Irreversible Moment:
Before and after the Spanish Invasion

Abeja Hummel

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History Sidebar #1The first human inhabitants of Guatemala crossed the land bridge over the Bering Straight between Alaska and Siberia 20,000-25,000 years ago (as did all Native Americans) and eventually made their way down to Central America. From 2000-800 BC, the Mayan culture and language begin to form, and the na-- a thatched Mayan hut, took the place of cave dwelling. Between 800 BC and 250 AD, trade routes developed, agriculture improved, and pyramids began to appear in the plazas.


History Question #1 Between 250 and 600 AD (what historians call the "Classic Period), Mayan culture and technology reached its height, with the lands organized as independent city-states, each with its own "king." So, while Europe was going through the "Dark" Ages, Guatemala was experiencing a time of great scientific discovery. The positioning and architecture of the temples and pyramids, for example, demonstrate highly advanced mathematics and astronomy. They also had a strong hierarchical structure, with both royalty and slavery, and some ceremonies are thought to have involved human sacrifice. This great civilization declined after 900 AD due to population growth, food shortages, and military activity. By the time the Europeans arrived, most of the great cities had been abandoned.

History Question #2 From the Horse's Mouth  

In 1522, Cortez, the Spanish Conquistador who conquered Mexico, sent his Lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado to conquer Guatemala. With the help of the Aztec warriors from Mexico, Alvarado viciously conquered the agricultural Mayan people of Guatemala. While under Spanish rule, all of Central America except Panama was known as "Goathemala."

        History Sidebar #2  

The push for independence in Mexico and Central America, as in the United States, did not arise from the indigenous population, but rather from the "Creoles"--people of European ancestry born in the "New World." Ever since independence from Spain (1821) and then from Mexico (1823), Guatemala has been embroiled in a struggle between the forces of the left, who press for political, social, and economic progress, and the Conservative right who want to maintain control by a strong Church and Government.


History Sidebar #3 Both sides, however, are the social and economic elite and benefit from the continued oppression of the Mayan peasants. As the land was taken by the wealthy ladino (of Spanish/Indian ancestry) and Creole landowners (with the help of the military), the peasants were forced to work in the great coffee, banana, and sugar plantations, called fincas. A series of harsh dictators (many with good intentions) ruled the country until 1945, keeping economic control in the hands of a few land-owning and commercial families and giving generous concessions to foreign companies. Despite a liberal constitution, the government was subservient to economic interests, and opponents were imprisoned or exiled.

History Sidebar #4
The elections of 1945 brought liberals to power, with concern for the indigenous population, a modern health system, and liberal labor laws. In 1954, the USA became alarmed by agrarian reform laws designed to break up large estates, reclaim vast lands given to the United Fruit Company, and divide the land among small, independent farms. (Remember that this is a time when the USA feared Communism as a great threat.) In 1954, the USA orchestrated an invasion of Guatemala by two exiled military officers, thus overthrowing the elected liberal government, stopping the land reform, and throwing Guatemala into a long succession of repressive military presidents. Critics of the government turned up dead, land reform was reversed, and literacy became a requirement for voting (75% of the population was illiterate).


From the Horse's Mouth Repression worsened through the 1980's as the rebel groups grew stronger. The military government's "scorched earth" policy was to torture and massacre the general population in the areas where rebel activity was based. In the mid-1980's, the US cut off its military support to the Guatemalan government in response to the bloodbath. US support was later resumed, then cut off again in 1995 when the government didn't investigate the disappearance of several US citizens in Guatemala.


History Question #3 On December 29, 1996, the elected civilian government and the main revolutionary organization, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) signed a peace accord which ended the 36 year civil war, in which 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, thousands more "disappeared," and millions left homeless. A tenuous peace exists in the country now, despite ongoing social and economic inequalities.


From the Horse's Mouth Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a native Quiche Mayan from Guatemala and Revolutionary leader, said "I see the youth power. I think this is how we can change the world....Let us not dwell on the painful past, although it is true. Let us not forget the past because it will always be a lesson we have learned in our lives and in our work. But let us look at how best to unify our effort for the future."

History Question #4 History Question #5