-generation Guatemalan Americans. However, some indigenous immigrants, especially women from the rural areas, speak exclusively Mayan languages and are unfamiliar with Spanish. Many first- and second-generation Mayan Americans are trilingual, and can communicate in Spanish, English, and a Mayan dialect. The Mayan languages spoken by Guatemalans in the United States include Kanjobal, Quiché, Mam, Cakchiquel, Chuj, Jacaltec, and Acatec. In Los Angeles, several dialects of Kanjobal are spoken, according to what village the person originates from.

The Mayan Americans in Houston speak both Quiché and Spanish. However, Hagan noted that the use of Quiché is diminishing both in Houston and in Guatemala, due to the predominance of Spanish in both areas. Children in Latino communities in Houston and Los Angeles learn Spanish in school and in their neighborhoods. Since Spanish is the language of access in Guatemala and in Latino areas, parents may encourage children to learn Spanish so they can interpret for them in various situations.

Language issues can be intimately linked with assimilation, as children sometimes reject both their Mayan language and customs. In Los Angeles, some second-generation Kanjobal Americans attend a Spanish-language church rather than one that holds services in Kanjobal, espousing the larger Latino community.

Guatemalan American refugees sometimes learn to speak Mexican Spanish to disguise their national origin. By passing for Mexican, they may be able to evade detection by the immigration authorities. For example, they may use Mexican terms such as " lana " instead of the Guatemalan term " pisto " for money. In some cities, Guatemalan immigrants learn to speak Puerto Rican Spanish for the same reasons. As one Guatemalan refugee aid worker put it: these more established Latino groups have "provided us with the tools to get along in an environment that doesn't accept us."


Popular Guatemalan greetings and expressions include: Buenos días ("bwe'nos de'âs")—good morning, good day, hello; buenas noches ("bwe'nâs no'ches")—good night; gracias ("grâ'syâ"s)—thank you; con mucho gusto ("kon mü'cho gus'to")—with much pleasure, often used as "You're welcome," and as "It's a pleasure to meet you;" sí pues ("se pwes")—It's okay; or, Yeah, you're right; con permiso ("kon per me'so")— excuse me; que rico, que riquíssimo ("ke rre'ko, ke rreke'semo")—How rich, delicious, great!; ¡Salud ! ("sâ luth "')—To your health! Cheers!; and ¡Buen provecho ! ("bwen pro ve'cho")—literally "Good digestion!" said before a meal as in bon apetit or Enjoy!

In Cakchiquel, common sayings include: Raxnek, seker, xseker —good morning; xocok'a', xok'a —good night; nuch' ocob'a' —I'm sorry; matiox —thank you; ja'e —with pleasure (like con gusto ); and rutzil, ruwech —hello.

Family and Community Dynamics

The family is very important among Guatemalan Americans. In many cases, large extended kinship groups maintain close bonds of loyalty, obligation, and social support. The family group traditionally includes grandparents and fictive kin such as comadres or godmothers.

However, among immigrants, many family members are now separated, since it is generally impossible for everyone to immigrate at the same time. Many men were forced to flee without their families because they were in immediate danger of being killed or conscripted into the fighting. Undocumented migrants usually have traveled to the United States alone, because they cannot afford to pay the coyotes for everyone at once and because their chances of making the crossing and surviving in the new environment are better.

After establishing their lives here, immigrants generally try to bring the rest of their families over. Spouses, children, and siblings frequently reunite with the original migrant. However, elderly parents and grandparents often cannot make the difficult trip north, which can require withstanding physical dangers and hardships. Children are sometimes left with grandparents in Guatemala, because both parents must work long hours and cannot afford day care or similar services.

Separation and reunification after long periods of living apart can strain family relations. Housing conditions may also change family dynamics. In refugee enclaves like Indiantown, families live in very crowded, tenement apartments due to low wages and the lack of adequate housing. In these situations, a family may share a one-room apartment with other families. Because of the lack of privacy and pressures these conditions create, many families move out of the community if they can save enough money to do so.

Despite the difficulty of finding work and making a living as undocumented persons, most Guatemalan Americans do not receive public assistance. Illegal aliens are not eligible for public assistance and are usually wary of government institutions. Citizen children may be eligible for welfare and food stamps, but undocumented parents are often afraid to apply for it. There are no official statistics on the percentage of Guatemalan American families who receive public assistance.

