Arts & Culture
You probably didn't come to Central America for high culture: art museums and symphony halls are thin on the ground. To discover the richness of Central America's arts, you have to look in unexpected places – gritty dance clubs and dark alleys, rural villages and women's cooperatives. In Central America, anyone and everyone is an artist, or a musician, or a poet. Art is all around you, so keep your eyes open.
Throughout Central America and Mexico, the art scene is vibrant and visible, as some of the most poignant contemporary work takes the form of street art – murals and mosaics that grace decrepit buildings and brighten city streets. Often these paintings record historic events and raise awareness of social issues, a tradition that dates from a time when a large percentage of the population was illiterate. Interestingly, street art is most vibrant in war-torn countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
In El Salvador, the best examples are in Perquín, La Palma and Suchitoto, as well as in the capital and the villages along the Ruta de las Flores. In 1997 national icon Fernando Llort created a colorful, folkloric ceramic-tile mural entitled Harmonia de Mi Pueblo. A tribute to persevering Salvadorans and a celebration of peace, the artwork was mounted on the facade of the Catedral Metropolitana in San Salvador. Artists and residents were shocked and outraged when the local archbishop had the mural removed in 2012, without consulting the government or the artist.
Paintings cover the walls in many Nicaraguan cities, especially the Sandinista strongholds of León and Estelí. The latter is home to a new movement of muralistas, who use more recognizable graffiti techniques to deliver their social commentary.
Urban Maeztro is the pseudonym of a Honduran street artist who makes provocative, overtly political work, decrying the violence that pervades Tegucigalpa.
The most famous Guatemalan artist is Efraín Recinos, whose murals grace the National Music Conservatory. He's also a celebrated architect and sculptor. Not exactly a street artist, Recinos was awarded Guatemala’s highest honor, the Order of the Quetzal, in 1999.
Sidebar: Cozumel's Street Art
In Cozumel, Mexico, a recent project involving dozens of large murals in the town center is calling attention to marine issues such as shark finning, overfishing, coastal development, climate change and coral reef conservation.
Souvenir hunters will be delighted by the wealth of handicrafts and folk art that is available in Central America, much of it produced by indigenous groups in the region.
Especially in the highlands of Guatemala, the Maya weave festive, colorful clothing and textiles. The huipil (a women’s tunic) is often a true work of art – a multicolored web of stylized animal, human, plant and mythological shapes. Many women still use the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom to make these creations.
Panama’s indigenous groups produce high-quality woodcarvings, textiles, ceramics, masks and other handicrafts. The Emberá and Wounaan are renowned for their woven baskets, some of which are highly decorated with bright colors and natural motifs, made from the nahuala bush and chunga palm. The Guna are known for their molas (the embroidered panels used by women in their traditional dress). Ocú and Penonomé people produce superior panama hats.
In Costa Rica, indigenous crafts include intricately carved and painted masks made by the Boruca, as well as handwoven bags and linens and colorful Chorotega pottery.
In Central America, peasants can be poets, and poets can be politicians. Poetry is beloved throughout the region, especially in the countries that have seen the most violence and poverty – always good inspiration for verse.
Guatemala’s first great literary figure was poet and Jesuit priest Rafael Landivar, whose collection of poetry was published in 1781. The literary spokesperson of the Guatemala people is Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974). His masterpiece novel, Men of Maize, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967, but before that he was a poet-diplomat and an outspoken political commentator.
In Nicaragua, any campesino (farmer) can tell you who the greatest poet in history is: Rubén Darío, voice of the nation and founder of the modernismo literary movement. Nicaragua is also home to the peculiar cultural archetype of ‘warrior poets,’ folks who choose to use both the pen and the sword. The best-known example is Gioconda Belli, who was working undercover with the Sandinistas when she won the prestigious Casa de las Américas international poetry prize.
Sidebar: An Exiled and Executed Poet
Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton was exiled for his radical politics – and eventually executed for allegedly playing double agent. His notable works include Taberna y Otros Lugares (1969), a political vision in verse.
At the intersection of Latin beats and Caribbean cool, there is the música of Central America. You'll hear calypso, reggae, soca and salsa around the region, but you'll also discover lesser-known, uniquely Central American musical genres that incorporate the best of the more mainstream styles.
