This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996

This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996

by Heather Vrana

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Between 1944 and 1996, Guatemala experienced a revolution, counterrevolution, and civil war. Playing a pivotal role within these national shifts were students from Guatemala’s only public university, the University of San Carlos (USAC). USAC students served in, advised, protested, and were later persecuted by the government, all while crafting a powerful student nationalism. In no other moment in Guatemalan history has the relationship between the university and the state been so mutable, yet so mutually formative. By showing how the very notion of the middle class in Guatemala emerged from these student movements, this book places an often-marginalized region and period at the center of histories of class, protest, and youth movements and provides an entirely new way to think about the role of universities and student bodies in the formation of liberal democracy throughout Latin America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520965720
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/03/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Heather Vrana is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida and the editor of Anti-Colonial Texts from Central American Student Movements 1929–1983.

Read an Excerpt

This City Belongs to You

A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996

By Heather Vrana


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96572-0


The Republic of Students, 1942–1952

We have weapons that our forebears did not want, or were unable or were unwilling to wield ... Three weapons that, well-used, can transform a group of guys ... into a formidable force, capable of opposing and overthrowing those with the bayonets. These three weapons are our youth, our intelligence, and our unity.

"The Escuilach Manifesto"

BANANAS — ON THE STALK, by the bunch, peeled, held aloft, all of them long Cavendish bananas grown for export by the United Fruit Company (UFCO) — formed the masthead of the No Nos Tientes in 1949. The anonymous artist was probably Mario López Larrave, a law student who drew most of the newspaper's cheeky cartoons for many decades. The letters offered a visual complement to the pages of tongue-in-cheek text that appeared below them. After an "N" made of Guatemalan bananas destined for North American stomachs, a portrait of Francisco Javier Arana formed the "O" of Nos and two interlocking sickles formed the "S." In April 1949, the young illustrator could not have known the prescience of his figures; rather, he drew from the anti-imperial spirit of the 1944 revolution that had been so crucial to his own academic and political formation. Within months, however, one member of the revolutionary junta would be assassinated and anticommunist hysteria would begin to ferment and, ultimately, alter the course of the nation.

López Larrave was just fifteen years old when M41 bulldog tanks closed in on the National Palace and finally deposed dictator Jorge Ubico y Castañeda (1931–1944). If school had not been cancelled, López Larrave and his classmates might have watched the action from the window of their classroom at the National Central Institute for Boys (INCV), just a few blocks away. Months earlier, a broad movement of university students, young military officers, teachers, workers, and women's organizations had forced Ubico to end his thirteen-year dictatorship. For as long as many could remember, the pleasures of daily life, like intellectual exchange, art, music, politics, and even social gatherings, had been strictly regulated. Ubico, an alumnus, even influenced the boys' INCV curriculum through his friendship with the school's principal. Protests continued while Ubico's handpicked successor, Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, remained in power. The city was seized by democratic fervor, inspired by Rooseveltian democracy and Central America's unique historical moment.

Seen from the windows of INCV, the National Palace was a symbol of Ubico's absolute power and utter decadence: an imposing baroque structure with a grand entryway, dozens of porticos, 350 rooms, numerous patios, and expansive hallways. Nearby, Guatemala's urban poor suffered under laws that demanded their labor for export production and infrastructure construction. The 1934 vagrancy law required all men who lacked an "adequate profession" or proof of landownership to work between 100 and 150 days on massive rural plantations. Another law required all men — except those who could pay a fee — to work for two weeks per year building and maintaining roads. In business and politics, Ubico promoted his friends and family while he limited the opportunities available to others. A growing number of professionals and military officers were unable to advance in the careers for which they had trained.

Outgoing, earnest, and generous, López Larrave was a leader among his peers at INCV. The political opening that came with Ubico's overthrow gave López Larrave's enthusiasm a certain direction. At INCV, he met an outspoken university student leader named Manuel Galich who replaced Ubico's crony as school principal. For the boys, Galich was larger than life. López Larrave's classmate Roberto Díaz Castillo remembered, "the first time I heard him ... the first time that his words — the Word of the revolution — shook that patio filled with adolescents who did not wear the military uniform, we saw in Galich our archetype of a popular hero." For López Larrave, Díaz Castillo, and others of their generation, the revolution offered opportunities that had been foreclosed for many decades.

This chapter begins with Galich, and then expands to examine the political, social, and economic changes brought by the Revolution and their impact on university students and faculty. Throughout, I emphasize how San Carlistas' debates over the meaning and practice of democracy reveal a particular understanding of cultural fitness as the engine of national progress. These conversations helped to define urban ladino intellectuals as they limited the civic participation of Guatemala's indigenous majority. Constitutional reforms extending the franchise, education and social welfare reforms, and university research on indigenous communities and poverty were notable moments when these discussions came to the fore. Simply put, universitarios saw themselves as the Guatemalans most fit to determine the direction of the nation even as they fiercely debated the role that the university ought to play in society. Both on campus and off, terms like patria and libertad came to signify society's most important qualities. Over time, this attitude became a signature of the Guatemalan middle class, as much as discretionary spending, leisure time, and social prestige in the community. For Guatemalans, as for other Latin Americans in the twentieth century, the middle class was celebrated as the key to a redemptive future, as it was critical to modern prosperity and a model of public virtue. During the revolutionary decade, discussions about the meaning and practice of democracy set the stage for the emergence of fierce anticommunist opposition and, soon, counterrevolution.

