Thursday, August 29, 2013

Guatemala # 8 Miguel Scores Big, Then...

This post comes from Julia Gunther, 14, my granddaughter who proved to be very comfortable in Spanish during our ten days together in Guatemala.  This is the second of two posts on emigration from Guatemala to the United States.

How to Make Half a Million Dollars as an Illegal Immigrant: A Guide

During our time with Semilla Nueva, I spent one night sleeping in a farmer’s home with SN’s nutrition specialist, Anne Barkett. For her, this was routine; she spends most nights sleeping in a farmer’s home, but for me, it was a special treat in a cozy, family atmosphere.

You first come to a small, simple cement building with tile floors and a porch. Outside is a table, decorated with a flowered tablecloth. The surrounding area is covered with tarps to keep dry during the pounding rain of the wet season. There is a wood stove, clotheslines, dish racks, and a pilla (PI-ya). Pillas are cement structures with two basins, one filled with water, the other empty except for a drain. Plastic bowls float within them to scoop up water.  Hands and dishes are cleaned, then the water dumped into the empty basin to drain. It’s their sink. There is also a shower to bucket bathe and a bathroom.

This is Lydia’s house and it’s unusual in that she has a flush-toilet, not just a hole beneath the seat.  The whole place has the sense of being well lived in, a bit messy but everyone totally comfortable, casually hanging out. I was comfortable too, spending the evening with the kids, blowing bubbles and playing with a mostly deflated soccer ball.

It was reminiscent of my own childhood but in a completely different setting.  Lydia’s granddaughter, a 15 month old named Charlene, was the cutest kid ever. The chubby little toddler was constantly smiling and waddling around.  I also made friends with her cousin, a five-year-old named Daniel, and he was soon pulling me by the hand to play. Both are children of Lydia’s two daughters but neither has a father at home. 

Charlene and Daniel’s uncle also played with us. At age 14 he is of the same generation as his niece and nephew. As is typical in most of Latin America, he loves soccer and was only too happy to show off his skills to the gringas. He has two older brothers and two older sisters, 20 and 22, a total of five kids for Lydia. The 20 year old is just completing high school, only a couple years ahead of me in school and I’m 14. The difference between us was striking. She already has one child and is finishing high school at the same age I’ll finish college, which she won’t even get to start.  But as she is the only one of her siblings to have completed high school, this is a very proud moment for the family. 

After a meal of eggs, black beans, and tortillas, we found out who was the real outlier around here, her older brother, Miguel.

          Miguel recently returned from a roller coaster of experiences during ten years in the United States.  At 13 he started walking through Guatemala and Mexico to the US border. He hired a coyote (pronounced co-YO-te in Spanish) for about $3,000 and made it safely over the border. Walking through the desert he thought he was going to die at one point.  In fact, a few people in his group did die.

This dangerous attempt is not uncommon. Almost every member of a Guatemala family will try to make it across. They’re willing to pay pretty large amounts of money. If the person doesn’t make it, the money is lost. No refunds. In Miguel’s case, it paid off.

          At first, he worked somewhere in Georgia to pay off his debt to the coyote. He attended but never completed high school. Eventually, he made his way up to Kansas City, Missouri, where he had a low paying job, sending a little money home each month.

One weekend, a friend invited him to a horse race. Miguel had grown up taking care of his grandparents’ horses so he knew horses and agreed to go. He won $100 in a single bet. While the races were legal, the betting was not but that didn’t deter Miguel in the slightest.  Every weekend from then on, he loved going to the races and every weekend he bet. As it turned out, with his good eye he kept winning. Eventually, he saved enough to buy half of a horse with a friend which, in its first race, won $3,000.

