Submitted by: James Caruso


Big Picture Questions:

How does global capitalism contribute to push and pull factors for immigrants migrating to the United States?
How have colonial based taxonomy systems persisted into today’s United States-based imagination?
In what ways has political essentialism allowed for a marginalized group of people to be heard?

In 1992, the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee selected RIgoberta Menchú as the recipient for the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the highest honors that any person can receive. Menchú, who grew up in El Quiché, Guatemala, worked with militant activist groups in Guatemala during the early years of her adulthood to bring justice to the indigenous workers on fruit and sugar plantations in the rural countryside. These workers faced inhumane working and living environments, were in constant debt to plantation owners, and found themselves stuck in a cycle of working for pennies a day to repay any debts and support their families. Compounded with extreme tensions between indigenous and Ladino populations in Guatemala, Menchú worked to learn the Spanish language, flee to Mexico, and work with peace organizations to end reconcile the relationship between the Guatemalan government and the indigenous population. Her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, retells her life story and the struggles of indigenous peoples in Guatemala.

​Born just one year before the outbreak of the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted 36 years from 1960 to 1996, Menchú witnessed firsthand the systematic and government sponsored genocide of the indigenous population in Guatemala, including the murder of her own father, with whom she worked in the anti-government organizations and pro-indigenous movements. Her political and social organizing, as well as her service as an intermediary between the Guatemalan government and guerilla groups allowed for a peace treaty to be drafted and signed in 1996, bringing a symbolic end to the disasters faced by the Guatemalan population during the civil war.

​Although a peace treaty was signed, it did not mean the end of systemic oppression of poor and indigenous people by the Guatemalan government. During the civil war, many of these people fled from their country, looking for greater social and economic opportunities for themselves and their families. With Guatemala’s proximity to the United States, and with the historical connection between the two countries, Guatemalan Americans have become a rapidly growing Latino group in the United States.


Early Guatemala-US Relations

Prior to Spanish colonization, Guatemala was populated by an array of indigenous regional kingdoms, who preserved many aspects of the original Mayan civilization. The groups, which include the Itza, Q’eqchi’, Ch’orti’, and many more, faced mass genocide after Spanish contact in the late 15th century, due to epidemics of new diseases and mass killings of indigenous groups.

From 1524 to 1821, the current state of Guatemala was under Spanish colonial rule, known as the Royal Audiencia of Guatemala, or the Kingdom of Guatemala. This early colony was comprised of modern day Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, Costa Rica, and southern Mexico.After declaring independence from Spain. This group of states, under the name of The Federal Republic of Central America, existed as a single entity until 1838, when Guatemala and the other states created their own flags and formed their own governments.

​After a century of tumultuous government dictatorships and a constant back and forth between conservative and liberal regimes, a wave of protests beginning in the 1940’s led to the Guatemalan Revolution, which overthrew the authoritarian Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Jorge Ubico regimes with a democratic republican system. Of the many issues that liberal groups had with these regimes was the allowance of the United Fruit Company (UFCO), a US based company that grew tropical fruits in Central and South America and sold them in the US and Europe, into Guatemala.

​The UFCO, which was granted tax exemptions and land grants, became an integral part of US-based domination over the Guatemalan economic and political spheres. Government-led killings of fruit workers on strike, as well as granting the company control of the railroad and huge plots of public land that was oftentimes populated by small indigenous groups and villages. Repeated abuses of worker’s rights, mass displacement of indigenous peoples, and the use of slave labor led to a general strike in June of 1944, which marked the beginning of the Guatemalan Revolution.

​With the end of the authoritarian regimes in 1945, Guatemala’s new government, led by Juan José Arévalo, looked to the United States to set up its liberal-capitalist political and economic systems. Due to Arévalo’s harsher stance on the UFCO and his socialist-leaning ideologies on social welfare, the growing labor movement gained several victories, including anti-discrimination laws and safety standards. However, the Arévalo administration and the Guatemalan Congress also passed legislation exempting plantations from these new standards, and many of the new labor laws were never enforced.

​The 1950 election of liberal military official Jacobo Árbenzled to new agrarian reforms in the country, granting unfarmed land to poor laborers rather than allowing large companies to purchase or hold the land for later use. Titled the Agrarian Reform Law, this policy shifted some power to the poor and working class of Guatemala due to their new ownership of potential farming property. This state-sponsored program threatened the strength of large multinational corporations such as the UFCO.

​The UFCO responded by lobbying to the US government to condemn Guatemala for the land seizures under the agrarian reform laws, and used connections in the congress to discredit and tarnish the new Guatemalan government post-revolution. Included in this lobbying was the portrayal of the Guatemalan government as being influenced by communism, which, at the time of heightened Soviet-US tension in the 1940’s and 1950’s, marked the Guatemalan government as in need of a coup d’état by the US government.

