Latin Cultures

by Sean N. Bennett

Guatemalan Culture




Guatemala has a mixture of cultural influences from The Mayas (Pre-Columbian inhabitants), Spanish, African, European, Mexican, and North American. Spanish conquistadors enslaved the indigenous groups in Guatemala; they were assigned to Spanish families who migrated to Guatemala. Spanish conquistadors noticed the great differences in culture and language between them. Each family had control over one town, to distinguish what town belonged to each family natives were forced to wear colorful clothes to distinguish them from other groups. Because of the different color patterns, designs, and styles used in each town, it is easy to see which town a person is from merely by looking at their clothing. Each pueblo, or town, has its own distinct trajes (dress or suits of clothing). Thus, all of the women in a town wear the same type of skirt and blouse, and all of the men wear the same type of pants and shirt. Indian women wear their traditional clothing every day, and it is very special to them.Indian clothing styles vary regionally. Each town has its own distinct style of clothing and design patterns. Women in some towns wear straight wrap-around skirts, or corte, while women in other towns wear heavy, gathered, full skirts held up by a rope-type belt. In some towns, women wear waist-length blouses, or huipiles, which are worn untucked over the skirt. In other towns, the huipiles are long and worn tucked in. Many of the patterns have horizontal or vertical stripes of different widths. They are embroidered with designs varying from suns and moons, to birds and flowers. Men wear a common white shirt, but will often wear brilliantly colored pantalones (pants) and a chaqueta (jacket),(International Outreach Guides).

Guatemala has many different ethnic groups which are very different from each other. They can be grouped in four different groups Ladinos, Garífunas, Mayas, and Xinkas (group of unknown origin). The Garifunas (African-Caribbean) live in the north-west part of the country; they have distinctive cultural influences from Africa. Most of the indigenous groups are established in rural Guatemala. Life in rural areas is not easy and incomes are low, this situation forces them to migrate to the city were they find more remunerative jobs such as masons, handyman, cooks, and most of the women work as maids. There are some indigenous groups that are located in the high lands in Guatemala, the soil is very fertile in these areas, they cultivate a great variety of vegetables that are sold to big supermarkets in the city. The groups living in the altiplano (high lands) are very wealthy. Close to 1.2 million Guatemalans have migrated outside the borders of Guatemala (Bunkers, 2009).

Guatemala is known by its percussion bands that accompany the marimba (xylophone) which is the national instrument. The colors in the Guatemalan flag are blue, white and blue. The two blue colors represent the fact that Guatemala is located in between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. In the middle, white stripe, is the Guatemala's coat of arms which consist of two rifles, two swords, and in golden letters "Libertad 15 de Septiembre de 1821" (liberty September 15, 1821), and the Quetzal in the middle (national bird) which represents liberty. In 1996 peace between leftist guerrilla groups and Guatemalan government were signed, after a 30-year civil war (Giron, 2007). The civil war started in 1962 to 1996. Many human rights were violated and violence was heard everywhere during these years of war. Most of the victims sentenced to death were Mayan and Latino peasants.

Values and Norms

Throughout Central America, the citizens of each country are known by a particular nickname of which they are proud, but also one that can be used in a demeaning way by others. An example of this is a “Yankee” in the northeast United States. In Guatemala, the citizens are called Chapines (singular, Chapin). Outside of Guatemala, Guatemalan citizens identify themselves as Guatemalans or Chapines. The most important split of people among the Chapines is between Ladinos and Indians (EveryCulture).

Guatemalans have a unique way of greeting each other and saying goodbye. The people use hand gestures, in which the hand is raised, with the palm facing the body and the fingers waved back and forth, and together as if inside of a mitten. The “fig” gesture (thumb-tip protruding from between the fingers of a closed fist) and the “okay” sign (thumb and forefinger forming a circle) are both considered to be obscene and should be avoided. It is imperative to ask for permission before taking pictures of other people, especially of young children. Native Guatemalans become easily suspicious of foreigners approaching children for pictures, due to the frequency of child kidnappings. One important thing to be mindful of in Guatemala is the fact that military clothing is illegal. It can neither be worn or brought into the country (TheLanguageCtr).