 That wasn’t much considering it costs about $3,000 to maintain a horse. After that first race, his friend decided to sell Miguel his half because he lived in Denver and couldn’t visit very often. Miguel continued to enter races for himself and continued to pile up money, not only from winning but from betting on his horse. Together they traveled the country to illegal races. They took place, somehow, on the normal racetracks but Miguel couldn’t enter sanctioned events because officials checked the owner’s credentials which could get Miguel expelled from the country.  Although unofficial, the race stakes were not low. In one, Miguel won $125,000. From all of his races combined, he told us he made about $500,000.

          Then things took a turn for the worst. He lost three races in a row and $200,000. At the third, he was planning to compete in Florida but discovered somebody had tampered with his horse which was now sick and wasn’t going to be allowed to compete.

He then took his horse to an animal hospital and paid $5,000 to have him cured. As he left, he got a call from the government. His horse was going to be confiscated and then put down.  So he and a friend, who also had a horse confiscated, decided to say a last good-bye. However when they arrived, they decided to rescue the horses instead. So they stole a trailer and escaped. The story made the papers and there was a big search but neither the horses nor their owners were ever found.

After a few months of laying low in Texas, Miguel’s horse is now back racing in Kansas City while Miguel has returned to Guatemala.

          At the height of his success, Miguel lived a life of luxury. He bought a house and a car. One story that we couldn’t wrap our heads around was that he once spent $40,000 in 15 days. He decided to go on vacation to California and stayed at a ridiculously expensive hotel popular among celebrities. For breakfast he spent $125 and all that was served was scrambled eggs, the exact same thing as we had just eaten for dinner outside of a tiny house where five people sleep in the one room.

When asked for the reason of such lavish spending, his answer was simple: “I wanted to, and I could.” He told us that he had slept on the streets and lived the worst of the worst. He wanted a chance to experience the best of the best. To us it seemed crazy but having experienced extreme poverty he relished the experience of living like a king.
















Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Guatemala # 7: Immigration, The Other Side

This is the first of two posts on immigration/emigration.  Next up, Julia's story of a man who had it made across the border, then lost it all.

One night Julia and I have dinner in Panachel, Guatemala, at Lake Atitlan, with a man who owns an art gallery, frame shop and a lumber yard and once owned a construction company.  “I’ve employed about a hundred people over the years and every one who had skills or gumption went to the United States or tried,” Thomas Shaefer Cru tells us.

To become acquainted with Guatemala is to see the other side of the immigration issue in the United States: emigration and the remittances which have changed lives in Latin countries.  Money made up north multiplies many times back home.  Even when making little money, immigrants typically send money home.  A survey of 49 families in the region where Semilla Nueva works showed that 29 percent received some income from the United States.  Central America is poor but would be poorer still without emigration to the United States. 

Most studies of the subject make clear that immigration is a net benefit to the United States today, as it has been from the beginning. 

Israel is a farmer who lived one of the poorest communities, renting land and for 15 years saving for a home of his own.  Someone was impressed by his determination and offer him one acre but for an amount twice that of
Israel’s savings.  He said yes, then gambled on 20 acres of watermelon and paid off the other half.  Still he had no house.

A son in the U. S. helped him build one until running out of money.  Then a second son paid for the roof. 
(A side story: Israel told us he didn’t want to leave his old place until the new one was perfect but before dawn one morning his wife shook him awake and said “Vamos, we are leaving!”  His instinct to hold back

predicted the future, however:  he missed the old place so much he was depressed for three years until cured by a naturopath.) 

Now he’s back in action and expects to bring 500 pounds of pigeon peas to market next year making, maybe, $100.  We walk his field in the rain.  He’s experimenting by the color of his seeds:  will black or white be more valuable than brown?

Some variation of this tale could be recited over and over.  Our leaky border and higher-than-Guatemala wages have been a salvation for many Guatemalans  and prevented even more from coming north--in other words, money sent home helps Guatemalans to stay in Guatemala.