These two girls are wearing traditionally handwoven Guatemalan dresses as they particate in the Central America Ethnic Pride Parade in Chicago.
These two girls are wearing traditionally handwoven Guatemalan dresses as they particate in the Central America Ethnic Pride Parade in Chicago.

As in all immigrant communities, younger family members adjust much more quickly to American life, and may become alienated from older members. In urban Latino neighborhoods, adolescents may conflict with their parents if they assume cholo identities. Cholo refers to an originally Chicano teenage subculture that involves the use of slang, a street-wise pose and walk, activities like low-riding, using marijuana, and a specific style of dress—pressed Chinos, plaid shirts, and oversized brimmed hats for boys, and lots of make-up for girls.

Attitudes toward marriage have also changed in several Guatemalan American communities. Divorce and couples living together without being married are more common in the United States than they are in Guatemala. The absence of older generations in some communities may lead to a decline in the observance of traditional customs. In general, there is little intermarriage with other ethnic groups among the first-generation. Immigrant men are more likely to date or marry non-Guatemalans than women, and second-generation girls may be encouraged more than boys to date only Guatemalan Americans.


Guatemalan American women occupy complex and important positions within their families and communities. Guatemalan society is patriarchal and patrilineal, with men controlling most of the major institutions. However, within the last two decades women have garnered more leadership roles in all areas of society and they have led and played crucial parts in many of the popular resistance movements. During the 1980s, organizations like CONAVIGUA, composed mostly of indigenous widows of murdered or disappeared men, formed and fought for women's and human rights.

In many cases, women take on a larger economic role in the family when they immigrate to the United States. In migrant worker communities, women as well as men do wage field work. In addition, women are often expected to do all the domestic labor—child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning. Given the large size of households in some neighborhoods, this can involve an enormous amount of work, cooking and cleaning for ten to 20 people.

Immigrant women tend to transmit and sustain traditional culture more than the men, especially in Mayan Guatemalan groups. By maintaining religious practices and language, preparing foods, and wearing traditional clothes and hairstyles, women preserve the cultural fabric of their group. Women also frequently organize church-related or community-oriented events like fiestas.


Education is a high priority for many Guatemalan American parents. In urban areas, like Los Angeles and Houston, the available public schools often have poor reputations, and parents prefer to send their children to private Catholic schools. In Guatemala, schoolchildren generally attend private or boarding schools, if their parents can afford it. Guatemalan American parents whose children remain in Guatemala will often pay for their education there through wages earned here.

Children who were previously educated in Guatemalan schools in which the curricula are rigorous generally adjust easily to American schools once they learn English. However, a good number of refugee children have not had prior access to much education, since many Guatemalan schools were closed during recent decades due to poverty or violence. In southern Florida, two schools have been set up to address the needs of the migrant workers' children, who may not yet speak English and must deal with other challenges. The Migrant Head Start Program and the Hope Rural School are attended by Guatemalan American and many other children from Indiantown's diverse community. No statistics on the number of Guatemalan Americans who go to four-year universities and graduate schools are available. Undocumented refugee students cannot apply for financial aid for college and therefore it is almost impossible for them to attend institutions of higher learning.


Organized religion has greatly influenced the lives of Guatemalans and Guatemalan Americans in various ways. Since the time of the Spanish conquest, Guatemalans have practiced Roman Catholicism, while maintaining Mayan religious customs and beliefs. The Roman Catholic church is still dominant in Guatemala and has been involved with all aspects of life there, including politics, community development, social services, and internal refugee relief.

During the early 1980s when two Evangelical Pentecostal Protestant presidents ruled, the Catholic clergy were associated with rebel forces and became targets for violence. In some areas it was dangerous to identify with Catholicism. Protestant Evangelism grew dramatically during this time, as the U.S. churches sent missionaries to convert people. The rise in Pentecostal and other types of Protestant religions is evident in some Guatemalan American communities, where a large percentage are Protestants.

Norita Vlach, who interviewed Guatemalan refugee families in San Francisco, observed that many Catholic families switch to the Pentecostal church during their first years in that city. The churches offer women's groups, youth groups, and Spanish language classes. In Houston, La Iglesia de Dios, the Protestant Evangelical church, is similarly active among the Totonicapan community, holding Bible readings for women and multiple services during the week, and hosting cultural events like quinceñeros for church- and non-church-goers alike. The Evangelical Protestant church forbids dancing and drinking.