This chapter also captures some of the texture of daily student life in the 1940s. Student newspapers that printed satire, silly jokes, song lyrics, and comics remind us that in addition to adeptly discussing matters of state, San Carlistas were also pretty funny. Memoirs also fill in some detail — the elation of boyhood, teenage levity, and the self-consciousness of one's later adult years — in a period that has left relatively little to the archival record. Much of this chapter draws on Del pánico al ataque by Manuel Galich. Galich published his memoir in 1949, five years after the success of the revolution and five years before counterrevolutionary forces would depose Jacobo Arbenz, who had not yet been elected. Like so many memoirs, it is uncritically inflected with triumphal hindsight. Galich presents himself and his friends as unified underdogs chasing fate, even as their diverse paths after the revolution are enough to call this unity into question. Nevertheless, the text offers insight into the hopes, dreams, and flaws of Galich's generation. His nostalgic playfulness evokes the spirit of student nationalism.

In the first years of the Revolution, universitarios built a sense of fraternity, a political kinship, defined by affinities and exclusions. Women were important to the young men as wives, sisters, cleaners, cooks, and secretaries, but they were rarely classmates. Although women had attended the university since the 1920s, they were denied the fellowship and opportunities of male students. Likewise, indigenous students had never been excluded from the university, but they usually appeared in student papers as objects of ridicule or patronizing care because of their presumed lack of education. The impact of these exclusions expanded as the university's influence over urban life extended. The reformed Constitution of 1945 bestowed new rights and responsibilities upon the whole education system. Teachers and students were to protect and expand culture, promote ethnic improvement ("promover el mejoramiento étnico"), and supervise civic and moral formation; in effect, to make the people fit for self-government.


President Ubico lived and ruled in the manner of his idol, Napoleon Bonaparte. He dressed exclusively in military regalia, enjoyed motorcycle tours of the countryside and city, and hosted opulent dinners. Famously unpredictable, Ubico threw vicious tantrums as regularly as he threw galas. Politics at all levels operated under his control. Ministerial appointments reflected the interests of wealthy landowners, foreign investors, and Ubico's friends and allies. At the local and regional level, Ubico eliminated challenges to his authority by hand-selecting intendentes to replace elected mayors in towns nationwide. Lest these intendentes become loyal to their communities, Ubico regularly moved them from place to place. Even Ubico's nominally beneficent labor reform, which replaced debt peonage with vagrancy laws, empowered intendentes. The extraction of labor from poor men and women was crucial in years when global economic depression drove coffee prices so low that the commodity was scarcely profitable to produce and difficult to sell abroad. At the same time, Ubico deftly allied poor ladino and indigenous citizens to his government through powerful discourses of nation making and progress. Within the Army, Ubico based promotions on loyalty rather than competence. Over time, the officer class grew to resent these appointments and their incompetent superiors. Those who offended Ubico were punished and those who praised him lived well. These limitations paired with economic and infrastructural growth created the conditions for growing antipathy toward Ubico's rule, especially among a small group of educated urban professionals and Army officers.

The only sector that escaped Ubico's punishing hand was Guatemala's agricultural elite, especially UFCO, a Boston-based company formed in the last decades of the nineteenth century by the merger of banana production, distribution, and communication networks. UFCO agreed to build infrastructure in exchange for enormous land grants and preferential treatment: the company that would control one-third of the world's banana trade by the 1950s paid very little in taxes to the Guatemalan government and was permitted to manage its workers with impunity. Of course, growth in export production and distribution networks required a large and skillful middle class. Huge companies required managers to organize workers, accountants to administer finances, lawyers to provide legal counsel and oversee contracts, and engineers to implement technical innovations. Dangerous plantations needed doctors and nurses to staff their hospitals and clinics. Supply shops required more accountants and managers. Children required schoolteachers.

Ubico adapted the National University to fulfill these needs. Like rural banana plantations, the urban university that churned out credentialed graduates was called "the decadent factory of profesionalistas." This description of the university as factory is especially grim given Guatemala's bleak labor landscape. Yet if the university was a decadent factory, it was so only for those who went along with the boss. Early in his presidency, Ubico granted himself control over the highest governing body at the university, the University High Council (CSU). From this position, he personally supervised all aspects of university life, including the very comportment of students and professors. Behavior and character became important parts of the curriculum. The institution was transformed from a center for scientific investigation and professional formation to a school of good manners. Galich, then a student, wrote that Ubico "wanted to form the minds of all Guatemalans ... from philosophy to saddlery, and including science, law, ethics, economy, [and] motorcycling." He joked that Ubico saw himself as "a walking encyclopedia with epaulets."

The belief that the university ought to stay out of national politics governed university affairs. As in other areas of government, Ubico hand-selected the university's rector, deans, and secretaries for their allegiance rather than their proficiency. Deans were rarely experts in the fields that they advised, even though they made hiring and curriculum decisions. The rector retained final say over any faculty hires, but that position was also a presidential appointment. Faculty who opposed Ubico stood little chance of success. Ubico isolated the National University from other Latin American universities, despite interest in international student federations since the 1920s and more recent initiatives by students and faculty to unify Central American courses of study. Outside influence was suspect. In his memoir, Galich evoked the "suspicious grunt of the police chiefs when one asked permission to organize a conference, to receive an illustrious houseguest, [or] to form an indigenous institute," even, he added, "to play chess ... to coordinate an athletic tournament, to go to a library to read silently."

In early 1942, students from the Faculty of Law began to circulate critiques of the government in newspapers and pamphlets. Many of these statements were loosely transcribed in Galich's memoir. The group criticized how the intellectual sector "has frequently been in the service of the dictator, of the autocracy" and "other times it has been rashly divided by differences in caste, religious convictions, by conflicting personal interests." The young men warned of the danger of this disunity that left academics vulnerable to the power of despots. The group itself included brothers Mario and Julio Cesar Méndez Montenegro, Hiram Ordóñez, Manuel María Ávila Ayala, Heriberto Robles, Antonio Reyes Cardona, José Luis Bocaletti, José Manuel Fortuny, Alfonso Bauer Paíz, and Arturo Yaquian Otero. Most of these young men came from similar backgrounds: they were born or had spent most of their lives in the capital city and lived with parents who could afford expensive preparatory schooling for their sons. Ávila Ayala was different. He was about ten years older than his colleagues and was from Jalapa. Despite being a distinguished student, he never achieved the title of Licenciado, so valued in Guatemalan society. His bachillerato degree only certified him to teach handwriting and calligraphy. Like Ávila Ayala, Fortuny was also from the periphery and never graduated with a law degree. Instead, he quit school and worked for a North American business, Sterling Company. By contrast, Bauer Paíz, one of the youngest of the group, graduated from university by the end of 1942. He had attended the especially elite Colegio Preparatorio, unlike his fellows who had mostly attended the INCV. Mario Méndez Montenegro and Ordóñez had studied abroad. None of these young men were indigenous and most claimed some European ancestry. Most had been friends before university, like Bauer Paíz and Yaquian Otero who ran and lifted weights together because they wanted to lose weight before starting college.

These young men who studied, ate, drank, and worked out together began to expand their conversations beyond the classroom by 1942. They called themselves the escuilaches, a term that lacks a singular history. It may be a reference to Spanish anti-French riots in 1766 or a pun on esquilar (to shear) and esquilador (sheep-shearer). The escuilaches were young men who wanted to shear the wool that Ubico had pulled over the eyes of the Guatemalan people. In any case, the escuilaches and their classmates were heirs to the political culture that celebrated the university's role in Guatemalan political life that I outlined in the Introduction.

However, this history was discordant with their lives in Ubico's Guatemala. At first, the escuilaches limited their critiques to the university administration. They denounced the appointment of ignorant deans and the dismissal of skilled faculty. They decried the lack of intellectual freedom. Soon they linked these grievances to national political and economic circumstances. They equated the university's reigning principle of apoliticism to global fascism and blamed apolitical intellectuals for both world wars, arguing that a just society depended on an active university.

In the middle of the night on May 15, 1942, the escuilaches snuck into the offices of the Third Court of the First Instance, the former home of President José María Reyna Barrios (1892–1898). They gathered to read what Galich calls in his memoir, "The Escuilach Manifesto." In a romantic passage, Galich recounts the "dim azure light" of the moon where the young men realized their potential: "We have weapons that our forebears did not want, or were unable or were unwilling to wield ... Three weapons that, well-used, can transform a group of guys ... into a formidable force, capable of opposing and overthrowing those with bayonets. These three weapons are our youth, our intelligence, and our unity." Galich's reverence and hindsight intensifies the intoxicating promise of the moment.


Excerpted from This City Belongs to You by Heather Vrana. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

Introduction: “Do Not Mess with Us!”
1 • The Republic of Students, 1942–1952
2 • Showcase for Democracy, 1953–1957
3 • A Manner of Feeling, 1958–1962
4 • Go Forth and Teach All, 1963–1977
5 • Combatants for the Common Cause, 1976–1978
6 • Student Nationalism without a Government, 1977–1980
Coda: “Ahí van los estudiantes!” 1980–Present


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