Another side of the story, however, is of a woman whose family fled their home in Huehuetenango because the government was killing her neighbors and family during the war.  Afterwards, her children had nothing to live for so all went “under the water,” as she said.  She has a place to live now but is so lonely that when her house is empty, “I go to my room and cry.”   In this picture she is happy to be at a Semilla Nueva recipe-sharing lunch.

How great is the pressure to go north?  An April 30, 2011, story in the New York Times showing hundreds of Central American emigrants on the top of rail cars, said that the number of arrests for illegal border crossers from the Central American countries doubled in 2010.  The U. S. has pressured Mexico to crack down on those crossing through it but surely nothing like what the U. S. is undertaking.
Of the farmers in Semilla Nueva, several have come home or stayed home to make it on a small farm.  This will become more important over time.  As  the seals its borders, the escape valve will partially close.  Climate change could easily make matters worse, and may be doing so already. 


Although extended families often live together, a small farm can typically support only one family.  Where do all the young men find work (for it is still mostly the men who work outside the home)? 

The largest crop on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala is sugar cane, farmed on very large tracts.  Not only are cane farms cleanly laid out and beautiful but the highway going through them is noticeably better.  This is industrial agricultural.  Coca Cola has a large plant here to take advantage of sugar at its doorstep.

Young men have found peon employment on these farms as long as they have existed.  It is dirty work, fearfully hot at times and physically punishing.  It pays poorly.   However it is a job.  But for how long?

Brazil is the sugar cane king country, turning much of it into ethanol, and it has learned how to do this mechanically with far less labor.  We learned while here that Guatemalan sugar farmers expect to mechanize within five years, eliminating up to 80 percent of the jobs.    

The Pacific Coast has gone into the palm oil business and several fruits such a papaya are grown here.  New crops such as pigeonpeas  and new jobs must be found. 



Sunday, August 25, 2013

Guatemala #6 Touring Guatemala, Shadowed by History

If Guatemala could retain its personality and culture while being run by the Swiss, this would be one of the world’s great tourist spots.   As it is, it’s pretty special. 

(Detail of a traditional fabric from San Juan Sacatepéquez, from the Ixtel Museum, Guatemala City.)

In front of the church at Jototenango near Antigua.

In most of Guatemala, one is never out of sight of a volcano, which continue to be startling no matter how many time’s you’ve seen them--this one looking east from Antigua. 

Its south-central Highlands are an attractive patchwork of green and varied fields, forests, valleys and mountains.  After bright sunny mornings, rains arrive this time of year, bringing an aura of mystery as clouds drift through.  For a desert-dweller, this is exciting.

To the landscape add the Mayan people who make up 70 percent of Guatemala’s population--a handsome lot with ready smiles and strong features that age well.  Now clothe them in some of the most audacious colors and combinations in the world.  Everyone can identify traditional Mayan clothing; it’s close to being a cliche.  Nonetheless it's still powerful to see.  While cheap clothing from up north has converted many to western dress, a remarkable number in the Highlands still dress as before.  A whole lot of traditional attire is dropping away but the first-time visitor doesn’t know the difference.

Finally, add the extravagant Spanish architecture of the 16 century and the habit of painting otherwise ordinary buildings outrageous combinations of colors.   All this makes Guatemala a color photographer’s dream locale. 

The photos above are of folks who sold us something, not taken because we were looking for people notably attractive. Yet indeed they are. Likewise, at the Geronimo’s house which we featured two posts ago—30 photos of one family and its guests taken under poor light.  I shot everyone who was there, not just those who were handsome.

Until my last afternoon in the country, I did not look at a photo book and it was all I could do to limit myself to just one new one, on traditional clothing published by the terrific Ixtel Museum in Guatemala City.  Mayan culture is so varied that it features 16 different textile traditions where 21 different Mayan languages are spoken.

Guatemala’s Pacific Coast could be Costa Rica with another history, or so it seems.  An afternoon at the beach and the surf was a trip highlight for me. 

The Department of Peten in the north occupies a third of the country and was once the center of a Mayan world of 9 million people and had the world’s largest city. 

