With a population of nearly 15 million, Guatemala is the most populated country in Central America. It is also one of the poorest. Seventy five percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 58% live in extreme poverty (World Bank). Over half the population is indigenous Maya, and the remainder is primarily of mixed European and indigenous heritage – referred to in Guatemala as Ladino.
Raw with the wounds of nearly four decades of civil war, the country is full to the brim with survivors struggling to break free from seemingly perpetual poverty. The literacy rate of Guatemalans over the age of 15 is just 75% – apart from Haiti, this is the lowest literacy rate in the Western Hemisphere. What’s more, social and cultural prejudices and barriers such as racism, gender discrimination and poverty, show up plainly in these literacy statistics: males (80%) are more likely to be able to read than females (69%), and Ladinos (82%) are better off than their indigenous peers (58%). When it comes down to it, indigenous women are the most marginalized in the country – with literacy rates of just 30% alongside high rates of poverty and poor health.
Guatemala’s low levels of literacy are the product of failing education systems and limited resources for learning. Because public education is not free in Guatemala, attendance figures are dismal: 80% enrollment of primary-aged children, 30% of middle school-aged children, and 10% of high school students. With one of the worst school systems in the Americas, outlays for enrollment fees, uniforms, and school supplies can exceed a month’s salary per child per year for the average manual laborer. It’s no wonder, then, that most Guatemalans grow up either having no relationship at all with books or associating books with drudgery and distaste.
While quality of life may be low, Guatemalan culture is alive and well. An intoxicating richness of color, landscape, and architecture combine to inspire this nation. With volcanoes, lakes, and coastal land, the country is rich with natural resources. Its colonial history and cobblestone streets give way to vibrant rainforests and winding mountain roads. Mayan temples, stunning tapestries, and delicious coffee may represent this Latin American nation, but dig a little deeper and we’ve found a population of impassioned, resourceful, and generous people making great sacrifices to create a better life for the next generation.
In this way, Guatemala exists at the intersection of need and capacity, proximity and distance. Scarred by a traumatic past, the country is looking for a better way forward. Its youth are ready to change things and its people are willing to work for it.