Guatemala

PEOPLE AND CULTURE

museo etnico en la ciudad guatemala click on the image to enlarge
Guatemala’s culture is a unique product of Native American ways and a strong Spanish colonial heritage. About half of Guatemala’s population is mestizo (known in Guatemala as ladino), people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Ladino culture is dominant in urban areas, and is heavily influenced by European and North American trends. But unlike many Latin American countries, Guatemala still has a large indigenous population, the Maya who have retained a distinct identity. Deeply rooted in the rural highlands of Guatemala, many indigenous people speak a Mayan language, follow traditional religious and village customs, and continue a rich tradition in textiles and other crafts. The two cultures have made Guatemala a complex society that is deeply divided between rich and poor. And it can be said that this division has produced much of the tension and violence that have marked Guatemala’s history.

The difference between Ladinos and indigenous people is much more a matter of culture than of biological bloodlines. Native people who adopt Spanish as their primary language and exchange traditional clothing and lifestyles for European customs come to be regarded as ladino, regardless of their biological background. Ladinos include a wide range of people, from the country’s elite and middle classes to very poor urban and rural residents. However, the elite group tends to be more ethnically European than the majority of Ladinos, with more ties to original Spanish colonists and later European immigrants.

Money click on the image to enlarge
The indigenous people of Guatemala have maintained a distinct identity, centered on lands and villages in the western highlands. Many speak a Mayan language rather than Spanish and follow spiritual practices from before the Spanish conquest, sometimes blended with Roman Catholic beliefs. Although most are poor by material standards, their lifestyle is ecologically and spiritually satisfying to them, and they have largely chosen to remain isolated from national life. The Guatemalan government has at times has tried to suppress indigenous culture, make Spanish the universal language, and promote European ways. During the civil war, indigenous people were often caught in the crossfire between guerrillas and the government, or targeted by the military for repression and even massacres to discourage them from aiding the guerrillas. Peace agreements signed in 1996 to end the war pledged to respect and promote indigenous culture.

The literacy rate for Guatemalans over the age of 15 stood at 56 percent of the population in 1995 (49 percent of females and 62 of males could read), among the lowest rates in Central America. Elementary education is free and compulsory, and 84 percent of school-age children, or 1.5 million pupils, attended primary school in 1995. The enrollment ratio dropped to 25 percent for secondary schools, which had an enrollment of 372,000 students. Enrollment figures are lower in rural areas than in urban areas. Many rural schools only go to third grade, and much of the nation’s education budget is spent in Guatemala City. In addition to public schools, there are also private and church schools, both Catholic and Protestant, among the nation’s 11,495 primary schools.

Guatemalan girl click on the image to enlarge
There is great variety in Guatemalan lifestyles, marked by differences between Ladino and Maya ways and between urban and rural areas. In the capital, European culture and fashions have long been dominant. More recently North American styles—in cinema, music, politics, business, even fast-food franchises—have become a powerful influence that has diminished traditional Spanish customs. In urban areas, the ladino culture is a mixture of indigenous and Spanish traditions. Ladinos often blend the clothing and musical styles of the two cultures, and eat dishes from both groups: wheat bread and processed foods on one hand, traditional corn tortillas and rice and beans on the other.

museo etnico en la ciudad guatemala click on the image to enlarge
Outside the capital, especially in rural areas, more traditional ways persist. In indigenous communities, most of the women and many men still wear brightly colored native dress. The typical rural family is industrious; men usually work the fields, while women care for the children and weave beautiful textiles with motifs that are unique to each community. A diet of corn, beans, and a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is standard. Chicken and rice dishes are also common. Beef or pork are less common among the poorer classes, but popular among middle and upper sectors in both town and country. Among a variety of native dishes, on festive occasions Guatemalans of all classes serve a tamale made from cornmeal with a variety of vegetable and meat fillings wrapped in a banana leaf.

museo etnico en la ciudad guatemala click on the image to enlarge
The problems of the middle and poorer classes have been major issues in ongoing political struggles throughout the 20th century. The widespread abuse of human rights has also become a domestic and international issue, after years in which the military-dominated governments repressed any opposition and massacred entire villages to discourage support for guerrillas. Rigoberta Menchú Túm, a Quiché activist for indigenous rights, did much to publicize the problem and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work. Recent governments have finally begun to curb human rights abuses, and 1996 peace agreements signed by the government and guerrillas promise protection for human rights, respect for indigenous cultures, and many social programs. In recent years, street crime has also become an important problem, with violent crime rising as poverty increases.

The contrast between the modern ways of Guatemala City, the center of Guatemalan cultural activity, and the traditional customs and crafts of the Maya peoples gives Guatemala a colorful and dynamic culture. Spanish colonists gave Guatemala its official language and many architectural and art treasures. Magnificent buildings of the colonial period remain at Antigua Guatemala, the colonial capital, located about 40 km (about 25 mi) from Guatemala City. Contemporary crafts such as weaving, jewelry making, and ceramics combine indigenous design and color patterns with Spanish technical skills. Throughout Guatemala, the marimba remains the typical Guatemalan musical medium, although it is often challenged now by Mexican ranchera music and North American rock.

Miguel Angel Asturias click on the image to enlarge
Guatemala’s literary heritage includes the 16th-century Popol Vuh, a Maya account of the creation and history of the world. Among 20th-century Guatemalan artists of international repute are the writers Enrique Gómez Carrillo, Rafael Arévalo Martínez, Mario Monteforte Toledo, and Miguel Ángel Asturias, winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in literature. The 20th-century painters Carlos Mérida, Alfredo Gálvez Suárez, and Valentín Abascal, among many others, have been inspired by the indigenous heritage of their nation, while a whole community of primitive painters at Comalapa has achieved international recognition. A number of Guatemalan social scientists have been recognized for their work in exile during times of conflict and repression in their own country. These include sociologist Edelberto Torres Rivas, historian Julio Castellano Cambranes, and author Victor Perera. A notable Guatemalan composer is José Castañeda, while Dieter Lehnhoff has done much to preserve the musical heritage of colonial and modern Guatemala.
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