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Culture in Livingston Guatemala

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LIVINGSTON, Guatemala- Livingston is a little city on the eastern fringes of Guatemala which sites at the end of the Rio Dulce on the brink of the Caribbean Sea. No inter regional roads go there. All transport in and out is by boat only. The people are a mix of Black Garifuna, the descendents of escaped slaves, and Mayans. These two groups have lived side by side for years, though the communities — as well as the gene pool — seem to remain very distinct and separate entities.

I once looked at a John Yates print that said “Proximity does not guarantee intimacy” and it had a picture of a Miami-esque apartment highrise complex. Though this quote can be taken to represent how separate communities in this world interact with each other: just because two culturally distinct groups live side by side does not mean that they intermix very much: proximity does not guarantee intimacy.

Cultures seem to have mechanisms for preserving themselves in the face of diversity. The melting pot theory of cultural assimilation is a myth: the closer two groups live near each other the more pronounced their differences will become. The more two distinctly separate cultural entities interact with each other the more the walls of what makes them unique from each other will rise to the surface.

As I walked through the streets of Livingston, a pattern became very clear: the downtown area is a mix of black Garifuna and Maya people, but the residential areas around the city are more or less segregated: on one half of town the Garifuna live, on the other the Maya. In the commercial center of Livingston everybody is all mixed together in a melee of dreadlocks, hand woven pink and purple skirts, gold teeth, tight booty shorts, coquettish white blouses, dangly earrings, long black braids, and afros. The various groups interact with each other, do business, eat at the same places. Though in the residential parts of town a member of one group in the opposing community stands out in the landscape.

These people have lived side by side in some form for more or less 200 years, yet the cultural blending seems to have been relatively tame.

The gene pools also seem to have remained largely intact. This is easy to observe: black people and Mayans have very different physiognomic features, it is overly obvious who is from what group just by looking at them. From my brief pedestrian observations, it is clear that some people are of mixed racial heritage — the Garifuna themselves are a racially mixed ethnic group being “76% Sub Saharan African, 20% Arawak/ Carib, and 4% European” (Wiki) — but, for the most part in Central America, the Maya and Garifuna still physically appear overwhelmingly distinct. They have been living near each other for about 200 years, yet seem to have only sparsely interbred.

This is normal. Where cultures live side by side, they tend to remain side by side without much overlap. Cultures steal technologies, ideas, and material objects from each other, but they do not seem to readily intermix — identity is perhaps the most precious aspect a culture can claim for itself.

It is interesting to observe how individuals can flutter between groups, cultures, tribes, but the communities that they enter and leave stay ethnically separate. Cultures only loose their distinction when they are reduced to their lowest common denominator: the individual. If the waves of European immigrants stayed in their sub-divided sectors upon arrival in the Americas, then USA culture probably would never have fluxed through periods of intercultural blending. It seems to be only where the idea of culture and group affiliation is diluted — such as individuals traveling away from home in search of work, land, trade — that cultures will blend.

Traveling is the great stripper of cultural identity, those who leave their communities often do not return — they intermix. Those who stay, remain the same.

Groups living side by side seem to remain very distinct, even if it is just a street that separates them. Humans seem to have a drive towards exclusivism — insider/ outsider dichotomies — we need to know where everyone stands. Cultures grow, change, adapt, but the tribal lines tend to remain very thick. When two distinct cultures are placed side by side, they will often stay distinct, they will not blend, grow together, mix — the lines around their communities will thicken, you are over here, they are over there.

Proximity does not guarantee intimacy, even today. New York City is still a very segregated place, my hometown of Buffalo, NY was once one of the more ethnically divided cities on the planet, the people of the Balkans often intermix and intermarry, but, as the recent wars have shown, ethnic distinctions remain drawn with very solid lines, and in Livingston, Guatemala, you can walk down one street and think the town is all black, just to walk down another and come away with the impression that you are in a place full of Maya farmers.

Humans are tribal creatures, we possess the biological instruments for identifying our kind, and acting along the lines of such to claim and maintain our idea of self as seen through the lens of community. Proximity does not guarantee intimacy, where culturally distinct groups live side by side they will often remain side by side.

Garifuna boys in Livingston

Mother and child in Livingston, Guatemala.

Maya girl in Livingston, Guatemala.

Garifuna man.

I don’t know what ethnic group these people are from, but they live near the Maya side of town.

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Guatemala

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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