Migrant Kids Highlight Legacy of Violence and Inequality Toward Maya

In El Salvador and Honduras, drug and gang violence is to blame for exodus; in Guatemala, poverty is the leading culprit.

Fellows 2015

By Katya Cengel

October 06, 2015

Also published by Al Jazeera America

Juan wears the same Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie he wore when he arrived in Guatemala City three days before. It was given to him in the United States. He keeps his other mementos from his northward journey, including a stack of CDs he has no way of playing, in the two-room structure his family once called home in Guatemala’s western highlands.

Juan, 14, is the only person still sleeping in the wooden house. The rest of his family — his mother, father and three younger siblings — have all moved in with his maternal grandmother. They say it is because the grandmother was lonely after her husband died. But her husband died over a year ago, and their move was relatively recent.

Juan, age 14, with his cousin in their home in the village of Xeo. After making it to the U.S. where he spent several months in a shelter in Arizona, he has little to show for his journey north except the debt his family owes the smuggler. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

The home isn’t much: an uneven dirt floor, wood-plank walls with large gaps, a tin roof. There is no electricity or indoor plumbing. A concrete sink stands outside, an outhouse down the hill. The family used the house and the land it occupies as collateral to borrow 50,000 quetzales ($6,540) to pay a coyote to smuggle Juan to the U.S. to find work. He left so his father, Sebastian Matón Chavez, would not have to leave every year to work in the sugar cane fields on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. Chavez makes 30 quetzales ($4) a day cleaning his neighbors’ cornfields and 1,400 quetzales ($180) a month when he works in the sugar cane fields.

Juan was apprehended near the Mexico-U.S. border and sent to a shelter in Arizona. Now he is back in Xeo, a mountain community of about 300 people in the Guatemalan department of Quiché in the western highlands. He has nothing to show for the six months he was away but a bag full of braided bracelets he learned to make at the Arizona shelter, a baseball he doesn’t know how to throw and a debt he has no way of repaying.

Child migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — made headlines last year when more than 50,000 were apprehended in the U.S. In El Salvador and Honduras, gang and drug trafficking violence is largely blamed for the exodus of children. In Guatemala, extreme poverty is the leading culprit.

And it’s a poverty that disproportionately affects the country’s long-persecuted indigenous population, of which the majority of the children migrating to the U.S. are a part.

Percentage of Guatemalan population earning less than $1 a day. Source: UNDP Guatemala Human Development Report 2005

Maya make up about 40 percent of Guatemala’s population but account for less than a quarter of the country’s income and consumption. The Maya literacy rate is 60 percent, compared with 87 percent for the rest of the country. In the largely indigenous western highlands, three-quarters of the population is living in poverty; 67 percent of children under 5 are chronically malnourished.

Most of those killed during the country’s 36-year civil war were Maya — 83 percent, according to a 1999 report by the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification. The commission cited U.S. involvement as contributing to human rights violations. The signing of peace accords in 1996 ensured on paper the rights of indigenous communities, but infrastructure and investment in predominantly indigenous regions, especially in the western highlands, remains lacking.

Once back home, the children are confronted not only with the forces that drove them to migrate in the first place but also with the trauma of the journey and return. There is the debt they owe their smugglers and the guilt they feel for failing. 

Members of Juan's family gather in the kitchen of their home. Jacinta Santiago Brito, 35 (center), is Juan's mother and stands with Juan's grandmothers, Petrona Chavez and Magdalena Brito. The family identifies as Ixil, one of the many indigenous peoples accounting for about 40 percent of Guatemala’s population. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

It is a little after 6 a.m., and Juan’s family is gathered around a fire in his grandmother’s kitchen. The house is smoky, dark and as simple as the one in which Juan sleeps 50 feet away. He is awake now but not at breakfast. He hasn’t been at breakfast with the family since he returned. 

His two youngest siblings — Pedro, 7, and Magdalena, 10 — grab a few meatless tamales and head to school. Petrona, 13, stays behind. She has finished sixth grade. The community school doesn’t go any higher. The closest seventh grade is a two-hour walk each way, something Juan did before he headed north. He hoped to work and live in Miami with his mother’s cousins. Unlike the rest of his family, Juan speaks some English now, and his Spanish is much improved — something that is not lost on his mother, Jacinta Santiago Brito.

