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. 



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