The city of Antigua is unlike any other place in Guatemala – there is a fair amount of money here. The vast majority of the 13 million people who live in Guatemala are poor, but being in this small town of about 60,000 people is like being in an entirely different world. Let me paint a broader picture of the people of Guatemala.
Guatemaltecos can be classified into 3 primary groups: (1) indigenous people, which is by no means a homogenous group, for there are dozens of different indigenous groups here, each with their one language and customs, (2) direct descendents of the Spanish Europeans who colonized this country starting 500 years ago, and (3) “mestizo” people who are a mixture of the first two groups.
There is a wide gap between the rich and the poor in Guatemala. It is estimated that about 25 families of European heritage control more than 80% of the fertile land here. Another stat indicates that 10% of the people receive more than 50% of all income in this country. The super-rich are a tiny minority that not only have most of the money, but they also hold most of the power because they control the political and governmental systems. Antigua, which is known world-wide for its Spanish language schools, is also one of the playgrounds of rich Guatemaltecos who come here on the weekends to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital Guatemala City (which is only 40 minutes down the road).
There is also a small percentage of middle-class families here, it includes those who have been fortunate enough to get through school and find professional employment, and those who through sheer tenacity have worked themselves out of poverty. The families who host Spanish language students are an example of the middle-class, and this income is vital to their livelihood. By the way, no language school would prosper here without having middle-class accommodations for language students, anything less would simply not be tolerable for many of the North Americans and Europeans who come here to study Spanish. But having said that, there is even a significant gap between the middle-class here in Antigua and the middle-class in Xela (4 hours west of here) where I spent the month of October. Here in Antigua the accommodations are very close to what I am used to in the United States, but the accommodations in Xela were somewhat spartan by comparison.
Most of the rest of the people who live in Guatemala are poor. At least 80% of the population live in poverty, and about one-third of those are considered to be living in “pobreza extrema” or extreme poverty. A person who is extremely impoverished likely has no job, has no education, might be in poor health, and is fortunate to eat one time a day. Thus, if I have my stats correct, well over 3 million Guatemaltecos are living in extreme poverty. But I don’t need stats to prove to me the level of poverty here, for I have seen it with my own eyes. I have been to Guatemala City and also spent a month in the Xela area, and it is painfully obvious to me that there ain’t no place in the United States – including Appalachia – that is anywhere close to as poor as the majority of Guatemala.
Education can be a ticket to a better life, but the school system here suffers from lack of funding and enforcement, and is also viewed with suspicion by much of the population. The largest percentage of the population is the indigenous poor, and many of them think that the school system is designed to erode their indigenous culture. Moreover, they need their children to work in the fields, and thus even the children who are enrolled in school often miss classes and/or stop school altogether after completing only a few grades. It is estimated that the literacy rate among indigenous women is around 30%. Another problem is that a good education is supposed to provide graduates with more opportunities and better jobs, however even when kids advance through the school system very often they cannot find work afterward … thus, people in the community see these poor results and think, “Why should I even send my kids to school?”
People wonder why my wife and I would want to come to Guatemala for vacation. Let me just say that we could have gone to Hawaii or Europe or Australia or many other places in the world for vacation, thanks be to God we are very fortunate and can afford to splurge occasionally. (Admittedly, a trip to some of those other places would have had to been considerably shorter to be affordable for us). But we came to Guatemala in part for the quality of the Spanish instruction, but also to invest our tourism dollars in a country that could really use the tourism income. Actually, the hardest part about coming here has been ensuring that as much money as possible gets to the people who need it the most. I don’t want to pay some tour company raking in tourist dollars to take me on a tour to show me where the poor people live, I would much rather hop on a chicken bus and go there myself. If you come here and feel like helping the less fortunate, you could take the money that you plan on spending on a tour, change it into a bunch of one quetzal coins, and walk down the dirt streets handing a quetzal to everyone you see. Occasionally we see someone sitting on the sidewalk here in Antigua with their hand out seeking a little help, and when you give them a one quetzal coin they are delighted and very appreciative … they might even be able to eat for a day on one quetzal. Yet one quetzal is worth only about one U.S. dime – how the hell hard is it to walk around giving out dimes?
People also wonder about how safe it is here in Guatemala … they rely too much on exaggerated news coverage, and imagine that there are gangs of thugs wandering all over this country ready to pillage. Granted, it is somewhat safer to be in the United States than it is to be this country, and granted one must take precautions, but in reality there is a very small difference in the degree of relative safety between the two countries. Many times while in Xela I walked home alone at night down poorly lit streets past many people I did not know, yet I did not once feel fear or have any problems. The people I passed at nights in the streets of Xela were people just like you and me … a woman walking home alone after her shift at Dominoes Pizza … vendors from the market walking to their trucks … kids walking home after school activities … a man walking into town to have a few beers at the sports bar … couples returning home from dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant … teenagers going to the soccer match (“fútbol” here and in most of the world) … some lady walking to the beauty shop to get her hair done … a family on their way to Wednesday night Bible study … an elderly woman carrying on her head a basket of fruit that she was not able to sell on the street corner … and some gringo Spanish student heading back to his host family’s home after spending a few hours at the internet café.