Guatemalan Americans

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Author: Maria Hong
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
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Guatemalan Americans

Maria Hong


Guatemalan Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Guatemala. Guatemala is located in the northern part of Central America and is bordered by Mexico to the north and west, El Salvador and Honduras to the south and east, the Pacific Ocean along its West Coast, and Belize and the Caribbean Sea to the north and east. The southern half of the Republic of Guatemala—where the majority of the nation's population resides—mainly consists of mountain highlands and plateaus, which are susceptible to earthquakes. Guatemala's total land mass encompasses 42,042 square miles (108,889 square kilometers), which is slightly larger than the state of Maine.

Guatemala had a population of just over 14 million people in 2012, the largest population of any nation in Central America. According to the Guatemalan government's 2002 census, mestizos or “ladinos” (mixed indigenous-Spanish ancestry) made up the majority of the population at 60 percent, with the remaining 40 percent made up of several different indigenous groups. The largest indigenous groups in Guatemala are Mayan, including the Maya Quiché at 11 percent, the Maya K'ekchi at 7.6 percent, the Cakchiquel at 7.4 percent, the Mam at 5.5 percent, with small tribal groups making up the remainder. The country's thirty-six year civil war from 1960 to 1996 had a crippling effect on the economy, from which it began a slow recovery at the end of the twentieth century.

Guatemalans began to arrive in large numbers in the United States beginning in the late 1970s as a result of its violent civil war. Early immigrants began to settle in the Southwest states of California and Texas and many found employment as seasonal migrant workers in the agricultural industry. Many of these immigrants were men who were fleeing the immediate danger of kidnapping, politically motivated violence, or forced service in the military they would face if they remained in their homeland. While Guatemalan immigration has waned somewhat since the beginning of the twenty-first century, many families and individuals continue to emigrate in search of better economic opportunities.

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey documents that there were approximately 1.2 million individuals of Guatemalan descent residing in the United States in 2011, which is roughly population of Dallas, Texas. Guatemalan Americans are the sixth largest Hispanic group in the United States. Areas with a large population of Guatemalan Americans include Los Angeles, California; Houston, Texas; Miami, Florida; New York City; and northern New Jersey.


Early History Guatemala's roots lie in the great Mayan civilization, which was concentrated in separate city-states established throughout what is now southern Mexico and Central America. From 2000 BCE through 900 CE, Mayan civilization accomplished much in the areas of astronomy, written language, architecture, the arts, and religion. Some of their massive structures from their ancient cities remain today, such as the immense stone temples and pyramids at Tikal in the Petén.

The Mayan city-states were militaristic, and they devoted much of their energy and resources toward conducting wars with each other. By 900 CE, various factors, probably including sustained crop failure, environmental degradation, and frequent war, had led to a precipitous decline of the Mayan civilization. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century, about one million indigenous people remained and were easily conquered. Two events that paved the way for the conquest of the region of modern-day Guatemala were Hernán Cortés' conquest of Tenochtitlán in modern-day Mexico in 1521, and the Spaniards' exploration and conquest of the area now known as Panama, led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa, which began as early as 1510. From 1523 to 1524, the Spanish, led by Pedro de Alvarado, colonized many former Mayan city-states located to the south of the former Aztec empire in Mexico. De Alvarado became the first captain general of Guatemala, which then encompassed most of Central America. The Spanish settlements in the Central American region facilitated travel and trade with Spain's island colonies in the Caribbean and served as a rich source of raw materials, including minerals, crops, and timber for export to Spain. By 1650 a large percentage of these indigenous people had been wiped out by disease, war, and exploitation, and the Mayan population dwindled to about 200,000.

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In 1821, Guatemala gained independence from Spain, and in 1824 it joined the Central American Federation. In 1838 the Federation disbanded, due mostly to a revolt against it led by an indigenous general, Rafael Carrera, who then seized control of the newly independent nation of Guatemala.

The efforts of activists such as Guatemalan Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú have focused international attention on the oppression of indigenous people in Guatemala. However, an apartheid-type of oligarchic system remains entrenched with the government and other power centers controlled by a small European-descended minority.

Modern Era In 1871 a liberal caudillo (military dictator), Justo Rufino Barrios, took power and ruled as president from 1873 to 1885. Barrios enacted anticlerical legislation, began to establish a national education system, and fostered the inception of Guatemala's coffee industry. Guatemala was ruled by a succession of military dictators until the last caudillo, Jorge Ubico, was overthrown in 1944, and Juan José Arevalo was elected president in 1945. Arevalo instituted political democracy in Guatemala, encouraging organized labor, the formation of a social security system, and industrialization.

Arevalo's successor, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, redistributed land from wealthy landowners and the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, which had exploited workers for decades. Arbenz's challenge to United Fruit and his support of Guatemala's Communist Party led to conflict with the Eisenhower Administration. In mid-1954, Arbenz was overthrown by a U.S.-supported, largely CIA-directed revolt, led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas.

For the next thirty years, most of the agrarian and labor reforms achieved under Arevalo and Arbenz were undone by a succession of mostly military rulers. Leftist guerrillas attempted to undermine these military regimes, while right-wing paramilitary death squads fought back against the guerrillas by brutally repressing the civilian population. According to Amnesty International, at least 20,000 civilians were killed by the death squads from 1966 to 1976.

During the late 1970s, a popular resistance movement to the military governments began to operate through a collaboration among ladinos, indígenas (indigenous peoples), peasants, labor leaders, students, journalists, politicians, and Catholic priests. In response the army and paramilitary counterinsurgency units stepped up their repression efforts. From 1980 to 1981 guerrilla forces encouraged and sometimes coerced large numbers of highland indígenas to join them in their armed revolutionary efforts. The army retaliated by massacring whole indigenous villages; kidnapping, torturing, and murdering people suspected of supporting the guerrillas; and scorching peasant crops and homes.

The Commission for Historical Clarification convened by the Oslo Peace Accords of 1994 called the military efforts an ethnic genocide campaign, stemming from pervasive discrimination against indígenas in Guatemalan society. In addition to destroying indigenous villages, the government army forced more than one million indígenas into military-controlled “model villages” and “reeducation camps,” and conscripted men into the army's civil defense patrols.

Violence in the villages peaked under Efraín Ríos Montt, a Pentecostal Protestant, who became president through a military coup in 1982. By the army's own count, the counterinsurgency movement destroyed 440 villages and damaged numerous others between 1980 and 1984. Widespread terrorism continued under Ríos Montt's successor Brigadier General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, who became president in 1983. In 1984 the Guatemalan Supreme Court reported that around 100,000 children had lost at least one parent during the decades-long civil war.

Facing mounting international pressures—many as a result of the international publicity received by Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú's testimonio revealing the horrors of the civil war that was published in 1983—General Mejía allowed a gradual return to democracy. This transition began with the 1984 election of a Constituent Assembly, which then drafted a democratic constitution. The new constitution took effect in May 1985, after which Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, a Christian Democratic party leader, won the first election held under the new constitution, receiving nearly 70 percent of the vote.

As President Cerezo struggled to lead the transition from a military to a civilian government, and many of the reforms he attempted to institute ultimately failed. In the meantime, political killings by the right-wing death squads continued. Cerezo was succeeded in 1991 by Jorge Serrano Elías, who two years later attempted to dissolve Guatemala's Congress and suspend the constitution. After a short period of political turmoil, the Congress elected Ramiro de León Carpio, a former human rights ombudsman, as president. On March 29, 1994, the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) signed three peace agreements brokered by the United Nations. In December 1996 the long civil war finally ended when rebels and the government announced a peace treaty.

The CIA declassified thousands of pages of reports in May 1997 regarding its participation in the orchestration of the 1954 coup that overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz. These reports reveal that the United States's role in distributing guns and money to rebel forces and training mercenaries through the nearly four decades of the Guatemalan civil war. In 1999 the Commission for Historical Clarification, Page 277  |  Top of Articlebacked by the United Nations, released a report documenting that Guatemalan security forces were responsible for 93 percent of all human rights violations committed during the civil war, which claimed approximately 200,000 lives. Nearly 24,000 innocent Guatemalans were executed, about 80 percent of whom were Mayans from the Quiché area. Despite the achievements of the peace accords, however, widespread violence, including abductions, torture, and executions by army and paramilitary men, continued into the early twenty-first century.

