National Geographic : 1988 Jun
highlands in 1524, bent on conquest. Combin ing bravery, ruthlessness, and duplicity, he deftly played the rival Indian tribes against one another. A decisive victory came in battle against the massed warriors of the Quiche tribe at a river in western Guatemala that they afterward came to call the "river of blood." Nearby, legend says, Alvarado faced the great Quiche leader Tecun Uman in hand-to-hand combat. Only one man walked away, and it was not Tectin Uman. The effects of that conquest remain. Some 55 percent of Guatemalans are pure Indian, only 0.5 percent pure European, and almost 45 percent mestizo, a mixture of Indian and European stock. But racial distinctions matter less than cultural ones. The word ladino was coined to describe anyone who has become "Latinized," adopting Western clothing, mo res, and ideas, regardless of whether he is racially Indian or mestizo. Thus the word In dian can be a tricky one in Guatemala, mean ing, according to its context, someone who thinks and acts like an Indian or merely some one who is of Indian stock. Complicating this etiquette still further, some Guatemalans of European ancestry will take offense if called ladinos, reasoning that because they were born to their Western ways, there is nothing for them to have been Latinized from. FOR SEVEN WEEKS I traveled the length and breadth of Guatemala, visiting 20 of its 22 departments, trying to under stand the character of the place and learn where it was headed. I met farm workers and coffee planters, shop foremen and indus trialists, bishops and country priests, soldiers and scholars. Everywhere, I encountered the unexpected.