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Researching the COVID-19 Pandemic Experience in Guatemala

A local fisherman in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Image courtesy of iStockphoto.

By Dr. Kristin Drexler
Faculty Member, School of STEM

and Dr. Michelle Watts
Assistant Department Chair, School of Security and Global Studies

Recently, we concluded our 2023 field research in Central America, visiting Panajachel and San Jorge village at Lago Atitlan (Lake Atitlan) in the highlands of Guatemala. Our research, supported by University grants in 2022 and 2023, is called “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experiences of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.” We recently presented preliminary findings of this research at the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (SECOLAS) conference in Antigua Guatemala in late March.

Our COVID-19 research examines a variety of COVID-19 impacts to Indigenous communities. In 2022, we conducted interviews in the Metlakatla Indian Community in southeast Alaska and in Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico to gauge how the community’s residents had responded to the pandemic. This year, we continued our research in San Antonio Village, Belize, and San Jorge la Laguna and Panajachel in Guatemala.

Kristi’s “office” at Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

We conducted approximately 10 group interviews facilitated by the Fundación Familia Maya, more commonly known as Fundamaya, in March. Fundamaya is an organization serving Indigenous communities in Panajachel and surrounding areas. Dr. Kate Brannum, the Chair for the Department of Global Security, and Michelle have worked with Fundamaya for several years. 

Dr. Brannum has recruited many people to become a part of this organization. This nonprofit has helped hundreds of Indigenous children attend school; it also assists with helping people obtain healthcare, supporting the elderly and helping countless stray dogs in Panajachel, Guatemala. Many credit Fundamaya with their survival during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

San Jorge Village and Panajachel, Guatemala

Aldea San Jorge La Laguna is a small village in the Guatemalan highlands in the department of Sololá. The community consists primarily of Maya Kaqchikel families and has approximately 3,800 inhabitants, according to Mapcarta. In contrast, Panajachel, a usually thriving tourist destination, was estimated to have over 16,000 occupants in 2022, according to City Population.

Our research team was very interested in hearing the differences in how a small community and a much larger city coped with COVID-19. 

Michelle with a group of interviewees in Panajachel, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.
Michelle and Kristi with some of the interviewees. Image courtesy of Fundamaya staff.

Conducting Our COVID-19 Pandemic Research in Guatemala

In Guatemala, we interviewed residents about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives. Our interviewees included the current mayor and council members of San Jorge La Laguna, members of the neighborhood councils called Consejos Comunitarios de Desarrollo Urbano y Rural (COCODE), and women’s groups, as well as teachers,  environmental workers, medical professionals, and cemetery workers. 

Kristi conducts interviews with local residents in San Jorge La Laguna, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Michelle Watts.

Our interview data will be used to understand community perceptions on health, social and cultural practices, livelihoods, the environment, governance, and education. The information we received will shed light on how those areas connect to civil society, collective action, socio-ecological system changes and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michelle interviews members of the Panajachel community at the Fundamaya office. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.
Michelle interviews a local resident about his COVID-19 pandemic experience. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

The benefit of this study, according to Michelle, is “to give voice to the lived experiences of Indigenous communities and how they have managed a global pandemic in their respective communities.” Our interview subjects explained how they coped during the COVID-19 pandemic, often with dangerously few resources. 

Kristi and a local firefighter she interviewed at the Fundamaya office. Image courtesy of Michelle Watts.

The hardship that many of the community members experienced is striking compared to what people went through in the United States. While many of the social impacts were similar, many of our respondents had a much harder time obtaining food, medicine and COVID-19 vaccines. For many who worked in tourist-related industries – such as selling goods in the street or stores, working in restaurants, fishing or driving vehicles – work was virtually impossible for about a year during the pandemic.

Many residents also struggled with online access to schools. Many families had no educational access at all; on occasion, they might have received a homework packet from the school to try to learn a year’s worth of knowledge. 