Other Protestant religions and Catholicism are practiced by the majority of Guatemalan Americans in Houston. In Indiantown and Los Angeles, the Kanjobal are Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholic Charismatics and Protestants, and many do not practice any religion although they may be nominally Catholic. A few practice traditional Mayan rituals of costumbre. Some cofradias or indigenous village elders who interpreted Catholicism in villages, mixing Mayan and Catholic customs, have immigrated to the United States, but they often have a diminished role in their new environments. It is difficult to maintain all Mayan religious practices here since some depend on being in sacred places in Guatemala. Catequistas or followers of the Catholic Action Movement seek to remove indigenous practices from Catholicism.

The Catholic church has provided asylum and many social services for Guatemalan American refugees. In Indiantown, the Holy Cross Church funded a social service center that helped process asylum and immigration papers, and supplied emergency relief, health referrals, and organizational help. Services are in Spanish and Kanjobal, and the annual patron saint's festival is held there. The Presbyterian Church's Office of World Service and World Hunger has also the supported the formation of local cultural groups.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Although Guatemalan Americans with legal resident or citizen status work in any number of professional fields such as law, teaching, and medicine, the large percentage of undocumented recent immigrants have little access to decently paying jobs. Since they have not been granted refugee status that would enable them to work here legally, these Guatemalan Americans have been forced to take low-paying jobs in the service sector, manufacturing, and agriculture. These are the same jobs that have historically been held by other new immigrant groups upon arrival in the United States. In rural areas throughout the United States Guatemalan immigrants work as migrant harvesters, picking fruit, flowers, vegetables, and commodities like tobacco in places like the San Joaquin Valley. The Kanjobal in Los Angeles and southern Florida frequently do migrant work when they first come to United States.

Field work of this type is often dangerous because of accidents and exposure to pesticides that can cause rashes and burns, and it demands long hours of physical exertion and a lifestyle of constant mobility. Exploitation of migrant workers is also common, as it is easy for agricultural contractors to pocket their Social Security payments or refuse to pay them altogether. If legal status is obtained, Guatemalan Americans usually move on to other types of work such as construction, or jobs where they can apply their professional skills in areas like education or social services. Many Guatemalan immigrants worked as trained professionals in Guatemala but cannot obtain the same type of work here because of their undocumented status.

The Mayan American men and women of southern Florida and Los Angeles sometimes work in garment factories during the off-season. In 1984, less than one percent of the undocumented garment workers in Los Angeles belonged to unions, although they legally have a right to unionize to demand better working conditions and wages. There have been a few successful efforts at unionizing illegal workers (including Guatemalan Americans) in agriculture and manufacturing, but most attempts have not gotten off the ground. The difficulty of organizing itinerant laborers, language differences, lack of experience with unions, and fear of being deported may all contribute to the lack of union activity.

Other Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles and Florida work as gardeners in nurseries, landscapers on golf courses, and in restaurants and hotels. During the last few years, a textile cooperative was developed in Indiantown to create safe, year-round work in the Kanjobal neighborhood. The cooperative produces women's clothing that incorporates Mayan-style weaving.

Men may also do odd jobs as carpenters, roofers, or as informal vendors. Women often work as domestics throughout the United States, cooking, cleaning, or looking after children for individual families with whom they live. Women may also earn money by baby-sitting, doing laundry by hand, or cooking for people within their community.

In an unusual situation, many of the Totonicapan American men in Houston work as maintenance or stock workers in one retail chain. The employers who hired the original migrants from Totonicapan think of the Mayans as hard-working, responsible, and loyal. As more Totonicapan immigrants arrived, they obtained jobs with the company, creating a steady labor supply for the chain. This situation and the legalization of community members has made the acculturation process relatively smooth for this group.

Most of the work available to immigrants without legal papers is sporadic, and underemployment is a problem for many. However, the same people who have limited access to nonexploitative work are also ineligible for unemployment benefits. (There are no statistics on the number of Guatemalan Americans who receive unemployment, since figures are not categorized by national origin/individual ethnic groups.) The need for reliable, fairly paid employment is the most pressing issue in many Guatemalan American communities.

Politics and Government

Since immigration in general and refugee status in particular are at the heart of the issues affecting many Guatemalan Americans, changes in federal immigration law have influenced the group. Since the 1980s, there have been several key pieces of federal legislation regarding immigration.

