People and Culture
Guatemalans are a complex breed. First, there are the city-dwellers, who are as cosmopolitan as the residents of any North American city of comparable size. Social stratification, racism, and classicism also figure prominently into the makeup of many middle- and upper-class Guatemalans, in particular those living in urban areas. You may find some urban Guatemalans downright rude, though they are careful to put on their best appearances for foreigners.
Then there are Guatemala’s rural poor and middle class. Most of them are warm and friendly; you may even be the object of their gracious hospitality. However, you may have to get past some cultural isolationism, as rural Guatemalans are naturally suspicious of outsiders once you are past the informal, superficial relationships of a passing traveler. This is not surprising given the country’s penchant for violent social upheaval, class struggle, and an unfortunate more recent phenomenon, rising crime statistics.
Guatemala has its fair share of social problems. Perhaps the greatest challenges are the constant contradictions between wealth and poverty. It colors daily life in seemingly innocuous ways, such as traveling on a Guatemala City highway overlooking slums while driving to a fancy Zona 10 restaurant. It also colors day-to-day interactions with people and you’ll see it in the myriad ways Guatemalans treat each other.
It’s no secret that the country has a legacy of violence from which it is still trying to recover. Its governments and leaders, with few exceptions, have mostly stayed in power long enough to rape the country of its resources and contribute to the wealth of fellow cronies while turning a blind eye to crime, social inequality, and widespread violence. The general populace seems resigned to live in a country where things simply happen, where governments make promises and then fail to deliver, where the rich continue to live privileged lives while the poor continue to somehow survive.
Perhaps this is all the legacy of Spanish colonial government and the clashing of two very distinct cultures from opposite ends of the earth. Maybe it’s the legacy of 36 years of civil war. What is certain is that Guatemala’s cultural and sociopolitical makeup is a subject of much academic speculation, and you will certainly come to form your own opinions after some time traveling here.
I realize I haven’t painted a very pretty picture of my fellow Guatemalans. It’s sometimes difficult to spend time in such a beautiful country with so many sad contradictions. Part of traveling in Guatemala involves finding a way to live with these contradictions. It’s all part of the experience.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com