THE THIRD ROOT
Heritage of Central America
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
Guatemala is Central
America’s most populous nation, as well as the center of its former colonial
government. The country is often associated with the culture of the Maya
Indians. With 44% of its population of native American ancestry the
association is correct. Other ethnic groups in Guatemala include a sizable mestizo
community representing 54% of the population, an Afro-Guatemalan population which makes up about 1-2%
of the population and a European or “white”
population (mostly of Spanish and German ancestry) that numbers around 1%. There
are also small communities of
Arabic speaking persons as well as a small
Persons of African ancestry
in Guatemala are descended from three groups: Afromestizos,
Creole English speaking Afro-Antilleans
(also known as “West Indians”). Some sources have placed the total
Afro-Guatemalan population as high as 2% of Guatemala’s population. One
percent (110,000) seems to be more realistic. Other sources do not acknowledge
any African presence in the country whatsoever.
The Afromestizo group is by far the largest, as well as the most
ethnically assimilated of the three groups.
Afro-mestizos are a mix of three racial groups. In addition to African,
the Afromestizo also has native
American and European ancestry in varying degrees and combinations. Some
Guatemalan mestizos have
very little or no African ancestry, being predominantly native American
or European. Among those that do have some African ancestry many have little
awareness of it.
It is likely that Pedro
de Alvarado (the “Conqueror of Guatemala”) had Africans with him during
his invasion of Guatemala from Mexico in 1524. From the earliest days of the
colony, African slaves were brought to Guatemala to labor for the Spanish Conquistador’s.
They have been a part of Guatemala’s history for over 450 years.
During the early colonial
period Spanish landowners
established sugar, indigo and cochineal plantations, as well as large cattle
ranches called haciendas. Many of
these plantations and ranches were located along the Pacific “lowlands” with
a marked concentration in the southern coastal and inland areas. Sugar
plantations worked by African slaves became particularly important in and around
the town of Amatitlan.
Africans and Europeans were
not often found living in the “highlands” of Guatemala. This region is almost exclusively inhabited by native
Americans. After the abolishment of slavery in Guatemala (1823) a number of
slaves from neighboring Belize fled to freedom by crossing the border into the
“highland jungles” of Peten in northern Guatemala. This
resulted in an internal crises in Guatemala as to whether or not these slaves
should be returned to their British masters. The slaves stayed in Guatemala and
most eventually intermarried with the local native population.
During the 1620’s an
English Catholic explorer Thomas Gage observed, while sailing the southern coast
of Guatemala, large numbers of black slaves working on haciendas and indigo plantations.
What became of their descendants?
No more then 10,000 Africans were brought to Guatemala between 1524 and 1620. Some eventually escaped and fled into the more isolated areas of the colony, particularly the mountains of the Sierra de las Minas. Here, with bows and arrows, they attacked and harassed Spanish settlers throughout countryside. An entire military force from the capital was unable to subdue them, and they lived and mixed their blood with the local native population. This maroon community was not unlike others found at the same time in Panama and Mexico. Some runaway slaves reached the Caribbean coast and mixed with native Americans living in that region.
By the beginning of the 17th
century Spanish landlords in Guatemala began questioning the desirability of
continued slave importation and few Africans were brought to Guatemala after
1620. With the decline in slave
importation during the 17th century, along with an on going
miscegenation, much of the black population of Guatemala was gradually
assimilated and absorbed into the mestizo
Their descendants today form a part of the mestizo
population and no longer have a strong awareness of their African ancestry.
Some slaves during the 17th
century were able to purchase their own freedom. A small but significant group
of free blacks emerged in Guatemala. Some were land owners. One Afro-Guatemalan
established a dairy farm to supply the capital and became quite wealthy. Others
cultivated cacao, maize, sugar, tobacco and other crops.
One well known Guatemalan of
mixed native, African and European descent was the dictator Rafael
Carrera (1814-1865). Born in Guatemala City to a poor Afromestizo
family, his father was a mule driver and his mother a servant. At the age of
12 he enlisted into the federal army as a drummer boy and rose to the rank of
sergeant after fighting in several Central American wars. He married into a
wealthy mestizo family in 1836 and
started to organize the poor natives and mestizos
of eastern Guatemala against the “liberal government” in the capital.
