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Guatemala, country in Central America with the largest population in the region. More than one-third of the inhabitants of Central America live in this rugged land of mountains and volcanoes, beautiful lakes, and lush vegetation. Guatemala City is the capital and largest city. Situated in the highlands, it dominates all aspects of national life.
Unlike many Latin American countries, Guatemala has a large indigenous population. Close to half the people are descendants of the Maya, the Indians whose advanced civilization once dominated the region. Mestizos, people of mixed European and Native American ancestry, make up the other half. Mestizos in Guatemala are known as ladinos.
Guatemala’s culture blends the old and the new: the ancient customs of its large Native American population and the modern life of Guatemala City. Ladino culture is dominant in urban areas and is heavily influenced by European and North American trends. Maya culture is deeply rooted in the rural highlands of Guatemala, where many indigenous people speak a Mayan language, follow traditional religious and village customs, and continue to produce traditional textiles and other handicrafts. 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.
Guatemala’s economy traditionally has been based on exports of coffee, bananas, sugar, and other tropical crops. This focus on export agriculture has enriched the country’s small wealthy class, who own large estates. But many of the people remain extremely poor, especially the native people who supply much of the agricultural labor.
After Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821, military dictatorships often dominated its politics. Social and economic inequities, compounded by government repression, led to a civil war beginning in 1960. The late 1980s saw movement toward more democratic, civilian rule. In December 1996 a peace accord was signed, ending the 36-year conflict, the region’s longest civil war. During this war more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared.
For younger readers
Brill, Marlene T., and Harry R. Targ. Guatemala. Children's Press, 1993. For readers in grades 5 to 8.
Sheehan, Sean. Guatemala. Benchmark, 1998. In the Cultures of the World series, for readers in grades 6 to 10.
Falla, Ricardo.Trans. Julia Howland. Massacres in the Jungle. Westview, 1994. An account of political violence in Guatemala from 1975 to 1982.
Landau, Saul. The Guerrilla Wars of Central America. St. Martin's, 1994. Account of the civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Maslow, Jonathan Evan. Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Naturalist's Journey Through a Land of Political Turmoil. Simon & Schuster, 1987. A search for the quetzal bird exposes political and social unrest in Guatemala.
Perera, Victor. Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy. University of California Press, 1993. A photographic account of the state-sponsored genocide of Guatemala's Maya people.
Simon, Jean Marie. Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny. Norton, 1987. Abuses of human rights depicted in text and photographs.
Villatoro, Marcos McPeek. Walking to La Milpa: Living in Guatemala with Armies, Demons, Abrazos, and Death. Moyer Bell, 1996. The experiences of two lay missionaries living in northern Guatemala.
Wilson, Richard. Maya Resurgence in Guatemala. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Observations on the revitalized Maya culture in Guatemala.
Woodward, Ralph Lee, Jr., A.B., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of History, Tulane University. Author of Central America, A Nation Divided and other books.
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