Guatemala’s Indigenous Community: A Struggle Against Poverty, Racism and Exclusion

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Guatemala is home to more than 24 ethnic groups, the majority of which are of Mayan descent. Most indigenous Mayan groups live in Guatemala’s rural western highlights in regions including Alta Verapaz and Quiché. Indigenous groups can be distinguished by language with approximately 24 indigenous languages still spoken today.

Over 43.75% of Guatemalans – more than 6.5 million people – identify as indigenous, that’s over 6.5 million Guatemalans. However, alternative reports indicate this number is actually closer to 60%, meaning a majority of the Guatemalan population is indigenous.

Sadly, Guatemala’s indigenous population faces higher rates of poverty, racism, and exclusion than non-indigenous Guatemalans. 4 out of 5 indigenous people live in poverty, and 21.8% of the indigenous community is affected by extreme poverty compared to 7.4% of the non-indigenous population

Regardless of the actual percentage that constitutes Guatemala’s indigenous population, the Maya can be considered a minority when referring to a category of people who experience relative disadvantage as compared to members of a dominant social group (1).  

To understand why Guatemala’s Mayan population continues to face poverty, racism and exclusion, we need to look at Guatemala’s history, starting back at the Spanish conquest. 

The Spanish Invasion of Guatemala & Suppression of Indigenous Communities

The origin of Guatemala’s Mayan population can be traced back to 1800 B.C. The ancient Maya developed an agriculture-based society that they supplemented with wild game and fish caught in rivers, lakes, and oceans. They built temples and religious centers, and developed writing, mathematics, and astronomy long before Western society did. 

In 1523, the Spanish, led by Pedro de Alvarado, conquered Central-America and Mexico including what is now Guatemala’s Quiché region. During his conquest, de Alvarado  murdered not only the top indigenous leaders, but members of the civilian population as well, commiting eight mass murders, killing up to 3,000 indigenous people at a time. Any survivors were enslaved and forced to work on their stolen land. 

Independence, Revolution, and The Ten Years of Spring

Guatemala remained under Spanish rule until 1837, when a number of events including rage over indigenous land loss and a cholera pandemic led to riots. The then-leader of the country, Rafael Carrera, began to rule as a dictator, later declaring Guatemala a sovereign republic in 1847. 

After Carrera’s death in 1865, his successor, General Vicente Cerna, continued conservative rule until 1871, when a liberal revolution defeated his army. Until 1944, different dictators continued to rule Guatemala. During this time, Guatemala’s economy grew substantially primarily as a result of the export of coffee and bananas. This growth however, also widened the gap between Guatemala’s elite and poorer indigenous communities. During these years of growth, specifically under dictator Jorge Ubico, local autonomy was also reduced, especially in indigenous communities.

In 1944, Juan José Arévalo, a critic of Ubico, was named president of Guatemala. He created and adopted a new constitution that gave more authority to the Guatemalan people, instead of just the elite. During his presidency, Arévalo made a number of positive changes for the country – granting Guatemalan women the right to vote, allowing freedom of speech and reforming social security, healthcare, and education. These actions made Arévalo very popular among Guatemala’s general population, but caused discontent among the elite who tried to overthrow him 20 times.

In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, took Arévalo’s place as president, and raised even more concerns for the elite, as well as the U.S. government. Arbenz focused heavily on agrarian reform, passing a law in 1952 in attempts to give agricultural land from large property owners to landless indigenous workers. The largest of these landowners was the United Fruit Company, who started a propaganda campaign against Arbenz’s government. The U.S. government also became increasingly concerned, fearing the impact on American investments in the country.

The Overthrow of Arbenz

As a result, in May 1954, the U.S. government launched a plan to overthrow Arbenz, with the help of Nicaragua and Honduras. On June 18, Guatemalan exiles who were armed and trained by the CIA and U.S. Marine Corps officers invaded Guatemala. Guatemala’s army refused to act, and Arbenz was forced to resign. The military government replaced him and took back his legislature. They arrested many ‘communist’ leaders and released over 600 political prisoners arrested under Arbenz. 

For the next 30 years, Guatemala’s military governed the country, undoing all of Arbenz’s reforms. Land was given to the “original” elite landowners, and indigenous rights were restricted. A group of Guatemalans saw violence as the only way for change and in 1960, a rebellion confronted the government. The uprising was defeated with some participants escaping into the mountains and organizing the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), thus beginning Guatemala’s civil war. 

