Reflections on Immigration From Guatemala

Students from a U.S. university recently visited the town of Cajolá in the highlands of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala. Almost half of the town's population has emigrated to the United States. The students visited Cajolá to help and learn from those who stayed behind.

June 16, 2008

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Bryant Escobar, a student from Ramapo College of New Jersey, asked Wendy, a dark-skinned, Mam Maya six-year-old girl in Guatemala during a recent trip to her town. “A gringa,” she answered.

Wendy’s response—possibly stemming from a diminished sense of cultural self-worth mixed with the realization, at an early age, that people from the United States lead privileged lives—took place toward the end of the stay of seven Ramapo College students and a professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the town of Cajolá. The town is located in the highlands of Quetzaltenango, about 150 miles west of Guatemala City, the capital.

We spent a week there in mid-May as part of an alternative break program coordinated by the Cahill Center for Experiential Learning and Career Services at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Unlike travel for leisure or study, an alternative break service trip enables students to work in the disenfranchised communities that host their visit. There are pockets of extreme poverty in this town where the average construction worker earns $5 a day.

Cajolá is a town of approximately 15,000 Mam Mayas, one of the four largest ethnic Maya groups in Guatemala. Of these, an estimated 6,000 Cajolenses live in the U.S. Most of the emigrants live in Los Angeles (2,000), Atlanta (1,000), and Grand Rapids, Michigan (1,000). The rest are scattered throughout various U.S. towns, including Morristown, New Jersey, where there are about 150 Cajolenses. The Cajolenses in Morristown have organized a transnational community group, Grupo Cajolá. The organization was instrumental in the planning and implementation of our exceptional service-learning trip.

While in Cajolá, the Ramapo students built brick stoves for two of the poorest families, guided school children in arts and crafts projects, and introduced a group of Maya women to computers and the Internet. These activities, among others, provided us with the tools to gauge the effects of a long and bitter history of oppression toward the Mam people since the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. This history is one factor pushing Cajolenses in search of new horizons, abandoning their families and everything they own in the process.

We built the first stove in a household of 12. The one-room home was tiny. The dark, soot-covered room had a bed to one side, occupied that morning by a sick woman who remained there—for lack of a better place—while we carried bricks and cement mix inside. Although a modest improvement, the stove came equipped with a chimney, which at the very least protects the family from the smoke of the wood fire.

Each classroom in “25 de Junio,” the drab elementary school where we did our arts and crafts project, is composed of an assorted group of 35 students ranging in age and languages spoken (Spanish and Mam). The kids were highly motivated and the Ramapo students helped make piggybanks using recycled materials.

There was no electricity the morning we were at the school, and one of the four classrooms we visited was unsupervised. A few says later, we were told that two of the teachers in “25 de Junio” had skipped school that day—with the principal’s authorization—to participate in an important soccer game that was being held in town. The third-grade children were sent back home.

Cajolá has 35, mostly evangelical churches, but only eight schools, even though a quarter of the population is of school-going age. Middle school tuition is $385 a year, well beyond the reach of most families.

One of the women we introduced to the Internet was illiterate, unable to write a single word. Yet, her eyes lit up with excitement and disbelief the moment we showed her images of Maya weavers like herself on the Internet, as well as photographs of local sites in YouTube with the Guatemalan national anthem playing in the background. “I recognize the music!” she exclaimed.

The women, men and children we encountered are hard-working people that expressed a strong desire to get ahead in life while holding on to their culture. They are also fed up with the poverty and injustices they endure, the result of myriad causes: failed government policies, entrenched corruption, civil war, genocide, colonialism, and foreign intervention, among others. It is for these reasons they emigrate.

Nearly half of Cajolá's registered population lives in the United States. (By Michelle Headley)

There are many half-built houses in Cajolá dependent on the U.S. dollars their owners, working in places like New Jersey, send home to finish construction. Some owners have simply abandoned their houses because there was not enough to eat. A group of our students stayed in one of these sadly emptied houses, still inhabited by the ghostly belongings of those who left.

Cajolenses will continue knocking at the door of their distant neighbor to the north as long as the stagnant conditions of Cajolá persist. Both the United States and Guatemala need to come to terms with these immigration flows. The Guatemalan people cannot be blamed for wanting to improve their lot.

The father of Wendy, the aspiring little “gringa” with a toothless smile, wanted to pursue that dream. He’s in the United States working odd jobs and sending money to his wife and children—for them, those remittances are a matter of survival. Unless there is a marked improvement in the quality of life in Guatemala, Wendy’s father and others like him are unlikely to return. And Wendy will not get a chance to aspire to anything other than what she is not and never will be: A gringa whose probably decent and comfortable life, I assume she imagines, is just what she needs, even at the risk of sacrificing her own identity.

Iraida H. López is an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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