In 2003, in response to the Guatemalan Supreme Court's ruling that Efraín Ríos Montt was constitutionally barred from running for president, the “jueves negro” (Black Thursday) riots occurred. Thousands of masked FRG supporters swarmed the streets of Guatemala City, wreaking havoc with machetes, clubs, and guns, shooting out windows and setting buildings and cars on fire. The Supreme Court decision was overturned and Montt was allowed to run for president. This situation is just one example of the persistence of political and governmental corruption and coercion in modern-day Guatemala. That same year, former Guatemala City mayor, Óscar Berger, was elected president.

In Guatemala 63 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. In this mostly rural, agrarian country, 2 percent of the population owns over 64 percent of the arable land. Peasants survive by subsistence farming land or by doing seasonal migratory work on coastal coffee, sugar, and cotton plantations. Among Central American nations, Guatemala has the highest infant and child mortality rates, the lowest life expectancy, and most malnourished population, with rampant severe hunger. In his 2006 article “The Limits on Pro-Poor Agricultural Trade in Guatemala: Land, Labour and Political Power,” published in the Journal of Human Development, Roman Krznaric blames globalization and the domination of Guatemala's elite for the persistently large income gap in Guatemala between the affluent and impoverished classes. While the elite benefits directly from foreign investment and neoliberal economics, these benefits do not reach Guatemala's large impoverished sector, much of which is made up of indigenous peoples.

The efforts of activists such as Guatemalan Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú have focused international attention on the oppression of indigenous people in Guatemala. However, an apartheid-type of oligarchic system remains entrenched with the government and other power centers controlled by a small European-descended minority. Although several hundred thousand Guatemalans remain uprooted within Guatemala, hundreds of thousands have fled to the United States and Mexico to escape the violence since the late 1970s.


Until 1960 the United States did not keep separate statistics on the number of immigrants from Guatemala, and figures reflect migration from the entire Central American region. During the 1830s only 44 arrivals of Central Americans were recorded. Between 1890 and 1900, 500 Central Americans immigrated to the United States according to records of legal migration. The numbers increased during the next two decades, with 8,000 arriving from 1900 to 1910 and 17,000 migrating between 1910 and 1920. Emigrants from Guatemala may have been seeking a better life following a devastating earthquake in 1917.

During the 1930s the number of Central American immigrants fell to fewer than 6,000 for the whole decade, due in part to quotas on immigration from Western Hemisphere nations enacted in the 1920s. However, since the mid-1950s the annual number of legally admitted Central Americans has steadily risen, with 45,000 arriving between 1951 to 1960.

Due to political upheavals and related economic crises throughout the region, large numbers of undocumented Guatemalans and other Central Americans have been coming to the United States since the late 1970s. During the early 1970s, inflation, political turmoil and violence, unemployment, low wages, and land scarcity due to inequitable land allocation precipitated the mass internal and external displacement of Guatemalan campesino peasants, indígenas, and professionals. In February of 1976 an earthquake destroyed much of Guatemala City, causing some residents to emigrate. From 1967 to 1976, 19,683 Guatemalans immigrated to the United States, and the 1970 U.S. Census recorded a Guatemalan American population of 26,865 persons. The 1980 U.S. Census recorded 62,098 Guatemalan Americans, with 46 percent arriving between1975 and 1980.

However, the majority of Guatemalan Americans have arrived in the United States since 1980. Official immigration statistics do not reflect the true number of immigrants from Guatemala, because most arrivals are undocumented. In 1984 hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled to Mexico and the United States. Thousands also escaped to neighboring Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Since the early twentieth century, Mayan Guatemalans had traveled annually to southern Mexico to work on seasonal coffee harvests, attracted by the wages and low cost of living. By the late 1950s, 10,000 to 15,000 men and women were crossing the border into Mexico and back every year. In the 1960s and 1970s, the number increased to around 60,000 annually; some of these settled in the Mayan communities of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. After the massacres of Mayan villages in Guatemala, indígenas from the departments of Quiché, Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango, Itzabal, and the Petén fled to this region, and many seasonal workers remained in Mexico. Refugee camps were established in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. Due to the dismal economic and health conditions in these camps, many Guatemalan refugees moved on to the United States, often enduring great hardships on the way.

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Because they must cross the border illegally, many immigrants hire guides called coyotes, who facilitate the crossings for fees as high as several thousand dollars per person. During the trips many experience robbery, rape, kidnapping, or imprisonment by people who exploit their vulnerability. Some are smuggled to the United States by religious workers who also give them sanctuary once they arrive. Due to the expense of the trip, those who migrate to the United States are not generally the poorest of the poor.

According to the 1970 U.S. Census, 90 percent of Guatemalans in the United States were classified as white because they were mostly of Spanish or European heritage. These immigrants tended also to be middle class. Before the 1980s most Guatemalan political emigrants were ladino activists and politicians from urban centers. After 1980 large numbers of indigenous people and campesinos fled to the United States from counterinsurgency campaigns in the western highland areas. Significant numbers of schoolteachers, student activists, journalists, and other professionals accused of being guerrilla sympathizers also immigrated for political reasons. In March 2006 the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that there were more than 300,000 undocumented Guatemalan immigrants living in the United States.

A large portion of the Guatemalan American population in the United States works in the service sector, while many others work in the construction, transportation and agricultural industries. Undocumented immigrants tend to work in the informal job sector, often finding temporary labor in construction or as domestic workers, such as nannies and maids.

The United States has not recognized Guatemalans as political refugees. Most recent immigrants from Guatemala are considered economic immigrants, and only one to two percent of Guatemalan requests for political asylum are granted. Many sources state that immigration officials view Guatemalan asylum cases less favorably than those from applicants from other countries where human rights abuses are common, because U.S. refugee policy is politicized. They say that the United States has historically granted asylum to people fleeing communist regimes rather than those from countries the United States is friendly with. For over a decade, immigration officials denied bias in assessing asylum cases, asserting that Central American asylum seekers, especially Guatemalans and Salvadorans, fell “outside of the category of political asylum on the grounds that these migrants were fleeing economic conditions and generalized conditions of violence rather than targeted political persecution, and that they could therefore safely remain within their countries of origin or the Central American region,” criminologist Susan Coutin documents in her 2009 American Sociological Association report “Falling Outside: Lawyering, Central Americans, and the Boundaries of Political Asylum.”

This denial of bias was largely proven false, however, by the U.S. Justice Department's 1990 settlement of a lawsuit filed by organizations including the Immigrants' Rights Project of American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of more than 150,000 Guatemalan and Salvadoran undocumented immigrants who were denied political asylum or were still awaiting decisions on their applications. The government's decision basically admitted that U.S. authorities had violated the law in their refusal to grant political asylum in a nonpolitical manner. Many of these immigrants did have their original sentences reversed and were granted amnesty by the courts.

Illegal immigrants who are caught by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are usually deported back to Guatemala, where they may face dangerous situations as repatriates. Some Guatemalan emigrants travel to Canada, where they can receive refugee status. Despite the threat of deportation, the difficulty of the trip to the United States, and problems here as undocumented persons, Guatemalans have continued to arrive in the United States and are one of the fastest-growing American immigrant groups.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, approximately 1.2 million persons of Guatemalan origin resided in the United States in 2011. Of these, 787,000 were born in Guatemala, reflecting the large portion of recent immigrants among the Guatemalan American population. However, the actual number of Guatemalan Americans is higher, owing to those who have immigrated illegally and are not part of the official count. Guatemalan Americans are the second-largest immigrant group from Central America after Salvadoran Americans.

Guatemalan Americans have settled primarily in cities with large existing Latino communities. The greatest number—probably over 400,000—are in Los Angeles, which has the largest concentration of Central Americans in the United States. Significant numbers of Guatemalan Americans also reside in Houston, Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., Southern Florida, and San Francisco. Smaller enclaves are found in Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix/Tucson, and other cities in Texas and North Carolina.

During the early 1980s, Phoenix/Tucson became an important center for the Sanctuary Movement, a group of mostly Christian religious organizations that provided sanctuary to illegal migrants from Guatemala and El Salvador. These groups supported immigrants in their efforts to gain legal status and helped them obtain work and housing. Since then, most of those Guatemalans have moved on to areas outside of Arizona.