Algae-Covered Lake Atitlan Saw an Improvement

Lago Atitlan (Lake Atitlan) was created by a volcanic eruption more than 85,000 years ago. It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and the deepest lake in Central America, according to Global Nature.

A sunset view of Lake Atitlan. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

Lake Atitlan has been nominated as one of the seven wonders of the world. However, Global Nature notes that Lake Atitlan was also designated “Threatened Lake of the Year” in 2009 when its water became covered in algae. 

According to our respondents, the pandemic offered a respite for the lake. Going to the beach and fishing were banned for approximately a year and there were few tourists, so the lake gained a crystalline quality that few residents had seen before. 

A Discussion of Our Guatemala COVID-19 Pandemic Research Experience

Michelle (left) and Kristi in a tuk-tuk moto-taxi in Panajachel, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

As a part of the trip, we discussed our experience in the San Jorge and Panajachel communities.

Kristi: What are some interesting things you’re learning about the people you’ve interviewed so far? 

Michelle:  The COVID-19 pandemic curfews (toque de quedas) in Guatemala were a completely difference experience in Guatemala than in the United States.  They varied quite a bit; sometimes, they required people to be home by 3 p.m., other times, people had to be home one day of the weekend. 

The changing curfews really complicated people’s lives and work schedules. Our interviewees had some funny stories about running home and dodging police to avoid being caught for a curfew violation. But for others, the curfews were less funny because they ended up spending the night in jail. 

Some of the saddest stories we heard were of people having to watch their loved ones being buried from a distance in the middle of the night. Others told us about of having relatives admitted to the hospital. Due to language barriers and pandemic restrictions, they were not being able to see their relatives again or witness their burial. 

It was heartening that that many people in our study appreciated the opportunity to tell their story. A group of medical professionals told us that after working long hours without compensation for the past three years, these interviews of our COVID-19 research were the first time someone asked how they are doing and how they coped during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kristi: Why is this study important, and who will want to know about it?  

Michelle: We are doing this study to learn about the experiences of diverse Indigenous peoples during the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope it will add to the literature about Indigenous peoples, but perhaps most importantly, help others learn about their resilience and the ways they helped each other to survive the pandemic. Our study is important because it gives a voice to communities and how they coped, adapted, and worked together to protect and provide for each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University now has a new student organization, Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Dr. Kristi Drexler and Dr. Michelle Watts are two of the faculty advisors.  

About the Authors

Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member in the Space Studies and Earth Sciences Department. She teaches geography, environmental science, earth system history, conservation of natural resources, and earth and planetary sustainability for the School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socioecological systems, sustainable agroecology and community education.

Dr. Drexler earned her Master of Arts in international affairs with an emphasis in natural resources management from Ohio University. She earned the Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award for the School of STEM (2020) and the Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award (2021). Dr. Drexler has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize and Guatemala regarding agroforestry, conservation, sustainable agriculture, and COVID-19 impacts. Dr. Drexler serves as a faculty advisor for the University’s wSTEM, AWIS and SACNAS chapters. She is a co-investigator for the research study, “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.”

Dr. Michelle Watts is the Assistant Department Chair for the Department of Security and Global Studies, where she also teaches in the doctoral program. She has a degree in International Studies from American University, a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Arizona, and a Ph.D. in International Development from the University of Southern Mississippi. 

Dr. Watts has collaborated with colleagues on nine research grants encompassing a wide range of topics. Her work includes “Bomberos, Maestros y Psicólogos: Guatemalan Civil Society Response to the Volcano of Fire Disaster,”“Making Sovereignty Mean Something: Native Nations and Creative Adaptation,” “Drugs, Thugs, and the Diablos Rojos: Perils and Progress in Panama,” “Seguridad del Canal de Panamá: Una Década Después de la Salida de Estados Unidos” (Security of the Panama Canal: One Decade after U.S. Departure), and “Game of Norms: Panama, the International Community, and Indigenous Rights.” She is the principal investigator for the research study, “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.”

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