Guatemala: Understanding Guatemalan culture and your students

Guatemalan refugee students: cultural background profiles

Many educators teaching diverse students report that they do not receive enough cultural background information on their students. If you are teaching refugee students, it is important to be aware of newcomers’ backgrounds.  The information below is meant to provide an overview of key highlights, so you develop culturally responsive teaching strategies that are in tune with your students’ unique learning styles.

girls in a school in guatemala

Map of GuatemalaLanguages
Spanish (official) 68.9%, Mayan languages (a total of 21 are recognized) 30.9%, (K’iche 8.7%, Q’eqchi 7%, Mam 4.6%, Kaqchikel 4.3%, other 6.3%), other 0.3% (includes Xinca and Garifuna). Do not assume that Mayans from Guatemala  speak Spanish.

Teaching in the classroom
School for children is free and compulsory in Guatemala, in theory. There have been new programs and policies in recent years. According to USAID, this has increased numbers attending school and numbers with passing grades. But not all Guatemalans, especially the Maya and those in remote rural areas, have had access to education, and fewer than half make it to middle school.

There are many private schools due to the lack of public schools in some areas. The private schools are often run by Catholics. If children have attended school regularly, they may speak Spanish and English. Other children may only speak their own Mayan language.

You may find illiteracy among parents and children. Parents may have trouble with paperwork, especially long forms. There can also be confusion caused by family members with different last names.

Students are taught to be obedient, to not question instructions, and generally not to behave disrespectfully.

Family/school engagement
Interpersonal engagement is characterized by formality and respect.Teachers are highly respected in Guatemala, and Guatemalan parents may not raise concerns or question you because of this. They may also be ashamed of their own lack of education or knowledge about the school system.

Elders are highly respected.  Women are not treated as equals, however. There is a high rate of abuse of women. Many of the parents you meet will be mothers who have fled with their children to escape gang violence.

Personal space of two and a half to three feet space is considered normal, and touching between women is normal during a conversation, more so than between men or between women and men.

Making eye contact is a sign of respect and a critical way of showing interest. Speaking loudly is not approved of. It is common practice to shake hands between men and women, or for women to embrace one another with a kiss on the cheek. Men generally greet other males with a handshake, but it is not unusual for close friends and family male and females to greet one another with a kiss on the cheek.

Culture, gender and family
Most Guatemalans hold Roman Catholic or Protestant religious views and carry indigenous Mayan beliefs. Around 50% of Guatemalans are Roman Catholic, while around 40% are Protestant. The remaining 10% of Guatemalans practice a range of Mayan indigenous religions. The Mayan beliefs are centered on the worship of gods who control natural earthly elements such as weather and crops.

Guatemalans are usually identified between Amerindians and Ladinos. Ladinos are those who have adopted the Spanish language and culture and are classified as mestizos, or those of mixed Amerindian and European descent.

Male-female interaction is traditionally limited outside the family, and dating is uncommon until later on. A female Guatemalan adolescent’s fifteenth birthday marks her adulthood and is celebrated by a traditional ceremony. For a male Guatemalan adolescent, his mark of adulthood occurs later on when he reaches the age of eighteen.

Formality between genders in this aspect remains throughout adulthood, but friend and family ties are often close.  The extended family is generally involved in the nuclear family life and forms the foundation of Amerindian communities.Guatemalans are community-minded rather that individualistic.

Guatemalan dress is casual and similar to Western dress.

Additional resources






Print this Information as a PDF

You can download and print this Guatemala learner profile as a PDF and keep it as a resource in your classroom.

Refugees shaking hands

Ensure all of your students succeed

Evidence-based classroom strategies and support for educators of newcomer students.

Enroll today
Did this page help you? Smiley face Yes Frown face No
Thank you for your feedback!