Guatemala cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
As in other societies where traits of pre-modern clientelism coexist with modern practice, it is the perceived socioeconomic status of the speakers that, by and large, determines the initial approach and type of conversation. Most conversations can be initiated by focusing on topics such as the beauty of Guatemalan climate compared to the harshness of Canadian winters, food, sports or others that can be compared to activities in Canada.
Guatemala is a very young country with over 50 percent of its population under the age of 25. Therefore, Guatemalans find themselves at ease discussing issues related to children and youth such as schooling or health. Note that, initial conversations that are part of introductions or first meetings should be kept along general and broad topics. For example, while Guatemalans might welcome a Canadian commenting on the variety and tastiness of local foods, they would find it particularly insulting if a Canadian is engaged in a critical discussion of the nutritional value of their foods. Other topics to avoid include Belize’s status as an independent country, the place of Guatemalans black slave ancestry (whose very existence is denied by some), reproductive rights for women, and religious beliefs. In general, Guatemalans tend to react very negatively to any criticism of their society, particularly if it comes from an outsider.
In the case that you meet urban Guatemalans for the first time (which would most likely include Ladinos only), ensure to make a good first impression. It is not so much the topics which would be the most important, but how you carry/ present yourself during this first meeting. First off, when meeting in a business context, it is best to ensure to be very polite, very cordial and to allow the conversation to move naturally from very formal greetings and handshakes to a less formal discussion environment. Acceptable topics would include anything from the current football saga to sharing updates on family and friends, health, weather. As you would be a visitor in the country, providing updates on what you have seen and done is also acceptable.
Topics to avoid would include politics (specifically the recently ended civil war), discussions on poverty in the country or any reference to inequalities between the classes, ethnicities and genders. Follow the same pattern when meeting a member of an indigenous group for the first time; begin very formally with handshakes and introductions. To continue the conversation, it is generally acceptable to discuss family, each other’s health and the weather. As most indigenous communities are rural and agricultural, discussions on the seasons, the planting progress, how the animals are faring or updates from the weekly markets are also acceptable. In the case of women, discussions on weaving/ knitting can be surprisingly entertaining! Similar to the topics to avoid outlined above, these would be the same, keeping in mind that it would be even more so advisable to avoid discussions of this nature.
Particular attention must be given to whether the person a Canadian is speaking with has Spanish as their first language. With an estimated 55 percent of Guatemalans having a Maya language as their mother tongue, Canadians must be particularly sensitive to the possibility that their words, gestures and phraseology could be misconstrued in the course of normal interactions. For example, indigenous Guatemalans might find it difficult to understand the Spanish accents of a native French or English speaker.
Due to the country’s history of authoritarian and repressive regimes, Guatemalans rarely speak their minds directly on any issue even among friends or other non-relatives. Rather, they tend to use double-entendre and humoristic allusions or jokes as a form of deflecting confrontational subjects.
Physical distance and length of conversation are contingent on the perceived status of the speakers. In terms of language use, always keep the Spanish language distinctions between the formal you or “Usted” and the informal you or “Tu” in mind at all times. As a manager, you will tend to be addressed in the formal fashion. In more friendly contexts, the informal way will be used by most. Generally speaking, when addressing an elderly person, it is very rare to address them by using the “Tu” pronoun. It is always considered good form if one starts from the “Usted” point of departure and allow your counterpart to modify the conversation style as they see fit.
Canadians will soon become familiar with the expression ‘Fíjese que…’ in daily life though it’s unlikely to be heard at the office. It is a rough equivalent to ‘figurez-vous que…’ or ‘wouldn’t you know it but’. Guatemalans typically use ‘Fíjese que…’ to explain away a shortcoming in the expected quality or timeliness of a service they had committed to provide. For example, ‘Fíjese que no hay’ (a product you had expected isn’t available); ‘Fíjese que no vino’ (he didn’t come although he was supposed to). This very common phrase is used to attribute an event to a turn of fate rather than to human action. When you hear this phrase, get ready to make an adjustment in your plans.
Guatemalans are very conscious of authority and status. Care should be taken in a social situation not to use words that may be conveyed as affirming one’s rank over colleagues. Something as simple as ‘please pass the salt’ or ‘can you serve the coffee’ could be perceived as a tacit acknowledgement of unequal status among those present and thus bad manners. A polite individual would state ‘is there any salt?’ or ‘that coffee seems good’. This expresses one’s desire for the salt or the coffee in a way that allows a Guatemalan to offer to help instead of feeling belittled or treated as an inferior.