​Under the presidency of Harry Truman, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked with the UFCO and the Nicaraguan government to overthrow the Árbenz administration through military action, but after the mission, codenamed Operation PBFORTUNE, was made public, Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson aborted the plan.

​The election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 allowed for a resurgence of anti-communist ideologies and a revitalized interest in overthrowing the Guatemalan government. Under Operation PBSUCCESS, the CIA engaged in psychological and political actions to create distrust for Árbenz and provoke a coup. Working with exiled Carlos Castillo Armas, a Guatemalan ex-military officer who opposed the new government, the CIA gave monetary resources and provided training to the oppositional militia. In addition, the CIA encouraged churches and radio stations to have an anti-government bias in their sermons and reporting, increasing the view of the Guatemalan government as steeped in communists and ultimately bad for the working and elite classes alike.

​With the invasion of Castillo Armas’ militia, along with the psychological warfare against Árbenz, the United States government successful completed their coup d’état, and Árbenzresigned in 1954. It is important to note that the CIA director, Allen Dulles, and the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had close ties to the UFCO, and thus led the US government to view the interests of the UFCO as a national security issue.

​Operation PBSUCCESS marked the beginning of a series of US-backed authoritarian regimes, and acted as a catalyst for the Guatemalan Civil War which lasted from 1960 to 1996. The relationship between Guatemala and the US, thus, was politically and economically motivated for the betterment of US domination over the western hemisphere and against the scare of communism.


Guatemalan Migration to the US

Prior to the beginning of the civil war, Guatemalan migration to the US was quite small. As the US Census Bureau did not keep measures on immigrants specifically from Guatemala, it is difficult to measure exact migration numbers prior to 1960. Instead, the Census Bureau tracked immigrants from all Central American countries as a single group. In the 1830s, only 44 Central Americans immigrated to the United States. From 1900 to 1920, approximately 25,000 Central Americans came to the US, and a number of these may include Guatemalans leaving the country after a 1917 earthquake.

The 1924 Immigration Act, which set quotas for incoming immigrants based on country of origin, led to fewer than 6,000 Central American immigrants that came to the US during the 1920’s and 1930’s. This number rose dramatically in the 1950’s, with 45,000 Central Americans coming to the United States from 1951 to 1960.

As the Guatemalan Civil War began, much larger numbers of Guatemalan immigrants came to the US to flee the political and economic oppression of the authoritarian governments. From the beginning of the civil war to its end in 1996, the population of Guatemalans in America grew from 6,000 to approximately 350,000. The Guatemalan government’s “scorched earth” method of warfare led to the mass killings of entire villages and the destruction of land, resulting in this mass voluntary migration and movement of displaced peoples and refugees.

The greatest number of Guatemalans immigrating to the US has been in the period after the civil war. From 1996 to 2010, the Guatemalan population rose from approximately 350,000 to 1,044,209, making Guatemalan Americans the ninth largest nationality represented in the US from the total Hispanic population per the 2010 US Census.

Another important population that is documented by the Census Bureau is the number of immigrants migrating to the US illegally. Since 1980, as few as 300,000 Guatemalan people have entered the US. This population represents many individuals leaving their homes in Guatemala due to political and economic subjugation of the indigenous, poor, and working class historically and into the contemporary social structure of the country. Per the most recent Census Bureau American Community Survey, the number of undocumented Guatemalan Americans adds to 612,983 people. Compared to the total number of Guatemalans found in this survey (1,296,634), undocumented individuals represent 47.2% of the Guatemalan American Population in the US.

Of the documented Guatemalan immigrants, a majority ofthe total Guatemalan American population resides in the western United States, with 38% of the Guatemalan American population, with Los Angeles as the city with the highest Guatemalan population, with 332,737 residents of Guatemalan origin. The southern US holds the second most, with 33.4% of the Guatemalan American population, followed by the Northeast(19.5%) and Midwest United States (9.2%).

Guatemalan Americans, after coming to the US, have settled into predominately Latino neighborhoods in and surrounding major cities, such as Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. These ethnic enclaves often consist of peoples of different national origins.​

Prejudices and Stereotypes​​

As Guatemalans represent only 2.1% of the total Latino population, many of the same prejudices that are held against other Latino and Mexican groups apply to the Guatemalan experience in the US. Because of the high number of Mexican Americans in the US, Guatemalan Americans are oftentimes mistaken or conflated with Mexican Americans and other Latinos.

​As many Guatemalan immigrants move to the US for economic betterment, Guatemalan Americans and Latino Americans are often viewed as taking jobs from “real Americans” (read: white Americans), along with being content with low wage jobs and thus easily exploited. Though this is one popular stereotype, it is in contradiction with the “lazy native” stereotype that exists in the American imagination, stemming from the socioeconomic status of many Latinos as poor and working class peoples in large cities.

