Background

Central American Refugee Health Profile

Geography

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are three of the northernmost countries of Central America, making up the Northern Triangle, situated just south of Mexico on the isthmus linking North and South America1. The Northern Triangle has a population of roughly 29.8 million. Guatemala is the most populous country, having a population of approximately 14.9 million2, while El Salvador and Honduras have populations of roughly 6.1 million and 8.7 million, respectively3, 4. Each country is mountainous and has narrow coastal belts along the Pacific Ocean and/or the Caribbean Sea2, 3, 4. The region is vulnerable to hurricanes, active volcanoes, and earthquakes1.

Figure 1: Location of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

This shows a map of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras highlighted.
Figure 1: Location of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

Source: Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ), CDC

History and Cultural Origins

Like the rest of Mesoamerica, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans share a common pre-Columbian history, originating from the Lenca, Olmec, and Maya civilizations. These ancient indigenous cultures left behind an extensive legacy of art, architecture, and traditions, many of which are still present throughout Central America. Indigenous Central Americans first came into contact with Spanish explorers and colonists in the early 1500s and endured three centuries of colonial rule. In 1821, a united battle for independence led to the establishment of the Federal Republic of Central America. The republic dissolved in 1838, and the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were formed1. However, post-colonial independence brought instability, violence, and war, which persisted throughout the 20th century along with shifting civil and military governance, uneven economic development, and social unrest1.
 

Ethnic Groups

El Salvador

Approximately 86.3% of Salvadorans are mestizo (mixed race). Whites account for 12.7%, while Amerindian (including Lenca, Kakawira, and Nahua-Pipil), black, and other ethnicities account for a small minority3.

Guatemala

Roughly 60% of Guatemalans are of mestizo or European descent. The remaining 40% of the population is K’iche (9.1%), Kaqchikel (8.4%), Mam (7.9%), Q’egchi (6.3%), other Mayan (8.6%), and indigenous non-Mayan (0.2%)2.

Honduras

Mestizos account for approximately 90% of the population, while Amerindians represent 7% of Hondurans. The remaining 3% of the population is either black or white4.

Language and Literacy

El Salvador

Spanish is the official and most widely spoken language in El Salvador3. Some indigenous Salvadorans speak Nahua, an Amerindian language. However, such speakers are few, as indigenous persons account for less than 1% of El Salvador’s population3. Approximately 88% of the Salvadoran population is literate, defined as being at least 15 years old and able to read and write. Among Salvadoran men, 90.4% are literate, while literacy for women is estimated at 86%3.

Guatemala

Although Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, only 60% of the population communicates primarily in Spanish. Forty percent communicate in one of many Amerindian languages. There are 23 officially recognized Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, and Xinca2. Approximately 81.5% of the Guatemalan population is literate. Overall, 87.4% of men are literate, and 76.3% of women2.

Honduras

The official language of Honduras is Spanish, which is widely spoken. Hondurans may also speak Amerindian dialects4. Approximately 88.5% of the Honduran population is literate. Rates of literacy among men and women are comparable: 88.4% of male Hondurans and 88.6% of female Hondurans are literate4.

Religious Beliefs

El Salvador

El Salvador is overwhelmingly Christian. Roman Catholicism is practiced by 57.1% of the population. Protestants account for 21.2% of the population, while small minorities are Jehovah’s Witnesses (1.9%) or Mormon (0.7%). Additionally, 16.8% of the population does not identify as religious, and the remaining 2.3% practice other religions3.

Guatemala

Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion in Guatemala, with 65-70% of Guatemalans identifying as Catholic5. However, among the indigenous Maya, Catholic practices and traditions are often infused with beliefs of pre-Columbian origin. Evangelical Protestantism has become increasingly popular since the mid-20th century, particularly among lower-income households. As a result, Protestants now account for about 40% of the population6.

Honduras

Roughly 80% of the Honduran population is Roman Catholic. Growth in Protestant churches has swelled in recent years, making Protestantism the second most popular religion in Honduras7.

Family and Kinship

Familismo is an integral part of Latin American culture, in which women play a critical role. Women are often responsible for the organization and maintenance of family life and tradition, a role that may afford them significant influence in the home. Many Central American nations are patriarchal, with men often providing the primary income for the family, and women serving as caregivers for the children and family8.

For additional information regarding minors from Central America, please visit the Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange Cdc-pdf[PDF – 16 pages]External.

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