In the city/ Ladino context, as outlined above, a good technique is to begin each conversation with polite formal tones/ actions and allow the situation to evolve to more friendly terms naturally. This includes hand-shaking and taking the time to cover pleasantries. As building connections and relationships is so important in Guatemala, it is best to have a very polite communication style as you build up the relationship and trust with the person.
Communication styles when working with indigenous individuals is more important than what is said. The generally accepted communication style is very quiet and demure between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, which would be even more pronounced for communication with Canadians. This being the case, remaining polite, courteous and friendly is of utmost importance. At the same time, eye contact is not usually the norm, so this is not to be taken as a sign of disrespect.
Spanish is a second language for many indigenous communities. It is important to keep this in mind as it may be necessary to speak slower and pronounce clearer than you normally would. While you may notice that the communication style does not move from formal to a relaxed style, an increased level of friendliness and openness will be a sign that the relationship has built trust and your formality can be reduced somewhat.
In most interactions, Guatemalans tend to display their emotions relatively freely and with varying degrees of expansion towards those who are perceived as outsiders. Lots of hand gestures, some backslapping and laughter can be expected.
Public displays of affection dealing with friendship or love are more common in Guatemala cities than in Canada. That is to say, acquaintances will always greet each other with handshakes and friends generally great each other with kisses on the cheek. Displays of affection between men and women will also be a common sight. It is not uncommon for Guatemalan men to be overly affectionate when trying to court a woman. I have found that any public displays of emotions while working in indigenous communities are few and far between. The exceptions may be at community events or church services, when participants are into showing happiness or excitement, but that is not the norm.
Guatemalans view North American tendencies to dress down as vulgar and unwelcoming. Never wear shorts (men) or tank tops (women) to any family gathering or event unless it is at a beach party or a similar outdoor venue. If you are invited to a family gathering related to a religious event such as baptism or bar mitzvah, always follow the directions of your hosts. Keep in mind that these are considered very important events for Guatemalans. When in doubt, ask for clarification.
Guatemalans tend to be on time and dress conservatively for any work related engagement and expect their Canadian counterparts to do the same. In the tourism industry or international non-government organizations, one would tend to find a certain level of adherence to North American standards and practices in the workplace.
This may not be the case in government departments or other private sector where employers will tend to enforce typical business expectations. That is to say, the perceived status of the individual being addressed rather than their actual position in the business may be the main determinant of the quality and type of interactions with Guatemalan counterparts.
In the Ladino context formal dress is always advised. Guatemalans are generally well dressed (with a note of formality) in the workplace. Doing the same shows a level of respect and will be appreciated. I find timelines/deadlines to be similar with colleagues in Canada; some deadlines are met while others are not.
When working in indigenous communities, the level of dress will depend on context. If you are there to present a workshop, formality would be appreciated/ expected. Shorts or sleeveless shirts for either men or women should be avoided. However, if you are there working in a cooperative, the level of dress acceptable would be more informal. The idea of timelines/ deadlines may be a bit more fluid when working with indigenous communities. However, once again, this deals with context. For instance, if there is only one local bus travelling from the community to the meeting spot, it is not uncommon for meetings to only be able to begin once that bus has passed by the community to drop off participants.
Modern office practice of self-regulation of a worker’s time and task is not a feature of most Guatemalan workplaces. Thus, managers are expected to constantly control, oversee and inspect the quality of the work produced as well as timeliness. Passive resistance and resentment of being subordinate to a foreigner can also be present at your workplace.
Guatemalans appreciate being consulted but expect decisions to be made by the person in authority. Employees will generally not question directives from superiors, as they do not expect them to be negotiable. This is a manifestation of their deference to authority and not a lack of critical judgment. Canadian team leaders will be most respected if they are not seen to change their mind or backtrack on a course of action without due justification. Concerning group dynamics, they prefer roles to be explicit inside the team and for the team leader to implement the program with calmness and predictability. They appreciate the acknowledgement of their role in the team as explained further under “Motivating Local Colleagues”.