The Latino communities in Chicago and New York expanded considerably during the mid- to late-1980s. In these cities Guatemalan Americans tend to be inconspicuous, blending in with the more established Mexican or Cuban American populations, in hopes of eluding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, Page 279  |  Top of ArticleD.C., Central Americans predominate among Latinos. A number of wealthy Guatemalan Americans live in Miami, the commerce gateway to Latin America.

Many of the Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles live in or near the Central American-dominated Pico-Union district. Once primarily a Mexican American area, Pico-Union is now characterized by businesses that cater to Central Americans, including bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, and social service organizations. A substantial portion of the Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles and in southern Florida are Kanjobal Mayans. In Houston, there are over a thousand Mayans from the provinces of Totonicapán and Quiché. These indigenous communities represent the best-documented Guatemalan American populations.

Guatemalan Americans have met with both hostility and empathy from the general American public. Many of the negative reactions from “established” Americans have focused on immigration issues. During the recession of 2008 and concurrent waves of anti-immigrant sentiment, Guatemalans and other Central Americans have been depicted as overwhelming government social services and undermining American employment by taking low-paying jobs. Others have described newly arrived Central Americans as resourceful contributors to the economy, many of whom take jobs that other Americans presumably do not want.

The U.S. government's refusal to designate Guatemalan immigrants as political refugees and its persecution of Sanctuary Movement workers can be interpreted as an unsympathetic stance toward Guatemalan Americans. On the other hand, grassroots supporters and many major city governments have defended Guatemalan immigrants. In the mid-1980s some members of Congress and at least a dozen cities, including Los Angeles, St. Paul, and Chicago, criticized President Reagan and his administration's federal policy concerning illegal Central Americans and limited city cooperation with Immigration and Naturalization Services officials.

Guatemalan Americans' relations with other Latino groups have been similarly mixed. The more established Chicano communities have expressed both resentment and support for the newer residents. Sometimes Central American and Mexican groups vie for jobs, and cultural differences can preclude social interaction among people of different national origins. A number of Native American groups have been supportive of indigenous Guatemalan immigrants to the United States and empathize with their struggle against genocide.

Although many Guatemalan Americans have ancestors who came to the United States generations ago, the key issues facing the group in the near future are still linked with their immigration status, since the


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majority of Guatemalan Americans have arrived since the mid-1980s. Most Guatemalan Americans face a host of challenges in the areas of work, health, and cultural preservation due to their undocumented status and the adverse economic and political situations they left behind.


Spanish is the official language of Guatemala and is spoken by most first-generation Guatemalan Americans. However, some indigenous immigrants, especially women from the rural areas, speak Mayan exclusively and are unfamiliar with Spanish. Many first- and second-generation Mayan Americans are trilingual, and can communicate in Spanish, English, and a Mayan dialect. The U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey reported that nearly 90 percent of Guatemalan Americans spoke a language other than English. The Mayan languages spoken by Guatemalans in the United States include Kanjobal, Quiché, Mam, Cakchiquel, Chuj, Jacaltec, and Acatec. In Los Angeles, several dialects of Kanjobal are spoken, according to what area the person originates from.

The Mayan Americans in Houston speak both Quiché and Spanish. However, in her book Deciding to Be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston (1994), Jacqueline Maria Hagan noted that the Quiché language is diminishing both in Houston and in Guatemala, due to the predominance of Spanish in both areas. Children in Latino communities in Houston and Los Angeles learn Spanish in school and in their neighborhoods. Since Spanish is the language of access in Guatemala and in Latino areas, parents may encourage children to learn Spanish so they can interpret for them in various situations.

Language issues are intimately linked with assimilation, as children of immigrants sometimes reject both their Mayan language and customs. In Los Angeles some second-generation Kanjobal Americans attend a Spanish-language church rather than one that holds services in Kanjobal. Guatemalan Americans sometimes learn to speak Mexican Spanish to disguise their national origin. By passing for Mexican, they may be able to evade detection by the immigration authorities. For example, they may use Mexican terms such as lana instead of the Guatemalan term pisto for money. In some cities Guatemalan immigrants learn to speak Puerto Rican Spanish for the same reasons.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Popular Spanish-language Guatemalan greetings and expressions include: Buenos días (“bwenos deas”) meaning “good morning,” “good day,” or “hello” and buenas noches (“bwenas noches”), meaning “good night.” Gracias (“grasyas”) means “thank you”; con mucho gusto (“kon mucho gusto”) means “with much pleasure,” which is used to mean “you're welcome” or “it's a pleasure to meet you.” Sí pues (“se pwes”) can mean either “it's okay” or “you're right”; con permiso (“kon per meso”) means “excuse me”; que rico, que riquíssimo (“ke re ko, ke rekesemo”) is an exclamation meaning “how rich,” or “delicious,” or “great!”; ¡Salu! means “to your health” or “cheers”; and ¡Buen provecho! (“bwen pro ve cho”) means literally “good digestion” and is exclaimed before a meal.

In Kaqchikel, the Mayan language spoken by the Kaqchikel people in central Guatemala, Raxnek, seker, xseker means “good morning”; xocok'a', xok'a means “good night”; nuch' ocob'a' means “I'm sorry”; matiox means “thank you”; ja'e means “with pleasure” (like con gusto); and rutzil, ruwech means “hello.”


Organized religion has greatly influenced the lives of Guatemalans and Guatemalan Americans. Since the time of the Spanish conquest, Guatemalans have practiced Roman Catholicism, while also maintaining Mayan religious customs and beliefs. The Roman Catholic church is still dominant in Guatemala and has been involved with all aspects of life there, including politics, community development, social services, and internal refugee relief.

During the early 1980s, when two Evangelical Pentecostal Protestant presidents ruled the nation, the Catholic clergy were associated with rebel forces and became targets for violence. In some areas it was dangerous to identify with Catholicism. Evangelical Protestantism grew dramatically during this time, as American churches sent missionaries to convert people. Thus, many recent Guatemalan Americans are Evangelical Protestants, in contrast to the majority in the Latino community, who are Roman Catholic.

Norita Vlach, who interviewed Guatemalan refugee families in San Francisco, observed in her book The Quetzal in Flight: Guatemalan Refugee Families in the United States (1989), that many Catholic families switch to the Pentecostal church during their first years in that city because those churches offered women's groups, youth groups, and Spanish language classes. In Houston, La Iglesia de Dios, a Protestant Evangelical church, is similarly active among the Totonicapán community, holding Bible readings for women and multiple services during the week, and hosting cultural events such as quinceñeras for church members and non-church members alike.

In Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles (2001), Nora Hamilton and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla documented that in the Los Angeles area, 43 percent of Guatemalans and Salvadorans belonged to a church or were involved in a religious organization. They note that for many Central American refugees, religion “is a source of community and commitment.” Many Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles belong to charismatic Catholic congregations as well as Evangelical Protestant churches, including the Centro Cristiana Pentecostal in Hollywood.

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Other Protestant religions and Catholicism are practiced by the majority of Guatemalan Americans in Houston. In Indiantown, Florida, and Los Angeles, the Kanjobal are Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholic Charismatics, and Protestants; many do not practice any religion although they may be nominally Catholic. A few practice traditional Mayan rituals of costumbre. Some cofradías, or indigenous village elders who interpreted Catholicism in villages, mixing Mayan and Catholic customs, have immigrated to the United States, but they often have a diminished role in their new environments. It is difficult for some Guatemalans to maintain their Mayan religious practices in the United States because some of these practices revolve around sacred places in Guatemala. Catequistas, or followers of the Catholic Action Movement, seek to remove indigenous practices from Catholicism.

The Catholic Church has provided shelter and many social services for Guatemalan American refugees. In Indiantown, Holy Cross Church funded a social service center that helped process asylum and immigration papers and supplied emergency relief, health referrals, and organizational help. Services are in Spanish and Kanjobal, and the annual festival for Guatemala's patron saint is held there. The Presbyterian Church's Office of World Service and World Hunger has also the supported the formation of local cultural groups in Indiantown.


Guatemalan Americans are a culturally diverse group of people. Within Guatemala 23 distinct ethnic groups speak different languages and maintain unique cultural traditions. The majority of these groups are Mayan; and ladinos, or Hispanic Guatemalans, constitute a separate population that adheres to the Spanish language and culture. Given this diversity, it is impossible to generalize about the group as a whole.