Many Maya Guatemalans combine values and practices carried on from their ancient ancestors. Rituals may be performed to gain easy childbirth, agricultural success, healing, and protection from natural disasters. The Garifuna still practice Afro-Caribbean ancestor worship that helps to mend together families that have been broken by migration, plural marriages, and a social environment hostile to people of their own race and culture. Guatemalans tend to believe in spirits of nature, particularly of water, mountains, and caves. The religious leaders perform regular ceremonies, in congruence with these sites (EveryCulture).

Traditions, Beliefs and Attitudes

Some marriages in Guatemala are still arranged, while most couples choose each other and often elope. Membership in private clubs and attendance at private schools provides a way for middle-class and upper-class young people to meet prospective mates. Parents may disapprove of a selection, but their children are likely able to persuade them. Marriages are celebrated in a civil ceremony that may be followed by a religious rite. Monogamy is the rule, although many men have a mistress as well as a wife. Among the poorer classes, both Mayan and Ladino, unions are free and ties are brittle; many children do not know, nor are they recognized by their fathers. Formal divorces are more common than many people believe, despite the disapproval of the Catholic Church. Until recently, a divorced woman did not have the right to retain her husband's surname; but she may sue for a share of his property to support herself and her minor children.

In Guatemala, there is a strong emphasis on family and community. This focus on community is likely influenced from the colonial times when people preferred to solve their problems collectively, rather than get the Spanish government involved. It is common to see Guatemalans work together as groups, rather than individually. There was a period of time when Guatemalans hid many of their indigenous beliefs and customs from outsiders. Presently, the people continue to rely on their communities for support and resources. There are several communities that still have their own laws and networks of spiritual and political leaders who are effectively independent of structured government. The Guatemalans’ sense of family unity (familismo) includes respect, loyalty, solidarity, reciprocity, interdependence, and cooperation among extended family members. It is not unusual for Guatemalan families to live with extended family members and share responsibilities, particularly the provision of food, financial matters, and child care (CactusLanguage).


Prior to the Conquest the highland Maya had a polytheistic religion based on the worship of many gods which had differing characteristics and were often represented as idols. Aboriginal ceremonies involved fasting, ritual purification, abstinence from sexual relations, sacrifice, confession, drinking, and dancing to music (Orellana). The combination of different and contradictory beliefs are manifested in cultural and religious expressions. This kind of religious expression began forming part of Guatemalan society from the earliest days of Spanish colonization in the 16th Century. Initially, this cultural encounter had many effects on Mayan spirituality, most of them intentionally imposed by the Catholic colonizers (Koechert).

The prayers in the Amerindians towns are characterized by a high rhetorical style of formal language, a wide variety of invocations to the Christian God and Catholic saints and use of Spanish borrowings. The most important and powerful indigenous Catholic organization is the traditional confraternity, know in Guatemala as a cofradía. Members of the cofradía, known as cofrades, are the spiritual elite of the indigenous people who follow the indigenous cultural tradition. Invocation of supernatural beings is fundamental to their religious practices, be it verbally or kinetically, and this is generally done via a spiritual assistant. In Guatemala 55% of the population is roman Catholics, about 30% are protestant, and 1% follow the indigenous Mayan faith.

Within the Catholic faith the Amerindians have preserved Mayan beliefs such as worshipping gods who control weather and crops. Jesus and Mary, for example, are identified with the Sun God and Moon Goddess. The cross is likened to the Four Winds of Heaven or four cardinal points. Catholicism was the official religion during the colonial era. Today, approximately one-quarter of Guatemala's population of 11,000,000 identify themselves as Protestant. Between 200 and 300 different Protestant denominations exist in Guatemala. The oldest and largest mainline Protestant church in Guatemala is the Presbyterian Church, which marked 125 years in Guatemala in 2007 (Duffey).

