Music and Art in Guatemala
Guatemala has a rich artistic tradition that extends all the way back to Mayan times. Art is alive and well in Guatemala today, as evidenced by the music, literature, and paintings that are found across the country. Whether you’re listening to a band in Guatemala City or touring a museum in Antigua, you’ll surely enjoy the artistic offerings of this country.
You’ll hear an assortment of music in Guatemala. On bus rides, you’ll probably hear American music from the 1980s and 90s. In other places – like restaurants and bars – you’re likely to hear ranchera and Tejano music. Music with Mexican influence is big here, and you’ll sometimes stumble upon a mariachi band playing at a restaurant or party. Along the Caribbean Coast, Guatemala’s Garífuna population tends to listen to more reggae-heavy music, including punta rock and reggaeton.
The most popular instrument in Guatemala is the marimba. A marimba is a large wooden xylophone that’s struck with mallets. It’s often played in upscale hotels and restaurants, especially in more popular destinations. Marimbas weren’t always used in Guatemala — during pre-Columbian times, Mayan instruments consisted of wooden flutes, drums, and bone rasps.
If you’re interested in learning more about Guatemala’s highland Mayan musical traditions, visit the Casa K’ojom museum, which is set just outside of Antigua in the small town of Jocotenango.
Guatemala’s visual art began with the Mayans, who painted murals and carved stelae. Although few Mayan murals survived, the ones that did tend to show scenes of daily life and are narrative in nature. The stelae are covered with carvings and inscriptions, often of kings or gods.
During Spanish colonial times, there was a substantial amount of art created; most of it, however, was anonymous. Exceptions include the Black Christ of Esquipulas, which was sculpted by Quiro Cataño in 1595. Pilgrims now come from across Central America to visit this sculpture. Thomas de Merlo (1694–1739) is another colonial artist whose work survived — his paintings can still be seen in the Museo de Arte Colonial in Antigua.
Guatemala’s best-known visual artist is Carlos Mérida (1891–1984), who studied painting in Paris in the early 1900s. His indigenista art combined European modernism with American themes. His work underwent several shifts, including a figurative phase, a surrealist phase, and a geometric phase. Much of his work can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in Guatemala City.
During the 20th century, Guatemalan visual art embraced indigenous themes and portrayals, and often romanticized indigenous culture in the process. Painters include Kaqchikel, Andrés Curruchich (1891–1969) and Alfredo Gálvez Suárez (1899–1946). This style can be seen in the murals of Guatemala City’s Palacio Nacional de La Cultura, many of which were done by Alfredo Gálvez Suárez.
Guatemala’s best-known literary figure is Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974), who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1967. His most famous work includes El Señor Presidente (1946), Hombres de Maíz (1949), and El Papa Verde (1954). The themes include dictators, Mayan peasants, and the United Fruit Company.
Guatemala’s first notable writer was Rafael Landívar (1731–1793), a Jesuit priest and poet from Antigua. His best-known work is the poem Rusticatio Mexicano, which describes local customs during that time. In 1767 Landívar was forced to leave Guatemala when the Spanish Crown expelled Jesuits from the Americas.
Modern Guatemalan writers include Víctor Perera (1934–2003), whose books cover Guatemalan history and culture and include Unfinished Conquest (1993) and Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood (1986). Novelist Francisco Goldman is also well respected — his novels include The Ordinary Seaman (1997) and The Divine Husband (2004).