Managers are expected to enforce standards with little room for discussion with subordinates while displaying a somewhat protective stance towards employees or subordinates. Keep in mind that your standards as a manager will always take precedence to those of the company’s in the eyes of your Guatemalan direct reports. It is also important to remember that enterprising behaviours such as innovation and risk taking are generally not part of Guatemala’s entrepreneurial landscape. There are several reasons for this tendency to keep a low profile among employees. In a society that, until very recently, was ruled via a pervasive and brutal state security apparatus, many Guatemalans saw day to day survival as their overriding priority. In an environment where even the closest of friends or relatives could be government informants, it was downright dangerous to standout from the crowd.
While relationships and hierarchy are so important when working in Guatemala, I have found that strong work ethic and fairness are still valued qualities in both employees and managers. For the manager, this is especially true as they are seen as leaders.
In all honesty, it may not be easy to know how your staff view you. If you are in a position of authority, those around you may not be willing to share their feelings openly. However, their work ethic under you is a clear sign of respect received.
This is more difficult to outline in an indigenous context, as it is very rare to have manager/ employee relationships and most working relationships are more at the level of colleagues. This being the case, qualities which are highly respected are being hard-working and being willing to help others out. You will know your colleagues view you positively, if they are willing to assist you when you need help and to engage with you on the work you are doing.
Ethnicity and gender are two key attributes that make up Guatemalans’ perception of individual status. In practice this means that, for a Canadian manager, it will not be sufficient to assume that their title or function within a Guatemalan work environment is sufficient to exert authority or control.
Depending on the type of workplace, there are different levels of influence by factors not directly related to the workplace’s mission or its performance. For example, a Catholic hospital will tend to adhere to the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church and do so openly and freely. For its part the Mormon Church in Guatemala has a significant presence in the healthcare and education sectors but does not actively seek out to serve non-Mormons. Many Guatemalan Universities self-identify as Catholic or Neo-Protestant (Evangelical). The latter are mostly affiliated with American protestant (Evangelical) churches. There are virtually no publicly run Early Childhood Education facilities in Guatemala. Thus, virtually 100 percent of all early childhood education facilities tend to be controlled by religiously affiliated institutions. In more secular workplaces, workers tend to be less demonstrative in regards to religious practice or ethnicity though they will engage with Canadians superiors if asked directly about these issues. A Canadian co-worker’s religious denomination would be scrutinized by their Guatemalan co-workers though not that of a Canadian manager whose religious background will be generally considered off-limits to local subordinates.
Canadian women who work at non-internationally oriented settings will find that they face a double standard of competence that would not be expected of their Guatemalan female counterparts. For example, they would be expected to be as productive as a non-Guatemalan male. At the same time, Canadian females would be expected to show similar levels of deference and subservience toward males that Guatemalan females might be expected to have in the workplace. Note that this is also a generational issue. Whereas younger Guatemalan coworkers might exhibit less of these behaviours, older colleagues, both male and female, will expect a high level of conformism and adherence to these unspoken rules by Canadian workers.
As hierarchy is very important in Guatemala, it is generally understood that decision-making is done at the higher levels of communities or groups. That is not to say that inputs are not appreciated from those at lower levels but that the ultimate decision will be made by management.
Going to your immediate supervisor for answers and feedback is entirely appropriate. It shows respect to hierarchy of the workplace and a reflection that you view them as your leader. In an indigenous context, for the most part, decisions are made at the family level or at the community level. While there are still clear hierarchies that are mostly based on age, status in the community, decision making is done in a much more democratic manner.
Guatemala’s population has around a 40 percent rural component. In rural areas, particularly indigenous ones, patrilineal relations are the norm. The family arrangements revolve around the figure of a grandfather who will generally have property rights and the ability to vest them on his male heirs. Traditional healers and elder women are considered to be bearers of values and standards for their communities.
Guatemalans’ family linkages still dictate to a large extent their overall standing in society, their career prospects as well as their economic wellbeing. The epitome of this family-based arrangement can be seen in the multiplicity of family ties existing among members of Guatemala’s elites. These elites retain a colonial mindset such that they and their families see themselves as the natural rulers of the country. In practice, most Guatemalans view themselves as subject to two sets of rules: One made for the members of the ruling Oligarchy and another made for the rest of society. Inequality and inequity are thus deeply embedded in the Guatemalan social contract and, for most Guatemalans; they have become central elements of their socioeconomic edifice.
Lack of access to education, health and sanitation facilities contributes to maintain many Indigenous communities under high levels of infant mortality, high fertility rates, chronic malnutrition and famine as well as high levels of domestic violence. Family relations are the only social networks available to Guatemalans in both rural and urban environments. They provide essential economic and social support to their members. Thus, family connections are the primary drive of close social interactions for most Guatemalans.