“He changed. Now he doesn’t seem like my son. He seems like he’s Guatemalan,” she said. 

They may live in Guatemala, but the family identify as Ixil, one of the many indigenous peoples accounting for about 40 percent of Guatemala’s population.

In the early 1980s the Guatemalan army, under the pretext that the Ixil were collaborating with the rebel guerrillas, burned Ixil villages and massacred residents. Guerrilla combatants did the same, although to a lesser extent. The massacres resulted in a third of the Ixil being exterminated, according to the prosecution in the 2013 genocide trial of retired Guatemalan army Gen. Efrain Rios Montt.

Juan’s grandfather, after whom Juan was named, survived the massacres by hiding in the forests but died of fever at the age of 40. His widow, Petrona Chavez Ijom, is now in her 60s or 70s — no one is quite sure. She has outlived two husbands and two of her children. The first time the army destroyed her home was in 1982. They cut the cornfields, shot the family cow and burned everything else. The family fled to the mountains. They built another house. The army burned it. They moved on. 

“For two years we didn’t have food or clothes or anything,” said Ijom.

Juan sits in his bedroom in Xeo, where the nearest school for him to attend is a two-hour walk away. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

In 1984 they were captured and taken to a village run by the military, where they remained prisoners for 10 years. Two of Ijom’s sons died of starvation. Juan’s father was 13 when they moved to where they live now, a community founded by other refugees. He is 33 and cannot read or write. “I’ve never been to school one day, because my father was so intimidated by the conflict, by the war,” said Chavez.

His wife, Juan’s mother, 35, is also illiterate. Her father didn’t send her or her sisters to school because he needed them to help him in the fields. “Our dad would tell us if we don’t go to work we’re going to die of starvation, so we all went to work with him,” she said.

They are safer now. But the legacy of violence and inequality lingers. Although the signing of peace accords in 1996 guaranteed the rights of indigenous communities on paper, infrastructure and investment in predominantly indigenous regions remains lacking.

In Xeo the government gives each teacher 220 quetzales ($28.50) a year to pay for paper, markers and other supplies, said third-grade teacher Sebastian Herrera Terraza. “But 500 pages of white paper is 40 quetzales ($5),” he said.

Teachers receive an additional 55 quetzales ($7) per student for books, glue, scissors and other materials. It is never enough. There is no secondary school, which doesn’t matter much because for every 10 kids who start primary school, only five complete sixth grade. The rest are sent to work in the cornfields with their parents, making about 30 quetzales ($4) a day.

Juan and his family survive mainly on the corn they grow. They wrap meatless tamales in corn husks, cook water and corn to make a drink known as atol and make the traditional dish boxbol with cornmeal and squash leaves. Now that Juan is home, he works in the fields with his father, traversing the small footpaths that wind their way around the green mountains. In the morning, a mist covers the mountains. In the evening, they sparkle with the remnants of the afternoon rain. At night, the barking dogs remind Juan of the time he spent crossing the border.

They bark, he said, “the same way the coyotes do in the desert.”

In the house where no one but Juan lives, there is a brochure from Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an American organization Juan learned about in the Arizona shelter. The pamphlet states that someone will meet returning children at the airport in Guatemala. Juan waited, but no one from the group was at the airport to meet him. He was taken to a government-run shelter in Guatemala City, and his parents were notified to take him.

Now he waits for the other things he said the organization promised him: help finding a job and a scholarship to continue school. KIND and its current partner organization in Guatemala, Colectivo Vida Digna, said that a representative from Colectivo Vida Digna met Juan’s parents at the shelter in Guatemala City, took them to lunch and gave them 300 quetzales ($39) to pay for a hotel for the night. The representative talked to Juan briefly, but Juan does not remember the conversation. The representative has called the family several times since, promising to visit soon. Juan and his father both have cellphones, which they charge by paying two quetzales ($.25) to use a neighbor’s solar panel.