Civil War in Guatemala

Guatemala’s civil war began in 1960. With the start of the civil war, the Guatemalan government began to train right-wing terrorist groups. Death squads emerged, murdering labor leaders and political opponents, while leftist rebellions – or guerrillas – increased their attacks on government forces. For the years that followed, Guatemala was governed by military officers and violence against citizens and guerrillas continued to escalate.

In 1982, Efrain Rios Montt seized power following a military coup, and began his rule as a cruel dictator. He launched a campaign against indigenous communities and rural citizens, forcing indigenous men to join the military to fight the rebellions. His army killed thousands of indigenous people and destroyed more than 400 villages. In 1983, as a result of international condemnation of these atrocities, the military drove Rios Montt from power and turned it over (in limited ways) to civilians, and in 1985 Marco Vinicio Cerezo won the election, becoming Guatemala’s first civilian president in 15 years. While he did not succeed in ending the civil war, he did play an important role in the Central-American Peace Accord of 1987 which helped lay a foundation to the end of the war.

In 1994, peace talks between the parties began and in 1996, under the government of Álvaro Arzú, a Peace Agreement was signed, officially ending the Civil War. Until today, indingeous communities are still marked by the horrific acts that took place against them during this 36 year war. 

Guatemala’s Indigenous Community’s Continued Struggle for Equal Rights

Even though the Civil War ended over 24 years ago, poverty, exclusion, and racism still affect the indigenous community today.

Guatemala’s Constitution says:

“Guatemala is formed by diverse ethnic groups, especially those of Mayan descent, and the State recognizes, promotes and respects their ways of life, customs, traditions, and ways of social organization.”

While this recognizes the country’s indigenous communities and their rights, in reality, the government still fails to do this. 

Last year, elections took place to choose the new President of Guatemala. Of the 23 political parties that, only four had indigenous candidates. The most notable candidate was Telma Cabrera who came in fourth, the highest place achieved by an indigenous leader so far. 

Less than 10% of Guatemala’s Congress members are indigenous. This is a relatively small percentage considering the indigenous community makes up for almost half of the country’s inhabitants.

Defending Land Owned by the Indigenous Community

Since the Spanish conquest in 1524, Guatemala’s indigenous community has continually fought to maintain and to win back their territory. A good example is the Rocjá Pontilá Project of the Hidro Energía S.A. company on Q’eqchi territory in Alta Verapaz. This hydroelectric project was approved by the government but failed to comply with environmental laws. Furthermore, it failed to abide by the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These rights dictate that indigenous communities need to be consulted before any type of construction on their territory.

Abelino Zacarias, who filed an injunction against the project, mysteriously disappeared. And so did several others who worked on this project. In fact, human rights activists all over Guatemala, but mostly in the highlands, face danger and threats everyday. In the first six months of 2019, there were 327 attacks on human rights defenders, including 12 murders. Most of the victims were of indigenous origin. 

4 out of 5 indigenous Guatemalans live in poverty and have limited access to healthcare, education, and other basic services. Guatemala’s government however does not recognize this disadvantage. Unfortunately, the indigenous people who do stand up for their rights, often get threatened or murdered. Others try to flee the country to find economic and educational opportunities they simply can’t obtain in Guatemala. 

Guatemala’s indigenous community does not receive the same opportunities as non-indigenous people have. Guatemala’s government does not take any measures to empower its indigenous community or ensure access to basic resources. In fact, the government seems to silence human right defenders.

Nonprofits Working to Support Guatemala’s Indigenous Communities

75% of Guatemala’s indigenous population lives in rural areas. These areas are harder to reach and more difficult to support from a distance. Thankfully, 60% of our member organizations work with indigenous communities. They provide support with healthcare, education, empowerment workshops, and community development initiatives.

Without the work of these nonprofit organizations, the little help that these communities receive, would not be possible. These organizations need your help to keep supporting Guatemala’s indigenous population. 

If you are interested in receiving more information on the nonprofits we partner with, send us an email to


1945-, Healey, Joseph F. (2018-03-02). Race, Ethnicity, Gender, & Class : The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. Stepnick, Andi,, O’Brien, Eileen, 1972- (Eighth ed.). Thousand Oaks, California. ISBN 9781506346946. OCLC 1006532841.