A Brief History of Guatemalan Immigration to the U.S.

You may have heard news stories about the surge of Guatemalan immigration to the U.S. Guatemalans have been settling in the U.S. throughout the last century, but they have increased their numbers recently. Like other immigrant communities, Guatemalans move across borders for increased opportunities; many also support loved ones back home.

When they come to the U.S., many Guatemalans settle in just a few major regions. Read on to learn more about where they live, why they come, and about some of their contributions to the United States.

Guatemalans in the U.S.

The Guatemalan population in the U.S. is relatively small. Most estimates put the population of Guatemalan migrants in the United States at around 1.5 million. 

Census data from 2010 shows that Guatemalans are the 10th largest migrant population in the United States and the 3rd largest immigrant group from Central America. Seventy percent of Guatemalans in the U.S. live in six cities: Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Boston. 

Guatemalans are exceptionally diverse. One reason? There are multiple ethnic groups in the country, who speak dozens of languages. Around 42% of Guatemalans are Mayan and have distinct cultural traditions from those of Ladino (mixed indigenous and Spanish) Guatemalans. 

Many Guatemalan Americans appear to assimilate with other Central American immigrant groups or Latin American communities whose holidays, foods, languages, art, and music are similar. 

Why Do Guatemalans Emigrate?

The history of Guatemalan emigration to the United States dates back at least a century, but the vast majority of movement has taken place in the last 50 years. 

Scholars identify two distinct phases of migration: displacement of Guatemalans during the country’s long civil war (1960-1996); and economic migration in the post-war era. 

Between 1960 and 1996, over 400,000 Guatemalans fled to the United States, Mexico, and Canada due to the civil war. Migrants included student and union leaders, intellectuals, and others displaced by political oppression. 

Migration figures rose with the intensification of violence from the late ‘70s through the ’80s. There was also a spike following a devastating earthquake in 1976. Rates were steady at about 40,000 Guatemalans per year through the 1990s.

In the post-war era, migration rates from Guatemala to the United States increased. Incentives to emigrate are largely economic—Guatemala has been poor as compared to developed nations, with high rates of unemployment and underemployment. 

Other factors include political instability and social violence. A series of natural disasters, including devastating hurricanes in 1998, 2005, and 2010-2011 and an earthquake in 2012, each resulted in a migration spike. 

The Bigger Picture

Of course, the true picture of the Guatemalan population in the U.S. is more complicated than such data suggests. Some come as students, including Guatemala City-born Luis von Ahn, the tech developer who launched Duolingo and reCAPTCHA and is now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. 

Family reunification is another key factor drawing Guatemalans to the United States. 

The figure of 1.5 million Guatemalan-born residents in the U.S. does not reflect the second-, third-, and further generations who identify as Guatemalan-American. 

Data on remittances shows that Guatemalan Americans retain solid ties with family members back in Guatemala, although few intend to return. 

Remittances are an important source of support in Guatemala, totaling $4.4 billion by 2012 and comprising over 11% of the country’s GDP according to 2016 data. 

Where Do Guatemalans Live in the United States?

The vast majority of Guatemalans living in the U.S. are in Southern California and the Northeast. 

Southern California

According to Migration Policy Institute data, as of 2019, the largest Guatemalan-American and Guatemalan-born community in the U.S. is in Los Angeles County, with 175,600. Los Angeles is home to the largest Guatemalan population outside Guatemala. 

In 2019, L.A.’s neighboring Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties add 13,600, 13,200, and 11,500 Guatemalans respectively. In the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan statistical area, 1.4% of the total population were born in Guatemala. 

It’s little known even to Angelenos, but a section of the Westlake neighborhood in L.A. is dubbed “Little Guatemala” by locals. Its night market gives Guatemalan Americans a familiar taste of authentic garnachas, tamales, pupusas, tacos, and fried platano. 

Rep. Norma Torres, who was born in Guatemala and came to the U.S. as a child, represents California’s 35th district in Congress. She has previously served as the Mayor of Pomona and in the California State Senate and State Assembly. 

Another notable Guatemalan-American raised in Los Angeles is Manny Marroquin, a 10-time Grammy Award-winning sound engineer.  

Some SoCal organizations that focus on the Guatemalan immigrant experience include Maya Vision, a community and cultural support group founded by Maya refugees from Guatemala. The group has a mission to help preserve and strengthen Maya cultural traditions. 

Mundo Maya Foundation also works with Maya populations from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras living in the Los Angeles area. It hosts the annual Mundo Maya Day to celebrate indigenous Maya culture, music, dance, food, and sports. 

Other Guatemalan population centers in the United States.

Outside Southern California, there are sizable Guatemalan population centers in the Northeast and in Florida. 

As of writing, the New York-Newark-Jersey City area is home to 90,000 Guatemalan-born residents; the Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria area has 51,000 residents; and in Florida, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area has 47,000 residents born in Guatemala. 

The Miami and Palm Beach areas have significant Guatemalan hubs within their diverse Latin communities. 

The nonprofit advocacy group, Guatemalan-Maya Center, has served the local Guatemalan Maya community in Palm Beach County for more than 30 years. 

Guatemala-born actor Oscar Isaac was raised in Miami. He is famous for starring in blockbuster movies including X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina. 

Guatemalan Americans also reside in significant numbers in the greater Houston area (around 42,000), the greater Chicago Area, the San Francisco Bay Area, and greater Boston. 

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