Sense of Self and Space

For Guatemalans, the boundaries between the spiritual and material world, and the living and the deceased, are fairly permeable. When ancestors depart this life, they are thought to remain close at hand, in the mountains, rivers and clouds. Guatemalans believe that their ancestors’ spirits are constantly surrounding them, and will one day welcome them into the spirit realm at death. Once they pass away, they believe that their spirits will remain in the hills, valleys, and mountains of their country. Furthermore, the Guatemalans believe that their spirits “will travel in the wind and be in the rain, the fog, and the clouds” (Duffey, 2010, pg. 4). The three essential elements of Guatemalan spirituality are peace with the deity, peace with the natural world, and peace with other people. Each component is part of a bigger whole, and all are connected, interdependent, in communication with one another, and affecting one another. Thus, the citizens of Guatemala believe it is important to learn to live together in community, both in the community of spirits and the social community.

The day of the Mayan calendar on which people are born determines how they will one day serve the community through the aptitudes they receive. Vocations are exercised on behalf of the community and maintain the world’s harmony. The sense of self is first of all communally and historically embedded. There are various vocations associated with the different days of the Mayan calendar. For example, there are leaders, healers, interpreters of the law, midwives, philosophers, and spiritual guides. At birth, every person receives a “nawal,” or a spirit, to assist in actualizing the particular purpose for which he or she was born into the community. Nawals are described as companion spirits, who help to guide the lives of others. The nawal is one’s true and immortal being. However, Guatemalans never reveal their nawals, in fear that they might be stolen (Duffey, 2010).

Communication Style and Language

Guatemala has a population of over 11.5 million people. This population is made up of 25 linguistic communities, 22 of which are Mayan, plus Xinka, Garifuna and Spanish-speaking. The core areas of the Maya-speaking communities, i.e. the territories within which the use of their language predominates, are located chiefly in the western, central and northern parts of the country. The Mayan population, which is of pre-Hispanic Central American origin, accounts for over 40% of the country's total population. The Xinka language, which is of pre-Hispanic origin and is thought to belong to the Yuto-Aztec family, is currently being studied with a view to its preservation. In 2002 approximately 1,300 persons reported that they spoke the language, which is geographically located in the Department of Santa Rosa, on the southern coast of Guatemala.

Garífuna, a language of Afro-Caribbean origin that was introduced on the Atlantic coast of Guatemala at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is spoken in the Department of Izabal. Spanish is the official language and it is spoken throughout the national territory. Nevertheless, the Spanish-speaking population associated with the Ladino culture is located predominately in the southern, eastern and northern parts of the country (Asturias de Barrios). Many of the indigenous people, especially women and those in rural remote areas in the highlands, do not speak Spanish. Many families are abandoning their own language to ensure that their children become fluent in Spanish. Spanish is recognized as a necessity for living in the modern world, and even for traveling to other communities. Various indigenous languages are not all mutually intelligible, Spanish is becoming important when communicating with people outside their own village. In Guatemala city there are many private primary and secondary schools where foreign languages are taught and used along with Spanish, these include English, German, and French.

Food and Feeding Habits

Guatemalan Food and Feeding Habits Food is an essential component to Guatemala’s culture. Much of the influence comes from the Maya indigenous population, followed by the later arrival of Spanish. Traditional Spanish dishes were soon adapted by the Guatemalans. Examples of these are enchiladas, guacamole, tamales, tortillas, and empanadas. Guatemalans strive to have three big meals per day, with lunch being the largest meal. Staple foods may include black beans, rice, wheat bread, corn tortillas, and pasta. In addition, Guatemala is known for having a wide variety of exotic fruits and vegetables. Similar to many other cultures, food plays a very important role in many Guatemalan celebrations, such as Christmas, Advent, Three Kings and Easter. A popular Christmas tradition found in the Guatemala culture is to decorate homes with manzanillas, small yellow fruits, during the days leading up to Christmas (DonQuijote).

