Metro Los Angeles is home to an estimated 273,000* Guatemalans (or “Guatemaltecos”), making it the largest such community outside Guatemala. On the other hand, comprising just 4.6% of the region’s 5,979,000 Latinos they’re largely overshadowed by the much larger populations of Salvadorans and Mexicans. They are the focus of this No Enclave, undertaken in observance of this year’s National Hispanic Heritage Month and published on Guatemala’s Independence Day.
The Republic of Guatemala (República de Guatemala) is a North American country which historically formed the core of the Maya Civilization. Its capital and largest metropolitan area is Guatemala City. Guatemala has an estimated population of 17,263,239, making it the most populous state in the Central American region. Like all countries in the Americas, Guatemala is multi-ethnic. In 2010, 18% of the population identified as white, 41.5% of the population identified as mestizo, and 41% identified as indigenous, with the nation’s indigenous people including K’iche, Kaqchikel, Mam, Q’eqchi’ (all Maya peoples) and .2% non-Maya indigenous.
Spain’s initial campaign to subjugate the Guatemalan Highlands began in 1524. The conquest was a bloody and protracted affair and it took 173 years for the Spanish to finally subjugate the last independent Maya kingdom in 1697. It took much less time for the Captaincy General of Guatemala (composed of Guatemala, Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua) to declare independence from the Spanish Empire on 15 September 1821 and establish the Federal Republic of Central America with its capital at Guatemala City. The republic proved to be a short-lived entity, however, with territories peeling away beginning with Nicaragua in 1838 and ending with the departure of El Salvador in 1841 which left Guatemala the sole member. In 1847, Guatemala declared itself an independent republic.
Guatemala was plagued by instability and — continually exacerbated by outside parties — has never enjoyed real, prolonged peace and stability. In the early 20th century, an American corporation called the United Fruit Company (the predecessor to Chiquita) practically governed Guatemala (giving rise to the term “banana republic”) and kept in power a series of puppet dictators to protect its corporate interests. In 1944, United Fruit-backed tyrant Jorge Ubico (a man who took comparisons between himself and Adolf Hitler as compliments) was overthrown during a pro-democracy uprising in 1944.
The ten-year Guatemalan Revolution followed, which brought with it a decade of reforms. In 1954, the US had had enough of democratic self-rule and the CIA engineered a coup to depose the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz and replace him with a series of right-wing military dictators whose reigns sometimes lasted last than a month, sometimes less than a week. By 1960, the country descended into a decades-long civil war which provided the impetus for generations of Guatemalans to seek a better life abroad, often in Florida, Texas, and California. In 1996, the UN negotiated a peace accord and since the conclusion of hostilities, Guatemala has experienced relative peace and increased democracy, although corruption and dysfunction remain rife, and endemic poverty is the reason over 90% of Guatemalans give as their motivation for emigrating to the US.
As of the 2010 US census, 332,737 Guatemalans lived in California, a population about four times more than that of Florida’s (the next largest). In fact, only three cities in Guatemala have larger populations of Guatemalans than Los Angeles — Guatemala City, Mixco, and Villa Nueva. Within Metro Los Angeles, communities with substantial populations of Guatemalans include the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Hawthorne, Palmdale, Inglewood, Paramount; and the unincorporated communities of Lennox and Val Verde. Neighborhoods with substantial populations of Guatemalans include Hollywood, Larchmont, Westlake, Manchester Square, Wilmington, and Playa Vista. In 2014, the Latino Economic Empowerment Round Table proposed designating a stretch of 6th Street in Westlake, “Guatemalan Mayan Village” although so far it hasn’t advanced past the proposal stage.
GUATEMALAN FOOD IN LOS ANGELES
There are relatively few high-profile Guatemalan Angelenos that I know (although I know a few Guatemaltecas of whom I think relatively highly). There’s rapper Aston Matthews (né Matthew Lopez), Grammy-winning mixing engineer Manny Marroquin, young actor Anthony Gonzalez — none of with whom I was familiar before researching this piece. There’s also journalist Héctor Tobar, a professor, novelist and journalist who’s written for the LA Weekly and Los Angeles Times and taught at Loyola Marymount University, Pomona College, and the University of California, Irvine. Of course, having watched every episode of Melrose Place, I’m familiar with the half-Guatemalteca actress Daphne Zuniga, who played Jake Hanson‘s on-again-off-again romantic partner Jo Reynolds for that series’ first four seasons.
Perhaps one of the most prominent local Guatemaltecos is more recognized for his art than by his name. As “Cache,” Mauricio Reyes makes brightly-colored graffiti and street art murals which always feature chickens… and usually bicycles. His work can be seen around Los Angeles and at least as far away as Mexico City but is especially prevalent in and around Mideast Los Angeles (MELA).
