Guatemalans in Canada come from a country with a population of diverse origins. About 60 percent of Guatemala’s nine million inhabitants comprise indigenous Indian groups (indígenas), mostly Maya peoples who speak as many as twenty-two distinct languages. The other 40 percent of the population are called ladinos, a uniquely Guatemalan term that refers to several groups: a small Caucasian elite of European origin; a substantial number of people of mixed Spanish and indigenous origin (mestizos); minorities of African, Chinese, and Arab descent; and assimilated indigenous peoples. The ladinos speak Spanish, the official language of the country.

Guatemala was part of the Maya civilization which flourished between 1000 B.C.E. and 900 CE in the form of city-states throughout much of Central America. Well before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, Maya civilization had disappeared and the remaining city-states were in frequent warfare with each other, allowing for easy conquest by the invading Europeans. After conquering the territory that now constitutes Guatemala, Spain made it the centre of the Kingdom of Guatemala, a colony extending from Costa Rica to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Spanish colonial rule lasted until 1821, when Guatemala declared its independence. Two years later it became part of the Federation of Central America; this federation lasted until 1847, when it was replaced by its five member-states, one of which was the republic of Guatemala.

Both before and after independence, Guatemala has had an unequal social order, in which the Indians occupy the lowest position, deriving from the servile role imposed on them during the colonial period. Indian labour, Guatemala’s most valuable resource from the colonizers’ perspective, was exploited in several ways: tribute in the form of goods or labour directly to the Royal Treasury or to the Catholic Church; tribute paid to encomenderos – settlers entrusted to “protect” and ensure the religious conversion of whole native villages in exchange for a share of their labour or its products; and imposition of the so-called repartimiento, which until the late 1700s required each Indian village to provide low-wage labour to European settlers. As a result of decades of ill-treatment, overwork, and foreign diseases, the native population declined during the first century after Spanish conquest between 70 and 90 percent in size.

Guatemalan Indians began to recover their numbers during the seventeenth century. As they moved out of the towns – where they had been concentrated by Roman Catholic missionary priests in the previous century – their cultural autonomy was also restored. From the mid-eighteenth century until independence, the revitalized rural communities became the basis of numerous native revolts against colonial agents of the Spanish Crown. The Indians cultivated land on an individual family basis, although the most fertile lands were held by the village for the common use of the whole community. These valuable communal lands soon came to the attention of the government.

Beginning in 1871 and lasting until 1944, Guatemala was ruled by a succession of military dictators, or so-called liberal caudillos. Already during the 1870s, the government began to expropriate Indian communal lands and to sell them to ladino and foreign (mostly German) purchasers who were anxious to expand their lucrative coffee plantations. Consequently, the liberal caudillo period (1871–1944) witnessed an unprecedented concentration of cultivable land in the hands of a small number of Guatemalan landowners.

Efforts at agrarian reform and redistribution of land owned by wealthy Guatemalans and foreign companies (mostly from the United States) to the rural poor were undertaken during the decade-long rule (1944–54) of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Guzmán’s leftist-oriented government was overthrown with United States support in 1954, and since that time the country has been ruled by a succession of military dictators anxious to protect the interest of the large landowners, whether Guatemalan or foreign.

In response to the overturning of agrarian and labour reforms, a leftist guerrilla movement broke out in the 1960s. During the 1970s it was transformed into a popular resistance movement made up of ladinos and indígenas of all social strata, including eventually the indigenous Indians of the highlands. The government’s response was to unleash death squads that killed up to 20,000 civilians alone between 1966 and 1976. Government forces have been particularly brutal towards indigenous Indians in the highlands, where the inhabitants of entire villages have been massacred or otherwise brutalized, especially between 1980 and 1984.

It was not until the early 1990s that the Guatemalan government has been able to reach a truce and to conduct peace talks with the guerilla coalition, the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), or Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. Though the civil war officially ended with peace accords signed by the government and the URNG in December 1996, Guatemala remains a country in crisis. Over three decades of civil war have reinforced poverty, and fear for personal safety has driven tens of thousands to seek refuge by fleeing abroad.