The use of seasonings is important to the Guatemalans. A common practice is to use achiote, which is a seasoning that turns food orange in color. Epazote is also widely used across Central America, as it serves as an anti-gas agent in bean cooking. Much like other Latin-American cultures, Guatemala uses cinnamon in their desserts. A popular holiday treat is “bunuelos,” which are small doughnuts glazed with honey and cinnamon. Cinnamon can even be used in hot Christmas punch. Cardamom is an extremely expensive spice, and is one of Guatemala’s primary exports. It has been known to have unique characteristics, and is therefore used to spice coffee (Guatemalan Spices).

Guatemalans have a variety of dining customs. If guests are invited into a Guatemalan home for dinner, they are typically expected to bring a small gift or dessert. Doing so is considered to be polite. Dinner guests may start eating when the host says “Buen provecho,” which essentially means “enjoy your meal.” When the guests are not actively eating, they should keep their hands above the table, with their wrists resting on the edge. Dishes are always passed to the left (AdoptionNutrition).

Time Consciousness

Most people from Guatemala operate within a “mañana” time frame. In other words, punctuality is not a consideration, especially if something more important occurs. Mañana means “tomorrow,” and indicates that time can be viewed in a flexible manner. Rather than assuming that Guatemalan are irresponsible slackers, it is important to remember that, for most of them, time consciousness is simply not a top priority. These ideas about time also mean that the quality of an interaction is more important than how long its lasts. It is fairly common for Guatemalans to arrive thirty minutes or more late for an appointment or meeting. For them, 4:00 p.m. can mean any time between 4:00 and 5:00 – what’s important is showing up, and the quality of the time spent together (CactusLanguage). In the private sector, people are punctual, although the notion of punctuality may be different in the city compared to the countryside. While punctuality is generally greater in the city, it is rare that you would have to wait more than thirty minutes in the countryside. Work schedules vary according to the climate. Absenteeism is very frequent in the public service and much less so in private companies. More and more often, private companies are taking on commitments that have set deadlines. There is typically a slower pace to work and life in general in Guatemala. This is often more a reflection of infrastructure limits than some inherent cultural trait (Intercultures).

The people of Guatemala tend to have a polychronic approach to time, which may include simultaneous occurrences of many things and the involvement of many people. The time it takes to complete an interaction is very elastic, and is more important than any type of fixed schedule. A polychronic culture tends to start and end meetings at flexible times, take breaks when it seems appropriate, overlap talk at times, and not take lateness personally (BeyondIntractability).

Relationships and Social Organization

The role of the men in Guatemala is to be the provider for the family. The role of the woman is to stay at home and take charge of the daily household chores and to take care of the children. The boys don't help out with the household chores just the girls do. These roles are seen more in the Guatemalan rural areas. There is a word they use, it is called "machismo", which means that the man is the provider, protector and the decision maker of the family. Unfortunately many men have distorted this concept by abusing their wives. In some rural communities, there has been many years of violence and people take the law into their own hands. Spanish is the official language, but it is not spoken for the whole population, many rural towns speak Spanish as a second language. 22 different Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala plus Garifuna. The Government controls the education in elementary and high schools. The children are able to go to school for free. In rural areas, bilingual education is provided (Spanish and native language). La Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala is the only university run by government funds. There are many private schools and universities that require monthly payment by students. 50% of the population in Guatemala is catholic, 40% protestant, and the rest are Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and Evangelistic. (Africa-Caribbean). Social class in Guatemala is based mainly on wealth, level of education received, and family reputation. The social classes are primarily between the Indians and the Ladinos. The Indian group tends to be poorer and less-educated than the Ladino group. Ladinos are more inclined to accept Indians into their social group if they are well-educated and have the means to live a “Western” lifestyle. However, Indians who have received at least thirteen years of education still only earn about one-third less than Ladinos with the same level of education, which creates a controversial strain among the social classes.

Education and Learning

Ladino children (mixed European and native ancestry) in urban areas, are not expected to do any work until they are teenagers or beyond. They may attend a private preschool, sometimes as early as eighteen months. Formal education begins at seven years of age. Children are educated to the highest level of which they are capable. The University of, San Carlos, has until recently had free tuition, and is still the least expensive. San Carlos University has university branches in the rural areas, but they only offer few careers.

