Friday, December 30, 2011

Sobering year-end thoughts

Two statistics jumped out of the newspaper headlines today, one day before 2011 comes to a close. Over 30 thousand Guatemalans were deported from the United States this year; to be precise 30,855 persons. We know that under the administration of  Barack Obama, detentions and deportations have increased, and those most affected by these policies are Mexicans and Central Americans. Friends on both sides have responded to this. My friend Adrian from the migrant community in New Bedford sent around an article from the Guatemalan newspaper about the last flight of deportees, which arrived yesterday, and Valentín, a friend from the community radio station in Sumpango, Estereo Ixchel, commented on his Facebook page, "Regarding the deportees: Since this year 30,855 Guatemalans have already been deported from the racist country of the USA, even though these people went to serve as slaves in that country, it is recommended that one no longer go, there is work here, if they really want to work, there are several secrets: 1. Create. 2. Invent. 3. Produce. 4. Rent out your home. 5. Sell. 6. Resell. 7. Distribute."

The statistic is sobering. Even with the sluggish (to say the least) economy in the U.S., traveling as a "mojado" (usually translated into English as "wetback"; it more literally means "one who is wet") seems like a reasonable alternate to no jobs and grinding poverty here, especially in rural areas. I use the term mojado advisedly; I know that in immigrant advocacy circles in the U.S. we would not use the term "wetback", but here I am reporting as accurately as I can how people in my little corner of Guatemala discuss migration to the U.S. And nearly everyone here uses the term "mojado" to refer to migrating without papers. "He went as a mojado," or "If I went, I would have to go as a mojado" are phrases that I hear frequently. So I am not going to change how people here talk about migration.

These statistics take on personal meaning. I know at least one of those 30,855 deportees; in fact, I saw him last night. He opened the gate for me when I stopped my car in front of Doña V's house in La Cruz, a settlement just at the edge of the town limit of Chinique. I had unsuccessfully attempted to visit him earlier this year when I was briefly visiting New Bedford -- this was probably in late February. I had gone to the detention facility at his mother's request, only to find out that he had very specific visiting hours and they did not coincide with the day I was there. Then a few months later, when I visited Doña V again, there he was, seemingly resigned to the circumstances that had brought him back to Guatemala (he was not someone who was detained at the border; he had been living in the U.S. for a while and might even have children born there; I am not entirely informed about all the details of his life). I have not spoken to him in any depth about his experiences, since migration is no longer at the center of my research, but I might try to talk with him before I leave. I will certainly see the family again, as Doña V asked me to take some dried chiles back to the states with me, to give to her three children who are still there.

As I wrote in an earlier entry this week, a 14-year old boy from a rural community outside Chichicatenango recently went to the U.S. People do not leave casually, and while I appreciate Valentín's plea and commentary, I would argue that it is not always possible for someone to practice those seven secrets. People in rural areas that are only reachable from the highway by walking for two hours have a hard time selling things, unless to agribusiness concerns which pay very poor prices for raw goods, and if they do not have adequate land they do not produce surpluses.

The other sobering statistic that appeared in the summary of year end news was about violent deaths. In Central America, or the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador), 16,710 people died violently -- most often, according to the news reports, at the hands of narcotraffickers, gangs and organized crime. All of which paths, in the case of Guatemala, lead to the military and the police (even if their hands are not directly stained with blood, and even if in specific cases, people are killed by ordinary criminals or jealous spouses).

This does not paint a pretty picture of life in Guatemala, nor offer a lot of hope for the future. Both political parties that were in the run-off campaigned on issues of security (hard hand for the Patriotas and the death penalty in the case of LIDER). Most people I know do not have a lot of hope that things will change under the new regime; in fact, some think the situation will be increasingly precarious.  The outgoing president just raised the minimum wage slightly; not a bad move, although a cynical view is that he is simply trying to slightly improve his legacy -- a poll in the paper last week said that his disapproval rating was about 95% -- of course, there have been a lot of criticisms of this paper, Prensa Libre, and their polling techniques; many have noted that the paper has slid dramatically to the right in recent years.  But it is unquestionable that a lot of people on both the left and the right think he's done a lousy job. But in many areas the minimum wage is not enforced, and so many people, especially here in the highlands, do not work for wages. Most businesses in this town, and other towns, are small family operations, and I doubt they are covered by minimum wage laws. Market vendors are not covered, nor are peddlers, or women who braid straw into long rolls, or people who carry heavy loads of firewood trying to sell them, or shoe-shine boys. The coastal plantations barely enough for workers to survive; many are run as company towns, and charges for food and lodging are skimmed off by the finca owners, so that migrant workers often return home with a very small amount of savings.

So raising the minimum wage is not a bad idea, but I am not very optimistic that it will make a significant difference in most people's lives.

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