While the question of race within the Guatemalan conflicts has been overlooked by some, there are many who have asked what role race has played. Within this historical question, there are different discussions built around diverse perspectives. Much can be learned by engaging with race as defined by the Spanish who colonized Guatemala, or the Americans who would control the country through the United Fruit Company. By grappling with these distinct perspectives and reconciling the different truths they hold about race in Guatemala, we can understand more about how racial concepts shaped the conflicts.
To explore the historical conversations around these conflicts, I will be focusing on three scholarly sources. The first is “The Ladino” by Severo Martínez Peláez, an explanation of the creation and evolution of the term “Ladino”. The second is “The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America” by Jason Colby, an exploration on how the United Fruit Company shaped racial categories in Latin America, as well as the relations between the people who occupied them. My final source is “After the Coup: An Ethnographic Reframing of Guatemala 1954” by Richard N. Adams, an argument that the 1944 revolution did not create a clean transition to democracy, but instead began a long transition of power structured around race.
In “The Ladino”, Severo Martínez Peláez explains how the term Ladino evolved from a Spanish word for labeling Spanish Jews to a term meaning non-Maya. He traces the transformation of the word into a tool of racial categorization, a transformation triggered by contact with the indigenous Maya. Peláez argues that the term was ultimately misused as a matter of simplifying categorization. Although Ladino literally referred to a non-indigenous person, it had come to refer a group of mixed origin. His conclusion states that while it is easy to categorize Maya as the indigenous and the Ladino as those of mixed race, people within the groups do not think of themselves so simply.
Already, Severo Martínez Peláez has given several guiding concepts that remain important to thinking about race in Guatemala. One is that these categories are often created by those in power to strengthen the hierarchy that keeps them on top. Another important idea is that this system results in labels that are often convenient to those who study the Ladino and Maya, but are not so simply reflected in how these people think of themselves.
Building on this account of race in Guatemala is Chapter 6 of Jason Colby’s work “The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America”. In this chapter, historian Jason Colby examines race relations between those employed by the United Fruit Company in Latin America. He argues that the United Fruit Company established and enforced American ideals of race and segregation in Guatemala. His examination of documents and policies from United Fruit is used to create an extensive model of the ways that White Americans, Local Guatemalans, and Black Islanders were subjected to different standards of living, working conditions, and social status. His work provides much needed exploration in how perceived difference in race and status were used to justify abusive labor conditions and disenfranchisement. This work contributes an exploration on how white members and owners of United Fruit justified their actions in Guatemala with the racial history of the Guatemala.
Jason Colby’s argument compliments the work of Severo Martínez Peláez. The creation of terms like Ladino through Spanish imperialism is echoed in the economic colonialism of the United Fruit Company. The creation of these categories as a tool of subjugation and oppression would go on to define how these group were perceived to act in the conflicts of the late twentieth century, where it wasn’t nearly as simple for members of these groups to attach themselves to such narratives.
In Chapter 6 of his work “After the Coup: An Ethnographic Reframing of Guatemala 1954”, Richard N. Adams argues that the 1944 revolution that set the stage for the coup did not usher in a clean transition to democracy, but instead began a fifty-year transition based on racial structure. The work in this book uses clear examination of Guatemalan policy and treatment towards marginalized groups in a way that demonstrates the power imbalance between them, and how this power was leveraged to commit acts of violence. This work contributes a clear definition and relation of the different racial groups within the Guatemalan conflicts.
Together, these works create a diverse discussion on the place race held in Guatemala. Where Peláez and Colby demonstrate the complexity of different origins of racial categories, Adams works to fit their defined roles into the story of conflict. Even Peláez and Colby have some disagreements on the finer points of how organically the structure of race formed in Guatemala. However, taken together these sources reveal the importance of understanding how people within these categories view themselves, and the difference in how those driving the conflict viewed them.
 Peláez, Severo Martínez. “The Ladino.” In The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics
 Colby, Jason M. “Reframing the Empire, 1929–1940.” In The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America, 175-98.
 ADAMS, RICHARD N. “Democracy Delayed: The Evolution of Ethnicity in Guatemala Society, 1944–96.” In After the Coup: An Ethnographic Reframing of Guatemala 1954
Peláez, Severo Martínez. “The Ladino.” In The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Grandin Greg, Levenson Deborah T., and Oglesby Elizabeth, 129-32. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2011. Accessed May 2, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1198vws.30.
Colby, Jason M. “Reframing the Empire, 1929–1940.” In The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America, 175-98. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2011. Accessed May 2, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7v86t.10.
ADAMS, RICHARD N. “Democracy Delayed: The Evolution of Ethnicity in Guatemala Society, 1944–96.” In After the Coup: An Ethnographic Reframing of Guatemala 1954, edited by SMITH TIMOTHY J. and ADAMS ABIGAIL E., 134-50. Urbana; Chicago; Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Accessed May 2, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xchqx.10.