The 1980 Refugee Act mandates that immigration officials judge political asylum cases individually, rather than by national origin and that the rulings be independent of the government's relations with the country the applicant has come from. However, critics of asylum processes say that the INS still bases asylum decisions on national origin. This criticism is borne out by the fact that so few Guatemalan applicants receive asylum (fewer than two percent) when compared with applicants from countries the United States does not support like Nicaragua or the former Eastern Bloc countries. Although the act did not immediately change the way asylum decisions are made, it paved the path for later legislation and court decisions. The complex Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 enabled immigrants living in the United States continuously since January 1, 1982 and arriving before that date to apply for legalization status. This provision helped the small percentage of Guatemalan emigrants who arrived before 1982. Another provision of IRCA called for employer sanctions that penalize employers who hired unauthorized workers after November 6, 1986. Observers noted that this provision could reduce the demand for undocumented workers, force repatriation, and restrict immigration, but it is difficult to ascertain what the results of this part of IRCA have been. Some Guatemalan American migrant workers benefited from the farmworker amnesty portion of IRCA that provided resident alien status to farmworkers. Farmworkers who did agricultural labor for at least 90 days from 1985-1986 were eligible for this status under SAW or the Seasonal Agricultural Worker provision.

Several court cases have questioned the government's handling of political asylum proceedings for people from Central America and have prohibited discriminatory practices in these hearings. In February 1991, a Federal district judge in San Francisco approved a settlement that blocked deportation of up to 500,000 Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants and allowed them to reopen their asylum cases. Under the decision, the INS had to reconsider an estimated 150,000 cases of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees whose asylum cases had been denied since 1980 but who had not yet been deported.

Refugee advocacy groups lobbied for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Guatemalan refugees in the United States under the Immigration Act of 1990. The act authorizes TPS where there is an ongoing armed conflict that would seriously threaten the safety of an individual upon return, or where conditions prevent nationals from returning safely. The end of the civil war in Guatemala terminated these efforts. The governments of the two countries are working on a solution to the status of the nearly 200,000 Guatemalans living in the United States who are not U.S. citizens.


Since Guatemalan Americans comprise a small and largely unestablished group, they have not yet been very involved with American politics. A number of grass-roots refugee advocacy groups, however, have lobbied for immigrant rights. There are no statistics on Guatemalan American voting patterns, the number of elected officials, or participation in the armed forces. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Houston does not categorize their listing of Latino politicians by national origin. However, there are at least two Guatemalan American city officials in California.

Veronica Cardenas-Jaffe helped to incorporate Mission Viejo into the City of Mission Viejo in 1988. She was subsequently elected to the charter city council in 1988 and has served as Mayor pro tem since 1990. Jim Gonzalez was appointed to City and County Supervisor on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1988. He has also worked as a special assistant to former San Francisco Mayor now Senator Dianne Feinstein from 1981 to 1986.


Most Guatemalan Americans have family or close friends remaining in Guatemala, and the majority are very concerned about the state of affairs there. While many Guatemalan Americans do not have the resources or time to address the conditions they fled from, there are already several Guatemalan American organizations that actively strive for an end to violence and corruption in Guatemala. These groups include many refugee aid organizations, since political and economic turmoil in Guatemala continues to have a direct impact on the situation of refugees here.

Individual and Group Contributions

Although Guatemalan Americans constitute a very small percentage of the American population and are one of the most recently established American ethnic groups, they have contributed significantly to American life through political and cultural organizations and as individuals. Personal contributions have been especially numerous in the arts and sciences. The following subsections list some notable Guatemalan Americans and their accomplishments.


Marta Ortiz-Buonafina (1933– ) is an associate professor of marketing at Florida International University. She has published many articles and books, including the second edition of Profitable Export Marketing in 1992. Luis Alfredo Vasquez-Ajmac (1961– ) is president of MAYA, a marketing communications firm targeting Latinos in Washington, D.C., that he established in 1990. He has also served as an advisory member to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Guatemalan American Julio Recinos volunteers to cover banana boxes filled with canned food for victims of hurricane Mitch
Guatemalan American Julio Recinos volunteers to cover banana boxes filled with canned food for victims of hurricane Mitch


In 1990, Hermann Mendez (1949– ), associate professor of pediatrics at the State University of New York-Health Science Center at Brooklyn, received awards from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Assistant Secretary of Health for his outstanding contributions to the fight against AIDS. He was also named as one of the Best Doctors in New York by New York Magazine in 1991 and as one of the Best Doctors in America by Wood-ward/White Inc. in 1992.

