We have been in Antigua, Guatemala for a almost 2 weeks and this place is spectacular. The town is beautiful and rich in history, the landscape is draped in volcanoes and rolling mountains and the people are genuinely some of the nicest happiest people we have met.
Three volcanoes surround the city- Volcán de Agua, Volcán de Fuego, and Acatenango. Volcán de Fuego has been very active lately and at night lava can be seen at the top. We hiked an active volcano called “Pacaya” the other day and roasted marshmallows in the lava deposits. They were delicious.
On Friday we started a week of Spanish classes (4 hours a day) to refresh our skills. We both love our teacher who would be the perfect match for our Spanish teacher Carlos in Ecuador. I think Christina might try to set them up. It is very impressive to me how worldly our new teacher is without ever having left Guatemala. She knows many up to date facts about various countries around the world as well as her own. I asked her how she became so knowledgeable about so many worldly issues and she responded: “Talking to my students. They tell me everything about their country and I love to listen”. Hopefully, we will continue to teach her as we learn.
The other day we went to a Macadamia nut farm with two local kids that work in our school. We took a bus about 15 minutes outside of town. All the buses in Guatemala are referred to as “chicken buses” and they are actually old school buses from the U.S. Instead of keeping them yellow, they are each painted bright colors with distinctive drawings of flowers, birds, and other cultural symbols. This is because in the past most people were illiterate and wouldn’t be able to read the names of the towns they were traveling to, so the different colors were needed to signify certain routes throughout Guatemala. They continue painting them today more out of tradition than purpose.
The Macadamia farm was nice and one of the workers Jose somehow convinced me and Christina to get facial massages with Macadamia oils. We left with the farm with a big bag of Macadamia nuts and really greasy faces and returned back to Antigua.
Yesterday we made corn tortillas at our school. Guatemalans eat tortillas with absolutely everything and during every meal. It is a huge staple of their diet and is usually accompanied with black beans, rice, and avocados. In general, food is a huge part of the culture here as it goes hand-in-hand with spending time with family in their homes.
Upon coming to Guatemala, I knew the country had a rough past but I never really knew more than that until we descended the borders. After spending the last week reading and inquiring about Guatemala’s history, it is easy to see why most American schools do not teach us much about this country’s modern history.
Guatemala has a long history of persecution and misfortune. It started when the Spanish came and continued into the 20th century when Jorge Ubico took power. In the early 1900’s Ubico, being the worst kind of dictator, massacred his people, forced people into indentured servitude and sold of the majority of the arable land to The United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita, an American company who specialized in banana farming). In the best interest of UFC, Ubico imposed no taxes or controls over the Corporation, cut workers wages from $1 to .25 cents a day and gave banana and coffee plantation owners exemption from criminal responsibility when it came to the punishment of their workers. Under this form of modern-day feudalism, plantation owners had the right to punish and even kill their workers without the slightest legal ramifications. In these years many Guatemalans were persecuted and while The United Fruit Companies profits soared. In 1944 Ubico was overthrown in a coup. His successor instituted a vigorous education plan and a new labor code to protect rural and city workers.
Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman continued to reform Ubico’s policies by building highways and ports, with national capital while launching various projects that would lead the country to independence. These reforms were aimed at creating a new agriculturally-based capitalist country and it became apparent that the people of Guatemala would gain their livelihood back. In affect, these reforms devastated the monopoly UFC had maintained under Ubico. At this time UFC owned 42% of Guatemalan land. Arbenz decided to buy and distribute unused UFC land to Guatemalan farmers in an attempt to give Guatemalans a fair chance to compete in the country’s agriculture industry.
Watching their control diminish, UFC launched an international propaganda smear campaign against Guatemala accusing them of having created a Communist government (which we now know was untrue). The media, newspapers and radio all jumped on board and quickly brought “The Red Scare” to Guatemala . The US Government publicly condemned the ‘Communist’ government while the CIA very quietly orchestrated a coup against the new leader. Colonel Rodolpho Castillo Armas led the revolt and the US trained and armed the rebellion. Backed by the U.S., Armas overthrew President Arbenz. By no coincidence at all Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA , at this time was on the Board of Representatives for UFC and his brother John Foster Dulles’s (Secretary of State) law firm represented UFC. These two were instrumental in leading the coup against Guatemala’s government. After Armas overthrew Arbenz, a military dictatorship was established and thousands of innocent people loyal to Arbenz were tortured and killed.
At this point in history the media turned their back on the country and no one came to the aid of the 200,000 Guatemalans that were killed in the 36 year civil war and genocide that ensued. The US continued sending money to Guatemala’s government during this time through the form of foreign aid and continued their investments. Bill Clinton later apologized for their support and acknowledged that this money had gone directly into the hands of those who were creating terror and violence throughout the country. The fighting continued in Guatemala until 1996.
Although presently Guatemala is safe, there are still many problems and sadness that continue in society. One problem that continues is discrimination against the country’s indigenous groups, mostly of Mayan decent, which make up about 40% of the population.
After learning all this I have found out through my own experience that now the majority of Guatemalans are some of the most friendly, happy and compassionate people on earth. With a history of so much violence and oppression I continue to wonder how this is possible. My best theory is that being exposed to so much war and violence has taken a lot of adversity to overcome and now the people of Guatemala just take their life in stride.
They are grateful for the life they have now because they remember how much worse it can be.