The Development of Children’s Understanding of Race in Guatemala

Collaboration between CIRP member Stephen Quintana and Yetilu de Baessa in Guatemala has provided a critical perspective and point of contrast to expand our understanding of how children develop in the U.S. and Guatemala in their understanding of and attitudes toward race.

By Stephen Quintana, PhD

CIRP member Stephen Quintana describes an ongoing research collaboration with a colleague in Guatemala.

International collaborations can be very rewarding, stimulating, and challenging.  The increase of international research and the enhanced understanding that it brings is exciting. My most productive international collaboration has been with a colleague, Yetilu de Baessa in Guatemala. It all started when I received an email from her about 12 years ago.  She had been asked to investigate the ethnic self-esteem of Indígena or Mayan-descended children. Guatemala was embroiled in what had been the longest civil war in Latin America. The war was fought along racial lines with the minority government made up of Ladinos or European-descent population battling Indígena guerrillas. Professor de Baessa contacted me because I had been investigating the development of children’s understanding of race in the United States and wondered if my model could be applied to investigate if Indígena children could develop racial self-esteem in the context of a long-standing hegemony, including pervasive poverty.  Thus began a long and productive collaboration. 

Early Studies, New Insights
Our first study involved investigating Indígena children’s thoughts and attitudes toward their own and Ladino racial groups. We integrated open-ended interviewing with a popular forced-choice measure of children’s racial attitudes that had been used in one form or another in international contexts since the 1960s. What we found was, by U.S. standards, highly disturbing. The Indígena children’s responses suggested they had internalized an intensely negative view of themselves. The terms they used to describe their own racial group included ugly, useless, dirty, stupid, but they viewed the Ladinos with opposite terms. It is important to note that these were explicit self-attitudes, not the subtle implicit attitudes that are often required in order to access more negative inter-racial and intra-racial attitudes in the United States. This degree of negativity had not been observed in the United States since its Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Another intriguing cross-cultural difference we noticed was in the children’s definition of race and racial descriptors. In Guatemala, we found that racial groups were defined by lifestyle patterns. Indígena children opined that a person could change racial group from Indígena to Ladino by changing his or her way of life. In sharp contrast, children in the United States viewed racial differences as genetic or immutable. These patterns may provide insight into different racial dynamics in the U.S. and Guatemala. 

From a personal point of view, I was intrigued by the difficulty I had in initially differentiating the two racial groups in Guatemala based on physical features—this is in contrast to young Guatemalan children who could reliably distinguish between the two groups at an early age. From this experience, I wondered if in each society we are socialized to believe that physical differences between racial groups are more apparent than they may be to untrained outsiders. Taken together, these cross-cultural differences provide a compelling perspective to understand racial and ethnic group differences within the United States. 

Continuing Work
Over the years, Dr. de Baessa and I have been able to extend this early research.  Fortuitously we were able to administer similar research instruments after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords of 1996, ending Guatemala’s civil war. We could, therefore, compare responses prior to and subsequent to the Peace Accords. We found a general trend toward children proceeding through the developmental levels of racial understanding more quickly subsequent to the Oslo accords than before. In particular, in the latter cohort we observed more frequently an important developmental milestone in children’s’ understanding of race. Namely, children develop the ability to assume a social perspective on race, or to see themselves or their racial group through others’ eyes. The development of a social perspective of race allows the children to separate others’ perspectives of their racial group from their own perspectives. This separation of different perspectives help children understand that the stigmatizing view of them was not an objective truth about their group but was a subjective particular perspective. This realization of the subjectivity of racial bias is one of the first steps toward the development of critical consciousness. 

We were also able to explore the development of racial attitudes for the Ladinos. Not surprisingly, the Ladinos attributed most of the positive adjectives toward themselves and most of the negative descriptors toward the Indígenas. Interestingly, the only positive adjective that was attributed more frequently to the Indígenas was ‘hard-working.’ We found strong gender differences with girls having more favorable views of Indígenas, compared to boys who had overwhelmingly negative inter-racial attitudes. It is important to note that much of the negative attitude toward Indígenas was a function of Ladino’s ethnocentrism rather than overt hostility and negativity toward the Indígenas. Finally, we also investigated Ladinos who had been exposed to a group of Indígenas who had attained greater economic parity with their neighbors. The Ladinos in this sociocultural context generally had more favorable attitudes toward their Indígena peers. Importantly, these Ladinos demonstrated greater awareness of the historical bias toward Indígenas than was demonstrated by Ladinos in other contexts in which there was greater economic disparity between Ladinos and Indígenas. 

Collaboration over Time
The latest development in our international collaboration has been its extension to students. Over the past several years, several of my students have received funding to conduct research in Guatemala with Dr. de Baessa. The students found this experience as being among the most rewarding of their graduate careers. 

In what had started as a simple email contact has spawned a productive and rewarding decade-long collaboration. The collaboration has imported some methods, instrumentation and theoretical perspectives to Guatemala and has provided very interesting contexts with which to test out the cross-cultural validity of some domestic models. Most importantly, it has provided a critical perspective and point of contrast to expand our understanding of how children develop in the U.S. and Guatemala in their understanding of and attitudes toward race. Ψ