In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Guatemala (Modern & National Period)

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Anthologies
  • Ethnicity and Racism
  • Early Republic
  • The Rise of Neocolonialism: From Coffee State to Banana Republic
  • The October Revolution and Its Undoing, 1944–1954
  • Seeking Justice after State Terror
  • Twenty-First-Century Guatemala

Latin American Studies Guatemala (Modern & National Period)
Betsy Konefal
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0204


Guatemala is stunningly beautiful and rich in geographic and cultural diversity. The country also has had a long history of oppression, ethnic discrimination, and violence, resistance, and rebellion. Historical legacies loom large and continue to shape lives and possibilities, but Guatemalans share in a culture of resilience and a remarkable ability to find joy in the present. The early republic took shape amid Latin America’s familiar struggles between liberal and conservative ideologies. After two years as part of Mexico (1821–1823) and then as the capital of an unstable, Liberal-led Central American federation, an independent Guatemala emerged under Conservative-backed Rafael Carrera, who dominated the nation for a quarter-century beginning in 1840. Liberals prospered with the growth of coffee after 1860, gaining national power in 1871. So-called Liberal dictatorships during the next seven decades (except for an important reformist interruption in the 1920s) solidified Guatemala’s agro-export model and opened the door to the Boston-based United Fruit Company, which created a powerful banana enclave. Between coffee and fruit, peasants and workers suffered land loss and labor coercion in the highlands where most of the country’s Maya majority lived and in lowland plantations where workers (Mayas and “Ladinos,” as non-Mayas are known) produced fruit, sugar, and cotton under onerous conditions. In 1944, reformists overthrew dictator Jorge Ubico, opening the way to Guatemala’s first democratic governments. The Arévalo and Árbenz presidencies brought changes in labor laws, voting rights, education, and, in 1952, land tenure. The agrarian reform law encouraged the distribution of fallow portions of the nation’s largest landholdings. The mobilization that the law spurred and fierce backlash it provoked prompted Árbenz’s ouster in 1954 in a coup orchestrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), intervening in the name of anti-Communism. US-backed military dictatorships followed almost uninterrupted for the next thirty years, and a guerrilla oppositional insurgency began in 1960. The thirty-six-year war resulted in about 200,000 people killed, an estimated 83 percent of them Maya civilians. A truth commission found state forces to be responsible for 93 percent of killings, including genocidal army massacres of entire communities. The government and guerrilla forces signed an agreement in 1996 bringing an end to the war. The postwar era has been fraught and unsettled, with underlying causes of conflict unresolved; however, much has changed. A new “multiculturalism” is the norm, with at least lip service paid to the rights of Guatemalan Mayas, and a vocal civil society works openly and vigorously to insist on a government accountable to its citizens.

Overviews and Anthologies

For an introduction to the complexities and contradictions of Guatemala, an excellent starting point is Lovell 2010, a personal reflection by a geographer and historian that reveals the country’s stunning beauty and painful injustices through individual stories. Lovell 1988 is a scholarly article on “cycles of conquest” and an analysis of Maya survival since the 16th century. A more traditional book-length historical work is Handy 1984, a brief and engaging overview of Guatemalan history in a text appropriate for undergraduates, but one that should be supplemented by readings on developments since the end of Guatemala’s armed conflict. Luján Muñoz 1993–1999 is a more in-depth, exhaustive six-volume study that ranges from the pre-Conquest era to the 1990s, when it was compiled by Guatemalan historian Luján Muñoz and a diverse group of Guatemalan and foreign academics. Smith and Moors 1990 is a foundational work on indigenous–state relations in Guatemala, covering the colonial era to the late 1980s. Although the chapters on the more recent period reflect problems of conducting fieldwork during extreme violence—when major questions of political activism and community divisions could not be investigated in depth—this work is an invaluable basis for the many studies that followed. González-Izás 2014, with a distinct focus on explaining Guatemala’s troubled recent history, portrays “capitalist modernization” in Guatemala from 1750 to 1930 as setting the stage for extreme and racist violence in the last decades of the 20th century. Grandin, et al. 2011 is a fascinating accompaniment to any study of Guatemala and includes wide-ranging primary sources and essays covering the pre-Conquest era to the early 21st century, many authored by Guatemalans and translated into English for the first time. Finally, a visual history of Guatemala is housed in the Fototeca Guatemala of the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica in Antigua, Guatemala. Its fabulous collection includes over one million images of Guatemalan life from the mid-19th century to the early 21st century.

