Nearly 4 months living in Guatemala and I’m beginning to realize how absolutely little I know about this small Central American country. In this time, I’ve also come to realize how little many Guatemalans know about the people and vast cultural differences within their borders.
Guatemala is described by some as having four main “pueblos,” or ethnic populations. These four groups include the Maya, Xinca, Garifuna, and Ladino populations. Within these four groups, however, there is an abundance of languages and cultures.
The Xinca are probably the easiest to describe, although for unfortunate reasons. While there are many Xinca descendents, the spoken language has nearly died, except for a handful of octogenarian. It is actually just now being put into writing and revived through a formal systematization and schooling process during the last 16 years. Within the past year, this population has revived their first group of youth who now learn to speak, read, and write the Xinca language. Unfortunately, it’s as a second language.
The Garifuna population mainly runs down the Atlantic coast from Belize and Guatemala down through Nicaragua. This population is generally a mix of Afro-descendent and early indigenous populations (Arawak), many of whom are descendants from those brought to the Americas in the slave trade. In Guatemala, they tend to learn Garifuna and Spanish simultaneously. In Nicaragua, they often learn Creole English, Garifuna, and Spanish simultaneously.
The “ladinos” are a population referred to as “mestizos,” or Spanish descendants. Historically, they have been the landowners, the plantation owners (Guate was, after all, a coffee and banana republic), slave owners (of the indigenous populations), the business owners, the most educated. With the ladinos, there has been a concentration of wealth and resources. Today many ladinos live in the big cities. I have a majority of ladino colleagues, which represents today, the majority of the university-educated work force in Guatemala. My organization works in underserved, mainly Mayan communities in Guatemala. Many of my ladino Guatemalan colleagues have confessed to me that they are, embarrassingly (their words, not mine), finally learning about the rich diversity of their country. They are finally seeing firsthand many of the inequalities between the “indigenous”and the “ladino.” These things were never taught in school or in history books.
Of course I have to also talk about the Mayans! The Mayans… World renowned for their precise calendars, their mathematics, their stunning pyramids… I am now finally unearthing the rich Mayan culture and going past these well-known points. About those Mayans… Just in Guatemala, there are 21 officially recognized Mayan languages and cultures, most very different from one another. TWENTY-ONE! While a handful of the languages resemble one another and theoretically derive from the same original source, today most of the languages are really different from each other. For many Guatemalans, one of these 21 languages is their mother tongue and children often don’t learn Spanish until they enter school.
In Guatemala, I’m managing an Education project in one department (think “state” all you U.S. folk) with a component that focuses largely on bilingual primary education in K’iche’ (one of those 21 Mayan languages I mentioned) and Spanish. It is incredible to go to communities, walk around town, or go to a classroom and hear children whose first language is K’iche’. While I won’t go into the challenges in this blog post of the public education system (underfunded, multi-grade classrooms, lack of access, poor facilities to name a few), I can say that many Guatemalan children have a hard time the first few years of school when they’re suddenly forced to learn every subject in Spanish.
Besides hearing daily Mayan street chatter, one of the beautiful things about Guatemala is that many Mayans still proudly wear their traditional, colorful dress every single day – particularly the women. And each of the 21 cultures has their own styles and patterns within the colorful dress. While I still cannot distinguish what sub-ethnic group people belong to by their dress, how cool to know that other Mayans can distinguish. How beautiful to see such pride for their culture. How wonderful to know that the 21 Mayan languages (and Garifuna for some) are still mother tongues for new generations.
Mayans also have a unique cosmovision of divinity, the world, the earth, and our interrelation with each. The interesting point here is that all of the Mayan populations, despite language, geographical, dress, and cultural differences, all 21 groups share the same cosmovision, with only minor details changing from group to group. For example, my Mayan colleagues have explained to me the importance of your “Nawal,” or what day you were born on according to the Mayan calendar. Your Nawal basically tells you what abilities you are born with, what your eventual mission in life is (regardless of when you come to it), when you should make offerings to your ancestors to thank them for your gifts, when to cleanse yourself, how to work with people of different nawals and much more. The Mayan cosmovision blends traditional healing and medicine with modern. Studying the cosmovision properly can show you how to balance your energy and the energies around you. It is deep and rich, and would take years to understand it all.
While there are so many wonderful things to point out about Mayan culture, I can also recognize that there are many challenges still to overcome. My non-expert guess would be that many of the things I’m about to mention come from the large inequalities between ethnic groups, including education and resource concentration. For example, there are high levels of alcoholism, unemployment, violence against women, gender inequalities, teenage pregnancies, and female student drop-outs among Mayans.
Perhaps more disturbing, however, is how deeply entrenched some of the racism and classism can be in among Guatemalans. In 1996, the government actually wrote the right to education in one’s mother tongue into the peace accords after the brutal 36 year civil war (much of which also fueled racial divides). However, in practice, many teachers who speak the language of a geographical area don’t get placed in those areas, sometimes for political reasons. Nearly all government meetings are done in Spanish, never in one of the other 23 languages. I’ve heard wealthy business men question the work of our education project, asking why we’re teaching, “Those dialects” (cue offensive tone of voice). I’ve heard people use the term “indio” (Indian) very derogatorily. Perhaps worst of all, I’ve noticed that a lot of ‘ladino’ Guatemalans don’t have a clue about or even a desire to get to know their fellow country women and men.
I know it’s easy to criticize this as an outsider, and I know there are plenty of race and class problems in my own country. My learning about Guatemala may only have scratched slightly below the surface so far. However, I’m happy to have colleagues who are actively trying to learn about how other Guatemalans live. I am also thankful for the opportunity to learn and reinforce once again that there are so many ways to live and be. That is humanity and understanding.