Emerging as a conservative and leading the revolution of 1837, Carrera overthrew President Morazan in 1840. This resulted in
the end of the Central American Federation. He served as president of Guatemala
from 1844 to 1848 and then was elected to the presidency in 1851. In 1854 he
named himself “president of
Guatemala for life” and remained Guatemala’s undisputed leader until his
death in 1865. He was worshipped as a “god” by the
The national folk instrument
of Guatemala is the marimba. The
marimba and its descendants, the xylophone and vibraphone, are Guatemala’s
gifts to the musical heritage of the Americas. The marimba is also an important
folk instrument in the traditional music of southern Mexico, El Salvador,
Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
the marimba’s origins are in Africa and that the instrument was introduced
into Guatemala by African slaves around 1550. The first mentioning of it by a
Guatemalan is in a description of a parade in the city of
Antigua in 1680. According to
Guatemalan music scholar Lester Godinez, the idea of grouping wooden keys
together to form a melodic instrument was originally brought to Guatemala by
slaves recreating a pentaphonic African instrument called the bailaphon.
Native Americans adopted the instrument as their own, and it is played today by
both natives and mestizos.
Some historians have
speculated that the marimba might also have been developed by the mixed
descendants of Africans and native Americans, the so called bi-racial “zambo” population of colonial Guatemala. As Mr. Godinez accurately
points out “the marimba did not
come ready-made. It is the combination of three cultures”.
Garifuna & Afro-Antilleans:
population group known as the Garifuna
live along a short stretch of coast in the eastern Caribbean lowlands of
Guatemala. The Garifuna arrived from Honduras shortly after Guatemalan
independence in 1823. Their story is outlined in greater detail in the section
on Honduras. The Garifuna are of mixed African and native American ancestry.
They speak a native American language showing influences from both Yoruba and
French. The number of Garifuna speaking persons in Guatemala is estimated at
17,000. Many speak only Spanish or Creole English. A number of Garifuna have
left the Caribbean coast to seek jobs
and opportunities in the capital.
The three most important
Afro-Guatemalan settlements along the Caribbean coast are Livingston
(a Garifuna settlement), Puerto Barrios and
Santa Tomas. All three towns have important Garifuna and/or Afro-Antillean
communities. In Livingston the Garifuna maintain many of their Afro-Amerindian
traditions in art, music and food.
The population here numbers around 4,000 and every May 15th a
festival is held to celebrate the arrival of the first Garifuna on the shores of
Guatemala. The town celebrates with traditional music and dancing. The Garifuna
are well known for their hand made drums as well as their punta music that is popular throughout Latin-America. Many Garifuna
in Livingston speak Spanish as well as Creole
A small Creole English speaking community of Afro-Antilleans has also settled in Guatemala. During the first half
of the 20th century a number of Jamaican and Belizian blacks
immigrated to Guatemala for employment opportunities. The Guatemalan government
placed immigration restrictions on these newcomers and many could only stay in
the country in two year intervals.
The town of Puerto Barrios was built by the American United Fruit Company to ship bananas to New Orleans. The first United
Fruit plantations in Guatemala were established in 1906, at the mouth of the
Rio Matagua (near
Puerto Barrios). Blacks from Jamaica were recruited to work on these
plantations. Because they were English speaking, American employers favored the
Jamaicans over the local Spanish speaking workers.
The banana plantations latter expanded into the areas along the lower Rio
Motagua and around Lake Izabal.
During the 1930’s the plantations were struck by disease and United
Fruit moved its operations to the Pacific coastal area, moving the bananas
by rail to the Caribbean ports.
In Guatemala City Afro-Antilleans came to work as farm and services laborers. A small post war migration of Afro-Antilleans was reflected in the Guatemalan census of 1950, which reported 1,530 Belizean born Guatemalans and 435 Jamaican. Others have continued to migrate during the past 50 years making the Caribbean “lowlands” of Guatemala the most African influenced region in the country.
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