Immigration is a central force of life in my town. Everyone I know has a family member who has lived in the US. What’s more the municipality estimates some 5,000 to 7,000 people from my town still reside in the United States, some with legal residency and others not. Some have been as long as 15 or 20 years without returning to see family, without seeing the sons they conceived. Some will never return, due to dangers in the crossing, trouble with gangs or drugs in the US, fear or distaste for returning here. Many are children, US citizens, who have never seen Guatemala and rarely have heard their parents’ mother tongue.
If you can even imagine the scale of this migration, at one point there were over 700 men from my town working in the same turkey slaughterhouse in North Carolina. There are few families here now without a big US-style house, improved-wood-burning stove, electricity and running water. Many have much more: a television, a computer, a video-camera, a car, a gas stove, a hot-water heater, money to send the kids to high school.
If life has improved significantly in my town since 1990, I would argue it is not for the major part due to the work of NGOs or the central government or well-intentioned Peace Corps Volunteers. It is because thousands of people – completely outside of any formal system - risked their lives, sacrificed their families, their children, and comfort, worked 60 hours a week for years, with little recognition or benefit, save for the knowledge of an exchange rate that would favor their savings back home.
There are real people behind these stats, some of whom you may know over there, and many others that I know here- still trying to calculate the balance of the gambit they made years ago.
Take my friend Elida for instance. Life has not been easy for her since she returned to Guatemala after 12 years away. Her eldest son was 4 when she and her husband left him with his grandmother and took off. He won't talk to her anymore. Like other young men in town, the memory of the betrayal has all but poisoned him, and he grows his hair long, wanders around with a local “gang”, has quit school, drinks heavily. He openly detests his younger siblings, ages 8 and 10, both US citizens– and recently provoked a serious fistfight with his mother. Meanwhile the guilt sits on his mother's back, unmoving as she quietly goes about reconciling reality with the dreams that pushed her to cross two borders and leave behind her child.
Her youngest kids had a tough time at first on returning to Guatemala. They were picky about local food (tamales, herbs, boiled potatoes), teased at school for not speaking Mam, struggled to read Spanish. They acted out, missing their father and their old lives. The most animated I saw them was when we made tunafish sandwiches once, for the first time since they'd returned to Guatemala. They ate happily, chatting on and on about the US, asking for seconds and even thirds. Such a simple thing with so much memory, meaning, comfort behind it.
Months later, they’re adjusting somewhat and doing alright in school. Their mother is heavily involved in the Catholic church and weaves to make extra income and pass the time. And perhaps their father will finally come home this Christmas. But they're haunted by their older brother, who has physically hit their mother on various occasions. Their mother, for her part, is not sure she believes herself anymore when she says her husband will be coming soon.
Given the wide the effects of immigration - greater financial security and material comfort, loss of cultural and social identity, familial disintegration, and increased consumerism – it would be impossible to say that immigration has been all good or all bad for my town. It has been both. It is both. It is the people’s solution, and one that they will always try to employ so long as it is so difficult to make a good, steady living here. It turns out that economic desperation is something you can't legislate away.