The marimba is a percussion instrument that resembles a xylophone, except it's made of wood and so produces a mellower sound. The instrument is usually played by three men; there's a carnival-like quality to its sound and compositions. Marimba music is used during Maya religious ceremonies, and it's considered the national instrument in Guatemala. But it’s also popular in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where groups such as La Cuneta Son Machín have updated marimba folk music with a rocky cumbia (Colombian dance tunes) beat.
Musicians and linguists speculate that the name punta, a traditional Garifuna drumming and dance style, comes from the word bunda, which means 'buttocks' in many West African languages. The word derivation is not certain, but it is perhaps apt. Played at any celebration, this music inspires Garifuna peoples across Central America to get up and shake their bunda.
In the 1970s, Belizean musician Pen Cayetano traveled around Central America and came to the realization that Garifuna traditions were in danger of withering away. He wanted to inspire young people to embrace their own culture, so he invented a cool and contemporary genre by adding electric guitar to traditional punta rhythms – and punta rock was born. Since the 1980s, punta rock has become popular across the region (and across ethnic groups), especially in Belize and Honduras.
Once the music of the urban poor in Panama, reggaetón nowadays permeates all countries and social strata in Central America (and beyond). Taking cues from hip-hop, especially the rap-like vocals, this unique genre also incorporates musical influences from Jamaican dancehall, Trinidadian soca and Puerto Rican salsa. Reggaetón is wildly popular across the region, especially in Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala.
People & Society
At the crossroads of continents, Central America has been influenced not only by its North and South American neighbors, but even more so by its European colonizers and African immigrants. With populations descended from these four corners – as well as prominent indigenous groups – the region's culture is a rich and fascinating blend. Family life remains sacred throughout the isthmus, but the disparity between urban and rural lifestyles is growing.
Feature: Central American Lifestyles
In Central America, the contrast between urban and rural lifestyles is pretty stark, with gaping disparities in opportunity, education and income. For better or for worse, some things such as family and church remain constant – though which church may be a subject for debate these days.
The family unit in Central America remains the nucleus of life. Extended families often live near each other and socialize together. Those with relatives in positions of power – nominal or otherwise – don’t hesitate to turn to them for support. Favors are graciously accepted, promptly returned and never forgotten. Despite modernizing influences – education, cable TV, contact with foreign travelers, time spent abroad – traditional family ties remain strong at all levels of society. Old-fashioned gender roles are strong too, although this is changing in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama.
Despite their closeness, many families have at least one member who has emigrated to the USA to work. Remittances from abroad are a major source of income for families across the region.
Religion continues to be a major force in the lives of Central Americans, though the once staunchly Catholic region is changing. Ever since the arrival of the Spanish – and with them missionaries, priests and papal decrees – Central America has been dominated by Catholics. Today more than half of the region's population practices Catholicism.
But the 20th century brought a new set of missionaries – this time evangelical Protestants from North America – commonly known as evangelicos. The fiery services and paradisaical promises have particular appeal among the rural poor. Nearly a third of the region's population has been wooed into joining the faith.
Urban vs Rural
Central America is characterized by a vast chasm in levels of healthcare, education, wealth and modernity. These differences often line up along the urban–rural divide. In capital cities, well-heeled residents drive high-end cars, own vacation properties and travel overseas. Meanwhile, just an hour's drive away, an indigenous family might paddle a dugout canoe and practice subsistence agriculture.
Even in the region's most prosperous countries (Costa Rica and Panama), around 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. In the poorest countries (Guatemala and Honduras), the number is more than 50%. The vast majority of the destitute live in rural areas, many representing indigenous groups. Across the region, the rural poor have significantly lower standards of living, fewer opportunities for education and less-than-adequate healthcare.
The middle and upper classes reside mainly in urban areas, especially in capital cities, where they enjoy a lifestyle that is similar to their counterparts in North America or Europe.
Sidebar: Leaving the Countryside
The region's countryside has seen waves of outgoing migration, as the sons and daughters of farmers seek better lives in the cities.
Peoples of Central America
Central America may appear homogeneous at first glance, but this mostly Latin American region is a patchwork of European-, Amerindian- and African-descended groups – most of which have intermixed with each other. Some 78% of the regional population are in fact mestizo (Spanish-Amerindian mix) or Caucasian (European). Most of the remaining population is made up of dozens of distinct indigenous groups, from the once-mighty Maya to the barely-surviving Maleku. A small but significant percentage descends from African slaves and immigrant workers.