  • Fototeca Guatemala of the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica. Antigua, Guatemala.

    Stunning photo archive documenting Guatemalan life from the mid-19th century through the 20th century. The archive contains over one million images and is dedicated to rescuing the “visual memory” of Guatemala. Themes include daily life, indigenous culture, architecture, politics, nature, and natural disasters.

  • González-Izás, Matilde. Modernización capitalista, racismo y violencia: Guatemala (1750–1930). Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2014.

    Important study analyzing the long-term effects of capitalist modernization as pursued in Guatemala since the 18th century, with attention to the formation of ideas and social practices (relating to race, labor, access to land, and other resources) that made possible the extreme repression and state terror of the last decades of the 20th century.

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

    Excellent companion to any study of Guatemala, with over 200 wide-ranging selections introducing readers to the country in its many dimensions. Superb editorial introductions contextualize the entries, which begin with Maya before conquest and end with a focus on the hopes and challenges of the 21st century. Essential resource for undergraduates and any audience.

  • Handy, Jim. Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala. Boston: South End, 1984.

    Well-written, brief history that reflects on and tries to make sense of the brutally violent early 1980s, the time in which it was written. Handy ties a long history of colonialism, violence, and ethnic and economic oppression to turmoil and mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as to the state’s deadly response.

  • Lovell, W. George. “Surviving Conquest: The Maya of Guatemala in Historical Perspective.” Latin American Research Review 23.2 (1988): 25–57.

    Overview of what Lovell calls “cycles of conquest” to which Guatemalan Mayas have been subjected from the 16th century to the genocidal 1980s, i.e., “conquest by imperial Spain, conquest by local and international capitalism, and conquest by state terror” (p. 27). Argues that strong parallels exist among these cycles and that, in each case, Maya survival has depended on fierce attachment to land, community, and place.

  • Lovell, W. George. A Beauty That Hurts: Life and Death in Guatemala. 2d rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

    A geographer’s empathetic introduction to the complexities of Guatemala, “as stunning to look at as it is painful to know” (p. xv). Details of lives and experiences of Guatemalans gleaned from conversations and news reports. Accessible and appealing to general readers. Includes a useful and extensive bibliographic essay.

  • Luján Muñoz, Jorge, dir. gen. Historia general de Guatemala. 6 vols. Guatemala City, Guatemala: Asociación de Amigos del País, Fundación para la Cultura y el Desarrollo, 1993–1999.

    Massive study directed by Guatemalan historian Luján Muñoz, with Guatemalan and foreign contributors. Volume 1 covers the pre-Columbian epoch; Volume 2, the Spanish conquest until 1700; Volume 3, the 18th century to Independence; Volume 4, the Federal Republic to 1898; Volume 5, 1898 to 1944; and Volume 6, 1945 to the late 1990s. The nearly 5,000 pages cover socioeconomics, politics, and culture.

  • Smith, Carol and Marilyn Moors, eds. Guatemalan Indians and the State: 1540 to 1988. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

    Landmark book with essays by anthropologists, historians, and a geographer on Indian-state relations in different areas of Guatemala over centuries. Divided into two parts, “Historical Formation” and “Twentieth-Century Struggles,” and premised on the argument that relationships between indigenous people and the state have long been fundamental to Guatemala’s social order.

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