A month after Juan’s return to Xeo, Colectivo Vida Digna paid a visit. It gave the family food, which was gone within two weeks, and another 300 quetzales ($39), Juan said. Colectivo Vida Digna called later and informed Juan that they had arranged for him to live at their headquarters in Quetzaltenango while he studies carpentry and attends school, Juan said.

Lisa Frydman, KIND’s director of regional policy and initiatives, said in an email that KIND will repay Juan’s parents for their transportation costs to the shelter. The group planned do so recently but was prevented from reaching the region because of political unrest.

KIND and Colectivo Vida Digna would not discuss how they planned to help Juan specifically, citing privacy concerns. Their general work focuses on family reunification, cultural support services, education and training. Colectivo Vida Digna holds workshops on Maya culture but not in Nebaj, the closest substantial city to Juan, which is a two-hour walk plus a bus ride from his home.

Dennis Stinchcomb, the program manager of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, questioned the reach and impact of KIND’s Guatemalan child return and reintegration program.

“KIND, as great as the work they are doing is, they just are a lot of publicity more than actual what they’re doing,” he said. “If you’re only reaching 6 percent of deportees with your services, then you’re really not solving the problem.”

According to a statement by Philip T. Miller, the assistant director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field operations enforcement and removal operations, 2,347 unaccompanied children have been repatriated to Guatemala since 2012. KIND says it has helped 127 children since 2010. KIND would not provide Al Jazeera access to its clients.

Juan (far right) in his family's cornfield with his (from left) sister Petrona Matón, 13, mother Jacinta Santiago, 35, and father Sebastian Matón, 33. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

In recent years, the majority of U.S. government assistance to the region has come through the Central American Regional Security Initiative, mostly funding the strengthening of law enforcement and judicial capabilities, according to a report co-written by Stinchcomb.

A $1 billion proposed plan, the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, included in President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget request, has been criticized for catering to large businesses, local elites and U.S.-owned corporations. There have been smaller, more focused funding efforts: The U.S. Agency for International Development has helped fund a violence prevention program and work done by the International Organization for Migration and World Vision at Guatemalan shelters. There is also a new refugee-processing program for minors in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Other organizations have tried to fill the gap, including Asociación Pop No’j and Cafe RED, which focus on empowering returning migrants and potential migrants by providing them with platforms to voice their concerns, and Cafe RED also offers culinary training.

Technical training was the inspiration behind four planned government centers devoted to returning child migrants. The first, in the department of Solola, opened in February. The program is under Guatemala’s Secretariat of Social Welfare. With the recent resignation of the president and a runoff election to replace him scheduled for Oct. 25, the program’s future is unclear.

Even now, government support is fickle. The center in Solola, Centro de Formacion “Quedate” (“Stay” Training Center), offers classes on subjects like jewelry making, computer literacy and how to be a tour guide. But the government has not funded supplies. So the English classes are conducted without books, and the children are told to buy their own materials for jewelry making, said Lesvi Manchame, a psychologist at the center. Nor did the government fund transportation for the children, making it extremely difficult for many to reach the center.

“There is a specific budget for this on paper, but we don’t have funds to execute it,” said Manchame.

In five months, 185 children have visited the center, but many do so irregularly because of transportation issues and lack of support from family members who would prefer they spend their time generating immediate income, said Manchame.

The majority of those children, about 70 percent, are at risk of migrating, not those who have migrated and returned, said Timoteo Perez, a social worker at the center. Returnees are harder to reach. “For example, I went to visit a boy today who came before, but he had already gone to the U.S.,” he said.

Juan with his family in their home in the village of Xeo. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Adan returned to Guatemala on the same airplane as Juan and is already planning to go back to the United States. Juan is more tentative.

In the evening, standing underneath the orange tree in which the family chickens sleep, Juan mentions having to carry a box of eggs across Mexico for five days. The men who gave him the eggs had large guns. He later learned he was actually carrying marijuana.

“I was scared. I almost cried because I didn’t want to carry it,” he said. “I refused, but they made me.”

He didn’t tell his social worker in the U.S. or the psychologist at the Guatemala City shelter.

“They don’t ask nothing, so I don’t say it,” he explained.