Immigrant Mayan American communities have maintained their traditional practices the most visibly. Hispanic Guatemalans have tended to blend in more with other Latino cultures and little information about them or third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Guatemalan Americans exists. For instance, no studies have been conducted on how traditions are being passed on beyond the second generation. Further inquiry into these areas is needed and will probably occur as the recent wave of immigrants gives rise to second- and third-generation adults.

Certain practices like the celebration of quinceñeras, the formation of soccer leagues, and the organization of patronal fiestas have been maintained in most of the newer Guatemalan American neighborhoods. Specific Guatemalan American groups in Los Angeles, Houston, and southern Florida have received the most attention from sociologists and the media. The following sections on these three communities illustrate how some Guatemalan traditions are being preserved or transformed through the process of acculturation.

Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles Until the late 1970s Los Angeles's Pico-Union district was populated by Mexican immigrants, Chicanos, African Americans, and European Americans. Some Central and South Americans began arriving in the mid-1950s, and after 1980 an influx of Central Americans settled the neighborhood. These Central American immigrants, including university students, teachers, clergy, and campesinos, came from all classes and political persuasions. New residents could shop at Latino-owned businesses such as grocery stores, botánicas selling religious articles and herbs, and informal vendors.

Among the Guatemalan immigrants were Mayan Chujes, Quichés, and Kanjobals. The Kanjobals from the highlands of Huehuetenango near the Mexican border constitute the largest Mayan group in Los Angeles, with a population of more than 5,000 in 1999, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Many call themselves Migueleños after their hometown of San Miguel Acatán. The first Kanjobal immigrants to Los Angeles came during the late 1970s in search of work, and more followed during the early 1980s, when Kanjobals were targeted as guerrilla sympathizers, and both guerrillas and the army pressured men and boys to fight on their sides during the civil war.

Coming from an agrarian society, the Kanjobals have made many adjustments to living in urban Los Angeles. Many had not used electricity or cars before. Women who had washed their clothes by hand in rivers became accustomed to laundromats. Both men and women encountered unfamiliar appliances such as refrigerators and unfamiliar foods like hot dogs.

To avoid deportation to Guatemala, many have tried to pass for Mexican American. For example, women generally do not wear the brightly embroidered blouses called huipils outside the home, and they have dispensed with carrying their infants on their backs in colorful cloth rebozos. In general, Guatemalans prefer deportation to Mexico versus their home country. Compared to their homeland, the economic opportunities for Guatemalan migrants are much greater in Mexico, and there is actually a large population of Guatemalan migrants who live and work in Mexico without ever making it to the United States. Additionally, Guatemalan immigrants tend to face more discrimination within the Latino/Chicano population in the United States because of the stark differences between their indigenous culture and traditions and those of the dominant mestizo culture, and thus passing as Mexican American helps them to avoid stigmatization based on their country of origin.

Deeper forms of integration into American society may be more elusive. Jacqueline Maria Hagan, who researched Houston's Mayan community, noted that assimilation can be intimately tied to legalization. Legal status affords the opportunity to join

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The proprietor of Rinconcito Guatemalteco stands inside the authentic Guatemalan restaurant in Los Angeles, California. The proprietor of Rinconcito Guatemalteco stands inside the authentic Guatemalan restaurant in Los Angeles, California. KAYTE DEIOMA / PHOTOEDIT

established institutions, such as banks, and become active in higher education and community sports and other activities. As undocumented immigrants, many Guatemalan Americans refrain from interacting with mainstream society.

A nonprofit group called the Guatemala Unity Information Agency (GUIA) provides Guatemalan immigrants in the Los Angeles area with assistance related to immigration, education and social services.

Guatemalan Americans in Texas Fifteen percent of the total Guatemalan American population resides in Texas, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. As in Los Angeles, most Guatemalans emigrated after 1980 to escape political violence and economic repression. Both Hispanics and indigenas migrated to Houston, including Mayans from Quiché and Totonicapán in the Southwestern Highlands. The thousand or so Mayans have maintained many of their traditional social and cultural customs, and indígenas from Totonicapan can depend on a well-developed community for support upon arrival.

Some traditions have been lost upon settlement in the United States. Totonicapán is known as the capital of artisan production in Guatemala, and most of the male immigrants to Houston were previously tailors, weavers, or bakers. Since those skills were not transferable to the Houston workplace, many have transitioned from cottage industry production to wage labor. Women, however, still buy traditional garments from Totonicapán immigrants for special events.

Close relations between Guatemalan home villages and Mayan American communities also sustain cultural practices on both ends. Many Guatemalan Americans have close family members remaining in Guatemala. As they have achieved temporary or permanent residency status, some Guatemalans in Houston have been able to make the trips themselves. Items typically transported include traditional clothing, Guatemalan foods and spices, and occasionally things like wedding bands or other special items.

Some families have moved out of the Houston Totonicapán community after gaining legal status and saving enough money. Researcher Hagan saw this as part of a shift toward adopting American Texan culture, which included buying newer cars and women updating their hairstyles and clothes.

Kanjobals in Southern Florida A small farming town 25 miles inland from the east coast of Florida called Indiantown is home to approximately 4,000 to 5,000 Maya refugees from Guatemala, notes Allan Burns in Maya in Exile: Guatemalans in Florida (1993). Along with migrant workers from other countries, Guatemalan Americans here harvest sugar, oranges, cucumbers, and other crops during the winter growing season. Indiantown derived its name from the Seminole Native Americans who used to inhabit the area; now it is the center of the Guatemalan American population of southern Florida, which extends to other small towns like Immokalee.

Most of the Guatemalans in Indiantown are Kanjobals, although there is a small non-Kanjobal speaking group from the mostly ladino town of Cuilco. The Kanjobals first arrived in late 1982, when a Mexican American crew boss brought some refugees from Arizona to Indiantown to pick crops. These workers subsequently led family and friends from Kanjobal communities in Los Angeles and Guatemala to the area, and the town became a refuge from both the civil war and urban environments. As in other Mayan American communities, the tradition of going to the weekly market to exchange news and gossip and buy fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables has been supplanted by going to supermarkets. However, other customs remain intact and the Kanjobals maintain a visible ethnic presence.

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Kanjobal marimba players from Indiantown played at the U.S. Folk Festival in 1985 and they also received a grant to teach Kanjobal American teenagers traditional music. The local Catholic church and Mayan American associations sponsor an annual fiesta in honor of the patron saint of San Miguel Acatán. Committees of men and women organize entertainment, sports, and the election of festival queens who give speeches in Kanjobal, Spanish, and English. Participants wear traditional clothing and teach children how to dance to marimba music. The dances involve costumed performances with masks made from paper maché. The patronal fiesta functions as an important gathering of Kanjobals, who must work and live outside of Indiantown, and as an affirmation of their ethnic identity.

Although many Mayan Americans have strived to preserve traditions such as these, others eschew their native customs. Since acculturation is ultimately a personal choice, degrees of assimilation vary from individual to individual. As in every other ethnic group, there are many like Mateo Andres, a first-generation Kanjobal American farmworker who told New York Times reporter Larry Rohter that he sees no need to pass on Mayan languages or practices to subsequent generations and hopes that his newborn son grows up to be “100 percent American.”

Cuisine Savory and sometimes spicy Guatemalan cuisine has its origins in Mayan foods. Staples such as corn, beans, hot chili peppers, and tomatoes are still the staples of Guatemalan cooking. During the Spanish conquest, rice and other European and Asian ingredients were introduced into the cuisine. Guatemalan cooking falls into three categories: the highland indigenous cuisine; the Spanish colonial style cultivated by ladinos; and the food of the Caribbean coast town of Livingston. The last style of cooking developed with the culinary input of indentured laborers from India and Africa and resembles the cuisine of neighboring Belize. Unlike the other two kinds of Guatemalan cooking, this type is tropical and uses a lot of seafood, coconut, and bananas in its recipes.