John Joaquin Munoz (1918– ) is a scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Health's Rocky Mountain Laboratories. He served as chairman of the immunology section of the American Society of Microbiology from (1980-1981), and received an NIH Director's Award in 1979. He has also published many papers and is the co-author of Bordetella Pertussis: Immunological and Other Biological Activities (1977).

Psychiatrist Julio Alfredo Molina (1948– ) is the founder and director of the Anxiety Disorders Institute of Atlanta. Psychologist and government official Carmen Carrillo (1943– ) is the director of Adult Acute Services at San Francisco's Department of Public Health. She has earned many awards for her work in education, psychology, mental health, and Latino issues, including the City and Council of San Francisco Distinction and Merit Award in 1988, the National Women's Political Caucus Public Service Award in 1989, and the California School Boards Association Service Award in 1991.

Sergio Ramiro Aragón (1949– ), a professor of chemistry at San Francisco State University, established a supercomputer center at California State University in 1989. Sergio Roberto López-Per-mouth (1957– ), assistant professor of math at Ohio University, has published several articles and co-edited a book called Non-Commutative Ring Theory with S. K. Jain in 1990. Victor Perez-Mendez (1923– ) has edited two books, written over 300 articles, and is a professor of physics and faculty senior scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. Statistician Jorge Huascar del Pinal (1945– ) is the chief of the U.S. Bureau of the Census's Ethnic and Spanish Statistics Branch. He published Microcomputer Programs for Demographic Analysis in 1985.


Aida Doninelli (1898– ), Guatemalan-born and raised daughter of Italian immigrants to Guatemala, made her American debut as an opera singer in Chicago in 1927. A dramatic soprano, she performed in the major concert stages of the United States and Latin America and sang with New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera from 1928 to 1933. During her tenure at the Met, Doninelli performed in many operatic roles, including Micaela in Carmen, Mimi in La Bohème, and Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly. She also appeared in some of the earliest musical films like La Traviata and Tosca, and introduced Latin American music to a wide U.S. audience by singing in radio shows broadcast from New York.

Several contemporary Guatemalan American authors and academics have augmented the field of American literature. Donald Kenneth Gutierrez (1932– ), a professor of English at Western New Mexico University, has published numerous essays and scholarly books, including The Dark and Light Gods: Essays on the Self in Modern Literature in 1987. David Unger (1950– ), a writer, translator, and co-director of the Latin American Writers' Institute, edited Antipoems, new and selected (1985) by Nicanor Parra and co-translated World Alone: Mundo a Solas (1982). He has received awards for his translation work from the New York State Council on the Arts.

Author Arturo Arias (1950– ) co-wrote (with Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas) the screenplay for El Norte, which won the Montreal Prize and was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay in 1982. The film portrays the experiences of a Kanjobal brother and sister who flee from persecution in Guatemala and make the arduous journey to Los Angeles. The realistic depiction of their struggles on the way and in the United States was well-received by the Kanjobal American community in Los Angeles, on which it is based. Arias has also written several novels, including Jaguar en llamas in 1989, and he is a professor of humanities at Stanford University and San Francisco State University.

Journalist and author Francisco Goldman's first novel The Long Night of White Chickens was published in 1992 and received much critical acclaim. The book evokes contemporary Guatemala and is narrated by a Guatemalan American character who travels to Guatemala in search of Guatemalan American friend who was murdered under mysterious circumstances.



El Vocero de IXIM: Boletín Informativo de Integración de Indígenas Mayas (IXIM).

Trilingual newsletter in Acatec Mayan, Spanish, and English published by IXIM. Reports on cultural activities, news of interest to the Guatemalan American community, and sometimes features traditional folk tales. Frequency is roughly quarterly.

Contact: Pascual Francisco, President.

Address: 1432 West Olympic Boulevard, No. 2, Los Angeles, California 90015.

Telephone: (213) 384-4134.

Guatemala Review.

Bilingual Spanish and English publication published by the Guatemalan Education Action Project. Features articles on the political situation in Guatemala and Chiapas.

Guatemala: The Bulletin of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA.

Quarterly publication that provides information on the human rights situation in Guatemala.

Contact: Patricia Davis, Editor.


An English-language bi-monthly newsletter published by the Guatemala Support Network. In-depth articles on the peace process in Guatemala and announcements on conferences, events.

Contact: Benito Juarez, Director.

Address: Guatemala Support Network, 4223 Richmond Avenue, No. 112, Houston, Texas 77027.