Perhaps the most important heritage from the Spanish colonial period was the Roman Catholic Church, which from the early sixteenth century set as its primary goal the conversion of the indigenous population. The prestige and authority of the church throughout Guatemalan society began to erode as a result of anti-clerical reforms carried out by the liberal caudillo governments beginning in the 1870s. After World War II, the Church strove to restore its influence, especially among the relatively isolated indigenous peasants of the western highlands, where the Catholic clergy helped to inspire social and political activism among the indigenous peasants. Most Guatemalans are still nominally Roman Catholic, although over a fifth of the population is estimated to belong to one of over 300 Protestant sects that exist in the country.

Protestantism arrived in Guatemala over a century ago, but its presence expanded enormously when evangelical missionaries began to deliver humanitarian relief to victims of the 1976 earthquake. The work of fundamentalist organizations based in the United States has contributed to the continued proliferation of evangelical congregations during the 1980s, most of which are known for being aligned with the political right. Protestantism has attracted both lower- and upper-class converts, the best-known being General Efraín Rios Montt, a born-again Christian installed as president by the Guatemalan military in 1982.


Guatemalans and other Central Americans constitute the most recent group of Latin American immigrants. In 1979, after the outbreak of civil war and severe repression in El Salvador, Salvadorean immigrants began to arrive in Canada, and they were soon joined by Guatemalans, who were compelled to leave their homeland primarily because of political violence, and only secondarily in search of better economic opportunities. Since 1983 half of all the Guatemalan immigrants to Canada each year have been political refugees.

Most Guatemalans in Canada are ladinos. Over 60 percent were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four at the time of migration. Most of the remaining immigrants have been younger than fifteen. In relation to the rural, illiterate, and poor population they leave behind, the migrants’ socio-economic background is relatively high. Only about 1 percent of the population in Guatemala has university degrees, but 3.8 percent of the Guatemalans who immigrated to Canada as refugees between 1980 and 1987 came with university degrees. Although not a great deal is known about the pre-migration occupations of the Guatemalans in Canada, in a sample of Guatemalans surveyed in Montreal in 1983, 37 percent had worked in a professional, technical, or administrative capacity before coming to Canada and 46 percent had worked in white-collar jobs. Most came from urban settings in Guatemala. These findings are particularly striking since only 41 percent of Guatemalan society is urbanized and most of Guatemala’s refugees are from rural, indigenous communities.

The gender composition of Guatemalan immigrants up to 1987 may reflect, in part, the selection process of Canadian officials in that period. There are almost equal numbers of men and women in the total population of Guatemalan immigrants to Canada up to the present. In the “refugee” category, however, men outnumbered women by 23 percent from 1980 to 1987. Many women who could have qualified as refugees were undoubtedly admitted to Canada as the family members of Guatemalans already in Canada. But the fact that men were even more over-represented among conventional refugees, and less so among those who were privately sponsored, suggests that Canadian officials may have tended to choose men rather than women where there were large numbers of applicants, as in the refugee camps in the countries in which Guatemalans first sought asylum.

Official figures on the number of Guatemalans in Canada vary. According to the 1991 Canadian census, 4,890 reported that they were entirely (3,855) or partly (1,035) Guatemalan by ethnic origin. But 8,920 people indicated that their country of birth was Guatemala. Clearly many Guatemalan-born Canadians have identified themselves with another ethnic group. According to the annual immigration statistics collected by the Canadian government, 10,252 Guatemalans immigrated to Canada from 1974 to 1991, and 3,454 Guatemalans came between January 1992 and March 1994, for a total of 13,700. Several Guatemalans in Canada believe that all the official figures underestimate their real numbers. They point out that numerous refugee claimants reside in Canada while they await determination of their status. Such people would be excluded from both the census data and the annual immigration data.

Arrival and Settlement

Trends in Guatemalan immigration to Canada in the 1980s and 1990s were partly the result of the genocidal wave of state terrorist activity in the Guatemalan countryside that began in the late 1970s and partly the result of changes in Canadian immigration policies. Under Canada’s revised Immigration Act of 1976, “refugee” became a category under which people were regularly permitted to enter the country. As a result, immigration from Guatemala more than doubled from 880 in 1975–80 to over 2,000 in 1981–85.

