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Guatemalans in Southwest Florida: Cultural History


Understanding the roots and social foundations of different groups of people is an important step for social work service to that particular community or social group. This is because different groups may have diverse elements of social life that in turn influence how they should be handled. In addition, social work is concerned with finding proper mitigation structures and policies that can only be formulated when specific social group characteristics and issues are taken into account. In line with the above stated facts, this paper looks at how the Guatemalans in Southwest Florida can be served better through first understanding their history, migration patterns, family structure, and culture.

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History and Overview

The Guatemalans in Southwest Florida have a long and complex history that can only be traced back to their roots. From a collective region that has now been known as Southern Mexico and parts of Central America, these people can be originally traced to the ancient Mayan Empire (Carter, 2013). The Mayan civilization in which the Guatemalans are connected to is known for a lot of advancements in different disciplines like arts, writing, architecture and astronomy. These people were mainly related to the leadership of Arevalo and Arbenz to about 1960’s when new revolts were experienced in the region.

By late 70’s, the Guatemalan region began to experience great upheavals that resulted in the death and violations of the rights of the vulnerable and indigenous populations. Particularly, the rise of leftist guerrillas in the region led to the death of about 20,000 people within a span of less than a decade in the late 60’s to 70’s (Palma et al., 2009). As a result of the atrocities carried by the governing military and the rebels, many individuals in the region also united in a strong movement that in turn led to even a stronger resistance against the ruling class. In response to such movements and resistance, the military rulers resorted to the use of terror to intimidate its subjects.

Consequently, there was a lot of violence that was mainly targeted to the rural and indigenous populations. In the early 80’s, the rise of President Efrain Rios Montt through a military coup even resulted in more instability in Guatemala. Massacres, torture, destruction of property and eventually mass displacement of civilians resulted. As a result of the trauma, loss and fear for their lives, many Guatemalans, therefore, sought refuge and asylum status into the neighboring peaceful regions. The United States and particularly Southwest Florida was one of the regions that many of these people immigrated to in search for peaceful living. To be able to understand this settlement better, it is however important to understand the migration patterns of these people.

Migration Patterns

Even records before this period may not be clear, there may be indications that many Guatemalans trooped into the United States in the beginning of intensified violence from the early 60’s. The numbers are even stated to be higher in the 1970’s when there was an earthquake in Guatemala’s city that led to even more destruction and displacement. According to the United States’ census bureau, the Guatemalans that immigrated in the country by 1980 were at about 62,000, with a majority of them coming into the country from late 70’s (Cruz, 2013). However, the number of Guatemalans immigrating out of their country has been recorded in millions.

Apart from the United States, numerous Guatemalans have also sought for asylum in neighboring nations like Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The Mayan Guatemalans who are interested in not only political but economic stability have immigrated in their numbers to the south western parts of Florida in the periods before the 90’s. Apart from looking to get wages in coffee farms, some of the Guatemalans have also crossed the border for trade opportunities. Apart from the US, most of the Guatemalan population crossed through the Mexican border to settle in Chiapas, southern Mexico (Metcalfe, 2011).

Today, besides the number of political refugees decreasing from Guatemala, there are still a large number of individuals from the country looking to cross the border illegally. The circumstances of the people might have changed with a relatively stable political environment but some of the reasons why many Guatemalans sought for refuge, like poverty, still remain a major factor for many individuals looking to exit the country. The immigrant activities are also likely to have been boosted by complex contraband and human smuggling networks in the Central American complex.

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Moreover, the number of immigrants from Guatemala has in the years been boosted by religious groups that gave them asylum and even helped in processing temporary or even permanent resident status. As a result of massive immigration to date, the number of Guatemalans spread across the US regions like Chicago, San Francisco, Texas and other major cities cannot be ignored (Weeks, Stoler, & Jankowski, 2011). Of interest to this paper are the Guatemalans currently residing in Southwest Florida. For social work, it is important to explore the cultural and family foundations of this population in the region as done in the following section.

Family Structure and Cultural Behaviors

To begin, diversity denotes the Guatemalan Americans who have more than 20 ethnic groupings within the larger community (Carey et al., 2013). However, the majority of these groups include the Mayan and Hispanic Guatemalans who share the Spanish cultural heritage. Within the different groups, religion, tradition and customs may be a big distinguishing factor. The Kanjobal ethnic groups form a majority of Guatemalan Americans in Southeast Florida.

Thousands of the Guatemalan Americans in the region are concentrated mostly in the Indian town. This is also home to thousands of other immigrants from other regions. The main activity for the Guatemalan Americans in this region includes plantation farming. They are mainly involved in the harvesting of sugar, fruits, vegetables and other crops.

Guatemalan Americans are conservative but hospitable and fun loving individuals. Most of the families here have managed to not only retain their traditional beliefs but also make sure that they are passed on to the new generations. Traditional Music from the ‘Marimba’ players is one of the notable cultural distinctions of the Guatemalan Americans living in Southwest Florida.

The Guatemalans in Southwest Florida are also distinct in terms of their unique culinary culture. Their normal menus are composed of spicy and delicious traditional dishes. These dishes also have a mixed Mayan and Spanish cuisine backgrounds. Chuchitos, Chilaquile and Pepián are some of the favorite delicacies the Guatemalan Americans associate with. The Guatemalan Americans are mostly attached to Christian religious beliefs. Specifically, most of them are inclined to the Roman Catholic denomination, which is also a common one for the Latin American population (Abraham, 2011).