Telephone: (713) 850-0441.

La Opinión.

A Spanish-language daily newspaper popular among Central Americans in Pico-Union.

Contact: Monica Lozano, Editor.

Address: Lozano Enterprises, 411 West Fifth Street, Los Angeles, California 90013.

Telephone: (213) 896-2020.

Fax: (213) 896-2144.

Report on Guatemala.

Published quarterly by the Guatemala News and Information Bureau. Focuses on news and analysis of events in Guatemala.

Contact: Todd Kolze, Coordinator.

Address: GNIB, P.O. Box 28594, Oakland, California 94604.

Telephone: (510) 835-0810.


WZOR-AM (1490).

Broadcasts programs for the Hispanic community in Immokalee, Florida, specifically for the large Guatemalan American population in the area.

Contact: Jose Quiatanilla, Station Manager.

Address: 2105 West Immokalee Drive, Immokalee, Florida 33934.

Organizations and Associations

Casa Guatemala.

A member of Atanasio Tzul-Guatemala Support Network, the umbrella organization for ten Guatemalan refugee services groups in the United States. Provides legal assistance for immigration cases, English as a second language classes, and organizes cultural activities.

Contact: Julio Revolorio, Executive Director.

Address: c/o Atanasio Tzul, 4554 North Broadway, Suite 273, Chicago, Illinois 60640.

Telephone: (773) 465-2463.

La Comité Unidad Guatemalteca.

A mostly ladino cultural and political group organized by the Guatemalan American refugee community in San Francisco.

Contact: Mario Ordonez, Coordinator.

Address: 1200 Florida Street, San Francisco, California 94110.

Telephone: (415) 550-9225.

Grupo Maya Qusamej Junan.

Promotes the culture of Guatemalan Mayans and indigenous people in the United States through the production of art exhibits, language classes, and traditional dances and ceremonies. It also supports projects in Guatemala.

Contact: Adrian Cuyuzh, Coordinator.

Address: P.O. Box 40892, San Francisco, California 94140.

Telephone: (415) 824-2534.

Guatemala Education Action Project.

Formed in 1986 by Guatemalan refugees in the United States to build awareness, response, and respect for the people of Guatemala.

Address: 8124 West Third, Suite 105, Los Angeles, California 90048-4328.

Telephone: (213) 782-0953.

Fax: (213) 782-0954.

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA.

Monitors and provides current information about human rights in Guatemala.

Contact: Alice Zachmann, Director.

Address: 3321 12th Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-4008.

Telephone: (202) 529-6599.

Fax: (202) 526-4611.


International Mayan League.

Promotes Mayan thought in the areas of culture, science, technology, and art. It produces brochures and other media and participates in speaking engagements. Headquarters are in Costa Rica, with offices throughout the world, and it serves as the parent organization of Guatemala Watch of Vermont.

Contact: Felipe or Elena Ixzot, Coordinators.

Address: 11 Cider Mill Road, Weston, Vermont 05161.

Telephone: (802) 824-3529.

Fax: (802) 824-3529.


Online: .

Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).

Founded in 1981. NISGUA acts as an umbrella organization for groups that support human rights in Guatemala. Collects and disseminates information about the political, military, and economic situation there.

Contact: Lael Parish, Executive Director.

Address: 1500 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., No. 214, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 223-6474.

Fax: (202) 223-8221.


Museums and Research Centers

Dallas Museum of Art.

The museum displays an extensive collection of pre-Columbian and eighteenth- to twentieth-century textiles, censers, and other art objects from Guatemala.

Contact: Karen Zelanka, Associate Registrar, Permanent Collection.

Address: 1717 North Harwood, Dallas, Texas 75201.

Telephone: (214) 922-1200.

Human Rights Documentation Exchange.

Formerly known as the Central America Resource Center, the Documentation Exchange maintains a library of information on human rights and social conditions in many countries, including Guatemala, as well as some information on Guatemalan Americans.

Contact: Faye Kolly, RLSS Coordinator.

Address: P.O. Box 2327, Austin, Texas 78768.

Telephone: (512) 476-9841.

Fax: (512) 476-0130.

Middle American Research Institute (MARI).

Part of Tulane University. Features a collection of pre-Hispanic, Mayan textiles and archeological artifacts from Guatemala.

Address: Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118.

Telephone: (504) 865-5110.

Fax: (504) 862-8778.


Online: .

Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.

