Ethnicity and Class
Guatemala’s population is one of the fastest-growing in Latin America, with 2004 census figures placing the population at just over 14 million. The annual growth rate is 2.61 percent and 43 percent of the population is under the age of 15. The country’s population density is 116 people per square kilometer, with an urban-to-rural ratio of 38.7 percent to 61.3 percent.
Population density is much less in the northern Petén department, comprising a third of Guatemala’s total land area but harboring only about 5 percent of the population. Urbanization is greatest in the western highlands region centered around Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango.
Guatemala has an incredible wealth of ethnic diversity, as attested to by the as-of-yet-unfulfilled push to amend the national constitution to officially describe the country as “pluricultural, multilingual, and multiethnic.” The country is divided about evenly between descendants of indigenous Maya (comprising 21 different linguistic groups) and ladinos, who are of Mayan descent but have adopted European culture and dress in addition to the Spanish language.
A sizable percentage of the population is a mixture of Mayan and European, also known as mestizo. A much smaller percentage of the population is of purely European descent, primarily from Spanish and German families, and they control a disproportionate fraction of the country’s wealth. Many of these are direct descendants of the criollo (New World Spanish-born elite) families dominating the country’s economy since colonial times. Indigenous Maya descendants are found in greatest numbers in the western highlands, with Guatemala City, the Pacific, Caribbean, and Petén lowlands being largely ladino.
Additionally, there are two non-Mayan ethnicities thrown into the mix, Xinca and Garífuna. Only about 100–250 Xinca-speakers remain, confined to a small area near the Salvadoran border. The Garinagu (plural of Garífuna), a mixture of Amerindian and African peoples, arrived from St. Vincent via Roatán, Honduras, in the early 1800s and settled in the Guatemalan Caribbean coastal town of Lívingston. Their culture is more similar to that of the Western Caribbean, with whom they identify more readily, than the rest of Guatemala.
Ethnicity and language are intertwined when it comes to Guatemala’s principal Mayan groups, which include K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil, Mam, Ixil, Q’eqchi’, Poqomchi’, Poqomam, and Q’anjob’al. By far the most numerous group is K’iche’, with nearly one million speakers. A little more than 400,000 people speak Kaqchikel, and there are about 686,000 Mam speakers.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com