The indigenous and Spanish styles are much more prevalent and somewhat intermixed. They make use of many of the vegetables and fruits native to the region. Some of the most popular ingredients include chayote or huisquil, a pear-shaped vegetable with firm, deep to pale green skin, which can be boiled, fried, mashed, baked, or used in salads and desserts; cilantro or culantro, a green, leafy herb otherwise known as coriander; and cacao, a chocolate made from local cacao beans sold in small cakes or tablets, which are used in cooking and to make hot chocolate.

Tortillas and black beans are among the most common foods in Guatemala. In indigenous villages, women often make the tortillas by grinding corn with a rounded pestle on a flat lava stone called a piedra or metate and baking the flat corn disks on a dry, clay platter known as a comal. This process is very time-consuming and is generally not used in the United States. Black beans are prepared whole, pureed, as soup, or paste and can be eaten at all meals. On the Caribbean coast and in cities, beans may be eaten with rice.

There are many varieties of tamales, which are essentially dough with meat and/or vegetables wrapped and steamed in a corn husk, leaf, or other wrapping. The dough can be made from cornmeal, flour, potatoes, or green bananas. In Guatemalan towns, women sell homemade tamales in markets. Chuchitos are a type of cornmeal tamales made with chicken, pork, or turkey, tomatoes, and chiles.

Chilaquiles consist of tortillas stuffed with cheese or other ingredients dipped in a batter and then fried or baked. They can be served with a savory tomato sauce. In the chilly Guatemalan highlands, caldos, or soups, are a frequent meal. Soup ingredients can include beef, chicken, lamb, potatoes, carrots, chayotes, onions, mint, eggs, tomatoes, beans, garlic, cilantro, and epazote, a mildly antiseptic herb that also has medicinal purposes.

Turkeys are native to the Americas and were raised, eaten, and sacrificed as a ceremonial bird in Mayan times. In Guatemala, turkey is still prepared and eaten during fiestas and national holidays. Another festive meat dish is pepián, which is eaten on Corpus Christi Day in June. Pepián consists of beef stewed with rice, spices, and vegetables such as tomatoes, green snap beans, chiles, and black peppercorns.

Plantains or plátanos are commonly eaten in the cities and in the more tropical areas. This very versatile fruit is similar to the banana but is higher in starch and lower in sugar content. Thus, it is always cooked, usually while it is green. It can be boiled, mashed, panfried, and deep-fried. Some varieties of ripe plantains are sweeter and can be prepared as a dessert with chocolate, cinnamon, or honey.

Sweets are quite popular in Guatemala and there is a wide variety of desserts like pan dulce, a sweet corn bread. Hojuelas are fried flour crisps drizzled with honey, which are sold in cities and in village markets. There are also prepared drinks like boj, a fermented sugar cane liquor drunk by Kekchi indígenas in Cobán. Atol de maíz tierno is a popular beverage made by boiling the paste of young corn, water, cinnamon, sugar, and salt.

Traditional Dress Since the 1930s most Guatemalan men have worn European-style clothing, but women of the highlands still wear the brightly colored garments distinct to each Mayan village. The wearing of traditional clothing, or traje típico, has evolved into a way to preserve ethnic identity and pride in both Guatemala and in the United States. Mayan American women may wear traje at home and especially at cultural events like fiestas, church meetings, and weddings. The huipil is a multicolored, Page 284  |  Top of Articleintricately embroidered blouse. The corte is an ankle-length brightly woven skirt that may also be embroidered. Traditionally, hair is kept long and worn in a braid or ponytail. On festive occasions women may also wear colorful beaded or silver necklaces and sparkly earrings. The cloth for traje típico is traditionally hand-woven on a loom, but today machine-produced cloth is widely available in Guatemala, although the hand-woven fabric might be preferred for special occasions.

Holidays Guatemalan Americans celebrate American and Christian holidays as well as Guatemalan holidays, such as Semana Santa (the holy week of Easter) and patronal festivals. Totonicapán immigrants in Houston sometimes travel to San Cristóbal to celebrate their town's patron saint fiesta La Fiesta de Santiago, Christmas, and Semana Santa. The weeklong festivities of Semana Santa reflect the blending of Mayan and Catholic rites and include costumed allegorical dramas that depict the Spanish conquest. During the week, participants cover the streets with alfombras, or “carpets,” made of colored sawdust arranged in intricate patterns. The celebration reaches its climax on the last day when the parish priest leads a procession of the townspeople across the alfombras.

Although they are not national holidays, preparations for fiestas that honor a town's patron saint are elaborate, and many Guatemalan Americans maintain these traditions. Kanjobals in both Los Angeles and

Pastries from Guatemalteca Bakery in Los Angeles, California. Pastries from Guatemalteca Bakery in Los Angeles, California. KAYTE DEIOMA / PHOTOEDIT

southern Florida celebrate the fiesta of the patron saint of San Miguel Acatán on September 29 every year.

In 1990 more than 900 people attended the patronal festival in Los Angeles, which involved the coronation of festival queens, traditional Guatemalan food, trophies for athletes, and a Deer Dance. The ancestral Deer Dance is performed by people dressed as animals and different types of people. In Guatemala 60 to 80 dancers participate in the dance. The costumes have religious meaning and prayers are said before the dance commences. Celebrants set off firecrackers and rockets and play music on the marimba and on a drum made of wood and deer skin during the dance.

Health Care Issues and Practices The theory of health and illness common in Mesoamerica is based on a humoral dichotomy of hot and cold, which should be in balance. In her study of the health practices of Mayan Americans in Florida, A Matter of Life and Death: Health-Seeking Behavior of Guatemalan Refugees in South Florida (1989), Maria Miralles observed that they sometimes attributed their illnesses to an imbalance in hot and cold or to the weather and heat.

Many of the indigenous and rural immigrants are not accustomed to relying on modern American medicine to cure their health problems. In rural Guatemala and in some cities, curanderos, or traditional curers, use teas, herbs, and other natural remedies to heal the sick. Curanderos are also consulted as spiritual diviners and healers. Some curanderos are specialists trained in bone setting or the treatment of tumors. In Los Angeles the Kanjobals can go to local curanderos for problems like stress or depression. However, curanderos have been mostly supplanted by U.S. doctors, because they cannot get licenses to practice medicine in the United States. Promotores de salud or health promoters trained by Catholic Action missionaries to know first aid and preventative medicine also work in Guatemalan villages.

In many Mayan cultures, birth ceremonies are extremely important and the infant is received as a part of the community. Babies are traditionally delivered by midwives, and it is considered scandalous to go to a hospital to give birth. However, in the United States women may go to hospitals to deliver in order to obtain birth certificates for their newborns, despite their preferences.

Curative herbs are often consumed or used in medicinal steam baths. In Guatemala the herbs can be bought from herb vendors; in the United States some can be found at botánicas. Some of the herbs used are manzanilla or chamomile and hierba buena, a mixture from Mexico. These can be taken for stomach disorders or headaches. Guatemalan immigrants who relied on traditional curative practices may prefer them to those of the American medical establishment. However, many also go to clinics and hospitals to cure their ailments.

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The journey from Guatemala to the United States can be traumatic for emigrants escaping persecution or extreme poverty. Traveling by foot for up to thousands of miles with little money and few possessions, many become dehydrated, malnourished, and exhausted. Many travel through Mexico, where they may stay in overcrowded refugee camps that provide little food and shelter and have poor sanitary conditions. Under these circumstances, they are susceptible to serious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis as well as parasites, gastrointestinal disorders, severe malnutrition, cracked and damaged feet, and skin infections.

Many are survivors of extreme violence and subsequently suffer from mental health problems, which often go untreated. Physical and psychological problems from conditions in Guatemala and the journey are compounded by the precariousness of the immigrants' positions once they settle in the United States. Poor housing, underemployment, fear of deportation, and drastic cultural changes can induce stress-related ailments such as ulcers and high blood pressure. Anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse have also afflicted immigrants.

Undocumented immigrants usually do not receive insurance from employers, Medicaid, or other government healthcare benefits, and they often do not have access to affordable health care. However, in Los Angeles and Indiantown, health clinics have been established for Guatemalan and other immigrants without papers. In Indiantown a county-sponsored health clinic known as el corte operates a Woman, Infant, and Child program for family planning and gives vaccinations to migrant workers' children. A privately run clinic known as la clínica provides screening, acute episode care, chronic disease management, and laboratory and x-ray services on a sliding-fee basis. Kanjobal immigrants use both clinics, although they may also use traditional remedies at home.