Notwithstanding this reality, there are shifts in the traditional ruling patterns across the country. The 2015 indictment and imprisonment of President Perez Molina, his vice-president and other high level members of government following a United Nations inspired investigation, created the conditions for a non-politician, comedian Jimmy Morales, to be elected President. Tellingly, Morales’ campaign motto was “Not corrupt, not a politician”. These developments have no precedent in the country’s 200-year history as an independent republic and will have far reaching implications for future governments. The new government will in any case have to contend with the powerful drug cartels, a very weak State and limited economic muscle to reorient an economy that is still largely trapped in a cycle of raw materials boom and bust cycles.
Another trend that is beginning to erode the traditional triad of Church, Oligarchy and Oppression endured by most Guatemalans is the return of young Guatemalans who were born and raised in the United States. They are infusing the polity with attitudes and expectations not traditionally held by Guatemalan society. These young Guatemalan-Americans can embrace both countries and supply the country of their ancestors with new oxygen and creativity. They are also contributing to upset the traditional ethnic silos which have traditionally defined Guatemalan identity and politics, namely, the Indigenous-Ladino polarity that has been at the center of Guatemalan social life for over five hundred years.
Guatemala’s main religion is Catholicism with Protestant or Evangelical sects close behind in numbers. While the majority of Guatemalan’s will self-identify as Christian, the percentage who actively practise is much less. This being the case, it is important to note that religion is a very important part of Guatemalan society. When in the workplace, it is best to be sensitive to any religious discussions. There are many religious holidays so it is important to keep those dates in mind when planning! This applies also to the indigenous communities as religion plays a central role in the family, in farming and in basically all aspects of life. Therefore, it is important to be respectful of this. It is also interesting to note a blend of Christian- traditional indigenous religious practices in indigenous communities.
Class is extremely important in Guatemala, or that is to say, the difference in classes is very important. There are generally rich and poor Ladinos and indigenous groups. The class structure is very stratified and tensions can be felt between the various classes due to Guatemala having the biggest gaps between rich and poor with the middle class being virtually non-existent. For the most part, working in the cities, you would be working with rich Ladinos. In the rural communities, the workplace could either be comprised of the poor Ladinos or indigenous class.
Ethnicity is another very important part of Guatemalan life. The main ethnic groups include Ladinos, indigenous Mayans and Garifuna or other Afro- Caribbean groups living in eastern Coastal communities. Country stats show that anywhere between 40 and 60% of the population is indigenous, belonging to 23 Mayan groups and one ‘non-Mayan group. There are also over 23 local dialects in Guatemala. Despite the large indigenous population, issues of inequality and racisms are still blatant in everyday life. The indigenous groups are often denied equal employment, education and social benefits compared to the Ladino or Garifuna groups.
Guatemala has a very distinct ‘machismo’ culture in the Ladino part of society, which can be seen as obtrusive for westerners. One could say that the country is very patriarchal. While strides are being made, it is not uncommon to experiences sexism in the office, particularly with regards to levels of authority and promotions. While machismo is not generally seen in indigenous communities, they too can be described as being very patriarchal in their views towards women. This is mostly noted in terms of women’s status, importance of girls’ education and ability to take on a job.
An old Guatemalan dictator used to say, “To my friends, I will bring them my friendship. As for my enemies, I will them bring the Law.” This encapsulates the idea of friendship as power over others in Guatemala. In other words, the concept of strangers coming together for a common cause and negotiating common objectives in the process of forming such an alliance is practically unheard of in Guatemala. In practice, this means that business relations are, first and foremost, personal alliances built on family loyalties, strong social connections or, less frequently, a common rival whose activities might be unfriendly towards all. Traditionally, American business interests have been well represented in Guatemala and it would be advisable for any Canadian business leader to acquaint themselves with the numerous local contacts developed by the Guatemalan-American Chamber of Commerce over decades of work in Guatemala.
Almost all Canadians are perceived as outsiders and unless there are ties such as marriage or other family connection, Canadians should keep in mind that they will not be integrated into the emotional fabric of Guatemalan society. This is exemplified by the widespread practice among Guatemalans of suggesting, by way of farewell, that they would like to meet with you again. Unless a specific date and time for follow up are given by your Guatemalan interlocutor, a Canadian should assume that such invitations are only issued for politeness reasons and carry no implication of any intent on the Guatemalan host to meet again.