The temples at Tikal, above, rise 200 feet, peaking out of the jungle in Peten, northern Guatemala.  At one time this was the largest city in the world and the large region--up into Mexico--supported nine million people.  Today it supports 500,000, mostly related to the recently-initiated tourist trade.

 After its collapse in about 900 AD, Peten became almost uninhabited and largely unvisited until 40 years ago when the government moved people into the region.  It remains healthily backwater by modern tourist standards, running on compact fluorescent bulbs or no power at all for two-thirds of the day in Tikal.


Lake Atitlan from Casa del Mundo in morning calm.

Atitlan is a spectacular lake completely surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, the result of an eruption so large that the weight of the magma collapsed, creating a lake 1,000 feet deep.  It is a caldera, like Yellowstone, in its own world, climate and ecosystem, perhaps comparable to Lake Tahoe but much larger. 

So steep are its shores and ledges that roads between many of its small communities are impossible.

Casa del Muno on the northern shore of Lake Atitlan, reachable only by boat.

Boats run like buses around and across the lake, loaded with provisions and tourists.  Aldous Huxley famously compared it to Italy’s Lake Como but with volcanoes added, more beautiful than humanly permissible, he said.  Saint-Exupery wrote The Little Prince here and the volcanoes on his planets are from Atitlan.  It is Guatemala’s number one tourist attraction.

Number two must be the old capital of Spanish Central America, Antigua, less than an hour from the airport in Guatemala City.  Founded at the time of Cortez in the early 16th century and as grandiose as Spain could make it, Antigua prospered for 250 years.  Then a terrible earthquake prompted the Spanish to completely abandon it—to the point of forbidding people to live there—in favor of Guatemala City in l773.  It was gradually reoccupied and today its massive fallen walls and ruins are embraced by upscale hotels and make inviting subjects for photographers. 

A lap pool next to a garden of ruins at Hotel Ciroli in Antigua
Typical courtyard in the inexpensive EuroMayo Hotel in Atigua.
 Antigua has dozens of places to learn Spanish and many high-end shops and restaurants.  My friend and fellow Post Company board member, Joe Call and his wife Nola, spent Holy Week here and said he could happily spend the rest of his life at his hotel. 

But the Swiss do not run Guatemala.  You can’t take a train anywhere.  Roads can be rough.  Its people are remarkable buoyant and cheerful but in the pattern of Third World Countries women with children in tow are frequently pushing trinkets on you and there is a shabbiness to small market towns, not uncommon in Latin America.

For most, tourism is “If it’s Tuesday this must be Antigua” variety, rotating through a few places.  


Guatemala was misused by the Spanish, of course, and, in modern times was set up for United Fruit and similar multi-nationals, which still occupy large portions of the land.  Democratic reform came to Guatemala in the late l940’s, which worked great when limited to education and social services.  But when the government of Jacobo Arbenz forced the sale of some large landholdings in 1954, for what its owners had said it was worth for tax purposes, two cents an acre, the CIA--in a move as bold and ill-fated as removing the elected leader of Iran for the Shah--saw to it that Arbenz was tossed out in a military coup. 

There seems to have been a straight line between the coup and the brutal civil war which tore up Guatemala for 30 years and lives on today, both in the destruction of culture and distrust of government.


In Guatemala as in Argentina and Chile, many were "disappeared."  In fact, more disappeared in Guatemala than in those two better-known notorious cases. 

The uprising began in the late l950's and  a peace accord was finalized only in l996.  We were told the war is still not being taught or discussed in school.  These images above, from a large photographic account of the war published recently, perhaps shows a willingness to acknowledge the painful past.