In 1983 several social service and ecumenical religious groups created the Clínica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero, a free health care center for Central Americans in Los Angeles. It was formed to address the special needs of refugees who cannot go to public medical facilities due to the risk of deportation and who contend with language and financial barriers that keep them from going to other clinics.


For many Guatemalan Americans, large extended kinship groups maintain close bonds of loyalty, obligation, and social support. The family group traditionally includes grandparents and fictive kin such as comadres, or godmothers.

However, many immigrants are separated from their families, because it is nearly impossible for everyone to immigrate at the same time. Many men were forced to flee without their families because they were

Two young girls wear traditional, hand-woven Guatemalan dresses as they participate in a Central American ethnic pride parade in Chicago, 1995. Two young girls wear traditional, hand-woven Guatemalan dresses as they participate in a Central American ethnic pride parade in Chicago, 1995. PHOTOGRAPH BY SANDY FELSENTHAL. CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

in immediate danger of being conscripted or killed in the civil war. Undocumented immigrants usually travel to the United States alone, because they cannot afford to pay the coyotes for everyone at once, and because their chances of making the crossing and surviving in the new environment are better if they go alone.

After establishing their lives in the United States, immigrants generally try to bring the rest of their families over. Spouses, children, and siblings are frequently reunited. However, elderly parents and grandparents often do not make the trip, which can require withstanding physical dangers and hardships. Children are sometimes left with grandparents in Guatemala, because both parents must work long hours and cannot afford day care or similar services.

Separation and reunification after long periods of living apart can strain family relations. Housing conditions may also change family dynamics. In immigrant Page 286  |  Top of Articleenclaves like Indiantown, families live in crowded tenement apartments. In these situations, a family may share a one-room apartment with other families. Because of the lack of privacy and the pressures these conditions create, many families move out of the community when they save enough money to do so.

Despite the difficulty of finding work and making a living as undocumented persons, most Guatemalan Americans do not receive public assistance. Illegal aliens are not eligible for public assistance and are usually wary of government institutions. Children who are U.S. citizens may be eligible for welfare and food stamps, but undocumented parents are often afraid to apply for such benefits. In 2011 20 percent of the Guatemalan American population documented by the U.S. Census Bureau received food stamps or SNAP benefits.

As in many immigrant communities, younger family members adjust more quickly to American life. In urban Latino neighborhoods, adolescents may face conflict with their parents if they assume cholo identities. Cholo refers to an originally Chicano teenage subculture that involves the use of slang, a streetwise pose and walk, low-rider cars, marijuana, and a specific style of dress—pressed khaki pants, plaid shirts, and tattoos for boys, and lots of makeup for girls.

Attitudes toward marriage have also changed in several Guatemalan American communities. Divorce and couples living together without being married are more common in the United States than they are in Guatemala. The absence of older generations in some communities may lead to a decline in the observance of traditional customs. In general, there is little intermarriage with other ethnic groups among the first-generation. Immigrant men are more likely to date or marry non-Guatemalans than women immigrants are, and second-generation girls may be encouraged more than boys to date only Guatemalan Americans.

Gender Roles As in Latino families, Guatemalan American women occupy complex and important positions within their families and communities. Guatemalan society is patriarchal and patrilineal, with men controlling most of the major institutions. However, within the past four decades women have garnered more leadership roles in all areas of society and they have led and played crucial parts in many of the popular resistance movements. During the 1980s, organizations such as CONAVIGUA, composed mostly of indigenous widows of murdered or disappeared men, formed and fought for women's and human rights. With the absence of male figures in the community as a result of the civil war, women assumed more responsibility in the public sphere in order to preserve their communities.

In many cases women take on a larger economic role in the family when they immigrate to the United States. In migrant worker communities, both women and men do wage field work. In addition, women are often expected to do all the domestic labor—child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning. Given the large size of households in some neighborhoods, this can involve an enormous amount of work, cooking and cleaning for 10 to 20 people. Men are more likely to be involved in social organizations such as soccer clubs that allow interaction with other men from the community in the public sphere.

Immigrant women tend to transmit and sustain traditional culture more readily than the men, especially among Mayan immigrants. By maintaining religious practices and their native language, preparing traditional foods, and wearing traditional clothes and hairstyles, women preserve the cultural fabric of their ethnicity. Women also frequently organize church-related or community-oriented events like fiestas.

Education Education is a high priority for many Guatemalan American parents. In urban areas such as Los Angeles and Houston the available public schools often have poor reputations, and parents prefer to send their children to Catholic schools if they can afford it. Guatemalan American parents whose children remain in Guatemala will often pay for their children's education through remittances.

Children who were previously educated in Guatemalan schools in which the curricula are rigorous generally adjust easily to American schools once they learn English. However, many immigrant students have not had much prior education, due to decades of war, violence, and poverty. In southern Florida, two schools have been set up to address the needs of the migrant workers' children, who may not yet speak English and must deal with other challenges. The Migrant Head Start Program and the Hope Rural School are attended by Guatemalan American and many other children from Indiantown's diverse community.

No statistics on the number of Guatemalan Americans who go to four-year universities and graduate schools are available. Since many colleges or universities do not distribute financial aid (they are not eligible for federal financial aid, but can potentially receive state and local aid) to undocumented students, it is difficult for them to attend institutions of higher learning. However, it is not impossible, and some institutions do offer aid to undocumented youth. In 2010 about 13 percent of all Hispanics had obtained at least a bachelor's degree, versus 8 percent of individuals of Guatemalan descent. Advocacy for children of undocumented immigrants led to the creation and passage of the DREAM Act by Congress. This legislation, enacted in 2012, provides a path toward legal immigration that entails a college education and in some cases, military service.

Relations with Other Americans Guatemalan Americans face the stereotypes that have historically plagued almost all immigrant groups in the United States. Like other Latino groups, not to mention the Irish, Eastern Europeans, and Asians that have Page 287  |  Top of Articlepreceded them, Guatemalan Americans have been scapegoated by nativists as docile, ignorant workers who do not mind being exploited, who overwhelm American economic and social resources, and who are of little value except as workers in undesirable jobs. During economic recessions, politicians have exploited this anti-immigrant bias to curry favor with constituents who want to blame their own financial woes on vulnerable targets rather than coming to terms with the real sources of the problem.

Guatemalan Americans are also generally lumped together with other Central American and Latino groups as indistinguishable from one another. Although there is great diversity within and among the different Central American and Latino groups, many Americans tend to perceive them as one entity, subjecting Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Honduran, Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican Americans to the same stereotypes.


Although Guatemalan Americans with legal resident or citizen status work in any number of professional fields such as law, teaching, and medicine, the large percentage of recently arrived undocumented immigrants have little access to decently paying jobs. These Guatemalan Americans generally take low-paying jobs in the service sector, manufacturing, and agriculture. These are the same jobs that have historically been held by other new immigrant groups upon arrival in the United States. In rural areas throughout the United States, Guatemalan immigrants work as migrant harvesters, picking fruit, flowers, vegetables, and commodities such as tobacco in places like the San Joaquin Valley in California. In 2010 the median annual income of Guatemalan Americans ages 16 and older was approximately $17,000, versus $28,500 for the general U.S. population.

Field work of this type is often dangerous because of accidents and exposure to pesticides that can cause rashes and burns, and it demands long hours of physical exertion and a lifestyle of constant mobility. Exploitation of migrant workers is also common, as it is easy for agricultural contractors to pocket their Social Security payments or refuse to pay them altogether. If legal status is obtained, Guatemalan Americans usually move on to other types of work such as construction, or jobs where they can apply their professional skills in areas like education or social services. Many Guatemalan immigrants worked as trained professionals in Guatemala but cannot obtain the same type of work here because of their undocumented status.

The Mayan Americans of southern Florida and Los Angeles sometimes work in garment factories during the migrant workers' off-season. Very few undocumented garment workers in Los Angeles belong to unions, although they legally have a right to unionize to demand better working conditions and wages. However, the building maintenance industry has a more active history of Central American involvement. Chinchilla and Hamilton document that in the early 1990s, Guatemalan women represented 5 percent of the women working as janitors in Los Angeles, and they were pivotal to the earlier success of the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) campaign for higher wages in the mid-1980s. The vice president of SEIU, Eliseo Medina, as quoted by Chinchilla and Hamilton, praised their dedication to the cause observing that “immigrants from Central America have a much more militant history as unionists … and the more militant they are, the more the union can do.” Nevertheless, the difficulty of organizing itinerant laborers, language barriers, lack of experience with unions, and fear of being deported contribute to the lack of union activity among most undocumented Guatemalan Americans.