Canadian single women should be particularly cautious regarding any invitation extended to them by men unless their marital status is clearly known. Any situations that might imply reputational risk should also be avoided.
Generally, the best way to get to know Guatemalans in a social context is when invited to family gatherings, which are generally considered off limits to foreigners. If a Guatemalan co-worker issues such an invitation, it should be viewed as a sign of high respect and appreciation. Make sure to taste any food or drinks offered by your hosts, as not doing so will be construed as lacking in manners. They might not expect you to empty your plate but they do appreciate you tasting what they prepare. A glass of wine or a single beer for the duration of the engagement is fine as long as you refuse your host’s invitation politely but firmly. Be sure to mention any food allergies you may have prior to the engagement, as this will avoid any unpleasant moments between you and your hosts. If you have children, bring them along as well. They will be treated with great kindness and consideration by your Guatemalan hosts.
Recruiting Guatemalans who have graduated from Canadian higher education institutions is also a good way to start building relationships with local contacts. Focusing on hiring and retaining local talent who might have been exposed to Canadian ways and means is certainly a way to be introduced to the rather small and somewhat parochial Guatemalan business class.
While Guatemala has one of the highest rates of mobile phone access in Latin America, there is only a limited segment of the population who uses social media and other web 2.0 based tools to engage in consumption behaviours. Thus, face-to-face interaction and targeted marketing are still mechanisms of high penetration throughout the country. Radio programing and radio personalities also play a significant role in terms of product presence and branding.
In Guatemala, as it is around the world, the effort put out to establish a personal relationship with colleagues is key to all good working relationships. As relationships are so key in Guatemala society it is particularly important to ensure that you spend the time and effort to build these connections. As outlined above, formalities and pleasantries with colleagues should be adhered to at the beginning of each and every meeting. If you are working closely with colleagues or clients, the level of formality and pleasantries can be relaxed over time. However, after any lapse in time, it is expected that pleasantries between colleagues be exchange before business is begun.
A male Caucasian Canadian would be perceived as a potential business partner and treated with high degree of respect and deference. That is to say, Caucasian Canadians enjoy a high degree of status throughout all layers of Guatemalan society. A non-Caucasian male would not be automatically accorded a high status and Canadian females of any ethnicity would also be perceived with varying degrees of lower status and treated accordingly.
Depending on the type of workplace, different factors not directly related to the workplace will influence the achievement of its mission or performance. In the local economy, employers tend to enforce clientelism, which include the principle of friendship as power over others, which may include the exercise of favouritism. This is a result of local business relations often based on personal alliances, family loyalties or strong social connections. In the tourism or the international non-government organization industries, one would tend to find a certain level of adherence to North American standards and practices in the workplace.
If the positions are based in a city, it is not generally assumed that a personal relationship or friendship with a Canadian would lead to special privileges in the workplace. However, as relationships are so key to all business transaction, and as a relationship between supervisor and subordinates is established, it is important to keep the line between business and friendship very clear. If one is working in smaller rural or indigenous communities, there is the idea of reciprocity, which is a generally held community norm. As such, privileges would not be expected because you are Canadian. With Guatemalan colleagues, it is important to note the norm to help one another. This is generally held with closer personal relationships which may be built over time if living/ working in the community.
While any negative performance should be conveyed to employees privately, this is a vital practice in Guatemala where ‘losing face’ would be perceived as a public humiliation and would poison the functioning of the team. Likewise, excessive praise of individual members’ contribution may be perceived as a sign of favouritism.
It may be beneficial for Canadians to become aware of rumours that may be circulating about staff personal issues rather than to ignore them, as these constitute a latent source of information that may be pertinent in your role as a manager.
The best course of action would always be to confront your colleague with a problem directly in private. Confronting a colleague publicly, would lead to a loss of face or embarrassment. As it is difficult to re-build a relationship after such an incident, it is best to deal with the issue in a private manner.
Guatemalans are generally more socially alert and effusive than Canadians. Even those with a quiet disposition will be keenly aware of interpersonal relationships and physical signs that discretely but unequivocally indicate social status and rank. The Canadian team leader, as independent-minded and autonomous as he or she may be, would be well advised to start his or her day by going to each team member to say hello and chat briefly about family or local social events. This will be noticed by the team and will remind colleagues the important role they play in the team and will act as a strong motivator. Canadians should ensure that each team member’s birthday is marked in their calendar as a prompt to publicly acknowledge this event as a group on the appropriate day.