In an attempt to manage the numbers of Guatemalans arriving in Canada, a set of immigration policies that tried to achieve a balance between strictness and leniency was devised in March 1984. To obtain a visitor’s visa, Guatemalans were now required to apply first at the Canadian embassy in Guatemala City. At the same time, Canada began to accept refugee claims at the embassy there, so that, for the first time, Guatemalans could receive refugee status within their own country. As well, special criteria were introduced for other categories of Guatemalan immigrants, on humanitarian grounds. Finally, Canada added Guatemala to the list of countries considered too dangerous for deportation, a ban that was in effect until 1987.

The year after Canada introduced special measures for Guatemalans, immigration from that country climbed dramatically until 1986, and it has never been less than double the pre1984 annual rate. The numbers fell sharply between 1987 and 1991, although it is not clear why, since human-rights violations in Guatemala continued in that period. In 1991 the number of immigrants rose again to a new peak of more than 2,000.

One of the most important factors behind Canada’s attractiveness to Guatemalans has been the United States’ tendency to reject the vast majority of refugee claims from rightwing dictatorships, including Guatemala, whose government the United States has generally supported.

According to the 1991 Canadian census, the four provinces with the largest concentration of people of Guatemalan ethnic origin (single and multiple response) are: Quebec (2,180), Ontario (1,665), British Columbia (645), and Alberta (210). Impressionistic evidence suggests that Guatemalans tend to settle in the provincial capitals and other large cities, undoubtedly because there are large numbers of Latin Americans already living in these cities, and consequently there are a number of government and community organizations oriented to Hispanic immigrants.

Economic and Community Life

Two surveys of Guatemalan immigrants in Montreal and Toronto show that the socio-economic status of Guatemalans who have migrated to Canada declines dramatically, even taking into account an adjustment period of several years. Canadian census data from 1986 suggest that, at least in the short run, the proportion of Guatemalans in white-collar occupations is lower than it was for this group before immigration to Canada. The census data also unequivocally indicate that, in relation to the Canadian population as a whole, there are fewer Guatemalans in the higher-ranking white-collar fields, and a heavier concentration in manual occupations. Furthermore, in 1986, only 8.7 percent of the Guatemalan population in Canada held professional, technical, or administrative jobs, compared to 18.6 percent of the national population. An additional 26.7 percent of Guatemalans worked in lower-ranking white-collar occupations. At 31.2 percent, the proportion of Guatemalans in blue-collar jobs was more than 10 percent higher than for the Canadian population as a whole (see Table 1).

Table 1. Occupational sector as percentage of population, 1986

 GuatemlalansCanadian Population
Not applicable27.613.442.429.419.239.0

Source: Unpublished tabulation of the 1986 census, provided by the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, York University. Upper white-collar: managerial, administrative; teaching; medicine and health; technical, social science, religion, art. Lower white-collar: clerical; sales; service. Blue-collar: primary processing; machine production, fabrication, assembly, and repair; construction; transport and equipment operation

According to the 1986 census, gender appears to have had little impact on Guatemalans’ success in finding white-collar work. Guatemalan men and women diverged markedly, however, in two respects. Only 19 percent of women, compared to 43 percent of men, worked in blue-collar fields in 1986. Secondly, only 55 percent of women considered themselves part of the labour force at all, compared to 84 percent of men.

The existing data indicate that economic integration in Canada is more difficult for Guatemalan women than for men. According to a survey of Guatemalan refugees in Toronto, women took twice as long to find jobs as men, possibly because women begin to learn English later than men. Because women frequently immigrate as sponsored kin, they are denied the refugee’s entitlement to free English classes. Consequently, Guatemalan women enrol in English classes or upgrading programs long after the men have already acquired sufficient language skills to work in Canada. Still another factor preventing women from entering the paid labour force has been the necessity to work as full-time homemakers, often against their preferences.

In terms of living standards, the available data suggest that, at this early stage of their settlement in Canada, Guatemalan households are among the least well off in Canadian society. Although the families in the Toronto survey had extraordinarily high levels of education relative to most Guatemalans in Canada, and thus could be expected to have brighter economic prospects, 80 percent lived on incomes below the poverty line. This is not surprising, given that the unemployment rate among Guatemalans in 1986 was 16.8 percent, about 6 percent higher than in the Canadian labour force as a whole.