Guatemalan food is similarly underappreciated in a city where celebrations of Latino food tend to focus on Mexican cuisine to the exclusion of the city’s rich Central American food scene. I fear that, with Jonathan Gold‘s recent tragic passing, the collective attention of food writers will continue to focus on worshiping award-validated sleb chefs, rehashing lazy listicles, and pointlessly prognosticating about what “ethnic” cuisine will be “this year’s.” I don’t suppose 2019 will be proclaimed the year of Guatemalan cuisine but no matter — Guatemalan food’s roots extend back thousands of years and will probably outlive the Michelin Guide by thousands more.
Most traditional foods in Guatemalan cuisine are based on Maya cuisine and naturally feature indigenous ingredients like maize, chilies, and beans as prominent ingredients. There are also foods that are commonly eaten on certain days of the week or for special occasions. For example, it is a popular custom to eat paches (a kind of potato tamale) on Thursdays. On All Saints Day, Guatemalans typically eat fiambre (a type of salad with dozens of ingredients). Tamales, of which there are hundreds of varieties, are of course popular around Christmas. Other typical dishes include various stews and soups and commonly the flesh of chickens and other animals are often served prepared with various sauces. The most famous (only?) local Guatemalan restaurant chain is Pollo Campero, founded in 1971 by Dionisio Gutierrez, Sr. The first franchise opened in 1994 and today there are locations in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.
As a vegetarian, I’ve never been sufficiently curious to venture into a Pollo Campero (although apparent vegetarian items include plantains, yuca fries, french fries, campers rice, coleslaw, and street corn salad). The only Guatemalan restaurant that I remember eating at was Tikal Restaurant Cocina Maya, which sadly closed a few years ago. Darwin Amador and Mario Granados’s restaurant operated in El Sereno for roughly two years and, though highly rated by those that ventured in. It was clean, the servers were friendly, the presentation was attractive, and the food delicious — and yet not even friends who lived within walking distance never bothered to check it out and no major restaurant critic deigned to review it… which is sadly typical of most Guatemalan restaurants.
There are other Guatemalan restaurants (and bakeries), though, including Amalia’s Restaurant, Antigua Bread, Antojitos Nueva Guatemala, Antojitos and Garnacheria Doña Rosita, Atitlan Express, Cafe Antigua Guatemala, Casa Chapina Restaurant, Garnachas & Beer, Channy Pan Y Comidas Guatemaltecas, Dona Amalia, El Trebol, El Venado Bakery, Guatemala Restaurant, Guatemalteca Bakery, Guatemalteca Bakery and Restaurant, Guatepan Bakery (1 and 2), Mi Cocinita Chapina, Pan Victoria (1 and 2), Panaderia Guatemalteca, Paseo Chapin, Puchica Guatemalan Bar & Grill, Quetzaltenango Restaurant, Restaurante Amalias, and Tikal Restaurant & Panaderia.
Guatemalan food truck El Shuko can usually be found parked on the border between Vermont Square and Vermont-Slauson. There’s also a nightly Guatemalan Night Market, which takes place after 17:00 around the intersection of Bonnie Brae and 6th streets as well as a brick-and-mortar market, Chapinlandia Market, in South Gate.
MORE ON GUATEMALAN FOOD IN LOS ANGELES
“Antojitos Chapines: L.A. Gets Its First Guatemalan Food Truck,” “This Outdoor Guatemalan Market Is LA’s Undiscovered Street Food Star,” and “How These Guatemalan Street Vendors Feed an Army of LA’s Day Laborers” — by Bill Esparza; and “Do you know what a Guatemalan breakfast is? Here are 6 places to find out” by Barbara Hansen.
GUATEMALAN ANGELENO CULTURE
Unfortunately, I was unable to find much written either online or off about Guatemalan culture in Los Angeles, where coverage of non-Mexican minorities is primarily limited almost exclusively to food listicles.** Local Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and smaller Latino groups are thus almost completely ignored by local websites and mainstream media, except when they’re having their families ripped apart at the at the US-Mexico border in violation of the US’s own 1980 Refugee Act.
Earlier this year there was Las Fotos Project’s “Maya Women in LA” earlier in 2018 — but I know there has to be more. For example, I not long ago heard a Guatemalan band playing in Levitt Pavilion at MacArthur Park and, curious as to their identity, checked that venues website and Facebook page only to find nothing mentioned. There was a good-sized crowd, too, suggesting that although Los Angele’s third largest minority is somehow still under the mainstream radar, Guatemalan-Angelenos themselves are privy to a culture which remains under-covered.
I suppose that leaves Guatemalan representation up to Guatemalans themselves, for the most part, and there are several Guatemalan organizations and resources that I know of, including Maya Vision, the Mayan Language and Cultural Center, Guatemalan Unity Information Agency, Guatemalan House of Culture, and the Consulate General of Guatemala.
As always, any additions are encouraged and greatly appreciated!
*The Pew Research Center’s “Hispanic Population and Origin in Select U.S. Metropolitan Areas, 2014”
**Except for Koreans, about whom listicles are occasionally written that include not just restaurants but a day spa.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.