Mestizos are people of mixed Spanish and indigenous Amerindian descent. They are the largest ethnic group in Central America, comprising about 58% of the regional population; they're also the largest ethnic group in every Central American country except Costa Rica. (El Salvador has the region’s highest percentage of mestizos, at 86%.) Even Belize – which was not settled by the Spanish – has a large and growing mestizo population, due to the influx of refugees from neighboring countries.
While not uniform, the mestizo culture defines the region, which is predominantly Catholic and Spanish-speaking.
Approximately 20% of the Central American population is Caucasian – mostly of Spanish origin, descending from conquistadors and colonists who settled here, beginning in the 16th century.
Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama all have smaller but still significant Caucasian populations – 12% to 18% – mostly descended from Spanish settlers. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government of Nicaragua gave away land to German and French immigrants who were willing to cultivate it, which contributed to its 17% Caucasian population.
In the 20th century Central America became a refuge for alternative thinkers seeking a peaceful place to live according to beliefs that were unwelcome in North America. Belize has a small but visible population of Mennonites (of German/Dutch descent), who settled here in the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to preserve their traditional way of life and strict moral code. A few years later, a group of Quakers fled the USA to avoid conscription into the military; they settled in Monteverde, Costa Rica, eventually founding the famous cloud-forest reserve.
Sidebar: Costa Rica's Caucasians
Costa Rica has an unusually high percentage of Caucasians – 66% – due to limited intermingling between Spanish farmers and indigenous groups. Europeans descended on Costa Rica throughout the 19th century and lately there's been an influx of North American retirees.
The Maya are the most famous and populous indigenous group in Central America, but there are dozens of lesser-known Amerindian groups. These native peoples make up 16% of the overall regional population.
The Maya are the largest indigenous group in Central America, with an estimated population of seven million. From 2000 BC to AD 1500, the Maya civilization spanned the northern part of Central America, building great cities, undertaking elaborate rituals and engaging in violent warfare. Contemporary Maya culture does not bear much resemblance to its ancient counterpart, but it does retain some unique remnants of the heritage, including traditional clothing, religious practices and – most significantly – language. Throughout Central America, there are some 32 distinct linguistic groups that comprise the modern-day Maya population.
Sidebar: Where the Maya Live
The largest concentration of Maya people is in Guatemala, where they represent nearly 40% of the population. There are also significant populations in Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.
The largest Maya linguistic group, the K’iche’ people number around 1.6 million, constituting some 11% of the population in Guatemala. They live in El Quiché and the surrounding highlands. The K’iche’ got some international attention when their spokesperson, Rigoberta Menchú, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
Historically, the K’iche’ people were responsible for the Popol Vuh, a 16th-century account of ancient Maya society and culture that has been one of the most important sources for scholars.
The Yucatec Maya are found in the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. In the 1840s, the Caste War of the Yucatán sent streams of refugees into Belize, resulting in significant Yucatec Maya populations in Corozal and Cayo as well. It is estimated that there are about 1.2 million people who currently speak the Yucatec Maya language.
The Q’eqchi’ people (Kekchí, in Belize) number just under one million. They are geographically dispersed, but there are concentrations in Alta and Baja Verapez, Guatemala, and in Toledo, Belize.
The Ch’orti’ people reside mostly in southern Guatemala and northwestern Honduras, with a total population of about 51,000. The Ch’orti’ language – still spoken by some in Guatemala – is related to the inscriptions found on the ruins at Copán.
Other Indigenous Groups
In pre-Columbian Central America, the southern part of the region was inhabited by many distinct indigenous groups that were unrelated to the Maya. Dozens of them endure to this day, although they all face challenges in preserving their culture, language and identity in this era of increasing global uniformity.
Panama’s largest indigenous group is the Ngöbe-Buglé (no-bay boo-glay), who number around 156,000 and occupy a comarca (autonomous region) that spans the Chiriquí, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro Provinces. There is also a significant population in southwestern Costa Rica, where they are known as the Guaymís.
The Ngöbe-Buglé enjoy a high degree of political autonomy and have been successful in managing their lands and protecting their cultural identity. The highland Ngöbe-Buglé have largely resisted outside cultural interventions, primarily because their communities are so isolated. They continue to live much as they have throughout history by relying almost exclusively on subsistence agriculture.
