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. Unlike many Latin American countries, Guatemala still has a large indigenous population, the Maya, which has 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. This division has produced much of the tension and violence that have marked Guatemala’s history (Guatemalan Culture and History). Much of Guatemalan life revolves around families. Guatemalans say that parents are espejos (mirrors): through them, you learn who you are and what you can become.
Children are able to depend on their parents for advice and guidance throughout their lives. Family members tend to live near each other, and Guatemalans rarely live or spend much time alone. Families also care for elderly relatives, and godparents (padrinos) are considered an important part of the family. Guatemalan women tend to marry young and have many children. Women give birth at home, though in cities they may go to a hospital (family life). 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 is 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 tamales made of cornmeal with a variety of vegetable and meat fillings wrapped in a banana leaf (Guatemalan Culture and History).
Guatemala is home to a centuries-old weaving tradition through which indigenous women assert a sense of “belongingness” to family and community. The women and their families are descendants of the ancient Maya Indians, and the tools of their trade are cotton yarn, the backstrap loom, and time-proven patterns and techniques. Each village and region is identifiable for its own weaving design and colors. Techniques and designs are passed from mother to daughter and traditional clothes are still preferred by most. Some believe that the different patterns existed before the Spaniards arrived. Others believe they were brought from Europe.
It is known that the conquistadors used the clothing to label people and control the populations. The traditional technique was to wrap the threads on a warping board, and then mount them on back-strap loom where a panel was woven. Panels were decorated with brocade designs depending on the textile tradition of the weaver’s community as well as her personal taste and skills. Finally, the woven panels were sewn together to make a garment (Guatemalan Culture). Poverty affects both urban and rural Guatemalans, but rural residents, including most of the Maya population, generally live under harsher conditions.
Wiggins 4 More than 70% of rural residents are classified as living in extreme poverty, compared to 36% of urban inhabitants. 83% of Guatemalans have access to sanitation. About 54% of the population has access to health care, but the majority of doctors are around Guatemala City. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases and reproductive tract infections (RTIs) among Guatemalan women are high and are on the rise. Malnutrition affects about 60% of the young children (Guatemalan Culture and History).
Guatemala has a young population, with 16% under age 5 and 27% age 5-15. The birth rate of 36 per 1000 population is five times the death rate. Guatemala’s people suffer from one of the highest infant mortality rates in Central America, 49 deaths per 1000 live births. Life expectancy at birth is 66 years (63 years for males and 68 for females), among the lowest in the region (Guatemalan Culture and History). The literacy rate for Guatemalans over the age of 15 stood at 56% of the population in 1995, among the lowest rates in Central America.
Elementary education is free and compulsory, and 84% of the school-age children attend primary school. The enrollment ratio dropped to 25% for secondary schools. Wiggins 5 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 (Guatemalan Culture and History). Religion is important to Guatemalan life. Each village has a Catholic church; at home, people light candles to honor saints.
While the majority of Guatemalans identify themselves as Roman Catholic, the form of Catholicism found in Guatemala, particularly in Mayan areas, differs from that of many other countries. Some people turn to traditional prayer men called brujos, ajkunes and chuchkujawes. These men are believed to have special powers for planting and removing curses, foretelling the future, and asking God to heal sick and bring back love or lost objects. Brujos hold their rituals in houses or caves, using offerings of incense and liquor (spirituality).
A typical Sunday is spent for going to church, visiting others or being with family. Relatives stop by and families promenade in the streets, dressed in their best clothes. After a family meal, the afternoon might be devoted to a basketball game between cousins, or a visit to a local park or riverbank (Sports and Recreation). Men and women tend to socialize with their own sex. Male companionship is very important to men. Several times a week, men meet over coffee or beer with friends they have known since childhood to talk, play cards or watch soccer.
Many men confide in their male friends more than their wives. Women are less likely to leave home in the evenings, although female co-workers sometimes get together for coffee after work. If woman do not work outside the home, daily chores and shopping are opportunities to socialize with other women during the day (Sports and Recreation). Guatemala’s climate is mild which allows people to relax and socialize outdoors much of the year. Children run around outside playing games such as “thieves and police,” hide and seek, tenta (tag) and electisado (statues).
Children also play with simple materials such as shells and stones, and girls make dolls out of dough. Some school grounds have soccer fields, and the game is popular with both sexes. Boys also enjoy baseball, while girls prefer basketball or volleyball. A favorite evening activity is clustering on street corners to listen to ghost stories, including the one about the fearsome “man with the big sombrero. ” Playtime is more limited for poorer children, who must help their parents on farms or with crafts (Sport and Recreation).
Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, but 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. 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 at times has tried to suppress indigenous culture, make Spanish the universal language, and promote European ways (Guatemalan Culture and History).
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