Other Guatemalan Americans in Los Angeles and Florida work as gardeners in nurseries, landscapers on golf courses, and in restaurants and hotels. During the early 1990s, a textile cooperative was developed in Indiantown to create safe, year-round work in the Kanjobal neighborhood. The cooperative produces women's clothing that incorporates Mayan-style weaving.

Men may also do odd jobs as carpenters, roofers, or as informal vendors. Women often work as domestics throughout the United States, cooking, cleaning, or looking after children for individual families with whom they live. Women may also earn money by babysitting, doing laundry by hand, or cooking for people within their community.

In an unusual situation, many of the Totonicapán American men in Houston work as maintenance or stock workers in one retail chain. The employers who hired the original migrants from Totonicapán think of the Mayans as hardworking, responsible, and loyal. As more Totonicapán immigrants arrived, they obtained jobs with the same company, creating a steady labor supply for the chain. This situation and the legalization of community members has made the acculturation process relatively smooth for this group.

Undocumented Guatemalan American workers are vulnerable to exploitation by employers since they are not afforded the same benefits as U.S. citizens, as well as to immigration raids and deportation that could involve criminal charges and/or lead to the separation of their families. A poignant example of this is the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) 2008 raid on an Agriprocessors kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa. ICE agents detained 389 undocumented immigrant workers in the plant, 293 (75 percent) of whom were Guatemalan. The most notable part of this case was the fact that several hundred of the detainees were accused of a criminal violation of the law, “aggravated identity theft,” which was a felony rather than the more common charge Page 288  |  Top of Articleof an administrative or civil violation. As Susanne Jonas explains, “the Postville raid was emblematic of the excesses of U.S. ‘enforcement-only’ immigration policies of the early 2000s, with its mass criminalization and deportation of undocumented workers.” For Guatemalan Americans, Jonas notes, the raid demonstrated the potentially devastating disadvantages of immigration in the twenty-first century. While legislation introduced by Barack Obama in his second presidential term may finally open up a viable path for the amnesty of millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, it will undoubtedly face vehement opposition by anti-immigration politicians and activists.

Most of the work available to immigrants without legal papers is sporadic, and underemployment is a problem for many. However, the same people who have limited access to nonexploitative work are also ineligible for unemployment benefits. In 2011 almost 9 percent of the adult Guatemalan American population was unemployed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While it is difficult to discern the impact of the recession of 2007–2008 on this specific community, it is likely that they faced increasing financial difficulties as did many other minority ethnic groups during that period. The need for reliable, fairly paid employment continues to be the most pressing issue in many Guatemalan American communities. The Guatemalan population's poverty status in 2010 continued to be much higher at 26 percent than that of the general population.


Because immigration in general and refugee status in particular are at the heart of the issues affecting many Guatemalan Americans, changes in federal immigration law have influenced the group. Since the 1980s, there have been several key pieces of federal legislation in this regard.

The 1980 Refugee Act mandates that immigration officials judge political asylum cases individually, rather than by national origin, and that the rulings be independent of the government's relations with the country the applicant has come from. However, critics of asylum processes during the Reagan era claimed that the INS continued to base asylum decisions on national origin. This criticism was borne out by the fact that fewer than two percent of Guatemalan applicants received asylum in the 1980s. This number is substantially less compared with applicants from countries the United States did support like Nicaragua or the former Eastern Bloc countries. Although the act did not immediately change the way asylum decisions are made, it paved the way for later legislation and court decisions. The complex Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 enabled immigrants living in the United States continuously since January 1, 1982, and arriving before that date to apply for legalization status. This provision helped the small percentage of Guatemalan emigrants who arrived before then. Another provision of IRCA called for employer sanctions that penalize employers who hired unauthorized workers after November 6, 1986.

Immigration has been one of the hardest issues confronted by legislators in the past twenty years or so, mostly as a result of the competing demands of powerful interest groups. These included the trade unions who were concerned about the depression of wages due to the unhindered flow of immigrant labor. An immigration measure offering a path to citizenship to a wide cross-section of the undocumented immigrant community was introduced to Congress in 2007 but was quickly discarded by legislators who disagreed over the weight placed on border-enforcement measures versus the attention given to granting citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants.

In February 2013, both the White House and a bipartisan group of congressman known as the “Gang of Eight,” including Republican Senator Marco Rubio, drafted preliminary immigration reform legislation. President Obama's plan would potentially pave the way for citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country through the proposed “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” visa, while also increasing border enforcement measures. The proposal made by the “Gang of Eight” places more emphasis on a guest worker program and increased border security than granting citizenship to currently undocumented immigrants. However, until a bill makes it through Congress, the status of undocumented individuals—including that of many Guatemalan Americans—remains tenuous.

Because Guatemalan Americans form a small minority group, their involvement with American politics has been minor. A number of grassroots refugee advocacy groups, however, have lobbied for immigrant rights. There are no statistics on Guatemalan American voting patterns, the number of elected officials of Guatemalan heritage, or Guatemalan Americans' participation in the armed forces. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Houston does not categorize their listing of Latino politicians by national origin. However, several Guatemalan American politicians are active across the country.

Jim Gonzalez was appointed to city and county supervisor on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1988 and served until 1992; more recently he has worked as a political consultant. He also worked as a special assistant to Senator Dianne Feinstein from 1981 to 1986. Ed Lopez was active in the Republican Party and served as the National Vice Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus beginning in 2011; although Lopez was born in Puerto Rico, he identifies Page 289  |  Top of Articlehis heritage as Guatemalan. Norma Torres, who was born in Guatemala and immigrated to the United States in 1970, is a Democratic politician who served as a member of the California State Assembly, representing the 52nd district, which includes cities in Orange County, beginning in 2012.

Relations with Guatemala Most Guatemalan Americans have family or close friends remaining in Guatemala, and the majority remain concerned about the state of affairs there. While many Guatemalan Americans do not have the resources or time to address the conditions they fled from, several Guatemalan American organizations actively strive for an end to violence and corruption in Guatemala. These groups include refugee aid organizations.


The following subsections list some notable Guatemalan Americans and their accomplishments.

Business Luis Alfredo Vasquez-Ajmac (1961–) serves as the president of MAYA, a marketing communications firm targeting Latinos in Washington, D.C., which he established in 1990. He also served as an advisory member to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Luis von Ahn (1979–), an entrepreneur and associate professor in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, is known for his pioneering work in crowdsourcing. Von Ahn also founded the company reCAPTCHA, which was bought by Google in 2009.

Marta Ortiz-Buonafina (1933–) is an associate professor of marketing at Florida International University. She has published many articles and books, including the second edition of Profitable Export Marketing in 1992.

Film Daphne Eurydice Zuniga (1962–) is an actress known for playing Jo Reynolds on the Fox soap opera Melrose Place and Victoria Davis on the CW drama One Tree Hill.

Benito Martinez (1971–) is an actor best known for playing police captain David Aceveda in the FX crime drama The Shield. Martinez studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in London, England. He also appeared on the television program Saving Grace.

Literature Arturo Arias (1950–) cowrote the screenplay for El Norte with Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, which won the Montreal Prize and was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay in 1982. The film portrays the experiences of a Kanjobal brother and sister who flee from persecution in Guatemala and make the arduous journey to Los Angeles. The realistic depiction of their struggles on the way and in the United States was well received by the Kanjobal American community in Los Angeles, on which it is based. Arias has also written several novels, including Jaguar en llamas in 1989, and he served as a professor of humanities at Stanford University, San Francisco State University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Francisco Goldman (1954–) is a journalist and author whose first novel The Long Night of White Chickens was published in 1992 to critical acclaim. The book evokes contemporary Guatemala and is narrated by a Guatemalan American character who travels to Guatemala in search of a friend who was murdered under mysterious circumstances. An Allen K. Smith Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Trinity College, Goldman received the Mary Ellen von der Heyden fellowship for Fiction, and was a 2010 Fellow at the American Academy and a Guggenheim Fellow.