The Lenca inhabit southwestern Honduras and eastern El Salvador, with population estimates ranging from 137,000 to 300,000. While the Lenca language has become obsolete, this indigenous group preserves other elements of its culture, including traditional agricultural practices and pottery production.
The Miskito are an indigenous people who inhabit remote coastal areas of Honduras and Nicaragua, especially around the Río Coco. For many years, the Spanish were unable to conquer this region, which became a refuge for shipwrecked or escaped African slaves. There was a great deal of intermixing between the natives and Africans, which is reflected in the Miskito population today. There is no reliable population total, but estimates range from 50,000 to 200,000.
During the 20th century, the Miskito were systematically persecuted by the Nicaraguan government, and many refugees fled from Nicaragua to Honduras during the Contra War. Nonetheless, these native people have been able to retain much of their traditional culture, including Miskito language, matriarchal family structures and some degree of autonomy from the national government.
Perhaps the most well-known Panamanian indigenous group, due to their distinctive dress, is the Guna, who inhabit the Archipiélago de San Blás and run their native lands as a comarca (autonomous region). With a large degree of sovereignty, the 50,000 or so Guna are fiercely protective of their independence, routinely introducing new legislation to protect their lands from foreign cultural invasion.
In recent years, this has resulted in barring foreigners from owning property in the comarca, imposing restrictions on tourism in San Blás and introducing standard fees for visitation, photography and video throughout the region. This tenacity has proved successful, as one of the highlights of visiting San Blás is witnessing first-hand the vibrancy of the Guna’s unique culture.
Emberá & Wounaan
In Panama, the Emberá and Wounaan inhabit the jungle of the eastern Panamá Province and the Darién. Although the groups are distinct, the difference is more linguistic than cultural. Historically, both groups have eked out a living on the edges of the jungles through hunting, fishing, subsistence farming and rearing livestock, though rapidly increasing deforestation has reduced the extent of their traditional lands.
Today, the majority of Emberá and Wounaan inhabit the fringes of the Darién and live beyond the range of destruction brought forth by loggers, farmers and ranchers. However, an increasing number of communities are turning to tourism for survival, particularly in the Canal Zone, where traditional lifestyles are no longer feasible. There are also Emberá refugees from Colombia, who fled heavy fighting in the Chocó region by the thousands in early 2004.
Bribrí & Cabécar
The Bribrí are an indigenous group that lives in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica, south of Puerto Viejo. Largely isolated from mainstream Tico culture, the Bribrí retain their language, a matrilineal social structure and many earth-centered spiritual practices. Estimates of the Bribrí population range from 12,000 up to 35,000.
The Cabécar are a more isolated indigenous group that lives high up in the Cordillera de Talamanca. Their language is distinct from Bribrí, but they share similar architecture, weapons and spiritual beliefs.
The Mayangna (sometimes called the Sumo) traditionally inhabited the area along the Mosquito Coast in Nicaragua and Honduras, frequently coming into conflict with the Miskito people who also lived there. Nowadays, there are three distinct Mayangna groups who reside in isolated settlements on the Ríos Patuca and Grande in Honduras, as well as the Río Wawa in Nicaragua. Their total population is around 10,000.
The Tolupanes (also called Jicaque or Xicaque) live in small communities in Honduras, with a total population around 10,000. This indigenous group retains many elements of its culture, including communal land ownership and traditional government by assemblies of elders.
Traditionally inhabiting the forested areas of northeastern Honduras, the Pech peoples struggle to hang on to their culture. This indigenous group – now estimated at around 3800 people – has suffered from the destruction of the rainforest and the influx of mestizo farmers into their traditional hunting grounds. The Pech language is spoken by elders but is in danger of extinction.
Some 2600 Brunka (or Boruca) people occupy the indigenous reserve in southern Costa Rica, practicing traditional agriculture and making handicrafts for sale to tourists. The Brunka are best known for the annual Fiesta de Los Diablitos, a three-day event that symbolizes their struggle with the Spanish, as well as for the ornate hand-carved masks that are worn during the festival. The Brunka language is nearly extinct, spoken by only a handful of elders, but many other traditional cultural elements persist, such as folklore and foods.
The Rama are an indigenous group that lives along the Caribbean Coast in Nicaragua, mostly on Rama Cay. With a population of around 2000, the Rama live off subsistence agriculture, fishing and hunting. Most Rama practice in the Moravian Church, due to a strong missionary presence since the 19th century. The Rama language is spoken only by a few elders, but it is the target of a language resuscitation program that has achieved some success.
