language, Latin America, Spanish-speaking Country

Countries That Speak Spanish: Guatemala

At ACR Spanish Translations, I am passionate about the Spanish language and I know that a language is only as alive as the cultures in which it is used and evolves. That’s why I will be profiling Spanish-speaking countries in this blog series: so you can get to know all of the amazing places this world has to offer where Hola means hello and everything Spanish will help you get by! This month, Guatemala!

Country name: Guatemala

Pronunciation: gwah-te-mah-lah

 Guatemala is a Central American country bordered by Mexico, Belize and the Caribbean, Honduras and El Salvador. The country’s name comes from the Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān, meaning “place of many trees” which is derived from the K’iche’ Mayan word for “many trees.”

This beautiful and biodiverse country is divided by two mountain chains, creating three regions. These regions vary widely in climate and environment, from the hot, humid lowlands in the north to the cool, dry highland peaks and the Pacific coast in the south. Guatemala is an important site of biodiversity and is home to the Maya Biosphere Reserve which is the second largest forest in Central America.

While rural areas of Guatemala don’t have as many communities left there, such areas are dotted by sites which remind us that the region was once the heart of the Mayan civilization. There are countless Mayan sites throughout the country such as the famous Tikal pyramids in Petén. While the Mayan civilization collapsed into regional kingdoms in 900 AD, the Mayan peoples survived Spanish colonization in the 16th century and their culture continues to exist and evolve in modern day Guatemala. Some of the most notable ways in which this happens are the soundscapes of Guatemala (meaning its music and languages) and cuisine!

If you ever visit Guatemala, one of the first things you might notice is how important music is to everyone. Music is important, having motivated social and political movements. The marimba is the country’s national instrument, but Guatemalan music embraces many styles, including Caribbean, salsa, Garifuna, Latin pop and mariachi.

Similarly, Guatemalan clothing, especially yarn based textiles are a combination of traditional fiber arts with European-influenced styles and cuts. Like many Latin American countries, food is a central cultural element of Guatemala with corn, beans, rice and proteins making up the everyday staples. There are also said to be hundreds of varieties of tamales made in Guatemala!  Perhaps one of the most important things to experience in Guatemala when it comes to food is the locally-grown coffee which is loved and exported around the world!

Why do Guatemalans speak Spanish?

Spanish expeditions to Guatemala began in 1519. Pedro Alvarado eventually conquered the region, bringing it under Spanish rule. It was Tlaxcaltecan soldiers accompanying Alvarado who named the territory “Guatemala” during the Spanish conquest.  Guatemala became part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. In 1821, the Captaincy General of Guatemala proclaimed independence from Spain.

Guatemalan culture today is a mix of Spanish and Mayan influences, as well as surrounding cultures. Droves of tourists visit both the Mayan sites in Petén and Spanish colonial sites such as the city of Antigua Guatemala, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. Spanish is the Guatemala’s only official language. 93% of the population speaks it as a first or second language, but twenty-one Mayan languages are also spoken, as well as two non-Mayan indigenous languages. It is common for indigenous Guatemalans to speak 2 – 5 languages in addition to Spanish.

Fast Facts

Population: 17,263,239

Largest city: Guatemala City

Religion: Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant

Famous Guatemalans: Miguel Àngel Asturias Rosales (diplomat, writer, Nobel Prize laureate), Myrna Mack (anthropologist, human rights activist), Rigoberta Menchu (Indigenous rights activist), Oscar Isaac (actor)

Currency: Quetzal (GTQ)

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