Donald Kenneth Gutierrez (1932–) is a writer and professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. He has published numerous essays and scholarly books, including Breaking Through to the Other Side: Essays on Realization in Modern Literature in 1994.

Hector Tobar (1963–) is a journalist for the Los Angeles Times who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his coverage of the Los Angeles riots. His novel The Tattooed Soldier concerns both the neighborhood affected by the riots and the violence in Guatemala during the civil war. His nonfiction work, Translation Nation, explores the up-and-coming Latino and Hispanic communities outside of the American southwest.

David Unger (1950–) is a writer, translator, and former codirector of the Latin American Writers' Institute. His published works include The Price of Escape (2011) and Life in the Damn Tropics (2004). He has received awards for his translation work from the New York State Council on the Arts.

Music Aida Doninelli (1898–1996) was the daughter of Italian immigrants to Guatemala and was both born and raised in Guatemala. She made her American debut as an opera singer in Chicago in 1927. A dramatic soprano, she performed on the major concert stages of the United States and Latin America and sang with New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera from 1928 to 1933. During her tenure at the Met, Doninelli performed in many operatic roles, including Micaela in Carmen, Mimi in La Bohème, and Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly. She also appeared in some of the earliest musical films, such as La Traviata and Tosca, and introduced Latin American music to a wide U.S. audience by singing in radio shows broadcast from New York.

Manny Marroquin (1971–) was born in Guatemala and moved to Los Angeles when he was nine. He has won several Grammy Awards for his sound production work with Alicia Keys, John Legend, Usher, and Kanye West. He has also worked with Rihanna, Linkin Park, Nelly Furtado, Mariah Carey, and Santana.

Lorena Pinot (1981–) is a recording artist and songwriter who gained fame in 2001 as a lead singer Page 290  |  Top of Articlein the Latin/pop girl group MSM (Miami Sound Machine), a new incarnation of the 1980s outfit led by Gloria Estefan.

Karl Cameron (K.C.) Porter (1962–) is a record producer, songwriter, musician, and singer who has won three Grammys and Latin Grammys. Porter is best known for helping produce Carlos Santana's best-selling and award-winning album Supernatural.

Science and Medicine Julio Alfredo Molina (1948–) is a psychiatrist and the founder and director of the Anxiety Disorders Institute of Atlanta.

Carmen Carrillo (1943–) is a psychologist and the director of Adult Acute Services at San Francisco's Department of Public Health. She has earned many awards for her work in education, psychology, mental health, and Latino issues, including the City and Council of San Francisco Distinction and Merit Award in 1988, the National Women's Political Caucus Public Service Award in 1989, and the California School Boards Association Service Award in 1991.

Jorge Huascar del Pinal (1945–) is a statisti-cian and the chief of the U.S. Bureau of the Census's Ethnic and Spanish Statistics Branch.

Hermann Mendez (1949–) is an associate professor of pediatrics at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn and has received awards from the Department of Health and Human Services and the assistant secretary of health for his outstanding contributions to the fight against AIDS. He was also named as one of the best doctors in New York by New York Magazine in 1991 and as one of the best doctors in America by Woodward/White Inc. in 1992.

John Joaquin Munoz (1918–1999) was a scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Health's Rocky Mountain Laboratories. He served as chairman of the immunology section of the American Society of Microbiology and received an NIH Director's Award in 1979. He has also published many papers.

Victor Perez-Mendez (1923–2005) edited two books, wrote over 300 articles, and was a professor of physics and faculty senior scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Sergio Ramiro Aragón (1949–) is a professor of chemistry at San Francisco State University and established a supercomputer center at California State University in 1989.

Sports Ted Hendricks (1947–) was a linebacker who played NFL football with the Baltimore Colts, the Green Bay Packers, and the Oakland Raiders from 1969 to 1983.


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La Opinión

A Spanish-language daily newspaper popular among Central Americans in Pico-Union.

700 S. Flower
Suite 3000
Los Angeles, California 90017

El Quetzal

Quarterly publication from the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission that provides information on the human rights situation in Guatemala.

Kelsey Alford-Jones, Director
3321 12th Street NE
Washington, D.C. 20017
Phone: (202) 529-6599
Fax: (202) 526-4611

Revue: Guatemala's English-language Magazine

Bilingual Spanish and English publication published by the Guatemalan Education Action Project. Features articles on the political situation in Guatemala and Chiapas.

John, Editor
Terry Kovick Biskovich, Editor
3a Avenida Sur No. 4-A
La Antigua, Guatemala
Phone: (502) 7931-4500


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Guatemala Education Action Project

Formed in 1986 by Guatemalan refugees in the United States to build awareness, response, and respect for the people of Guatemala.

8124 West Third
Suite 105
Los Angeles, California 90048-4328
Phone: (323) 782-0953

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA

Monitors and provides current information about human rights in Guatemala, and runs a frequently updated blog outlining new developments and issues.

Kelsey Alford-Jones, Director
3321 12th Street NE
Washington, D.C. 20017-4008
Phone: (202) 529-6599
Fax: (202) 526-4611

Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)

Founded in 1981, NISGUA acts as an umbrella organization for groups that support human rights in Guatemala. Collects and disseminates information about the political, military, and economic situation there.

P.O. Box 70494
Oakland, California 94612

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Phone: (510) 763-1403


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Dallas Museum of Art

The museum displays an extensive collection of pre-Columbian and eighteenth- to twentieth-century textiles, censers, and other art objects from Guatemala.

1717 North Harwood
Dallas, Texas 75201
Phone: (214) 922-1200

Human Rights Documentation Exchange

Formerly known as the Central America Resource Center, maintains a library of information on human rights and social conditions in many countries, including Guatemala, as well as some information on Guatemalan Americans.

Rebecca Hall, Executive Director
PO Box 2327
Austin, Texas 78768
Phone: (512) 476-9841
Fax: (512) 476-0130

Middle American Research Institute (MARI)

Part of Tulane University, this institute features a collection of pre-Hispanic, Mayan textiles and archeological artifacts from Guatemala.

Middle American Research Institute
Tulane University
6823 St. Charles Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana 70118
Phone: (504) 865-5110
Fax: (504) 862-8778

Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin

This internationally renowned library of books and periodicals on Latin America maintains a good collection on Guatemalan Americans and Guatemala.

Margo Gutierrez, Head Librarian
Sid Richardson Hall 1.108
General Libraries
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78713-8916
Phone: (512) 495-4520
Fax: (512) 495-4568

San Antonio Museum of Art

Features a variety of textiles and sculpture from Guatemala.

Marion Oettinger, Jr., Curator, Latin American Folk Art
200 West Jones Avenue
San Antonio, Texas 78215
Phone: (210) 978-8100
Fax: (210) 978-8118

The Textile Museum

Displays a collection of handmade historic and ethnographic textiles from Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

William J. Conklin, Research Associate, Pre-Columbian Textiles
2320 South Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
Phone: (202) 667-0441
Fax: (202) 483-0994

The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio

The multicultural museum and educational resource center maintains a library of books, files, and photographs of 90 ethnic groups in Texas, including Guatemalan Americans.

801 East Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard
San Antonio, Texas 78233
Phone: (210) 458-2300


Ashabranner, Brent. Children of the Maya: A Guatemalan Indian Odyssey. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986.

Burns, Allan. Maya in Exile: Guatemalans in Florida. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Chinchilla, Norma S., and Nora Hamilton, eds. Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Hagan, Jacqueline Maria. Deciding to Be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Hernandez, Marita. “Kanjobal Indians: Guatemala to L.A.—Bid for Survival,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 1984, Part 1.

Loucky, James, and Marilyn Moors, eds. Maya Diaspora: Guatemalan Roots, New American Lives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Miralles, Andrea Maria. A Matter of Life and Death: Health-Seeking Behavior of Guatemalan Refugees in South Florida. New York: AMS Press, Inc, 1989.

Rohter, Larry. “In a Florida Haven for Guatemalans, Seven Deaths Bring New Mourning,” New York Times, Oct. 24, 1991.

Vlach, Norita. The Quetzal in Flight: Guatemalan Refugee Families in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1989.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300083