If you’re heading to Guatemala, chances are you’ve already flicked through some travel books and read up on Tikal and Antigua. But to really appreciate this beautiful and fascinating country, it’s important to understand what it has gone through in recent years. From learning about the 36-year civil war to what life was like for the indigenous people, here are the eight best books to read before traveling to Guatemala.
Miguel Ángel Asturias wrote many books, but El Señor Presidente (Mister President) is his most famous work and is considered a landmark text in Guatemalan literature. This biting political satire tells the story of the assassination of the corrupt president’s friend – but who will pay for the killing, the guilty or the innocent? In a case of life echoing art, El Señor Presidente was written in 1933 but wasn’t published until 1947 due to strict censorship by the dictatorial government.
Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala is a powerful and insightful account of the CIA operation to overthrow the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. This event led to the 36-year civil war, and can be seen as a warning of what happens when the USA gets carried away with its power. First published in 1982, Bitter Fruit has become a classic and imparts many important historical lessons.
Guatemala City is famous for its street gangs, but recently an astonishing number of gang members are leaving to become evangelists. What makes a gun-bearing gang member trade in their wild and dangerous lifestyle for that of a ‘brother in Christ’? Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America is author Robert Brenneman’s attempt at answering this question, and in this extensively researched, gritty account he interviews 63 former gang members to help illuminate the true nature of youth violence and religious conversion.
Written in 1987, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala is one of the most renowned books to come out of Guatemala. The book was part of Rigoberta Menchú’s attempts to draw attention to the atrocities of the Guatemalan military regime, and the story is a heartbreaking account of growing up in a time of land thefts, repressive regimes and murdered families. Menchú is now a famous activist and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
While El Señor Presidente is Miguel Ángel Asturias’ most famous book, Men of Maize is considered his masterpiece – if one of the least understood. The title Men of Maize (hombres de maíz) comes from the Mayan scared book Popol Vuh, and refers to the Maya belief that their bodies were made of corn. With elements of magic realism, Men of Maize secured Asturias the Guatemalan Nobel Prize in Literature.
City of God is a fascinating study of religion and power by anthropologist Kevin Lewis O’Neill. Protestant churches have grown enormously in Guatemala in recent years, and this groundbreaking book considers what it means to be a Christian in the midst of Guatemala’s political, social and economic situation. Full of fascinating insights, City of God is a must-read for anyone interested in anthropology or religion.
Written by young human rights worker Daniel Wilkinson, Silence on the Mountain begins in 1993 when the author began investigating the arson of a coffee plantation worker’s home by guerrillas. Like Bitter Fruit before it, Silence on the Mountain gives a unique insight into Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, and a war that claimed the lives of around 200,000 people, most of whom were killed (or ‘disappeared’) under the U.S.-backed military government.
Love in a Fearful Land is Henri Nouwen’s story of his pilgrimage to the Mayan town of Santiago Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala. Nouwen’s reason for going was not a happy one: he wanted to learn more about an American priest who was murdered here by a death squad. Love in a Fearful Land covers Nouwen’s attempts to learn more about this modern martyr, and what led him to stay in such a dangerous place.