In Panama, the Naso (Teribe) inhabit mainland Bocas del Toro and are largely confined to the Panamanian side of the bi-national Parque Internacional La Amistad. Unlike other indigenous population groups in Panama, the Naso do not have an independent comarca (autonomous region) of their own, which has resulted in the rapid destruction of their cultural sovereignty in recent years. Furthermore, the tremendous tourism potential of the international park has prevented the Panamanian government from coming to their aid.
Today, traditional villages are rapidly disappearing throughout the region and only a few thousand Naso remain. However, in an effort to ensure their cultural survival, a few villages have banded together to create projects in Las Delicias area and near the Wekso entrance to La Amistad, both of which aim to draw more visitors to the region and employ more Naso guides.
Near the town of San Rafael, Costa Rica, the Guatuso Indigenous Reservation is home to about 600 Maleku people. This tiny indigenous population is ironically one of the country’s most visible, as they often perform ceremonies for tourists in nearby La Fortuna. The Maleku also welcome travelers to visit the reservation, where they make and sell wood carvings, paintings and traditional musical instruments.
Afro Central American
From their earliest arrivals in the New World, the Spanish brought African slaves to trade and to work. In the 19th century, many other peoples of African descent arrived from Jamaica and other parts of the Antilles. African laborers, both immigrants and slaves, played a crucial role in the development of the region – felling forests, building railroads and dredging canals. Today their descendants make up about 4% of the Central American population, and they are concentrated mainly on the Caribbean coast.
Creoles are mixed-race people who are the descendants of African slaves and European baymen, loggers and colonists. There are significant Creole populations in Belize (called Kriol, 25%) and Nicaragua (9%), most of whom are descendants of escaped or shipwrecked slaves. Racially mixed and proud of it, Creoles speak a fascinating and unique version of English: it sounds familiar at first, but it is not easily intelligible to a speaker of standard English.
In the 1780s, after much conflict, the Spanish and the British reached an agreement allowing Brits to cut logwood and mahogany in Belize. In return, Britain agreed to abandon the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. Thousands of settlers – many of African descent – migrated to Belize to work in the labor-intensive logging industry. After several generations of mixing with the loggers and other colonists, the Kriols became the most populous ethnic group in Belize.
Afro-Panamanians & Costa Ricans
In the second half of the 19th century, both Costa Rica and Panama undertook railroad construction projects to facilitate the transportation of produce and people. In Panama the goal was to move people across the isthmus and on to California during the gold rush. In Costa Rica the goal was to transport coffee from the dense interior to Puerto Limón, so it could be shipped out to the world. In both cases, construction laborers were recruited from around the Antilles (especially Jamaica).
Many of these Afro-descended laborers stayed on to work on the banana plantations that sprang up alongside the railroads. Because the plantations were US-owned, the workers had little contact with local Spanish-speaking populations, so they retained their customs and language. Today some 8% of the population in Costa Rica has African roots. Descended mainly from Jamaican workers, they are concentrated on the Caribbean Coast and most speak an English dialect.
In the early 20th century the French commenced construction of the Panama Canal and continued to import labor, bringing thousands of workers from the French Antilles. Some scholars estimate that around 20,000 Afro-Antilleans remained in Panama after the completion of the canal. Nowadays, Afro-Panamanians make up about 9.2% of the population.
In the 17th century, shipwrecked African slaves washed ashore on the Caribbean island of St Vincent. They hooked up with the indigenous population of Caribs and Arawaks and formed a whole new ethnicity, now known as the Garifuna (plural Garinagu). When St Vincent changed hands, the Garinagu were deported and shuffled around to various islands; their population dwindled until a small group finally arrived on the Honduran coast. From here, these people of mixed Native American and African heritage began to spread along the Caribbean coast of Central America.
Currently there are significant populations of Garifuna peoples in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala, with smaller numbers in Nicaragua. Many still speak the Garifuna language, which is a combination of Arawak and African languages. While the Garinagu make up a small percentage of the population (6% in Belize and 1% in Honduras) their cultural influence is disproportionately large. They have a strong sense of community and ritual, in which drumming and dancing play important roles. In 2001 Unesco declared Garifuna language, dance and music to be a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ – one of the first recipients of this honor, which is the cultural equivalent of the World Heritage list.