People, Ethnic Groups
Mayan language, indigenous people of Guatemala, European customs, Roman Catholic beliefs, Spanish conquest
The major ethnic groups in Guatemala are the Maya and the ladinos (Spanish for “Latins”), those of mixed indigenous and European descent. But 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.
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 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.
Disagreements exist over the number of indigenous Guatemalans, with estimates ranging from 44 percent to 65 percent of the population. Census figures appear to have undercounted them substantially, and their number appears to be growing more rapidly than the population in general. Most of the nonindigenous population is ladino; people of solely European descent represent only a tiny percentage of the population. There are also some African Americans, especially in the coastal regions, including small communities of garifunas (black Caribs) on the Caribbean coast. These are descendants of native Carib peoples and rebellious black slaves from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, who fiercely resisted European domination and were deported by the British to the Central American coast in the 18th century.
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