​Colorism against indigenous populations, which has its basis in Guatemala, persists in the US. Darker skinned Guatemalans and immigrants who do not speak Spanish, but rather indigenous languages, are placed even further below the Ladino population in the hierarchy of groups in Guatemala.


Guatemalan American Economics and Education​​  

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, Guatemalan Americans have a lower median annual income ($18,000) compared to the median earnings of the total US population ($30,000). 28% of the Guatemalan American community lives at or under the poverty level, compared to 16%, which reflects the total US population. More Guatemalan Americans lives in poverty than all Latino groups overall, with the latter at 25%.

​There are, however, differences between the economics of US-born and Guatemalan-born Guatemalan Americans. Homeownership is a good measure of these differences, as it represents a level of accumulated wealth that incoming groups bring with them to the US or gain in the US over time. Of US-born Guatemalan Americans, 37% are homeowners, compared to 27% of Guatemalan-born Guatemalan Americans. This disparity between US-born and Guatemalan-born Guatemalan Americans illuminates the issues of newly arrived immigrants in the United States, who oftentimes must live with relatives or friends. Many immigrants also face direct property discrimination, as the ability to purchase properties depends on built credit and cash wealth.

​In the employment arena, Guatemalan Americans follow the trends of other immigrant groups that have come to the US in large numbers in recent decades. The percentage of Guatemalan Americans who are unemployed is 8.1%, lower than the 2013 US population’s average of 8.4%. In this number, a majority of Guatemalan-born Guatemalan Americans work in the service, agriculture, and maintenance sectors, jobs that are often looked down upon by the general public. Because of this, more incoming immigrants can find employment in these sectors. Though this is the case, 13.5% of US-born Guatemalans are unemployed, a much higher percentage than the 8.4% national average. This number suggests a struggling middle class in US-born Guatemalan American families, who face discrimination at upper level jobs and face competition for jobs from all other groups.


According to the US Census Bureau, 22.3% of Guatemalan Americans population over 25 years of age has attained at most a high school diploma, lower than the US total average of 27.8%. The number is similarly low for individuals who have attained Bachelors or Graduate degrees. Only 8.5% of the Guatemalan American population has a college degree, compared to the 29.8% of the total United States population.

​As Guatemalan Americans are a relatively new and growing group in the United States, there is little government or scholarly research on the educational history and attainments of Guatemalan Americans specifically. Although trends of Latino Americans as a whole can be applied to the experiences of Guatemalan Americans, it is important to understand the distinct histories of Latin American countries and to recognize individual groups of people in the United States. By comparing the experience of Guatemalan Americans to all Latin Americans, it continues the essentialism of Latino groups that results in media erasure of individuals’ stories and lived experiences.

​It will be valuable to conduct research on the economic and educational lives of Guatemalan Americans, as they are one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the US, as previously stated.


Politics and Protest​​​

Direct political participation in the United States has not been on the forefront of the Guatemalan American community. As of this writing, only one Guatemalan American has been elected to the House of Representatives. Norma Torres (D) represents California’s 35th District, which includes east Los Angeles. Torres was born in Guatemala and immigrated to Los Angeles with her family after the death of her mother at age 5.

​As the only Guatemalan American individual to hold a seat in Congress, and only having assumed office in 2015, Torres is still a relatively new member of Congress. However, Torres has been involved in and shown a commitment to the betterment of Guatemalan Americans and Guatemalans coming to the United States. In October 2017, the US House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to impose sanctions on Guatemala due to continued political corruption in the Guatemalan government, and to lessen the potential threats that could be posed against the United States due to travel by corrupt Guatemalan politicians in the United States. Torres was supportive of these sanctions, hoping to aid in the end of political corruption in Guatemala and impact the lives of Guatemalans for the better.

​In California, Torres has introduced legislation to increase public housing options for low income families, funding for local transportation, and legislation to protect undocumented workers from unlawful workplace abuses. With a degree in Labor Studies, Torres had a working knowledge of the labor industry and employment law and practices.

​Norma Torres, and all other Latino Senators and Representatives in Congress and in state level positions, aresupported by the National Organization of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Founded in 1976, the organization has focused on increasing voter registration for Latinos in the US, advocating for Latino officials to be appointed to office, and helping undocumented Americans through a path to citizenship.



Although there have been no large-scale protests done by the Guatemalan American community in the United States, the incoming generations of Guatemalans are no strangers to the power of political protest to enact changes in policy and government. Beginning with a country-wide general strike in 1944, campesinos and city-based revolutionaries fought against corporate control over the government and demanded labor reform. This revolutionary action ultimately led to the beginning of the Guatemalan Civil War.

​Since that first successful act of resistance by working class and mostly native individuals, Guatemalan citizens have repeatedly had to protest the corrupt governments and military coups that followed the Revolution and into the Civil War. Contemporary governmental corruption had led to a wave of mass protests held during the spring of 2017, triggered by the termination of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption investigation of the Guatemalan government.