Canadians may notice team members’ tendency to take breaks, chitchat and agglomerate more often and for longer than in Canada. Though this may seem to be wasted time in a Canadian context, it should be considered as an element of team building and be monitored rather than discouraged.
Holidays such as Christmas are generally viewed as a time for celebration and there is an expectation that one or more office parties will take place during this time. These are social as much as work related events and Canadian managers would be highly regarded if they organize children-friendly events where employees can bring their young ones and enjoy child-friendly treats or food. This is keeping with employees’ expectation of working for someone that is looking after their well-being as well as their careers. Birthdays, weddings and funerals are also important occasions to show appreciation for well performing employees. A thoughtful birthday card or a show of sympathy towards an employee’s loss of a loved one are generally viewed as far more valuable than any appraisal done by a Canadian manager.
In urban, business settings, the best motivation is the chance for job advancement or a pay raise. In indigenous communities, the best motivation is helping the community out.
Renowned Canadian professor Kirsten Weld’s Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, (Duke University Press, 2014), is now a classic reference work on Guatemala’s gruesome tale of State sponsored terrorism. Weld’s work provides the definitive answers to questions first raised by Eduardo Galeano in his book Guatemala: Occupied Country (Monthly Review Press, 1969). Francisco Goldman’s’ The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? (Barnes & Noble, 2007), provides a chilling narrative of post-Civil War Guatemala based on actual events. In recent years, there have been a number of good quality films and documentaries produced by Guatemalans. For a complete list visit this link. For a comprehensive review of food, art and literary trends in contemporary Guatemala visit this website.
Guatemala (Miguel Ángel Asturias), Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954 (Nick Cullather), Popol Vuh (Anonymous),
When the Mountains Tremble, La Camioneta, Marimbas from Hell, Rigoberta Menchu; Broken Silence
the most popular shows on TV are all the Latin American Telenovelas (day and nighttime soap-operas)
Guatemalan traditional music is called Marimba; a xylophone-type instrument is used to play ballads. Other popular type of music include salsa, meringue, rumba and reaggeton. Most of the ‘popular’ music in Guatemala is from Mexico, Columbia or other Spanish countries.
Corn tortillas, beans and rice, BBQ meat are all staples. Most of Guatemalan food includes corn, such as tamales, corn tortillas, corn on the cob, corn maize soup
Canadians should visit Museo Ixchel in Guatemala City as well as take a day trips to close-by historical landmarks such as Antigua Guatemala, Iximche, Lake Atitlán and Puerto San José. Museo Ixchel is a world-class textile museum gathering in one place; an impressive array of the intricate weaving of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. Antigua is the former colonial capital, currently a unique open-air museum preserving baroque architecture and relics from the XVII century. Iximche is the ancient capital of the Kat’chiquel culture, wonderful for exploring its dignified pyramids shrouded with greenery. Lake Atitlán is a grandiose dreamy lake surrounded by four indigenous villages. Puerto San José is the sleepy Pacific seaport at the end of the sugar cane highway. Guatemalans of all means enjoy travelling inside their country as opportunity allows. They appreciate foreigners’ recognition of their country’s accomplishments while some foreigners’ tend to focus primarily on its perceived shortcomings.
In Guatemala there are always two activities you can take part in; football and dancing. Football is the main activity during the day and going out dancing (salsa, meringue etc) are very popular at night. At the same time, with so much indigenous culture and natural beauty, there are many places to visit. Examples include, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, the indigenous markets at Chichicastenango, the hilltops of Todos Santos, the Mayan Pyramids at Tikal or the coastal communities of Livingston.
Generally speaking, Guatemalans have an uneasy relationship with national figures. Until recently, most of Guatemala’s cultural icons made their careers in Mexico due to the intense dislike of Guatemalan authorities towards any manifestation of independent intellectual work. As a result, a well-known artist such as Ricardo Arjona (who made his career in Mexico) is far more likely to be regarded as a hero than someone like Nobel Prize Winners Rigoberta Menchú (Peace) and Miguel Angel Asturias (Literature) who were both considered enemies of the State and are still viewed with suspicion by many to this day. While Guatemalan Catholics revere Saint Brother Peter (Santo Hermano Pedro) Neo-Protestants or members of Evangelical Churches reject the notion of Hermano Pedro having any claim to national figure status. Even the choice of faces on Guatemalan currency reflects this antagonism: Indigenous (and quite possibly made up) leader known as Tecún Umán graces the face of 50 cents bills while the face of brutal repressor of Indigenous populations, General Carrera, appears on the one Quetzal bill.