Income inequality and absolute poverty remain.  This leads the ambitious to try to make it to the United States.
Guatemala has made progress in recent times.  The government may be more honest, well-intentioned and competent than its popular reputation. There is greater freedom of speech.  But if government gets things done it does so in spite of its perception among the populous.  Guatemala City has a reputation as a dangerous place, to be passed through quickly, (I spent two comfortable afternoons there in IXTEL Museum and Sophos bookstore so you couldn’t prove it by me).  The military’s mobilization to deal with (or not deal with) drugs mean that shopping for jade in Antigua requires protection by a heavily armed guard.  That may be reassuring but Switzerland this is not.

Unless you turn a deaf ear, there are tough stories behind beautiful places around Lake Atitlan.  A few days after being there, I had dinner with a woman from Great Britain, Claire McKeown Davies and her husband, Chris, an acting teacher from the Old Vic in Bristol.  Claire was working for Oxfam USA at a time when it was heavily involved in the cause of the poor farmers from whom the revolt against the government had sprung.  When she came to Santiago Atitlan on the lake in l990, the government had just mowed down peasants from 13 villages who had marched, unarmed, on the military base outside of town.  “It was a tense time,” she understates.  Oxfam had become accustomed to the CIA raiding its offices in search of evidence against the rebels.

On the wall of the Catholic Church in Santiago Atitlan is this picture of  a priest from Oklahoma in his coffin.  The president of Guatemala declared him a communist and he was then murdered.  

 Another story from Antitlan finds me again amazed by what by my country gets itself into.  When the Guatemalan government brutally repressed the revolt, it concurrently tried to pacify the Mayans in particularly with social and agricultural programs, which came to be called “Tortillas, rifles and beans.”  This included attempts to improve agriculture—through, for example, ag extension, which inevitably taints similar governmental attempts today.  The U.S. supported both the rifles and the tortillas and beans.

As part of this, the State Department decided to make Lake Atitlan a world-class sport fishing site.  After study, it supported the introduction of the black bass which, it turns out, ate the lesser fish and today Atitlan has neither sport fishing nor sustainable fishing.  
No one forces those who tour Guatemala to look into its most painful history  and most happily choose to avoid the whole thing.  For them we close with more of what's lovely about Guatemala: first, the full view of a huipil or upper garment of Guatemala women, this from San Juan SacatepĂ©quez.....

A food market scene from Santiago Atitlan....

... some roadside flowers--not the least bit unusual as they were sold in many little stalls on the rainy road from Panachel to Antigua. 






Saturday, August 24, 2013

Guatemala # 5 The "Tin" Roof Shelters the World

400 words, reading time 90 seconds

Look over a barrio in Caracas, a slum in Nairobi or a flavela in Rio and you will see much the same thing:  corrugated metal roofing.  All hail this under-heralded technology!

For some time modern architects have used common “tin” roofing in places, knowing it will become attractive with rust.  But for the world’s poor and many middle-class, it's not about appearance.  What other product has brought more comfort and material safety than galvanized and corrugated metal, whatever it may be called?

Thatched roofs have been common around the world and in history.  Earthen tile roofs are found throughout the tropical zone, sheltering millions who can afford them and offering a long useful life.  However tile is beyond the reach of most of people living there.   Acquiring a sheet or two of metal which is corrugated, so as to overlay one sheet tightly against another and channel water, is an early goal of the less well off around the world.

I’ve never seen corrugated roofing held up as one of the great inventions of modern technology but why is it not high on such a list? Dampness brings disease and death.  Thatched roofs catch fire and can host insects and pests.  Not tin roofs.  Yes, they are hot; tile is better.  But what is within reach of most people?  Plastic, but it doesn’t last long or maintain its protective value like metal.

In the little resort town of Isla de Flores, Guatemala, I took these two photos from my middle-class hotel in a middle-class neighborhood: corrugated metal roofing as far as the eye can see, first looking east, then looking west. 


Corrugated metal also serves as fencing.  To my eye, it may look like an architect has
been at work when someone of limited means was merely filling a gap or enclosing a space.

