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.
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REMITTANCES TO GUATEMALA:
* 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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 ...