published Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Money sent from U.S. changes landscape of Guatemalan town

A picture of Karen Sales Morales, now 13, her brother Esduard Sales Morales, now 12, and Heidi Sales Morales, now 10, is on display in their home in Aldea el Xab, Retalhuleu Guatemala. Their father left in 2002 and lives in Chattanooga, while their mother, Angela Surama Morales, returned two years ago after she got detained in an immigration raid at the local Pilgrim's Pride plant in 2008.
A picture of Karen Sales Morales, now 13, her brother Esduard Sales Morales, now 12, and Heidi Sales Morales, now 10, is on display in their home in Aldea el Xab, Retalhuleu Guatemala. Their father left in 2002 and lives in Chattanooga, while their mother, Angela Surama Morales, returned two years ago after she got detained in an immigration raid at the local Pilgrim's Pride plant in 2008.
Photo by Perla Trevizo.
Between Two Worlds
Pew Hispanic Center report on unauthorized immigrants and immigration impact
Pew Hispanic Center report on unauthorized immigrants and immigration impact

EL XAB, Guatemala — It took Surama Morales five years of plucking feathers, pulling bones from chicken carcasses and washing the birds’ breasts to pay off the $4,200 she borrowed to pay a smuggler to help her cross into the United States.

And the very week after she paid off the loan, she was arrested in a federal immigration raid at the Chattanooga Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant and sent back to Guatemala.

“I cried bitter tears because I had nothing,” she said three years after the April 16, 2008, raid while sitting on her front porch in the village of el Xab, near Guatemala’s western coast. “But my parents would say, ‘At least you are coming back alive and not dead.’”

Immigration is a fierce political issue in the United States, dividing not only political parties but communities and even families. Some say the immigrants are a tremendous drain on the country, while others say they are absolutely necessary and a boon.

But in countries such as Guatemala, where huge numbers of adults and children migrate to faraway American towns and cities, immigration is viewed through an entirely different lens — it is seen as hope.

Guatemalans such as Morales are willing to take huge risks to get to the United States. They borrow thousands of dollars, sometimes just to be turned away at the border. They risk dehydration and death crossing the desert.

And they leave behind family members without knowing when — or if — they will see them again.

But for the migrants who make it, the payoffs are great. They have a chance of earning enough to change their lives back home. With American dollars they can afford things out of their grasps on Guatemalan wages of a few dollars a day — better houses, education, a chance at climbing out of poverty.

Those potential rewards prompt migrants to pack a bag as Morales did and set out for the North.

* * *


2010 estimates

* United States: $4.5 billion

* Georgia: $113 million

* Tennessee: $39 million

* Alabama: $5 million

Source: International Organization for Migration

The village of el Xab, where the Morales family lives, used to be all dirt roads and houses fashioned from bamboo sticks and palm fronds. Dust turned everything the color of faded rust; running water and electric lights were luxuries that few, if any, had.

Surrounded by lemon, tamarind and tall mango trees and located near a crystal-clear river named Xab, the village is isolated.

Many of its residents left, risking everything to reach the United States. Those who made it sent money that gave locals the chance to start building real houses. Bamboo and palm were replaced by cinderblock, and houses and churches painted in blues, oranges and greens now line the paved main roads.

Residents adopted many of the styles seen in American cities. Houses have large front porches, some have a green lawn instead of dust, tile floors instead of dirt. And life doesn’t stop when the sun goes down, because many houses have electricity; some even use fluorescent light bulbs.

American dollars also helped residents start small transportation businesses. The money is used to buy old dented minivans that lack seat belts, and multi-colored American school buses that now stop every few minutes, collecting riders and driving at dangerously fast speeds. The drivers charge a few cents per ride, and the system has become the main means of transportation for the residents of el Xab.

Before, it would take villagers four hours to walk to the larger town of Retalhuleu, but now it’s only a 30-minute drive.

When José Morales, Surama’s brother, left for an eight-year stint in Chattanooga in 1999, the village had only a handful of concrete and brick homes.

