As many Americans don’t know, the Guatemalan Civil Conflict (1960-1996) was an American-fueled and ambitious meddling with Guatemalan affairs. The result was the mass killing and disappearing of the local Mayan population.
The United Fruit Company saw developing Guatemala as an extremely profitable and cheap place to buy huge amount of land to farm. Thus, they invested in this cheap and fertile land. However, as Guatemala grew more nationalistic, the democratic country placed into power a candidate with 70% of the vote whose whole agenda was to take the land back from the United Fruit Company. He promised to return it to the Mayan population.
The United Fruit Company feared the loss of their extremely fertile and profitable land in Guatemala. The leaders of the company convinced the United States’ politicians that the newly elected leader was a communist. Soon, the army sent special forces soldiers to orchestrate a coup d’erat in 1954. This placed a military dictator in control of the country, beginning decades of military rule.
The Civil Conflict broke out in the years after the coup. A small rebel group took action in 1960, which marks the start of a conflict that would last 36 years. The central government was backed by the United States and put at odds with the majority of the population – Mayans who wanted their land back. The government worked to create fear in the Mayans. They killed thousands and thousands of Mayans, many of who disappeared without a trace.
Knowing this information alone and the fact that the conflict occurred less than 30 years ago means that most of the people we see saw the horrors of the conflict and are still living – living without closure. This should lead one to believe that this population of Guatemalans would live on edge and be extremely careful, maybe even reluctant to interact with foreigners. I expected to see this particularly in the small communities, where many fathers and brothers were rounded up to be executed.
However, it is the small communities which seem the most open to us. Over this trip, there have been many times that we have joined in on a game of soccer or basketball with local children. We’ve been watched by happy parents and neighbors. No one has pulled the kids away or warned them.
The feeling of trust and welcomeness in these small communities is so unlike what I have experienced in my life in the United States, where you never greet strangers walking down the street or join a pickup games without explicitly knowing the others who are playing. This only makes the true and natural beauty of this culture more impressive to me.
This trust extends through these small communities of locals everywhere and it seems instilled in everyone we meet. Recently, in the small town of Cerro de Oro we spent time in a little barber shop across the street from the famous Jaime’s taco cart. I met Jose, a 14 year-old kid who worked there. It was there that we had a normal conversation in Spanish (he couldn’t speak English). We bought him tacos and we talked for almost 45 minutes, like friends. We spoke about soccer, friends from home, Spanish as a language, and music.
Somewhere around the middle of our conversation, I asked him if he had ever spoken to an American before. His answer shocked me in the moment, although in hindsight it really shouldn’t have because Cerro is such a small town. But, here we were casually asking questions – “Christian o Messi?” or “Te gusta Bad Bunny?” Jose had never spoken to an American before but it felt so normal. In Cerro and in other small communities, we have been created like old friends from the first “Hola, buenas tardes.”
To me, it is almost impossible to understand how the fear tactics of the Guatemalan government didn’t change the natural culture. The Mayan culture of friendliness endures despite the relentlessness of the tragic history. And it feels even more impossible for me to imagine that people like Jose problem lost grandfathers, uncles, and all other kinds of relatives AND can still sit down and welcome foreigners to this small town without fear or hesitation.
I don’t know if I will ever completely understand the beauty and openness of the Mayan culture, but it is eye-opening to even see the surface of it. I feel infinitely fortunate.