There are other six other private universities. These Universities grant undergraduate and advanced degrees in the arts, humanities, and sciences, as well as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, law, engineering, and architecture. Postgraduate work is often pursued abroad by the better and more affluent students, especially in the United States, Spain, Mexico, and some other Latin American countries. Great number of natives (Mayas) are educated at home by their parents in the way of an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation, from grandparents to grandchildren, from parents to children in family and community life. Mayan education cannot really be separated from life, from economic activity, from politics, from all aspects of life (Heckt). The most important abilities that children have to learn in Mayan families are working skills and a sense of responsibility. This includes independence, self-confidence and the ability to make decisions. Most indigenous parents think it very useful for their sons and daughters to be able to speak, read and write Spanish, since with this knowledge it is hoped that they will have a better chance of earning money, and it is seen as a prerequisite for success at school. Many parents therefore set out to teach some basic notions of the language to their children within the family, so that Spanish is eroding the place of Mayan languages even in the family environment (ASIES 1995: 43, 124ff; Cojtí and CISMA 1990: 58).

Another aspect, parents view public school as an advantage, because their children will meet other children at school and will play together. Many parents think that their children will waste too much time at school and will to a certain extent be exposed to harmful influences. They believe that one aspect of these bad influences is that children pick up bad manners at school, learn disobedience, and start smoking cigarettes and swearing (Heckt)

Work Habits and Practices

Agriculture makes up the largest source of employment in the sectoral composition of the labor force of Guatemala. The labor force in Guatemala is composed of more than 35% working in agriculture, 22% in commerce, 16% in services, and 14% in manufacturing. Nearly two-thirds of the labor force works under the umbrella of the informal economy (self-employed or work at odd jobs that are untaxed and unmonitored by the state, also referred to as the underemployed), and around 55% of those workers belong to the population segment under the poverty line. Although informal-sector enterprises are more common in rural areas, 75% of the labor force is engaged in such activities, more than half of urban workers work in the informal sector. Although birth rates are declining, there are far more young people entering the workforce than there are older people retiring from the workforce (COUNTRY REPORT: GUATEMALA).

Indigenous Guatemalans tend to suffer the highest poverty rates throughout the country. Guatemala is urbanizing rapidly this means an increase in the number and percentage of households headed by single women. Older and indigenous women who migrated to urban areas as adults generally have very minimal education because they were raised in rural areas where schools were not widely available or accessible. Women tend to work in occupations that are low-paying. Few managers and employers in the workforce are women, as these positions are traditionally filled by men. The majority - 63 percent - of urban Guatemalan women hold jobs in the informal sector where they work in petty trading, domestic service, tortilla shops and other eateries. However, shifts in the structure of urban production toward more manufacturing and industry means that employment opportunities in the formal sector - that is, in electronics, food processing, textile, and small consumer good industries - are increasingly becoming available to women (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2003).


There is high advanced medical care in Guatemala city for those who can afford it. The San Carlos University train physicians for the rural areas where millions of natives lack adequate health care and health education. Approximately 20% of the population lacks effective access to health services, and less than 60% of the population has the benefit of some form of health service coverage (Archila).

The government has clinics in the rural areas at a village level where physicians tend emergencies and provide health education. Communication between healthcare providers and patients is very difficult because many of the indigenous people in rural areas speak only their dialect. According to the Pan American Health Organization (2001), approximately 80% of the physicians and over half of the professional nurses and nursing aides are located in metropolitan areas. As a result, healthcare services are sporadic in rural communities, where 65% of the population lives.

Many uneducated people have folk explanations and cure for disease and mental illnesses such as: natural remedies, magical formulas, and prayers to Christian saints. Indigenous patients are reluctant most of the times to discuss differing beliefs of illness or treatment due to the fear of criticism or ridicule. The majority of healthcare providers working in rural government health care facilities is Ladino educated in Guatemala City or Cuba. Healthcare interactions in rural areas are influenced by complex web of factors including historical intercultural tensions between the Ladino and indigenous Mayan people (Burton).

