Monday, December 8, 2014


Years ago, a family from Guatemala moved to our area and started attending our church.  This past Easter, we went back to attend Easter service with my parents, and they had come as well.  At that time, I had just finished cooking food from El Salvador not too long before that, and we talked about how Guatemala makes similar dishes, but with their own flair, of course.  I love the moments when get to I talk to people about food. And not just food, but food they love. When people share their tips and their variations and their shortcuts (like, they told me I can just buy curtido in the Mexican supermarkets, and sure enough, I found it), you get a glimpse of what makes people happy, their childhood, and how families function in general (Who does the cooking? Who does the buying? How do people interact when talking about food and meals?).  It’s not just food: it’s life. 

Guatemala is located in Central America, surrounded by Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Caribbean Sea to the east, Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest.  Guatemala’s landscape varies widely.  It is fairly mountainous but also has desert, coastal, and forested areas as well.  Guatemala has several volcanoes with a few of them active, so it also is subject to earthquakes as well. Although the country lies in the tropics, many areas in the mountains have a fairly temperate climate.

The name Guatemala comes from the Nahuatl, meaning “place of many trees.”  It’s thought that it may also have come from other local languages as well, meaning “land of the eagle” or “mountain where water gushes.”

Archaeological evidence shows people have been in this are from 12,000-18,000 BC.  One of the earliest civilizations here were the Mayans. They built a ton of cities throughout Guatemala, southern Mexico, and other surrounding areas, although they’re known for their large temples.  The largest concentration of Mayan cities was centralized around Petén.  The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés moved into the area around 1519 and claimed it for Spain.  The capital was moved to Antigua Guatemala and later moved again after it was destroyed in several earthquakes. Guatemala declared its independence from Spain in September 1821.  It later joined the short-lived Central American Federation.  After this dissolved, Guatemala went through a period of different dictators, each with their own ideas and customs they introduced to the country, and each overthrown by the next dictator.  During the 1950s, land reform was at the heart of an international incident when the US-based United Fruit Company risked losing acreage in an attempt to break up some of the large-tract farms so anyone could have a chance to own land. They threw the election so the candidate they wanted would win and overturned the ruling. The 1970s and 1980s brought a lot of guerilla warfare and fighting in both urban and rural areas with the Guatemalan Civil War ending in 1996. 

The capital is Guatemala City, or just simply called Guatemala by the locals, or even Guate. It’s not only the largest city in the country, but with 4.1 million people in the metro area, it also makes it the most populous in all of Central America.  Every bit a modern city, Guatemala City boasts universities, shopping from bargain to upscale, theatres, museums, and major sporting events. 

While Guatemala has the largest economy of the Central American countries, there is still a steep income gap. It’s been estimated that over half of Guatemalans live in poverty. Many Guatemalans were lucky enough to leave the country during the Civil War, and they have chosen to stay and send money back home.  Guatemala has a largely agricultural- and textiles-based economy, exporting fruits, vegetables, cloth, and raw materials for biofuels such as palm oil and sugar cane. They also mine a significant amount of nickel, zinc, gold, silver, and cobalt. Guatemala is also party to free trade agreements with several agreements.

Historically, Roman Catholicism has had a strong hold in Guatemala, but about a third of the population consider themselves Protestant these days. Mayan religious practices are protected, and many Mayans joined the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala where they incorporated many of the traditional Mayan rites into their practices. Guatemala also has small pockets of Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist practitioners. 

Spanish serves as the official language for government and education, and most people speak it as a first or second language. However, there are 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala and two non-Mayan languages (Xinca and Garifuna) that are used as vernacular or local languages.

Are you a chocoholic like me? Well, we have the Ancient Mayans to thank. They were the first ones to create chocolate as we know it. The Guatemalan currency, the Quetzel, is named after a beautiful endangered bird whose feathers used to be used as currency by the Ancient Mayans. It’s been credited to the Ancient Mayans for coming up with the mathematical concept of zero as well, which is where my bank account hovers over most of the time. We often think of the importance of jade in Chinese culture, but Guatemala is the world’s leading producer of jade. And since I’m totally a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl, I can thank Guatemala for coming up with blue denim. Chocolate, jeans, and jade? I believe this is my kind of country.

Up next: art and literature

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