Guatemala Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Guatemala is a nation in Central America that has seen diversity for a long time. In this lesson we will explore the ethnic distribution of people in Guatemala and see what this means for the nation today.


Have you ever heard of the Maya civilization? The Maya were one of the major civilizations of the Western Hemisphere back before the 1500s. They were brilliant architects, philosophers, artists, astronomers, and developed the only true writing system in the Americas. Think of them sort of as the Athenians of Central America. However, the term Maya is actually relatively new. Back before the arrival of Europeans, the various Maya groups all saw themselves as different people, so ethnic diversity has been a feature of the Maya world for a long time. So, where are the Maya today? Many call Guatemala home. They share Guatemala with many other ethic groups today, but really that's nothing new. Guatemala has always been a place of diversity.


Maya in Guatemala

In Guatemala today, the government formally recognizes four ethnic groups. The first, as we've already mentioned, are the Maya. Like I said, the term Maya is technically an overarching category for a whole group of people that share an ethno-linguistic heritage. Historically, each Maya city had its own language or dialect and cultural identity, although all of the groups were very similar. Today, there are 21 different Maya languages still widely spoken across the country, each one roughly corresponding to one of the Maya groups. The K'iche Maya are the largest of these groups, at around 9% of Guatemala's total population. Altogether, people belonging to the overarching Maya ethnicity make up about 35%-40% of Guatemalan society. This gives Guatemala one of the largest Amerindian populations in the Western Hemisphere, proportionate to its overall population.

While the Maya are a large part of Guatemalan society, they have also been subjected to ethnic prejudice across history, and pressured to assimilate. Today, Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and this tends to hit Maya populations pretty hard. Those near major urban centers tend to do alright, but rural areas across Guatemala tend to be greatly underdeveloped, with limited access to education, healthcare, and technologies.

Most Maya families live in rural and underdeveloped parts of Guatemala

Other Amerindian Ethnic Groups

The Maya are by far the most numerous of Guatemala's Amerindian populations, but they are not the only ones. The Guatemala census sometimes lumps the others into a general non-Maya category, but there is one group that is formally recognized. The Xinca are a non-Maya Amerindian group of people who live mostly in Southern Guatemala, near El Salvador. They have faced many of the same issues as the Maya, but their culture is not as widespread. In fact, the Xinca languages are rarely spoken in modern Guatemala. Altogether, the non-Maya Amerindian populations of Guatemala only total less than a single percentage of the population.


The third formally recognized ethnic group in Guatemala are the Garifuna, who are a mixture of African and Caribbean Amerindian. The Garifuna, like the Xinca, make up a pretty small overall percentage of the population, but are commonly found along the Atlantic coast.


So far, the biggest ethnic group we've talked about are the Maya. To be classified as Maya, members must be almost exclusively of Maya heritage, with very little trace of other ethnicities. Now, for a country like Guatemala that has been invaded by foreign empires and where the official language is Spanish, you'd expect that this mixing is going to happen pretty frequently. In fact, it has. The largest single ethnic group in Guatemala are the Ladinos, which a Guatemalan term for people of mixed European and Amerindian heritage. In Guatemala, this pretty much always means Maya and Spanish. The concept of mixed heritage being recognized as a distinct ethnic category is something that is very characteristically Latin American, and based in colonial obsessions with 'purity' of bloodlines.

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