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By Don Moore

The following article is part two of a term paper for a Graduate class in Socio-Linguistics at Ohio University in the Spring of 1989. It has not been published.



Because Guatemala is an underdeveloped Third World country, mass communications and the media take on quite different roles than, for example, in the United States. Television coverage is limited, and its audience generally consists of upper and middle class people in Guatemala City and other principal towns. Television signals do not reach the mountainous rural areas where most of the country's peasantry live. Guatemala's newspapers, which are exclusively in Spanish, are likewise only available in the larger cities and towns. Besides, a newspaper is of little use to an illiterate or semiliterate peasant.

Radio is the only means of mass communication that can effectively tie rural Guatemala to the rest of the world. "Radio is, in fact, so ubiquitous that batteries are price controlled by the government as 'essential items' along with food" (Simon 1987 191). Guatemala's radio broadcasting system is one of the most developed in Central America. From a sociolinguistic standpoint, however, what is interesting is how closely the Guatemalan radio broadcasting scene reflects language attitudes and realities in the country.

Guatemala's radio stations can be divided into three categories, based on ownership. Most numerous are privately owned commercial stations, which broadcast on AM, and occasionally FM. Commercial broadcasting on shortwave is prohibited in Guatemala. A large percentage of Guatemala's commercial stations are located in the capital city. The remainder are located in departmental capitals and a few other principal large towns (Sennitt, 1989). Since starting a radio station requires an extensive capital outlay, it can be assumed that most, if not all, station owners are well-off Ladinos.

But how do they tie into Guatemala's language situation? Based on my own extensive monitoring of Guatemalan radio while living three years in nearby Honduras and on several trips to Guatemala, and on observations made by members of the Guatemala DX Club in Guatemala City, only one commercial station in the entire country uses an Indian language in its broadcasts! (Moore, 1989b). True, commercial stations in Guatemala City and regions where Indian languages are not spoken, or not widely spoken, would not be expected to broadcast in Indian languages. However, there are numerous stations in the departmental capitals and principal towns in the highland Indian country. True, the Indians are the poorest members of society, and hence of less potential interest to advertisers. However, their large numbers do give them some purchasing clout. I can not help but think of how it is the Indian who is always served last in a store. It seems as if that prejudice towards the Indian has carried over to commercial broadcasting, in regards to his language.

The second category of stations is those owned by religious organizations, principally the Catholic Church and various Evangelist churches and missions. In order to reach remote mountain villages, these stations make extensive use of shortwave, but also use AM and FM in a few cases. What is special about the church stations is their use of Indian languages in rural radio since the very beginning, in 1962. Every few years one or the other church adds a new station, and with all of Guatemala's Indian languages, there's plenty of room for more (Moore, 1989b).

Presently, the Catholic Church operates seven rural Indian radio stations. The group which gets the most attention is the Quiches, who, as mentioned above, are the largest indigenous group in Guatemala. There are two AM stations using their language, La Voz de Colomba and Radio Quiche. The third Quiche station, La Voz de Nahuala uses shortwave (Moore, 1983, 1989b). Simon points out that in the 1960s Catholics distributed free radios in a Quiche area "permanently tuned to a Catholic radio station" (Simon 1987 40). This assumedly would have been La Voz de Nahuala, the first Catholic station.As there is no Catholic station for the Cakchiquel Indians, La Voz de Nahuala also broadcasts in that language a few hours a day, Monday to Friday (on weekends the Cakchiquel staff goes home to see their families!) (Moore, 1983, 1989b).

The two other major language groups, the Mam and the Kekchi, are also served by the Catholic church, through Radio Mam and Radio Tezulutlan, respectively. Additionally, there are two Catholic stations broadcasting in lesser Indian languages which bear looking into.

In the eastern town of Jocotan, Belgian and West German Catholics have been supporting shortwave Radio Chortis for years. As the station name implies, Jocotan is the center of the Chorti Indian culture. However, the station only broadcasts in Chorti for one hour a day, three days a week. The remainder of the broadcasts are in Spanish (Moore, 1983, 1989b). Although this initially seems surprising, it is not in light of Stewart's claim that the Chorti Indians are almost totally bilingual. By broadcasting mainly in Spanish, the station can also reach Ladino peasants in neighboring departments. In fact, they receive significant amounts of listener mail from Ladinos in neighboring departments (Moore, 1983).

The last Catholic station is La Voz de Atitlan, which broadcasts in the Tzutuhil language from Santiago Atitlan on the south shore of Lake Atitlan (Moore, 1983). This station is very active in promoting the social welfare of the Indians, and championing their rights in the dominant Ladino culture. Perhaps it was too active. On October 24, 1980, station director Gaspar Culan was kidnapped, tortured and killed by a right wing death squad. A few days later the station was attacked, its equipment smashed, and its files stolen (Rooney & Isaacson, 1981). Since then the station has had an on-again/off-again history, being prohibited from broadcasting by the military for months on end, then permitted to return at a reduced schedule (Moore, 1983, 1989b). During my 1987 visit to the station, the station was prohibited from broadcasting in the mornings, but was allowed on the air for a few hours each evening. The current director noted the Ladinos who are in charge of the local military garrison don't understand Tzutuhil. They are distrustful of that which they don't understand, and tend to assume it's subversive.

The Evangelists have not been as quick to use radio to reach the rural Indians as have the Catholics. There are only three Evangelist stations, and although the first one came on the air in 1962, the other two only appeared in the past two years. The original evangelist station, Radio Maya de Barillas broadcasts to the small Kanjobel population of northern Huehuetenango department, and also carries some Mam programs (Moore, 1988). There are also unconfirmed reports that it uses some other less spoken languages of the region, such as Chuj and Ixil.

More recently, in 1987, the evangelists gave the Mam Indians their own station by founding Radio Buenas Nuevas. Soon after, Radio Kekchi came on the air for the Kekchi Indians (Moore, 1988). It is interesting that these stations are directly challenging Catholic stations Radio Mam and Radio Tezulutlan for listeners (Moore, 1989b).

As a side note, it is worth mentioning yet another evangelist station, TGN Radio Cultural. Since its founding in the early 1950s, this station has served the Spanish speaking community around Guatemala City. A few years ago however, the station took note of the increasing number of Indian immigrants to the capital city. Because of that, morning broadcasts were added from 4:30- 6:00 am, in the four main Indian languages.

Finally, the government also has its place in the Guatemalan radio broadcasting scene. It owns and operates TGW, La Voz de Guatemala in Guatemala City, on AM, FM and occasionally shortwave. There are affiliate stations to TGW in a few of the principal towns. TGW exclusively broadcasts in Spanish. In fact, when I questioned the station's program director as to whether or not they used Indian languages, he looked as surprised by the question as if I had asked him if they broadcast in Hungarian.

In summary, Guatemalan radio reflects the country's linguistic situation in that both commercial and government stations - those controlled by Ladinos - ignore the Indian population. Their attitude seems to be 'if the Indians want to listen, let them listen in Spanish', which is not unlike their attitude towards educating the Indians.

On the other hand, both the Catholic church and the Protestant evangelist missionaries have been very open to using radio to broadcast to the Indian peasants. This is not surprising, considering their early interest in bilingual education for the Indians. It should be noted that in neither religion's case do the stations broadcast religion exclusively. Much of the broadcast day is given over to health and education programs, and to local music (Moore, 1983, 1988, 1989b).


To put the Guatemalan sociolinguistic situation and its manifestation in radio broadcasting in perspective, I feel it is useful to briefly examine Peru and Bolivia, two other Latin American countries with large Indian populations.

Peru has about three-and-a-half million Quechua speakers out of a total population of seventeen million. In addition there are about half-a-million Aymara speakers. Although their numbers are small, compared to the total population, the Indians are concentrated in five southern mountain departments, where they make up as much as ninety percent of the population. Over half of Bolivia's 5.2 million population are Indians, about equally divided between Quechuas and Aymaras. As in Guatemala, the Indians of Peru and Bolivia were subdued by the Spanish and then relegated to the roles of peasants at the bottom end of society.

However, there is a major difference between Guatemala, on the one hand, and Peru and Bolivia on the other hand. Both of the latter countries have had governments which have taken a positive approach to bilingual education and language planning. The Indians and peasants of Bolivia began receiving a more active role in the government since that country's 1952 revolution. In Peru, serious attention was given to the peasants after a leftwing military coup in 1969. Although other governments have come and gone in the interim in both cases, what was started could not be stopped.

Bilingual education has been at the forefront of both countries' policies. In recent years "there has been a tradition of positive government policy towards bilingual education programmes in Andean Latin America" (Minaya-Rowe,1986, 468), and moreover, the aim of these programs "as officially stated, is not to produce a nation of monolingual Spanish speakers, but rather one of bilingual Spanish-Quechua speakers" (Minaya- Rowe, 1986, 475). Bolivia's education system uses "a bilingual approach which will educate its adult population, allowing them to retain their own languages and cultures, while at the same time providing the opportunity to learn Spanish (Stark, 1985, p541). Peru designed its bilingual education program "to draw the indigenous groups into the Peruvian mainstream efficiently and with respect shown to their language and culture" (Hornberger, 1987, 206).

Both countries have even gone a step further. In 1975, Quechua was made an official language of Peru (Escobar 1981, Hornberger 1987), which even included the teaching of Quechua to Spanish speakers. Similarly, both Quechua and Aymara were made official languages, coequal to Spanish, in Bolivia (Minaya-Rowe, 1986). One of the manifestations of giving official status was "the use of both Quechua or Aymara and Spanish on (the) radio" (Minaya-Rowe, 1986). There are, in fact, some great differances between these countries and Guatemala in regards to the use of Indian languages in radio broadcasting.

Both countries, like Guatemala, have Catholic and Protestant stations that use Indian languages (Ballon, 1987; Fontenelle, 1985; Gavilan, 1983; Moore, 1985; Oros, 1987; Perry, 1982; Povrzenic, 1987b, 1987c). But what about privately owned commercial stations? In the Andean highlands of southern and central Peru, there are at least several commercial stations known to broadcast in Quechua and/or Aymara, in addition to Spanish (Hirahara & Inoue, 1984a, 1984b; Llorens and Tamayo, 1987; Povrzenic, 1987a, 1987b). These include at least one member of the Cadena de Emisoras Cruz, one of Peru's largest radio networks (Hirahara & Inoue, 1984a). In addition, Peru's most powerful commercial radio broadcaster, Radio Union in Lima, has an hour long program in Quechua every morning (Hirahara, 1981; Montoya, 1987). Likewise, in Bolivia commercial broadcasters are known to broadcast in indigenous languages (Gwyn, 1983; La Defensa, 1986; Povrzenic, 1983).

What is most significant, though, is that in both cases the official government stations have added Indian language broadcasts. Peru's Radio Nacional broadcasts in both Quechua and Aymara (Povrzenic, 1987a), as does Bolivia's Radio Illimani (Moore, 1985). In fact, the Peruvian government went a step further in 1988 when they renamed Radio Nacional with the Quechua name Radio Pachicutec (Klemetz, 1989).

In summary, the sociolinguistic situation in Peru and Bolivia is markedly different from that in Guatemala, although all three share Spanish as a dominant language over various native languages. The difference, though is that in Peru and Bolivia, efforts have been made not only to preserve, but to give status to the native languages. Furthermore, the status of native languages in the two countries is reflected in their use by all levels of radiobroadcasting in each country; private, religious, and governmental.


At first sight, the language situation on Guatemalan radio broadcasting would seem somewhat excusable; after all, the Indians are on the margins of society and Spanish is the country's official language. Yet, comparison with Peru and Bolivia shows that those barriers can be overcome. In the end, the low use of Indian languages on Guatemalan radio is, more than anything, a reflection of that country's extremely polarized society, which is divided basically by language.

The low use of Indian languages on Guatemalan radio is unfortunate, in that radio broadcasts can help preserve languages. For example, radio broadcasts are one of several reasons that Quechua will be maintained in Southern Peru (Hornberger, 1987). Indeed, Tujab recognizes that when she calls for the establishment of government stations to broadcast in the various Guatemalan indigenous languages (Tujab, 1987a). Of course, the religious stations in Guatemala have done a remarkable job of using indigenous languages on the air. But certainly the Indians would feel that their cultures and languages are much more an integral part of Guatemalan society if their languages were used by all types of Guatemalan broadcasters.

In fact, it is the ignoring of the Indian languages by the government station, La Voz de Guatemala, that is most significant. Here is the official voice of a national government which ignores the native languages of over half its population. An in-depth analysis of the 1989 World Radio TV Handbook confirms that this statistic is matched by no other country on earth. Indeed, although specific data on some African countries is hard to come by, it would seem reasonable to state that no other country even ignores as much as twenty percent of its population. Perhaps more than anything else, this statistic demonstrates the view of the Guatemalan government and the Ladino society it represents towards the country's indigenous languages and people.

Part Three: Bibliography

Part One: Background on the Sociolinguistics of Guatemalan Indigenous Languages


The above article is copyright 1989 by Don Moore.

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