Younger Guatemalans would definitely think Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac (of Star Wars’ The Force Awakens fame) as a great representative of their country. For Canadians it is highly advisable not to breach the subject of national heroes as this might have unexpected and unpleasant results depending on the ideological leanings or socioeconomic standing of the individuals you speak with. The fact remains that there were hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans killed and/or disappeared during the Civil War and these countless victims and their families have never received the national recognition they are due.
One of the best known heroes of our time is Monsignor Juan Jose Gerardi Conedera. He was a Catholic bishop who led the National Reconciliation Commission and was also part of the group which led to the drafting of the highly acclaimed, Guatemala, Nunca Mas! report which documented abuses during the civil war. Two days after the report’s release he was beaten to death in his garage.
Rigoberta Menchu is also a national hero amongst the indigenous groups. She put the spotlight on the plight of indigenous groups in Guatemala and fought for human rights for these communities. She is the author of the book I, Rigoberta Menchu.
Indigenous groups also revere Tecun Uman, best known as the greatest and last rulers of the K’iche indigenous group.
As countries of the Western Hemisphere, Guatemala and Canada share some important events in their early colonial history, such as the competition of European powers for the control of Atlantic sea routes or the major geographical and scientific ‘discoveries’ of the XVI and XVII centuries. Recollection of shared historical events is best kept low-key since these may be felt to be controversial (indigenous or black history) or anachronistic (Canada’s active involvement in hemispheric affairs prior to its 1980’s openness towards Guatemalan refugees or its 1990 accession to the Organization of American States). Though Guatemalans realize that Canada is part of the hemisphere, most consider it as a shield of mystery coloured by positive connotations attributed to Canada’s activist human rights record since the 1980’s.
I cannot think of any particular shared historical events. However, as there are numerous Canadian NGO’s working in Guatemala, Canada, or Canadian organizations or companies are well recognized.
Canadians should avoid comparing or equating Guatemalans with Mexicans. It is true that many Guatemalans moved to southern Mexico temporarily or permanently during the Civil War years, particularly in the 1980’s, especially from the countryside. Yet Guatemala and Mexico have very different cultures and have experienced some conflict in their historical relationship. Guatemalans are no more Mexican than Canadians are Americans. Guatemala is no more the junior partner of Mexico than Canada is of the USA. Guatemala’s Republican history is intertwined with Central America’s, as is its national identity. Should a Canadian equate Guatemalans with Mexicans, it would confirm, in a Guatemalan listener’s mind, that the Canadian is ill informed, disingenuous and not to be taken seriously. The Canadian’s credibility and status would suffer as a result.
A harmful stereotype which Canadians may have is with regards to indigenous communities, that they are poor, uneducated and in need of ‘development’. This is a stereotype held by many Guatemalans also. As many Canadians are in Guatemala carrying-out humanitarian work, it is important that the true nature and complexity of indigenous culture, traditions, and knowledge be known and appreciated, before attempting to work with these groups.
Your subject matter expert was born in Guatemala, the youngest of five children. He grew up in Guatemala City. His mother was an elementary school teacher who provided him with enriched cultural environments and social contacts. As a young adult he immigrated to Canada where he studied Classical Studies and Linguistics at l’Université d’Ottawa. While in university, he met his wife and became a Foreign Service spouse. Along the way, he earned a Master of Learning Sciences from Georgia State University and a Doctorate in Sociology of Learning from the University of Toronto. For 5 years he was a senior Education Expert with Global Affairs Canada. He has been visiting professor at South American and European universities and served as senior education advisor at UNESCO, ILO and The World Bank. He has over 50 publications to his credit.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a Masters’ degree in International Development Studies. I have been working in the international development field since 1998 and have worked with conflict- affected communities, focusing on youth in Latin America Asia and Africa. In that time, I’ve lived and worked in the Philippines, Tajikistan, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Nepal, Cuba, the DRC, Northern Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Burkina Faso. My areas of expertise include education, community development and livelihoods. I have had the opportunity to work extensively with small local community development organization abroad as well as with the UN. Now based in Canada I have been working with both small and large Canadian NGO’s with projects overseas.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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