History & Culture of Guatemala for Kids

Guatemala is a Central American country located just east of the southernmost part of Mexico. Its name means "land of forests" in the language of the Mayans, who lived there before the arrival of European colonists. Today, the country is a popular tourist destination, in part because of the fact that they have maintained much of the rich native Mayan culture.

Classic Period

Around 2000 B.C., long before Europeans arrived in Guatemala, the Mayans developed an advanced culture, which included large cities and trade routes that expanded throughout Central America and what is now Mexico 12. The Mayans built large pyramids, which still stand today. They had a complex calendar and a system of writing. They were also fairly advanced scientifically. Their scientific developments included terraced farming, advanced astronomy and the engineering knowledge and skills needed to build large pyramids and other structures.

Spanish Period

Europeans first arrived in Guatemala in the early 1500s. By then, the Mayan civilization was in decline. By 1528, a Spaniard named Pedro de Alvarado conquered most of the ancient Mayan Empire, including all of what is now Guatemala. The Spanish built villas in the highlands in the middle of the country. They introduced the Catholic religion and a social system, which placed Spanish landowners above the local Mayan population. Many of the Mayans became little more than slaves working on the Spanish plantations


Guatemala was part of the Empire of Mexico, which won independence from Spain in 1821. They broke off from Mexico in 1839 and joined the United Provinces of Central America until 1845, when they became their own independent country. At first, Guatemalan independence greatly benefited the Spanish landowners and Creoles, people of mixed Spanish and Mayan heritage, but made the situation for the Mayans who worked the country's plantations even worse. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Guatemala became heavily involved in trading coffee and fruit. Foreign companies -- mostly from the United States -- controlled much of Guatemala's productive land.

Civil War

Since gaining their independence, Guatemala has had several periods of civil war. They have had some periods in which they were governed democratically and others in which they had martial law. From the 1960s until 1996, civil war raged in Guatemala, resulting in thousands of deaths and entire villages being destroyed. In 1996, the Guatemalan government and the rebel groups signed an agreement. Since then, Guatemala has enjoyed democratic government and relative peace.

Guatemala Today

Since the country has stabilized, Guatemala has become a popular with tourists. The country maintains a distinctly Mayan culture, including traditional dances, music and clothing. Traditional Guatemalan dress includes colorfully embroidered skirts, capes and tunics. The colors in the elaborate beadwork indicate where an individual Guatemalan is from. There is still a significant difference between the income and living conditions of Guatemala's Mayans and those of Spanish descent -- called Ladinos -- today. Most Mayans live in the country's central highlands but travel to the country's coastal areas to work on plantations owned by Ladinos or foreign interests.