Five famous Guatemalans you need to know more about

Jurg Widmer Guatemala

Guatemala has a rich and fascinating history, filled with an array of interesting cultural and political figures. From people who have bravely fought to raise awareness of the rights of the country’s many indigenous people, to footballers and musicians, here are just five of the most famous Guatemalans you need to know about.

  1. Rigoberta Menchú

Rigoberta Menchú is a woman of K’iche’ Maya descent who has been a powerful voice for indigenous rights over many years. She was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the early nineties, and today continues her work as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. She has even made a couple of presidential runs over the years, but it was her vocal activism in support of people who suffered at the hands of the Guatemalan army during the country’s bitter civil war between 1960 to 1996 that really made her name as a national hero.

  1. Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales

In a country that has produced many great writers and poets, Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales rises above the rest. He is a Nobel Prize winner, and although he died in the mid 1970s his contribution to the position of Latin American literature on the world stage has been huge. Asturias is particularly important because of his focus on the indigenous cultures of Guatemala and although he spent much of his life living in Paris, he played a important role in bringing Mayan themes into the popular consciousness. He was also a vocal opponent of dictatorship, and his novel El Señor Presidente was an expression of a life spent fighting political oppression through his literature.

  1. Carlos “Pescado” Ruiz

Football (or soccer as it is known outside of Europe) is a truly international language, and anyone looking to strike up a conversation with locals anywhere in Latin America could do worse than begin by asking them who their favourite player is. In Guatemala, there’s a good chance that you will hear the name Carlos Ruiz – he is seen by many people in the country as being one of the best players the country has ever produced. He finished his career (as many ageing professionals do) in the US, but he made his name for the national team, where his 39 goals in World Cup Qualifiers have made him a true sporting icon. ‘Pescado’ means ‘fish’ – and is a reference to Carlos Ruiz’s unfortunate habit of throwing himself to the ground in games in an attempt to win a foul.

  1. Ricardo Arjona

Without doubt Guatemala’s biggest pop star (and former national basketball player). He’s phenomenally popular in the country and well-loved for his Latin pop, Tejano and Norteño and rock songs. He’s also not been shy to address more serious topics in his songs such as racism and immigration – a social conscience that has done him no harm in terms of his popularity with ordinary Guatemalans too. He has been hugely successful abroad as well, with album sales of well over 40 million around the world making him one of the biggest Latin American musical artists ever. As for the basketball – it is just another string to Ricardo Arjona’s bow. He played for two teams – Leones de Marte and TRIAS, and even took part in a tour of Central America with the Guatemala national squad. Impressively Arjona also once scored a spectacular 78 points in a single game.

  1. Carlos Mérida

A hugely influential Guatemalan artist whose murals are still very well-loved in his home country. He had indigenous Quiché heritage and this powerful influence played out in some of his most famous works. Mérida’s murals combine both influences from European modernist painting and ancient Mayan traditions to truly striking effect. You will find plenty of his colourful geometric murals on display in Guatemala City’s Museum of Modern Art, as well as on the outside of many public buildings around the capital. As a general point, a lot of the best art on display in Guatemala City is actually on the outside of the country’s government and municipal buildings, and it is always well worth taking the time to look up and around the next time you are visiting the capital.

Jürg Widmer 

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