Most of the births in the city are in the hospitals, in the rural areas midwives are used. The midwives receive training from other midwives or government-run courses. Guatemala has the highest infant mortality rate in Central America and over half of the population, because the indigenous Mayans, live in poverty.

Pharmacists are able to diagnose, prescribe, and administer remedies, including antibiotics. People don't need to have a Physician's prescription.

The government organization SINAVE (Epidemiological Monitoring System) is in charge of the monitoring and analysis of acute infectious diseases such as those transmitted by food, water, and vector. It utilizes a network of reporting stations located throughout the 26 health districts in the country to monitor, collect, and analyze data on a variety of infectious diseases such as malaria, cholera, encephalitis, meningitis, diphtheria, measles, severe respiratory disease, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Data are reported to the National Epidemiology Center in Guatemala City where much of it can be accessed online through searchable databases (Archila).

As a Registered Nurse (RN), it would be important to recognize:

1. Guatemalans in the highlands use herbs and such to cure diseases, when patients come into the hospitals, nurses and doctors would be using different types of medicines, so it would be important to explain the medicines and teach them the importance of their use.

2. Guatemalans in the highlands are Indians and are treated differently than the rest of the Guatemalans. It is like the blacks in the U.S. they are treated differently. When the Guatemalans from the highlands come into the hospital Dr and nurses would need to treat them with great respect and not show any discrimination.

See Also




External Links


1. Archila, L., Barrera, R., Guerra, J., Menegazzo, A., Perez-Martini, L. F., & McClanahan, S. (2012). Emerging opportunity in Guatemala: Guatemala is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural--ideal for international trials. Applied Clinical Trials, (1). 28.

2. Asturias de Barrios, L., & Mérida Arellano, V. (2007). The Process of Developing a New Curriculum for Lower Secondary Education in Guatemala. Prospects (00331538), 37(2), 249-266..

3. Bunkers, K., Groza, V., & Lauer, D. (2009). International adoption and child protection in Guatemala: a case of the tail wagging the dog. International Social Work, 52(5), 649-660.

4. Burton, L. L. (2012). Defacement: Indigenous Patients' Experiences in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. Howard Journal Of Communications, 23(2), 119-135. doi:10.1080/10646175.2012.667723

5. COUNTRY REPORT: GUATEMALA. (2011). Guatemala Country Monitor, 1-19.

6. Duffey, M. K. (2009). RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY, SOCIETAL CHANGE, AND ECUMENICAL PROSPECTS IN GUATEMALA. Journal Of Ecumenical Studies, 44(2), 226-238.

7. Duffey, M. K. (2010). Guatemalan Catholics and Mayas: The Future of Dialogue: International Bulletin Of Missionary Research, 34(2), 87.

8. Giron, A. (2007). Taking matters into one's hands: lynching and violence in post-civil war Guatemala. Urban Anthropology & Studies Of Cultural Systems & World Economic Development, (4), 357.

9. Heckt, M. (1999). Mayan education in Guatemala: a pedagogical model and its political content. International Review Of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift Für Erziehungswissenschaft, 45(3-4), 321-337.

10. International Food Policy Research Institute, 2003: Guatemala City: A focus on working women and childcare, in IFPRI City Profiles, retrieved from

11. International Outreach Guides: Culture Guide Guatemala Series 1, Secondary (7-12), retrieved from

12. Koechert, A., & Pfeiler, B. (2013). Maintenance of Kaqchikel ritual speech in the confraternities of San Juan Sacatepéquez, Guatemala. International Journal Of The Sociology Of Language, 2013(220), 127-149. doi:10.1515/ijsl-2013-0017

13. Orellana, S. L. (1981). IDOLS AND IDOLATRY IN HIGHLAND GUATEMALA. Ethnohistory, 28(2), 157.