Student History is Written in the Streets

by Heather Vrana, author of This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996

A nation-wide strike is set for Wednesday, September 20 in Guatemala. Last week, Guatemala’s Congress voted 104 to 25 against repealing the immunity that protects President Jimmy Morales from investigations into charges of corruption during his 2015 presidential campaign. For weeks, protestors had gathered outside of various government offices, chanting, “Iván stays, Jimmy goes” and “Student: history is written in the streets.” The vote dealt a huge blow to those who have worked for decades to fight a deep-rooted system of impunity that defends the powerful in spite of truth and reconciliation commissions, human rights tribunals, and international pressure. The great irony is that although Morales ran as the anti-corruption candidate (his slogan was “Ni corrupto, ni ladrón”), much of his presidency has been mired in controversy. What else can be expected of a man whose previous career required him to don outrageous—and often racist—costumes? Morales’ comedy career prepared him well.

As one Guatemala City professional recently said to me, “we are accustomed to this.”

Yet, to be accustomed to corruption is not to accept it. On the contrary, what has been so remarkable over the past few years is precisely the combative nature of Guatemala’s daily practice of politics.

In April and May 2015, thousands of Guatemalans began gathering on weekends in the Plaza de la Constitución to protest then president Otto Pérez Molina. It was an open secret that he was implicated in many deaths during the civil war and there was no greater symbol of impunity. By early September, the protestors were successful in removing Pérez Molina and his vice president from office. Such a thing had happened only once before in Guatemala’s history. Social media and news coverage of these electrifying days constantly referred to the protests of June and October 1944, when a wide alliance of popular groups and the military overthrew the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico.

My book, This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996 begins with the university student organizing that led up to these massive protests. It follows several generations of students at Guatemala’s only public university, the Universidad de San Carlos (USAC). Each chapter explores how students engaged with the university as an institution as well as Guatemalan and (to a lesser extent) U.S. state apparatuses between 1944 and 1996, a period marked by revolution, counterrevolution, and civil war. Through these encounters, USAC students (called San Carlistas) forged a loose consensus around faith in the principles of liberalism, especially belief in equal liberty, the constitutional republic, political rights, and the responsibility of university students to lead the nation. I call this consensus student nationalism and trace how it became a defining feature of Guatemala’s middle class across the twentieth century.

This tradition of political involvement that comes to define the middle class is in no small way the condition of possibility for the ongoing protests we see today. Student nationalism was a shared project for identity-making, premised on the inclusions and exclusions of citizenship. It was less something one had or believed than a way of making political claims. It helped to bring San Carlistas into enduring fraternal bonds with their classmates as well as other citizens in a broad popular movement. As the civil war progressed and the military and police declared war on the university and the popular sector, student nationalism helped the opposition wage culture wars over historical memory.

Today, the protestors gathered in the streets are inheritors of San Carlistas’ traditions of struggle. They expect to protest when the government fails to fulfill its paltry promises to the people. The names of student, peasant, and union martyrs adorn their signs and t-shirts. While my book is a history of many generations of young people: their hopes, their actions, their role in social change; attempts to control them; their struggles against the government; and their encounters with the university as a state apparatus and a crucial site for resistance and celebration, the struggle in the streets today continues to evolve and become much, much bigger than this.


Heather Vrana is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida and the editor of Anti-Colonial Texts from Central American Student Movements 1929–1983.