This internationally renowned library of books and periodicals on Latin America, maintains one of the best collections on Guatemalan Americans and Guatemala.

Contact: Laura Gutiérrez-Witt, Head Librarian.

Address: Sid Richardson Hall 1.109, General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78713-7330.

Telephone: (512) 471-3818.

San Antonio Museum of Art.

The museum features a variety of textiles and sculpture from Guatemala.

Contact: Dr. Marion Oettinger, Jr., Curator, Latin American Folk Art.

Address: 200 West Jones Avenue, San Antonio, Texas 78215.

Telephone: (210) 978-8100.

Fax: (210) 978-8118.

Textile Museum.

The museum displays a collection of handmade historic and ethnographic textiles from Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

Contact: William J. Conklin, Research Associate, Pre-Columbian textiles.

Address: 2320 South Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008.

Telephone: (202) 667-0441.

Fax: (202) 483-0994.

The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio.

The multicultural museum and educational resource center maintains a library of books, files, and photographs of 90 ethnic groups in Texas, including Guatemalan Americans.

Contact: Diane Bruce, Librarian.

Address: 801 South Bowie, San Antonio, Texas 78205.

Telephone: (210) 558-2298.

Sources for Additional Study

Ashabranner, Brent. Children of the Maya: A Guatemalan Indian Odyssey. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986.

Hagan, Jacqueline Maria. Deciding to be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Hernandez, Marita. "Kanjobal Indians: Guatemala to L.A.—Bid for Survival," Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1984, Part I; pp. 1, 3, 12.

Miralles, Andrea Maria. A Matter of Life and Death: Health-Seeking Behavior of Guatemalan Refugees in South Florida. New York: AMS Press, Inc, 1989.

Rohter, Larry. "In a Florida Haven for Guatemalans, Seven Deaths Bring New Mourning," New York Times, October 24, 1991; p. A18.

Vlach, Norita. The Quetzal in Flight: Guatemalan Refugee Families in the United States. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1989.

User Contributions:

Alma SAnchez
This article is very interesant and informative. I been living in South Carolina for 3 years, I work at and English as a second language program. What I'v noticed is that the mayority of the students that I am helping come from Guatemala an can not speak Spanish, I want to help them and their families, but I don't know how. IS there any contact here in SOuth Carolina that will help me learn their dialect and I think that way they can understand me more and viceversa.
I've made comment here before and I don't appreciate whomever runs this website deleting it, so I'll say it again.

The phone number listed above for Casa Guatemala in Chicago (773-465-2463) is incorrect. I know for a fact it is outdated and incorrect because the phone number listed is my phone number and has been for the past five years. You're welcome to delete my post again, but please do me the favor of updating or deleting the phone number you are showing. I'm tired of receiving incorrect phone calls asking for Guatemalan interpreters as a result of my phone number being listed on your website.

Thank you.
I'd like to help a Guatemalan friend and his family come to the US. Where do I start and how do we find a job for him. Thank you!!!
Cori Alvarez
To the author:
Please take note that the coming-out celebration you mention is called a "fiesta de quince años" (literally party of fifteen years) for girls who reach the age of fifteen. The girls who are celebrated at these parties are called "quinceañeras", with an "a" for the feminine gender.
I can't find the date of this article anywhere on the webpage! It was very informative and I'd like to reference it in a paper I'm writing on Guatemalans in the U.S. Can someone help me with the date?Thanks!
Im born in Guatemala and can you at least explain the reasons why Gautemalans immigrate to the United States because I there're other ways that Gautemalans immigrate to the US for example: The Guatemalans migrate to America because they are to poor there and need to go some where rich in paridise. Get it?

the article gives great imformation ,but why did the Guatemalans come to america?
to the author of this article:

thinks for the information.. it helps me a lot in my research about this place..

I'm from Philippines in a little island of your imagination and burn of fire named Camiguin.. I hope to those who read this message try to visit our island:))
MArgaret Beckett
Hi - I am interested in contact the author of this piece. I am researching a documentary for the Discovery Channel (commissioned) and I'm looking for Guatemalans who now live in DC or LA but who lived through the coup to bring down President Arbenz in 1954 - civilians, military, rebel army. Thank you
Why did The Guatemalans come to America? We've been here for thousands of years.
I think it's a great article but I don't see a date it was written. Can anyone help? I need to cite my work.
Sandra M Lockwood
Donald Trump you should read about the people you persecute it might due you good. Your wall is hard like your heart.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: