Some Guatemalan Cultural Firsts

Guatemala is home to many surprising precedents, for better or worse.

Guatemala is the oldest country in the Americas, though not the oldest republic. Civilization, kindled here some 43 centuries ago, is Guatemala’s loftiest precedent.

Ancient Guatemalans were the first peoples in the Americas known to engineer a sophisticated water-pressure system. They may have been the first in the world to invent the zero, a concept unknown to such contemporaries as the Romans. Agricultural husbandry was practiced here before anywhere else in the Americas.

In the late classical period, ancient Guatemalans erected the first arguable “skyscrapers” in the Americas. Not until over 1,000 years later was the height of Temple IV (71 meters) exceeded—and that by a modern building in Chicago, circa 1880.

Following the 1944 Liberal Revolution, Guatemala became the first, and to date the only, Central American state to see the emergence of a “nation builder,” a leader with the stature of a Mandela, a Gandhi, or an Ataturk. He was President Juan José Arrévalo.

Under Arrévalo’s successor, Jacobo Árbenz, the first truly comprehensive land reform on mainland Latin America occurred in Guatemala; President Árbenz himself willingly surrendered land to landless peasants.

In 1871, Guatemala became the first Central American society to eschew state religion. Over the second half of the 20th century, Guatemala became the first Hispanic nation where the majority of the population professes the Protestant religion.

Peru, Bolivia and other South American countries had long given official status to indigenous languages. But in 1998, Guatemala became the first Central American country to constitutionally recognize the first language of virtually every citizen.

Guatemala is the first Latin American state to boast Nobel laureates in multiple disciplines. There are Miguel Ángel Asturias (literature) and Rigoberta Menchú (peace).

In the early 21st century, Guatemala is the first Hispanic country to produce a comprehensive homeschool curriculum (see page 12). This happened in spite of Guatemala’s ranking as the second least developed Hispanic nation (after Equatorial Guinea), and the association of homeschooling with highly developed countries.

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