In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Guatemala City

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works, Textbooks, and Journals
  • The Indigenous, Ethnicity, and Race
  • Labor, Leftist, and Student Movements

Latin American Studies Guatemala City
John T. Way
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0173


The construction of Guatemala City in the Ermita Valley, its fourth and final home, began in the mid-1770s in the wake of serious earthquake damage in what today is known as La Antigua Guatemala. After slow growth as Central America disintegrated into separate republics, the city began to bustle with Guatemala’s 1871 Liberal revolution, and more so after the 1920 overthrow of the dictator Estrada Cabrera. The majority of the works in this bibliography postdate this period. From 1920 forward, modernization and infrastructure development began to give rise to an overburdened and largely impoverished metropolis, through various phases: a period of urban unionization and political opening (1920–1930); the Ubico dictatorship (1931–1944); the Guatemalan Revolution (1944–1954, the democratic “Ten Years of Spring”); the authoritarian, anticommunist period following the CIA-led invasion of 1954 (1954–early 1960s); Guatemala’s civil war (1960–1996); and finally, a period of neoliberalism, which is still underway (roughly 1986 forward). Euphemistically called the “Armed Internal Conflict,” the civil war originated in 1960. Death squads began to terrorize the city in 1966, and the military government unleashed genocidal violence in the Mayan highlands from 1981 to 1983. Despite a return from military to civilian rule in 1986, after unprecedented violence had effectively defeated the guerrillas and the popular movement, the war continued until the signing of Peace Accords in 1996. During those years, a turn to neoliberalism began, exacerbating the tensions and class-based division of space and resources in a primate city already wracked by waves of rural-to-urban migration that had become acute by the 1950s and that grew in the decades ahead. When the 1976 earthquake displaced over a million people, the majority of Guatemala City’s inhabitants who had homes were living in slums and land invasions. The informal economy remained the predominant means of sustenance as refugees fleeing atrocities and “agrarian transformation” in the countryside poured into the city. Today’s metropolitan area (Área Metropolitana de Guatemala, or AMG) is made up of seventeen municipalities, most of which continue to urbanize on a daily basis. The privatization of space, the lack of planning, and the profusion of new social, cultural, and economic phenomena such as gangs, evangelical Christianity, vigilante violence, consumer culture, and spiraling crime have attracted researchers’ attention, and a recent body of interdisciplinary works on these topics complements other strands in the literature that focus on state terror, internal migration, and urban growth. Researchers should consult works on the nation in general, not included here because they do not specifically focus on the city.

General Overviews

Other than Gellert and Pinto Soria 1990, there is no general overview of Guatemala City’s history per se. Adams 1970, Grandin, et al. 2011 and McAllister and Nelson 2013 are edited readers that have selections relating to Guatemala City, while O’Neill and Thomas 2011 focuses specifically on the capital.

  • Adams, Richard N., ed. Crucifixion by Power: Essays on Guatemalan National Social Structure. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970.

    Still of great utility today, this volume examines the anthropology of Guatemala’s social sectors as well as the power that the United States exerts over the nation. It includes work on Guatemala City by Bryan Roberts, who later produced voluminous work on the poor and the Latin American city.

  • Gellert, Gisela, and J. C. Pinto Soria. Ciudad de Guatemala: Dos estudios sobre su evolución urbana, 1524–1950. Guatemala City: CEUR USAC, 1990.

    Also cited under Studies Covering Early Guatemala City, this source provides a general overview of Guatemala City from its origins to late in the 20th century.

  • Grandin, Greg, Deborah T. Levenson, and Elizabeth Oglesby, eds. The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822394679

    Part of Duke University Press’s Latin America Readers series, this collection of scholarly writings, printed primary documents, and images covers a wide range of topics that range in time from the pre-Columbian past to the new millennium. Useful as a reference and for excerption in undergraduate classes.

  • McAllister, Carlota, and Diane M. Nelson, eds. War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822377405

    This interdisciplinary collection of essays is “about the violence war both channels from earlier times and generates anew, and the promise that an ‘after’ to this war will someday come.” Explores Guatemalan society, politics, and culture in the aftermath of genocide, focusing on the effects on neoliberalism.

  • O’Neill, Kevin Lewis, and Kedron Thomas, eds. Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822393924

    Also cited under Urban Neighborhoods, Culture, and Society, this edited interdisciplinary reader provides an excellent overview of Guatemala City in the neoliberal period, linking social space to insecurity. It also covers the connections between urban and rural communities.

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