“From here up the street, perhaps there were four concrete homes,” he said from the family’s home in a neighborhood called Esperanza del Barrio that sits on a steep, paved street. “When I came back, the majority of people had concrete homes because they have a family member in the United States.”

El Xab is a reflection of what’s been happening across Guatemala since the 1990s, with construction sites popping up in the middle of corn fields and along dirt roads.

* * *


Many Guatemalans “are going from wellwater to potable water, from dirt floors to carpet,” when they immigrate to the United States, said Mauro Guzmán, a congressman who heads the country’s Immigrant Commission.

And Guatemala’s indigenous Mayans face an extra level of difficulty when adapting to a new life in the United States.

A large number of Guatemalans who come to Chattanooga are Mayans. At least 23 Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala, all of them different and nothing that sounds even remotely like Spanish. For many indigenous Mayans, Spanish is a second language.

“There are some aspects that are not seen or treated as a problem in the [Mayan] communities but which they are in the United States,” said Erick Maldonado, the Guatemalan vice minister for foreign relations. “For example, our countrymen may not be aware that’s it is not allowed to walk on the grass or to do their physiological needs in certain places, which, obviously, before the U.S. authorities it’s a transgression.”

To help, Guatemalan authorities started educational campaigns in San Francisco where a large number of Mayans live, Maldonado said.

“They need to know not only their rights but also their obligations,” he said. “We need to educate our countrymen, to teach them how to obey the law and follow directions.”

About 4.5 million Guatemalans depend on money sent home — known as remittances — by 1.4 million immigrants in the United States, according to the International Organization for Migration.

In 2010, Guatemalans living in Georgia sent back $113 million, the eighth-highest amount in the country, the organization reported, while those in Tennessee sent $39 million.

On average, Guatemalans living in America send back $280 to $320 of their $1,500 monthly earnings, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

While working in Chattanooga, Surama Morales and her husband, Benjamin Sales, made $230 to $250 a week after taxes. In her village, those who work in the field, like her father and brother, make less than $20 a week — and that comes only when there’s work.

“Here you work a week to buy a pair of shoes, over there [in the United States], in one day you can buy the same pair of shoes,” José Morales said outside his peach-colored concrete home in el Xab. “Every Guatemalan dreams of the United States.”

A house in a Guatemalan village costs between $15,000 and $20,000.

Last year, Surama Morales used her savings and borrowed money to build her three-bedroom house. She now has electricity and running water a couple of times a week. Her husband is still in Chattanooga and probably won’t return home until they repay the loan, she said.

But there wasn’t enough money for a full kitchen. Surama Morales still cooks in an outdoor bamboo-and-dirt kitchen with no proper ventilation.

She squints as she fries eggs and onions for lunch. The smoke from the wood stove blows directly into her face. Beads of sweat dot her chin and forehead.

The temperatures can get just as hot as a 98-degree Chattanooga summer day. The difference, she said, is that there’s no air conditioner in her village. But she feels lucky. Unlike most of her neighbors, she at least has a refrigerator.

* * *

The work Surama Morales did in Chattanooga was tough, but nothing compared to how her family earns money back home.

A job that may require a worker to slaughter live animals is still easier than eight hours under the sun in the field with not much more than a machete and a pick just to scrape enough money together to eat, said Simión Morales, the family’s patriarch and Surama’s father.

Simión Morales starts his day at 4 a.m. It’s still dark when a red 1988 Toyota pickup truck stops in front of his house. He’s a 66-year-old, small-framed man, a little over 5 feet tall. He has worked in the fields since he was 8 years old and now works on rubber trees — one of Guatemala’s agricultural industries.

When there’s work, he makes about $5 a day, less than the $7.25 minimum wage he would earn in one hour in the United States.

He also harvests green peas, beans and some vegetables, most of which his family eats. And he grows mango trees on a patch of land near his home.

He takes off his shoes, showing callused, dried feet that have gone without footwear and proper care.

