Economically, fertile land is the most important resource in Guatemala. Typical exported goods include coffee, sugar, cotton, and many fruits and vegetables.
The basic staple of the Guatemalan diet is corn, which can be used to make tortillas, tamales, and a corn-based drink called atol. Rice and beans are common if the family can afford them, but corn is cheaper and more accessible. Corn also fills the stomach quickly, which struggling parents count on. More than half of the population lives below the poverty line, and at least 15% (of the total population) live in extreme impoverished conditions. For most impoverished families, a common meal solely consists of corn tortillas and salt.
Many diseases are caused by impure water, lack of shelter or sanitation, and malnutrition. Many engineers have tested water filters to improve such conditions, but even so, when a family does receive a filter, culturally it is very difficult for them to properly use it. Health education opportunities are desperately needed in Spanish and in Mayan dialects.
What would your life look like if you lived in Guatemala? Explore this fun resource that gives you the stats comparing your American life to a probable Guatemalan life (ie more likely to die 7 years earlier, etc).
Lack of Education
According to the World Bank, the average years of schooling completed for persons over the age of 65 is 3. You can see small increases in younger generations, but even now, for persons between the age of 30 and 34, the average years completed in school is only 6. Total percent of labor force with secondary education, as of 2006, is 1.4%. In 2002, the drop out rate for elementary school aged students was 41%.
Lack of Nutrition
Many studies show that children are often malnourished and underdeveloped. In fact, the average height of men and women in Guatemala is shorter than any other national average, worldwide. The average height for women in Guatemala is 4' 6" and for men 5' 2". Watch this video explaining the problem of stunted growth.
The name 'Guatemala' was derived at the time of the Spanish conquest, because it means 'land of forests.' The country today is made up of indigenous Maya (60%) and Ladinos (39%), or persons of mixed race, as well as a small population of Garifuna (1%), who are of an African-American descent and typically reside on the Caribbean and Atlantic coast. Guatemala borders the south of Mexico, the west of Belize, and the north of both Honduras and El Salvador. The population is over 13 million people. The indigenous population is broken into many tribes, or ethnic groups. There are 22 recognized native languages among different parts of the country.
The Guatemalan currency is the 'Quetzal', which is also the name of the national bird as displayed on the flag. $1 USD is equal to approximately 7.7 GTQ. Many families earn less than $4,000/yr which means they individually earn sometimes only $1 per hour of labor, if that. Many indigenous still work well into the late years of life and do the most labor intensive work, such as carrying firewood on their backs from the mountains, walking over a mile to drop it off at their homes or sell it to a business.
Guatemalan History & Facts
Spirituality is very important to the Maya. You've probably heard of December 21, 2012 as 'Dooms Day', when the world is going to end, however that is a media and hollywood driven version of the true account of Mayan belief (watch the video below on the left). It is not documented that Mayans think the world is going to end, but they do believe that the Earth is 'rebalancing', marking it a time of great change, transition, and rebirth. Events such as natural disasters, shaky economies, extreme world poverty and hunger, and political warfare, for example, are described as reoccurring changes overtime that lead up to the end of a calendar cycle.
The Maya beliefs are in accordance to a calendar (which is now called the 'Long Calendar'). It essentially calculates the passage of time according to tribal beliefs about the history of the universe. The key unit of measurement is called a b'ak'tun, which represents roughly 400 years. The current calendar cycle ends on December 21, 2012, which is the end of the 13th b'ak'tun and the beginning of the 14th. There is hype that the 13th b'ak'tun is more significant than the previous ones (first thought due to an interpretation from a stone carving), however the Maya themselves believe it represents the beginning of the 14th b'ak'tun, and aside from the tragedies that have occurred (ie Japanese tsunami, etc) leading up to the change, the end and beginning of a b'ak'tun is believed to be a good thing and a cause for celebration.
For an additional resource on the Mayan calendar, watch the film, titled The Mayan Word, on Youtube. It features Mayans living in Central America today and shares their stories of how they endure the Earth's evolutions occurring presently. It's highly recommended to watch (an hour long).
The Mayan 'grandfather' diety is called 'Maximom'. He is depicted as a small wooden statue, and is decorated elaborately (as seen above on right). The real 'Maximom' is housed in Santiago Atitlan, and conducts spiritual ceremonies by way of shaman, or spiritual leaders. Incense and smoke are very sacred, as they help carry messages to the gods. They believe the path of the smoke uplifts their prayers.
History of Conflict - outside influences & politics
Even aside from the Spanish conquests of Latin America in the 16th century, Guatemala has a tragic history of violence.