​In the United States, the largest-scale protests done by Latin Americans has been the 2006 Immigration Reform protests in reaction to the passing of the House Bill 4437 Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. This bill, which would make “illegal presence in the US” a felony, criminalizing all undocumented peoples residing in the US. In response to the passing of this bill in the House, organizations across the United States planned and coordinated protests in major cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The “Great American Protest,” organized by the March 25th Coalition and other organizations, took place on May 1, 2006. Also dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants,” both documented and undocumented people were mobilized to take off work and work with community organizers in the multi-city protests.

​   The impact of the Great American Protest played out when the Senate did not approve of the legislation, and stopped the bill from becoming US policy. As the main purpose of the demonstrations was to stop the bill from being passed in the Senate, the goals of this protests worked symbolically to prove the physical manpower of generations of Latino immigrants in the United States, of which Guatemalan Americans have been a growing group. The protests and boycotts which took place were intended to prove the importance of immigrants and families of immigrants in the workforce, appealing to the economic importance of Latinos in the US system.



In Guatemala, as in most of Latin America and the colonized world, the European conquest led to the catholicization of mostthe colonized peoples. However, after a series of Pentecostal presidents during the early 1980s, the catholic church became associated with leftist revolutionaries, thus leading to government persecution of Catholics in Guatemala. At this time, US Evangelist and Pentecostal missionaries traveled to Guatemala to convert both catholic and indigenous peoples to the religion favorable to the central government.

​Religion has been a primary form of identification for Guatemalan Americans, many of whom finding religion as a way to stay connected with their Guatemalan national origin. In religious groups across the nation, churches have provided important literacy development through Bible study-style courses that help new generations of Guatemalan Americans gain the skills necessary to become a part of the economic workforce.

​Guatemalans in the United States and Guatemala alike also continue to practice a hybrid form of Christianity through the indigenous lens, which has taken form in applying different Mayan deities to the Catholic saints who were imposed on the indigenous population by missions during colonization.


Assimilation of Guatemalan Americans: Applied Theory​​

If using Milton Gordon’s view of the seven dimensions of adaptation to the society of the United States, Guatemalan Americans would fit within the first dimension: cultural assimilation. Per Gordon, cultural assimilation refers to “the change of one group’s important cultural patterns to those of the core society.” As Guatemalan Americans have been involved in politics and religious structures in the United States, including large scale protest, Guatemalan Americans have found avenues of attaining equity in the society of the United States.

However, most Guatemalan Americans continue to identify primarily through their Guatemalan heritage, even with immense pressure from schools and the media to undergo assimilating processes of assimilation, which aim to erase the historical aspects of one’s identity in order to become a working part of the United States’ political and economic system. In doing so, Guatemalan Americans have yet to reach the latter stages of Gordon’s dimensions of adaptation, such as the level of identification assimilation and attitude-receptional assimilation.
​Because of this, it is apt to apply the theory of ethnogenesis to the Guatemalan American communities that exist in the United States. Andrew Greeley’s theory of ethnogenesis, which states that immigrant groups both share cultural traits with their host countries, as well as retain many of the cultural traditions oftheir home country. Guatemalan Americans in the United States have followed this pattern, as education and occupational differences have instilled different sets of values influenced by the distinct American forms of capitalism and politics. However, holiday and religious traditions from Guatemala remain in a majority of Guatemalan American communities.



With the vast political and economic history between the United States and Guatemala, there have been instances of state sponsored genocide, mass sterilization of women, and US-led coup d’états. In the mass immigration out of Guatemala to the United States, few cultural changes have taken place in the US that have come out of Guatemala. Although ethnic enclaves do provide a space for incoming Guatemalans to survive the new American landscape in which they land, these incoming immigrants are often net what is seen as “being an American. ”In the process of labeling incoming groups as illegals, aliens, Guatemalan Americans and other Latino groups are denied the privilege of being seen as American, even if they participate in US institutions such as voting and paying taxes to the government. The President of the United States Donald Trump continues the othering of immigrant groups in the United States, stating that the people who come through Mexico to the United States are “bringing drugs… [and] bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

​Continued stereotypes of Latin American and Guatemalans in particular lead to the essentialism that is seen in the labeling of Latinos in the United States, which removes importance of individuals’ lives histories in relation to their country of origin, as well as increase the racialization and stereotyping of future generations of Latinos. By 2065, Latinos are projected to represent 24% of the total US population, making them the largest population group in the United States, and dismantle the majority white nation that the US is today. It will be important moving forward to note the shifts in politics, economics, and cultural traditions of the United States compared to today, and to evaluate the amount of structural equity that Guatemalan Americans can gain in this new United States.