To gather the mangoes, he climbs a tree more than 100 feet tall and uses a stick with an attached net to make the fruit fall onto a sack filled with rags. With weathered hands, he then stacks about 150 mangoes one by one into a basket that he sells for about $13.

The whole process takes a couple of hours.

At the end of the day, no matter how hard he worked or how little he rested, he says he couldn’t have afforded the concrete home his son built after five years of working in the United States.

* * *

In Guatemala, those without the means to migrate north wish they could.

“If I had the money, I would leave so I can build my house, but there’s no way of going,” María Alonso said outside her one-bedroom home in el Xab.

The walls of her home are wood planks nailed together, the roof is corrugated metal and the floors are dirt. Alonso, 35, has seven children, from 18 months to 16 years, and only her husband works.

As she spoke, she boiled chicken feet, the only meat she can afford to serve her family. And on her family’s income of about $100 a month, even chicken feet are a luxury that is not served every week.

To cover basic needs, including food, housing, clothing and education, a family of five needs at least $500 a month, according to the Guatemalan Institute of Statistics.

The poorest of the poor rarely migrate, said Aaron Terrazas, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.

“They don’t have the means to go,” he said.

Amelia Sánchez wishes she could come to the United States.

Sánchez is reminded daily of why leaving el Xab is better than staying. Just a few feet from her house — where she has a couple of metal-frame beds with thin mattresses resting against corrugated metal walls, and piles of clothes are stacked almost to the roof — sits the house of her cousin who moved to the United States more than a decade ago.

The cousin’s house is made of concrete with a fresh coat of bright blue paint. It has tile floors, separate rooms and an inside kitchen and bathroom.

Sánchez says emigration can bring suffering but still is worth it. In her view, it doesn’t matter if people emigrate illegally or if families get separated, as long as the end result is a better place to live.

“There’s no work here in Guatemala,” she said. “Some days you have work, other days you don’t.”

Luz Mari, Sánchez’s 16-year-old daughter, tells her she wants to go north but is afraid of walking in the desert.

But Sánchez and her family don’t have enough land to secure a loan to pay the $5,000 that a smuggler charges.

For them, risking their lives for a chance at a better life is just a dream.

MORE: Flow of immigrants slowing

Immigration impact
Immigration changes the lives of both immigrants and their families back home.
about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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TSCinSFO said...

Didn't I see this story yesterday?

July 27, 2011 at 5:05 a.m.
SilenceDogood11 said...

Nope, you didn't, TSCinSFO. See, your confusion stemmed from "Guatemala" showing up in both stories. Here's the tricky part so pay attention. Even though you have a singular view that is pre-determined and unchanging it doesn't mean that two stories on the same subject are as singular as your views.

Oh, you have to excuse me, I forgot that the 2nd comment spot is designated for someone calling for Perla's deportation. I'll check back in around comment 10, where I belong.

July 27, 2011 at 7:07 a.m.
dao1980 said...

It's ok silencedg, I'll call for her deportation in the third comment spot.

All better?

July 27, 2011 at 7:37 a.m.
Wilder said...


Don't you miss El Paso? I hear it is lovely this time of the year.

July 27, 2011 at 7:40 a.m.
SilenceDogood11 said...

Wilder, the very fact that you assume I must be from Mexico or South Texas supports how single minded I say you are. On the contrary, I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. I was raised, and to this day live, in Georgia. You might not find tougher immigration laws than the only two places I've ever called home.

So where do we go from here? What can we attribute to my going against the "deport Perla and all of her kind" grain? Why won't I just assume she's an illegal alien like the rest of you so I can then say she deserves to die?

I'll be honest, I'm stumped. I must be a bad southerner to ignore all the valid, well thought out points each of you have made. Clearly I'm just not hating Mexicans as much as I should be or I'd grab a pitchfork and join you. I'll be back, I'm gonna go listen to a Toby Keith record and see if it will take.

July 27, 2011 at 8:17 a.m.
dao1980 said...

eewwww! C'mon silencedg, Toby Keith? Now that's just plain ol nasty taste in music.

July 27, 2011 at 8:38 a.m.