In the 1950s, and during the height of US fear of communism, Guatemala experienced the beginning of a civil conflict that lasted 36 years, ending in 1996. As documented in the book 'Bitter Fruit', United States CIA interfered with Guatemalan governance and overthrew democratically elected President Arbenz. Arbenz favored land redistribution in an effort to help the working poor maintain their rights and to disrupt the power of foreign corporations, such as United Fruit, a US company. Following the overthrow of Arbenz, the new government, supported by the US, implemented many difficult policies discriminating against the indigenous Maya population.
Approximately 200,000 killings were committed during the war, with an additional 40,000-50,000 who disappeared. Investigators in United Nations eventually concluded that 93 percent of the casualties came at the hands of the military, and that the systematic slaughter of indigenous people constituted genocide.
The US is also tied to training and funding the Guatemalan military through the controversial establishment of the 'School for the Americas.' The first Guatemalan governmental person to be imprisoned and sentenced for involvement in the conflict was not until 2009. His name is Felipe Cusanero. The history and relevance of the Guatemalan Civil War is not included in the education of United States citizens. Within Guatemala it is difficult to get accounts of stories from living survivors, because many wish to move on and 'forget' rather than struggle to fight for justice. Considering the Peace Accords were signed within the last 20 years (1996), some people are still afraid to come forward with their stories, worried that they may still be in danger by the military.
Moral and political philosopher, John Rawls, said of the United States, "covert operations against them [Guatemalans] were carried out by a government prompted by monopolistic and oligarchic interests without the knowledge or criticism of the public [United State citizens]." This is part of the mission of Las Casas; the reason why we state, "displaying cultural beauty, pursuing fairness, and advocating for truth." Regardless of the consequences, it is necessary for individuals and nations to be truthful of their wrongs in the world. Without truth there is no justice, nor fairness. The world may not be fair, but you can be.
In Santiago Atitlan, some of the worst massacres occurred against the innocent. In fact, no national government military is allowed to step foot within their boundaries due to the military atrocities that took place in Santiago during the civil war. Watch this video (on the right) that documents stories from a guided tour provided by an indigenous member of the community in Santiago about the assassination of an American priest, Father Stanley Rother, who was originally from Oklahoma. Father Stanley was a man of God dedicated to treating indigenous fairly and spent many difficult years working toward equality and justice in Santiago (watch the video to the right).
As can be seen through studies on Guatemala, including the civil conflict as described above, discrimination against the indigenous population in Guatemala is a very strong indicator of the issues all across the board throughout Guatemala. Up until the mid 1900s, indigenous men were required by legislation to provide free, forced labor on public projects, such as constructing roadways (which benefited the exporters and foreign corporations). The legislation actually said all men were required to contribute to the work, however only the indigenous were held accountable to it. And it wasn't until 1985 that the indigenous population was even given the right to attend school.
In May of 2012, a story was written about a man, Oscar, who was a survivor in a small village where a massacre took place during the civil war. He was too young to remember the massacre, and was actually raised, after being abducted, by the commander responsible for killing his family. The story is well worth the read in order to better understand present day affects of the civil conflict in Guatemala during the late 1900s. It's a living example of how important justice is in our world today, because unfortunately for many, there are more unknown facts about their families than there are cases of justice.
The Maya have a deep rooted belief in nature, and hold sacred their connectedness to the land. Representations of tree roots and corn are very important to the Maya. Ancient Maya would pierce their own skin, and then splatter and burn their blood during rituals. They believed the practice would help them contact gods and ancestors. They would also flatten the heads (literal 'cone heads') of their infants by binding boards to the skull. Anyone with this deformity was seen as a spiritual leader in the community.
Lastly, they also performed sacrifices. Animals were routinely slaughtered to appease the gods, and so were people, including prisoners of war. The movie Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson, is supposed to depict the cruelty of the Mayan world, however our tour guide said the producers were mostly interested in Hollywood than accuracy. The head-rolling sacrifices were more representative of the Aztecs, located north of the Mayans mostly in parts of Mexico.
Way of Life
Can you imagine building a temple out of stones without using machines to lift them, wheels to move them, or fancy architects to design them? Welcome to Tikal (pictured below), the most famous Mayan ruins, located in the far north of Guatemala. For being such small people they sure did make big things.
The smaller stones placed on the ground in front of the large stairways are said to be where sacrifices were made to the gods.
Culturally, the Maya are laborers. Indigenous men, still today, walk multiple miles daily carrying over a hundred pounds of firewood on their backs. Women customly do just as much, if not more, illustrated by carrying a baby on the back, basket of produce on their head, and textiles around their shoulders. Aside from baskets, women can also easily be seen carrying wood, sticks, or even construction cinder blocks on their heads! The term, or even the idea, of 'retirement plan' is nonexistent in Mayan culture and lifestyle.