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The Mayans of Guatemala

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

Many people are surprised to hear that Dubuque has a sizable and growing Guatemalan population. This might conjure an image of a Hispanic community, Spanish speaking and connected by a shared national heritage. And it’s true that we do have Hispanic Guatemalans in Dubuque. But what many people don’t realize is that most Guatemalans in our city are actually of Mayan descent and come from indigenous communities that may view themselves more closely related to Native Americans than Hispanic groups. So who is this community, and what has brought them to Dubuque?

The Mayan World

There are indications that the first people we now know as the Maya migrated to Guatemala as long ago as 2600 B.C. During the period when the Mayan civilization was at what is considered its peak (between 200-900 A.D.), it was spread across approximately 120,000 square miles, or more than Iowa and Illinois put together. The ancient Maya were a culturally rich civilization combining developments in writing, mathematics, and astronomy with a deeply religious society, and their temples, palaces, and pyramids can still be found throughout Central America.

But the Maya civilization was far from monolithic, and in reality contained many different groups. Researchers have identified 31 distinct Mayan languages currently spoken in Central America, more than 20 of which can be found in Guatemala alone. Families in Dubuque primarily speak Ixil, K’iche’ (Quiche), or Q’anjab’al (Kanjobal), and many arrive in Iowa being able to speak little or no Spanish.

With such diversity, it’s almost impossible to fully describe Mayan culture, especially in a short summary like this. But many Mayan communities in Guatemala retain strong connections to their traditions and history. Mayan women and men in Guatemala often wear hand-woven traditional clothing using distinct colors and patterns that vary widely depending on where they were made. Mayan art, including paintings, crafts, and woven textiles, frequently contain references to their deep heritage. And many Mayan Guatemalans still take part in traditional dances and ceremonies, either on their own or incorporated into Christian practices.

The Maya in Dubuque

Why have so many Mayans moved from Guatemala to Dubuque? The answers vary and are unique to each person: for family, for work, for school, and for freedom. This last reason is important, because while every Mayan Guatemalan has their own individual reason for coming to Dubuque, for many the violent and brutal history of Guatemala plays an important role.

Guatemala was the site of one of the Western Hemisphere’s most violent conflicts of the entire 20th Century. Between 1960 and 1996, over 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala’s civil war, and it is estimated that approximately 83% of those were Mayans. More than half a million people were displaced from their homes. Rigoberta Menchú, a K’iche’ Guatemalan woman, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her efforts in bringing the world’s attention to the crimes committed against the Mayan population.

While a peace treaty was signed in 1996, this did not bring an end to the suffering and violence against Mayan groups in Guatemala. Ever since the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th Century, the indigenous tribes in Guatemala have struggled with oppression and poverty. Today, these economic challenges are exacerbated by the loss of access to their historical farmland, increasing climate change that has brought ruined harvests, and widespread gang violence. Many Mayan Guatemalans have come to Dubuque for freedom from violence, oppression, and poverty, along with the hope for a brighter future for their families. Really, these are the same reasons that drew Dubuque’s founders nearly two hundred years ago.

A Gift for Our City

Many people are surprised to hear that Dubuque has a sizeable and growing Guatemalan population. But that surprise shouldn’t keep us from seeing what a blessing this is for our region. Hidden in our city are the descendants of a culture as rich and as old as any in the Americas. In our neighborhoods, schools, and businesses live and work a community that few people in the U.S. ever get to meet. The exact reason why our Mayan neighbors chose Dubuque out of the hundreds of other similar-sized cities in the U.S. is complicated, and likely comes down largely to luck. But we should recognize that luck and be thankful for it, because the presence of the Maya can only make Dubuque a richer, more diverse, and more beautiful place to live.


PBS News Hour. Timeline: Guatemala’s Brutal Civil War.

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