Family life in the Guatemalan communities is based on respect and guidance for the elders. For this immigrant community, everyone must always work to improve the living standards of their families and the community at large. However, the young Guatemalans who have been brought up in Southwest Florida have adopted the American culture to be able to blend in the society. Most of them are able to Speak Spanish and English languages and therefore provide the representation and assistance needed to their elder parents who may not have a fluent mastery of English language predominantly used in the United States (Buscemi et al., 2012). However, there are numerous challenges the Guatemalan population in the region still face as outlined in the following section.

Barriers Facing the Population

Like any other immigrant population, Guatemalan Americans are subjected to prejudice and stereotypes owing to their pre-historic traditions. Because most of them hail from poor families back at home and are looking to make a living out of the lowest paying wages, abuse among the plantation workers is common. The immigrants working in labor-intensive farms are usually viewed as foreigners who have limited rights in the country. As a result, discrimination and low pay is one major barrier to the human development of the Guatemalan Americans in the region. In most cases, they have also suffered from political rhetoric with some politicians taking advantage of their vulnerability in the society to shade them in bad light. This has negatively influenced the attitude of the native communities towards the Guatemalans.

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Secondly, the Guatemalans in the region still have massive health issues (Suárez‐Orozco & Yoshikawa, 2013). Without proper access to health services and a lack of affordability by the majority of the population that are low-income earners, the development of this social group in the region has been a challenging one. The life of many immigrants before they are economically empowered is a tough one. They have to live in crowded places that have poor conditions, which usually make them susceptible to communicable diseases (Hearst, Ramirez & Gany, 2010).

The population also has unequal access to education. Even in cases where education is available, cultural and language barrier may present a great challenge to them. However, the initiatives of various statutory and communal organizations have led to the uplifting of standards for the Guatemalans living in southwest Florida.

Some of the social services they are able to access include educational centers, reproductive health facilities, guidance and counseling facilities and language development centers. There are also religious organizations that have assisted the refugees and other members of the society seek for the needed services. As a result, many of the individuals are beginning to be empowered politically, economically and even socially. Different groups have also come out to fight for the rights of immigrants and the plight of an immigrant woman in the society who usually faces many forms of prejudice.

However, there is still a lot to be done given that there are undocumented Guatemalans in the region that may have entered through legal or illegal means. For instance, smuggling networks have used such individuals for financial gain by involving them in prostitution and drug trafficking. Guatemalans, just like other immigrants, also have often faced cruelty in the hand of law enforcement. They are usually associated with crime even in instances where they might be actually victims of criminal abuse.

Implications for Social Work

With the numerous challenges faced by the Guatemalan population in Southwest Florida, there are many ways in which social workers will need to advocate to better serve this population. Importantly, social workers must educate communities living around the region that immigrant populations only represent a part of the country’s diverse cultural heritage. Secondly, social workers must be ready to contribute in the learning of the Guatemalans so that they are able to understand and assimilate smoothly within the region and other regions of the country. They should also be informed of the need for filing proper documentation with the responsible authorities so that they do not face harassment in the hands of law enforcement.

Sensitization of the employers on the universal rights of every employee is also essential. In this way, the Guatemalans will be empowered to come out of poverty and hence relieve themselves from the burden of diseases and illiteracy. They will also be able to dissociate themselves from illegal activities since in most cases illegal crime networks usually take advantage of their ignorance and vulnerability.


As have been noted, it is through a deeper understanding of the social and political foundations of the people that will make the social workers serve the community better. Guatemalans in Southwest Florida may benefit from this understanding as they have shown improvements with the participation of different social work groups in the region as well as other regions of the United States. It is also through this that the problem of illegal immigration may be eliminated in the region.


Abraham, I. (2011). Biblicism, reception history, and the social sciences. Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception, 1(2), 359-67. Web.

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Buscemi, C. P., Williams, C., Tappen, R. M., & Blais, K. (2012). Acculturation and health status among Hispanic American elders. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 23(3), 229-236. Web.

Carey, T. E., Matsubayashi, T., Branton, R., & Martinez-Ebers, V. (2013). The determinants and political consequences of Latinos’ perceived intra-group competition. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 1(3), 311-328. Web.

Carter, P. M. (2013). Shared spaces, shared structures: Latino social formation and African American English in the US south. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 17(1), 66-92. Web.

Cruz, B. C. (2013). The Hispanic heritage of North America commemorating 500 years. Social Education, 77(1), 5-6. Web.

Hearst, A. A., Ramirez, J. M., & Gany, F. M. (2010). Barriers and facilitators to public health insurance enrollment in newly arrived immigrant adolescents and young adults in New York State. Journal of immigrant and minority health, 12(4), 580-585. Web.

Metcalfe, J. Z. (2011). Multiple histories: the archaeology, ethno history, oral history, and national history of iximche’, Guatemala. Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, 13(1), 9. Web.

Palma, S., Solorzano, C., de Mola, P. F. L., Lizama, M., Alves, J., & Ribeiro, L. (2009). A place to be: Brazilian, Guatemalan, and Mexican immigrants in Florida’s new destinations. P. Williams, T. Steigenga, & M. Vâsquez (Eds.). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Web.

Suárez‐Orozco, C., & Yoshikawa, H. (2013). Undocumented status: Implications for child development, policy, and ethical research. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2013(141), 61-78. Web.

Weeks, J. R., Stoler, J., & Jankowski, P. (2011). Who’s crossing the border: new data on undocumented immigrants to the United States. Population, Space and Place, 17(1), 1-26. Web.

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