How Grillz Tell the Story of Guatemala_JuanBrenner

How Grills Tell the Story of the Guatemalan Highlands

Grills have a long history in Guatemala. But as the photographer Juan Brenner has found, their modern incarnation has more to do with wealth than legacy.

This is part of a special series, Indulgence, which explores extravagant living in a time of restraint. It’s also in the September 2021 VICE magazine issue. Subscribe here

As commonly told, gold was one of the main reasons why Spaniards invaded and conquered the Americas. After Christopher Columbus bumped into it in 1492, and Hernán Cortés started bringing massive amounts of precious metals back to Europe, a gold rush started and changed the course of history.


The story in Guatemala was very different; gold can’t be found in impressive amounts in Guatemala or Central America. In pre-Columbian times, our territories were big producers of cotton, bird feathers, dyes, and jade, and some of these products were equally or more valuable than gold for the Aztec empire. The Mayan empire collapsed more than 500 years before the Spaniards came to America, and the royalty after the pre-classic Mayan Age embellished their teeth with materials such as quartz, hematite, and jade.


It wasn’t until the past several decades, when the economy started shifting and changing in the Highlands, that people started using gold in their mouths as a more enduring method of fixing their teeth. It was in the 1990s—and around the time Guatemala’s civil war ended—when the new generations started wearing gold grills as a symbol of power and money. According to dental technicians I’ve spoken to, nowadays, most of the metal being used for dental reasons isn’t gold, but a bunch of metal alloys brought from China. Many of these professionals claim that, as a result, esophageal, stomach, and intestinal cancer numbers are going up at a very worrying rate in the Highlands.


In my eyes, the internet and globalization are the main reasons why the Gen Z of the Highlands are obsessed with grills and gold pieces; hip-hop and reggaeton are huge in the mountains, and nowadays kids just want to look fly.


For the last four years, I’ve been researching and photographing the Guatemalan Highlands, exploring the theme of the invasion and conquest of the Americas. Through that process, I became really interested in the grill phenomenon, as I’m drawn to circular stories, or history repeating. People in the mountains are very serious about their Mayan heritage, but judging by my conversations with subjects, the mouth embellishments are not being done to honor their ancestors; it’s a way to show purchasing power and a very specific contemporary aesthetic. My new project is totally focused on Gen Z in this area; how globalization, social media, and technology is shifting the way these kids dress, think, talk and understand their ecosystem and territory. The new generation is even abandoning the idea of immigration to the U.S. as a means of changing their life and economics; wealth is starting to grow, and a new middle class is being created. My focus on the grills comes from my love of hip-hop and fashion. Once I was very far away from understanding this phenomenon, the fashion and style of it, but now I feel very identified with the process these kids are going through.