So, Sdog, are you an anchor baby then? That constitutional embarassment should have been more specific so that anchor babies never happened. I am going with comment 3. Deportation. I don't think they should provide a cushy ride all the way back though. I believe they should be charged the same amount they paid the smuggler to bring them in to take them to the mexican border and should be forced to hoof their way back to guatemala the same way they came in. Illegal is illegal. Seeing illegal immigration as hope is the same way crack addicts view theft and prostitution as hope. Both are illegal.

If that one doesn't work for you, how about seeing a home meth lab as hope to allow you to provide for your family by producing and selling meth?

We don't hate mexicans or guatemalans or any other number of nationalities. We hate criminals. I welcome any and all "legal" migrants. Legality makes you family. Big hug <3.

July 27, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.
SilenceDogood11 said...

FPSE, looks like we agree on all counts. 100% actually. My problem is when the reporter was criticized for being Hispanic. Wanna say she's not a good reporter? Fine, do that. Wanna say you disagree with what she reported and why? Fine, do that. Wanna bring her citizenship into question or say the FBI needs to check her papers? I have a problem.

If you think Mexicans should learn English and come into the country the right way, you're right. What's that have to do with a reporter who's done exactly that, went to the University of Texas and has a master's degree?

If you care so much about Mexicans entering this country the proper way, why isn't Mrs. Trevizo being used as an example of how things are supposed to be done? What, now we don't want Mexican's who don't speak English or have master's degrees?

July 27, 2011 at 11:18 a.m.
Wilder said...


I was born in Dalton. My ggg grandparents are buried here. The town is close to 170 years old, and many of the original settlers' names are still common names around town.

The town was the culmination of over a century and a half of collective family histories, when the Carpet Cartel, independently, made the decision to end it all.

Many of the current residents' ancestors, who are buried in the local cemeteries, participated in all of the major wars that this country has fought to maintain its sovereignty.

And, it all ended practically overnight. The speed at which the town was colonized attracted news media and academics from around the country. The entire sorry process was documented, and it isn't difficult to find the details on the internet.

The summary of one of the academic papers ask the question, can what happened in Dalton be duplicated elsewhere? And the criteria for Dalton's transformation was all laid out:

(1)Find a town with lots of jobs for unskilled and uneducated people.

(2)The principals of the businesses have to be willing to knowingly hire illegal aliens to fill those jobs.

(3)The local politicians have to be willing to cooperate with the business principals to brainwash the town's native residents. Here he spells out specifically that the "Carpet Elite" used the newspaper to accomplish this.

(4)When sufficient numbers of the town's residents speak a different language, and the town's private and public entities are all paralyzed, move in the next wave - the bilinguals.

(5)Displace as many natives as possible from every segment of the town's structure, up to and including, running the local goverment.

Though there is plenty of blame to go around, I reserve most of my contempt for the Carpet Cartel on this matter - many of whom are Dalton natives, and have the gall to still walk the streets of the town.

July 27, 2011 at 11:47 a.m.
SilenceDogood11 said...

Now that is a thought out, educated response. And with that, we've moved past simple accusations and on to civil discussion.

Wilder, serious question. What will fix Dalton?

July 27, 2011 at 11:56 a.m.
Wilder said...

Fix is a relative term. The best option is for the carpet industry, with all of its baggage, to leave. But, it will never happen, and Dalton will never recover. The damage done, is irreparable. Most of the educated young residents will continue to leave, and will never return. Dalton will eventually be absorbed into Atlanta and Chattanooga, as they merge.

July 27, 2011 at 12:15 p.m.
SilenceDogood11 said...

I know you said it would never happen but how could Dalton handle the financial hit of losing the carpet industry? I know how wealthy Dalton is but could it possibly absorb that hit?

July 27, 2011 at 12:18 p.m.

@Silence: Remember the steel industry? What is referred to as the "Rust Belt". No one believed that the steel mills would ever leave Pittsburgh. But they did, because "its business".