Intimate things that are difficult to talk about happen on the journey, said Solórzano of the Pastoral Care of Migrants. To get the children to open up, you need to spend time with them and develop trust, she said, something that isn’t possible during the rapid reception process. Although the Secretariat of Social Welfare has 16 suboffices throughout the country, its head, Raquel Vielman de Alcazar, admits that it cannot follow up with everyone.

In addition to being vulnerable to human trafficking, gang recruitment, extortion and other forms of violence, these youths are often ostracized. There is a common belief that those who are sent back are criminals and must have done something wrong aside from simply entering a country without authorization, said Alejandra Pamela Argueta, one of the authors of a Wilson Center report on repatriated youth. “The people in the Guatemalan community are very skeptical as to why you returned, like ‘What happened?’” she said.

For women and girls, it can be even worse. Rape and assault are commonplace on the journey. Mateo Lucas Alonzo, a migration expert with Asociación Pop No’j, said that through research conducted in one area, they found there was an issue of “rejection of women because they already know she has probably been raped.”

A week after Ana returned home to the department of Huehuetenango in the western highlands, she had yet to leave the house for more than a few minutes. (Ana’s name has been changed at her mother’s request.) “There are many neighbors that gather now and look for me,” she said.

So she stays in the one-room home above a cemetery that she shares with a mute father and a frightened mother in San Mateo Ixtatán. The family belongs to the Maya Chuj group, and her mother wears a traditional skirt and top. Ana wears jeans. Her mother sold Ana’s traditional outfit before Ana left in order to buy her modern clothes for the journey. Migrants are advised to hide their indigenous background and are coached to speak Spanish with a Mexican accent. Her coyote cut Ana’s hair.

Ana, age 15, at her home in San Mateo Ixtatán, Huehuetenango, with her mother and dog. Ana was detained for seven months at a shelter in Arizona before being sent home to Guatemala. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Ana’s uncle, who lives nearby, does most of the talking. The plan was for Ana, 15, to get work in a chicken-processing plant in Atlanta, where one of her aunts lives. Instead, she spent five months in a shelter in Arizona.

“There are no jobs here. Presidents have never given anything,” said her uncle. “The money the government receives they put in their pockets.”

A dog eats the corn left out for the chickens. Its name is Jule, like the playdough dog Ana made while in custody at the airport in Guatemala City with Juan and Adan the week before.

“That’s why we [children] think to go there,” added Ana. “We can get jobs there. Here we don’t get anything.”

A local lawyer, Diego Félix Pablo Alonzo, jokes among his friends that “San Mateo Ixtatán is without children now.” Last year during the summer, he said, he received at least one request a day to help families whose children had migrated alone to the U.S.

When Ana’s mother learned her daughter was apprehended near the U.S.-Mexico border, she was afraid she would never see her again. “Day and night, I’m thinking about her,” she said. “She was alive, but I didn’t know where.”

Now that Ana is back, her mother says she will send Ana to school. Ana finished sixth grade before she left. But then there is the debt they owe the coyote. They would not say how much it is, only that they believe it will take several years for them to pay it. Debt for the journey is something many face and something no government agency or nongovernment group adequately addresses. It is the reason many continue to travel to the U.S., despite the risk. There are few opportunities for them to earn that kind of money in Guatemala, where the gross national income per capita in 2012 was less than $3,250, according to U.N. data.  

Ana’s mother makes 10 to 20 quetzales ($1.30-$2.60) a day washing other people’s clothes. Her father is too ill to work.

On her first trip out since being back, Ana ordered a hamburger and rated it “not quite as good as in the U.S.” On the walk home, her mother noted the newly constructed houses built with money sent back by Guatemalans working in the U.S. A neighbor stopped to ask why Ana was back so soon. It is a common question, and Ana’s mother had a ready reply.

“It was her fate not to stay in the U.S.,” she said.

Katya Cengel reported this story with the support of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project. This is the second of a three-part series on Guatemalan migrant children who are returned to their country after unsuccessfully trying to reach the United States. Part one focuses on the guilt and shame migrant children carry with them. Part three will be published Wednesday.