From the “Decadent Factory of Professionals” to “The Republic of Students”: University Politics in Guatemala City, 1944–54

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:20 AM
Old Town Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Heather A. Vrana, Indiana University
For their role in the 1944 October Revolution, students at the Universidad de San Carlos (USAC) were awarded autonomy and empowered to advise the development of the New Guatemala. University enrollments surged and graduates filled the ranks of the modestly widened bureaucracy. These young men called San Carlistas, created a political and social community marked by ladino ethnicity. Here I examine the relationship between the university, youth culture, and the space of the city in the creation of a ladino urban middle class.

Writing under the shadow of state violence against San Carlistas in the 1970s and 80s, social movement historians have explained the democratic opening of the Ten Years’ Spring (1944-1954) and counterrevolution (1954-1960) in terms of five communities: unionized urban workers, indigenous campesinos, deracinated urban intellectuals, commercial elites including foreign investors, the military/police, and the Catholic Church. But the urban intellectual elite were not an a priori social-political group. On the contrary, precisely the history of their subjective formation informs two persistent historiographical problems in Guatemala: a) defining ladino identity and b) explaining the turn from democracy to counterrevolution. I argue that USAC became a site for nation-making through contested political philosophies including humanism, autonomy, civic education, Keynesianism, Marxist-Leninism, anticommunism, Catholicism, and evangelical Protestantism. Thus the university, previously a mere factory of professionals, became a model “Republic of Students” which prefigured the New Republic of Guatemala. The conservative anticommunist impulse emerged exactly from the democratic imperative for open debate and difference as necessary condition of possibility for national progress. Mixed-race ladino identity was a cipher for this progressive impulse.