Since Guatemala's independence in 1839, it has been subjected to extreme political instability and terror. Guatemala's leaders have been dictators, military presidents, and elected officials, many of whom have been overthrown by coups. The hostility between the military and guerrilla forces has resulted in violence, bloodshed, and panic. In some cases, military regimes were so intent on ending guerrilla tactics that they massacred entire villages. The combined tasks of leading the country, controlling guerrilla activity, and addressing human rights seem overwhelming. This political climate provides the backdrop for Among the Volcanoes, where the villagers' daily lives are affected by the harsh realities of danger and violence. Just before the novel's 1991 publication, elections were held in Guatemala. The January 1991 inauguration of Jorge Serrano marked the first time one elected official was replaced by another. Serrano expressed his intention to bring peace to the land by negotiating with guerrillas, holding corrupt officials responsible, and putting an end to human rights violations. Unfortunately, Serrano was removed from office only two years later.
Conflicting Ways of Life
Guatemala is defined by three historical stages—Mayan indigenous, Spanish colonial, and modern republican—although some scholars note that the distinct lifestyles of each are slowly merging into a cohesive contemporary culture.
As missionary efforts expanded into Central America, religion became a problematic cultural issue for many Guatemalans. Roman Catholicism became increasingly popular beginning in the sixteenth century, and Protestantism reached Guatemala in the mid-1800s, although there were few converts until the growth of Pentecostal sects in the 1960s. While Guatemalans were receptive to the new religious ideologies, they were hesitant to abandon the religious belief systems of their ancestors. Castañeda depicts the ways in which people incorporate the new beliefs and symbols with the traditional ones, a melding that continues today.
Tradition remains a powerful force, particularly among people who live in small rural villages. They prefer to keep to themselves, living a lifestyle similar to that of their ancestors. Modern conveniences are slow to be introduced in this context. As recently as the 1990s, only 54 percent of Guatemalans had access to health care. Further, only 60 percent of Guatemalans had access to a source of pure drinking water and sanitation, which explains why the village of Chuuí Chopaló responded with such excitement to the installation of the water-line channel.
Ethnic Composition and Class Structure
Guatemala's population is composed of indigenous Mayans and ladinos, who are people of mixed native and European heritage. Guatemala is unique among Latin American countries in that it still has a large native population that has preserved its ethnic identity.
There is a wide class gap in Guatemalan social structure, and most of the elite members of society are those who have more European blood, which fuels tensions between the classes. Statistics in 1987 revealed that, in earnings, the top 10 percent of the population held 44 percent of the income while the bottom 10 percent held only nine-tenths of one percent. In the twentieth century, the class gap widened as the population continued to grow and resources were exported rather than kept within the country's borders for its own people.
In Guatemala, public education is free and mandatory, but soft enforcement and lack of resources results in inadequate education for most Guatemalans. At the elementary school level, 58 percent of children attend school, and at the high school level, only 16 percent attend. In rural areas, such as the village described in Among the Volcanoes, these figures are lower. In fact, it is not uncommon for a rural school to offer education only through the third grade.
Point of View
Among the Volcanoes is narrated from the...
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