For many Guatemalans in Canada, the recollection of political brutality and a concern for family and friends left behind colour the experience of life in the new society. Virtually all the Guatemalan refugees surveyed in Toronto experienced periods of depression and guilt because of the loss of loved ones to political repression before or after their own departure, the feeling that they had abandoned friends and family, and memories of their own imprisonment or torture. About a quarter of the refugees in this study reported that they sought psychological counselling.

Guatemalan newcomers to Canada, especially refugees, have often found government financial-assistance programs inadequate and relied on non-governmental agencies to supplement their short-term subsistence needs at one time or another. Guatemalans also make use of community organizations that attempt to improve the long-range economic and social adaptation of immigrants. Among these is the Toronto non-governmental agency, New Experiences for Refugee Women (NEW), the majority of whose clients are Guatemalan and Salvadorean women. NEW offers women six-month sessions that include intensive English-language lessons, employment training and experience, and emotional and life-skills counselling.

Soccer is a popular form of recreation among Guatemalan men in Canada. They have organized several teams in major Canadian cities such as Montreal and Toronto.

Family and Kinship Patterns, Culture, and Religion

Many Guatemalan immigrants have faced a drastic alteration of their family structure in Canada. According to available data, most came from extended families in Guatemala, but in Canada the majority live in nuclear families. The loss of the extended family has affected typical patterns of socialization and recreation. It has also increased the domestic burden on women, and, as a result, limited their participation in public activities.

Probably the most widely preserved element of Guatemalan culture in Canada is the Spanish language, which continues to be spoken at home and in gatherings with other Hispanics. Another custom that almost all Guatemalans have retained is the consumption of corn as a staple, usually in the form of a flat, round patty called the tortilla. Although corn is sacred for the Maya, it is also eaten regularly in Canada by Guatemalan ladinos, and all Guatemalans are loath to replace the tortilla with bread. The special corn flour with which tortillas are made can be purchased in stores catering especially to Central Americans, for example, in Toronto’s Kensington market.

Guatemalan music, particularly the music of the marimba, a wooden percussion instrument similar to a xylophone but played by a group of six or seven musicians, is performed for both Guatemalan and Canadian audiences by Guatemalan folk groups in Canada. The marimba is admired by all Guatemalans, but it is especially important to the Maya peoples, for whom it is a ubiquitous feature of ceremonial and community life in Guatemala. An all-children’s ensemble, Voces del Maíz (Voices of the Corn), has been called “the strongest cultural representative of Guatemala in Toronto.” Voces del Maíz was founded by a group of parents in 1990, in an effort to keep the traditional Guatemalan, and particularly Maya, culture alive for their children, and to foster its recognition in the wider Canadian society. The group has dedicated money raised through its performances and sales of its cassettes to development projects to benefit peasant children in Guatemala. Another Guatemalan musical group is Kinlalat, based in Vancouver. The Kinlalat musicians also play the marimba and other traditional instruments, and their lyrics deal with Guatemalan political and social issues. During the 1980s the group toured both nationally and abroad, and also recorded several cassettes.

Catholicism is the religion claimed, though not always practised, by most Guatemalans in Canada, both indigenous and ladino. Guatemalan Catholics often attend Mass in parishes with large Hispanic populations. Diligent campaigns by Protestant fundamentalist sects, as well as by the Mormons, to recruit new members among recent immigrants have had some success, although their activities are often regarded as a nuisance by many Guatemalans in Canada. Some Guatemalan Maya in Canada occasionally practise their indigenous ceremonies.


No systematic information is available on Guatemalans’ involvement in Canadian political life. But many Guatemalans express their desire for social and political justice in Guatemala through participation in one of a number of solidarity organizations that have been established in Canada. Many Guatemalan organizations here are part of an international extension of groups based in Guatemala, which Guatemalan Canadians support by raising money for material assistance and encouraging awareness and political solidarity in Canada. Not all the members of these organizations are Guatemalan; typically, they count on the participation of other Canadians, especially other Latin Americans.

The Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC) (Committee of Peasant Unity) and the Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA) (Peasant Committee of the Highlands), established in Toronto in 1986 and 1988 respectively, are two Guatemalan organizations that work for the rights of indigenous and ladino peasants, rural workers, and other oppressed groups in Guatemala. They hold regular information events to motivate Canadians to demand justice in Guatemala, either through intervention by the Canadian government or directly through Guatemalan officials. The CUC has chapters in Montreal, Ottawa, Kitchener, London, and Vancouver, while the CCDA also exists in Hamilton. In addition to promoting support for the political work of its home group, the CCDA also solicits financial assistance for socioeconomic development projects in the Guatemalan highlands.

Project Balam, a Guatemalan organization founded in Toronto in 1990, is dedicated to the “defense of the environment through peace and justice.” It has organized delegations to assess the needs of the Communidades de Población en Resistencia (CPRs), or Communities of Populations in Resistance – peasants who have fled to the densely forested province of Petén to escape army atrocities – and collected money for health, educational, and agricultural projects there.

The role of Guatemalan women in politically oriented organizations has usually been minimal, although Nuestra Voz (Our Voice), a group of Guatemalan and Canadian women in Toronto and Vancouver, is an exception. The Toronto chapter, which was formed in 1989, has provided material support for projects to enhance women’s economic self-sufficiency in Guatemala.

Though Guatemalan activists in Canada agree in their opposition to the current political system in Guatemala, the importance of the cultural rights of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, such as the right to self-government, has occasionally been a divisive issue. While some sympathize with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), some feel that the guerrilla organization neglects native issues. Though they are not frequent occurrences, harassment and even death threats against Guatemalan activists in Canada indicate the presence of a few people in Canada who support the repressive political forces of their homeland.

Further Reading

An excellent examination of the political, economic, and social evolution of Guatemala from the Spanish conquest to the early 1980s is Jim Handy, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala (Toronto, 1984). Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power (Boulder, Colo., 1991), looks mainly at twentieth-century conditions, with a good overview of events through to the beginning of the 1990s. Carol Smith, ed., Guatemalan Indians and the State: 1540 to 1988 (Austin, Tex., 1990), is a collection of articles which survey five centuries of the indigenous response – in terms of social and cultural change as well as resistance and protest – to European and ladino domination. All three works evince a concern for tracing the roots, dimensions, and impact of Guatemala’s unjust political and social order.

To date, little has been written about Guatemalans in Canada. Fernando Mata, “Latin American Immigration to Canada: Some Reflections on the Immigration Statistics,” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, vol.10, no.20 (1985), 35–40, includes information about this group, and other statistical information is available from various Statistics Canada publications, including Census 1991: Ethnic Origin – The Nation, Table 2 (Ottawa, 1992). Repression and Exile: A Study of Salvadorean, Guatemalan and Haitian Refugees in Montreal, by Charles D. Smith and Salinda Hess, is an extensive quantitative analysis of Guatemalan immigrants surveyed in 1983–84. A summary of their findings appears in Charles Smith, “Trials and Errors: The Experience of Central American Refugees in Montreal,” Refuge, vol.5, no.4 (1985), 10–11. Data of a more qualitative nature are reported by Dianne Meredith, “Guatemalan Refugees and Their Process of Adaptation in Toronto” (M.A. thesis, York University, 1992). Ronald Wright’s “Escape to Canada,” Saturday Night, vol.102, no.5 (1987), 44–52, is a moving portrait of Guatemalan refugees in several Ontario cities, with a concise summary of the historical and political context of their exile. Cross Cultural Learner Centre, “Guatemala,” in Cultural Profiles (London, Ont., 1986), provides some insight into the group in Ontario.

Two articles that address the impact of immigration policy on the volume and nature of Guatemalan immigration to Canada are Alan Simmons, “Latin American Migration to Canada: New Linkages in the Hemispheric Migration and Refugee Flow System,” International Journal, vol.48, no.2 (1993), 282–309, and Tanya Basok and Alan Simmons, “The Politics of Refugee Selection,” in The International Refugee Crisis: British and Canadian Responses, Vaughan Robinson, ed. (London, 1993), 132–57. Joy Simmonds, “New Experiences for Refugee Women,” Refuge, vol.6, no.3 (1987), 10–11, includes some information about Guatemalan women. Guatemalans outside central Canada can be studied to some extent in Alberta Manpower Settlement Services, Latin-American Newcomers: Issues Affecting the Adaptation of Immigrants from Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador (Edmonton, c. 1984).