It’s a great thing metal roofs are already widely installed because I’m told their cost has risen several-fold during the Great Recession.  I can’t verify this from a Google search.  Metal remains widely used and the technology evolves.  What we can say is that there no better substitute in sight. 

Long live the “tin” that shelters ordinary people around the world!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Guatemala #4 Looking One Family in the Eye

538 words, reading time 2.5 minutes.  Appreciating time a little longer

 Today Semilla Nueva is in Comunidad Andres Giron on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala for another community meal meant to improve nutrition by demonstrating new recipes with more protein, vitamins and minerals.  For me—and for you—however, it’s a chance to meet an extended Guatemalan family and see a little of who they are and how they live.  The food SN is promoting—higher protein corn, a spinach-like vegetable called chaya and pigeonpeas or gangul—will be covered more fully in a later post. 

We’re in the home Gabino and Gloria Geronimo which consists of three rooms under corrugated tin roofing plus several large plastic tarps covering part of a compound which is home to the usual free-range residents:  chickens, ducks, turkeys, puppies, cats and pigs.  Gabino calls himself “Father Abraham” but how many kids did Abraham have, anyway?  (And does he expect an angel to come and put Gloria through it all again?)

Gabino and Gloria have 13 children, eight boys and five girls, seven of them married and several living nearby.   One large bedroom accommodates 11 adults in queen beds but probably serves many more as children double or quadruple up.  There’s another double bed in the kitchen.  No wonder there’s a big crowd before any neighbors arrive. 

Preparation of the food begins.  Here, high protein corn is mixed with pigeonpeas and wrapped in banana leaves.

This is not a well-to-do family unless you count smiles as currency.  There is a welcome and comfort about the place that puts at ease my habit for analysis.  Gabino is full of himself during in two talks over the afternoon in which he pushes protein-rich food and Semilla Nueva. Gloria slices corn from the cob with a machete as the first among many preparing the meal.  I am introduced to several daughters-in-law but lose track before long.  The crowd grows as children return from school.


These kids read the recipes from Semilla Nueva's cookbook for me...great readers!

Above, the Semilla Nueva cookbook of meals with high nutritional value.  Guatemala has one of the highest concentrations of malnourished children n the world.

This young man has a friendly parrot which was passed into many hands.


The meal consists of a huge vat of a hot, thick drink called Acol de Elote which is made from the young, sweet corn with which Americans are most familiar (elote), and corn and pigeonpea wrapped in banana leaves.  The protein content of this meal will be considerably higher than the typical Guatemalan version because pigeonpeas or gangul are a principal ingredient.

But this is a bit academic compared to the experience of simply being here. 

I am a poor guide to Mayan families so let me continue to introduce you to the family and their guests simply, through pictures:




One of the sons, seen above in close-up, and below as he goes off to the fields with a pesticide spray pump on his back.  It's dangerous to his health but lots of young men do it.

After a while some women and girls begin to braid each other/s here, Julia being the girl in blue.

As I prepare to leave, Gabino wants to know if I am Catholic.  I answer yes, which seems to please him.  He fetches a picture of his family with  Fr. Andres Giron, Giron being an Orthodox Catholic priest still working elsewhere in Guatemala after whom the community is named. 

I’m told there is some conflict in the community between Catholic and Evangelical Christians, who seem to have donated the community water pump next door given by a church in Christ’s name. 

Guatemala is a “Catholic country” but from everything I can see, the religious initiative seems to come with the evangelicals.  Someone  counted 22 evangelical churches in Santiago Atitlan (which we will visit soon), and its not a large place.  The same seemed true in Korea.

 Communities typically have 400 families.  The Geronimo family must throw the Catholic-Evangelical balance off all by itself, a throw-back to old-time Catholicism.  In that spirit I ask, which one of the children should we wish had not been born?  And as for climate, I alone, no doubt, account for more carbon emissions than this entire family.
Everyone drinks from the same well.  No one checks the religion of those who have come today.   

Another good day in Guatemala.