Saturday, August 9, 2014

The inescapable presence of migration

Although I did not come to Guatemala to work on the subject of migration, it is an almost unavoidable theme in many parts of the country. Here in the Q'anjob'al region of northern Huehuetnango, it seems nearly every family has a migration story. Early this morning, as the mist was still heavy over the hills and valleys, I was walking back to my friend Lorenzo's house from the house of another friend where I had spent the night in the company of members of a youth organization here in Santa Eulalia. I was walking along with one of the young men who had been part of our gathering last night, which started as a meeting followed by dinner and a sleep-over, and we were chatting about the meetings we were both attending later in the morning. I had wanted to go to Lorenzo's house before the all-day meeting I was attending to wash out clothes from my trip and make myself oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, and I said that I imagined Oscar was going home to give his mother a kiss and change clothes. "Actually, my grandmother", he said. So I asked him where his mother was. "In the United States." I asked how long his mother had been there; he said 16 and a half years. I asked if his father was there also, and he said his father had been there for 17 years. I didn't ask much more; we had just met the day before and I didn't want to press him about growing up with parents in the United States. He clearly is someone who has been able to succeed despite the odds: leader of a youth organization, involved in civil society organizations, studying, working. So, a reminder that so called "family disintegration" does not always lead to disaster.

Then later this morning, in talking with one of the women who was at the day-long meeting of the Plurinational Government of the Chuj, Akateko, Q'anjob'al, Popti and mestizo peoples, a woman from Santa Cruz Barillas, when I said that I was from the U.S., she mentioned that her husband was in the United States, and had been there for fourteen years. Again, this was someone I was meeting for the first time, and I didn't ask much -- especially as we were in the ladies' room, and the meeting was still going on. But she lamented that since he didn't have papers he wasn't able to return, because returning would mean that he couldn't go back to the U.S. except by making the same long, expensive overland trip, and there were no jobs.

In conversations with some of the leaders of the resistance movement here, they have made very clear what they see as the connection between mining, megaprojects - in other words, neoliberal development schemes that ravage natural resources and provide little in the way of real benefits to local populations -- and migration. Throughout my conversations with people at the resistance site in Barillas, I came across many people who had either been in the U.S. (men who approach me to try out the few words of English they remember), or had family members who were (or who had been) migrants.

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