The carpet industry will not return to its heyday, and unless they prepare for the change, with new jobs and more diversified industries, Dalton will cease to exist. It will take decades to undo the damage that has been done.

July 27, 2011 at 1:14 p.m.
nucanuck said...


Your point about the Carpet Cartel tells the story. US industry wants unskilled, low dollar labor to hold down the cost of product. The US does not have an easy to access temporary worker program. Result: Corporations encourage, in effect, millions of peasants to "go for it". From the peasants perspective, if they could survive the crossing, they could have a better life. The more who came, the more confidence others had that they too could make it.

The vast majority of illegals are simple, uneducated, unsophisticated people from rural villages who are not criminal types. Why is not American anger directed at the corporate and governmental causes of the inflow rather than at bottom-of-society economic migrants who responded to the lure of ready jobs.

The immigrants are merely a bi-product of US policies, not the incipient cause of the problem. Treating them badly now, after the fact, seems harshly inappropriate.

Might it be more appropriate to move against employers to force them to take extended finacial resposibility for the disposition of those they hired/lured?

July 27, 2011 at 2:04 p.m.
Veritas said...

Here we go again, another article from the queen of pro-illegal alien propaganda, Perla "Propaganda" Trevizo. Arrest the employers, deport the aliens, and please send Perla with them.

July 27, 2011 at 2:13 p.m.
knightboy said...

America is loosing 383 billion dollars a YEAR on government funding to support illegal aliens and money sent back to native countries of the illegal aliens origin! A YEAR that's nearly 1,000,000,000,000 (that means TRILLION) every three years! Plus illegal aliens have taken many good jobs from Tax Paying Citizens (a double negetive). Why in all the debt talks hsan't anyhting like this surfaced for discussion?

I'll tell you why! The debt talks are nothing but an early election campain with free air time for the parties!!

Aerotek at Volkswagen is hiring illegal aliens and I know for a fact that they, this person told me she had no papers. My Mother needs a job, she has taken every test and passed for VW, used all her saved vacation days and has never recieveda "don't call us we'll call you" letter. If I call this #1-866-347-2423 and have said person deported, that just might open a job for my Mother. We as true Americans are going to have to take our country back. STOP the tedious conversations with people who assume that since they use more edjucated terms and proper english, they know what's best for America! When unemployment comes to your front door and there's a low paid illegal alien has taken YOUR job, you'll sing a different tune!!

July 27, 2011 at 3:04 p.m.

@sdog I thought we were talking about Illegal Guatemalans... I agree with the sentiment that the Carpet mills had a great deal to do with attracting illegals. While, I agree they have a good share of the blame, unless it is proven that they are running the smuggling rings, you can't lay 100% of the blame on them.

It is a shame political pandering continues to prevent these businesses from being punished for hiring illegals. Strong laws and penalties would go a long way toward discouraging the behavior.

July 27, 2011 at 3:36 p.m.
rolando said...

I agree with very little of what Ms. Trevizo writes; I do not care for her writing techniques; I only scan what she writes; I am not a fan of sob-sistering.

Mz Trevizo is, however, an accomplished writer...she clearly states her position on the plight of the mestizos here, illegal as their presence may be.

But I do accept people like her at face value and, like many others here, I certainly respect their unrestricted right to say what they want, when they want, and using whatever forum is available to them to say it, without being denigrated solely because of their true name and not for what they said.

OK, I'm off my high horse. Let the games begin...

July 27, 2011 at 6:24 p.m.

"To Murguia, the NCLR IS “Latinos”. ALL Latinos. This despite polls showing many Latinos – when (rarely) asked by the media – disagree with her views on Arizona’s immigration law, and despite many Latinos who have spoken out against illegal immigration."

Perla speaks for La Raza, not for all Latinos.

July 27, 2011 at 6:35 p.m.
SilenceDogood11 said...

Veritas, I have a better idea. How about we compare you and Perla and deport which ever is the less educated and accomplished American citizen? I'll even offer to personally transport the loser. For real though, what's a good time to pick you up?

July 27, 2011 at 9:08 p.m.
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