On The Road Blog
Finding a Dignified Life: A Guatemalan Grantee Partner Offers Hope to Returned Migrant Youth
- By Eva Miller on October 8th, 2014
- Category: Blog, Featured, Featured Blog, Home, Latin America and the Caribbean
Imagine that you have just turned 16. In your rural Guatemalan community, this means you are expected to contribute. You also desperately want to contribute—both to help your family out and to feel that you are being useful. However, the options available to you are few: your family’s plot of land barely produces enough to subsist on, and jobs outside of agriculture are nonexistent. When the coyote (smuggler) tells you about Guatemalans who have found work in the US—a country allegedly without poverty—the possibility seems almost too good to be true. Leaving would mean giving up everything you have and more, but you just don’t see any other way forward.
Recently, we were lucky to have the coordinators of one of our Guatemala partners, Colectivo Vida Digna, visit us at our DC office. They spoke with our team about their work with unaccompanied migrant youth, all of whom are of indigenous Mayan descent and have been returned from the US to Guatemala.
Colectivo Vida Digna, which translates to “A Dignified Life,” began working with returned migrant youth in 2010 as part of the Guatemalan Child Return and Reintegration Project, a partnership between GFC and the US-based organization KIND (Kids in Need of Defense).
Colectivo Vida Digna recognizes that the needs of these returned youth are many, and for this reason its services are comprehensive. In addition to facilitating the initial reunification between the youth and their families, Colectivo Vida Digna provides skills-building workshops, counseling, mentorship, referrals to medical services, and connections to vocational training and internship opportunities for returned youth and other members of their families in the Western Highlands region of Guatemala.
The organization also holds workshops, both for returned migrant youth and for youth who may be at risk of migrating, to generate discussion about the causes and consequences of migration so that youth can make informed decisions about migrating and can seek alternatives to migrating.
Promoting critical thinking about the myriad of complex social, political, and economic factors that contribute to the phenomenon of large-scale migration is central to the organization’s work. It is important not only for prevention purposes but also for helping returned youth who have been deported from the US to gain perspective on what has happened to them and feel empowered to transition back into their home communities.
As Colectivo Vida Digna coordinators Carlos Escalante Villagrán, Ely López Huinil, and Anna Aziza Grewe attest, returned migrant youth are often unaware of all of the factors working against them on their journey to the US, and as a result they view their deportation as a personal failure, or feel it happened because they just “didn’t have enough faith” that everything would work out.
The most important aspect of Colectivo Vida Digna’s reintegration and support program, as well as what sets it apart from other initiatives for returned migrant youth, is its grounding in Mayan culture. Many parents of returned youth do not speak Spanish and have never been to the capital of Guatemala, so the prospect of making a trip there to collect their deported son or daughter becomes prohibitively complex. Colectivo Vida Digna’s culturally appropriate services, provided in local indigenous languages, are therefore essential to the success of the family reunification process.
As a fundamental element of its follow-up reintegration services, the organization encourages returned youth to understand and appreciate the richness of Mayan language, cultural practices, and beliefs. The greater self-esteem, enhanced sense of identity, and stronger community ties that the youth develop through this process are what prompt them to seek alternatives to migration, and prepare them to confront the poverty, lack of opportunities, and discrimination that they face in their home communities.
Upon their return to Guatemala, not only must migrant youth endure feelings of shame and failure and cope with the trauma and hardships they likely experienced en route to or in the US, but they are often in much worse condition financially than before they attempted to migrate.
Usually the most serious and immediate problem that returned youth face is their mounting debt. In Guatemala, as in other Central American countries, migration is a business that involves the smuggling of people, and a coyote’s fees are not cheap. Oftentimes families mortgage their homes and take out large loans in order for just one member to migrate, in hopes that the money the migrant earns in the US will be more than enough to repay the debt. Youth who are deported at the border or who never reach the US do not have the opportunity to earn money to send back to their families, yet when they return they still must repay their debts, often with high interest.
According to Colectivo Vida Digna, many returned migrant youth owe upwards of $5,000, with interest, but the typical work they are able to find in Guatemala only pays them around $70 per month. This financial burden is overwhelming, but with the support services provided by Colectivo Vida Digna, many youth have gained work skills, have found jobs, and are now slowly climbing their way out of debt.
The Colectivo Vida Digna team shared with us the story of Edwin, a K’iche Mayan youth, who left for the US at 16. Unable to help support his family in his hometown of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, he was motivated by the possibility of finding work in the US and sending money home. Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan is a new municipality that was settled by people who were displaced by a tropical storm in 2005.
Although the government provided some support to rebuild dwellings, the land in the town’s new location is arid and unsuited to agriculture, and the region is fittingly called Alaska. There are also no job alternatives to agriculture, creating a situation of economic desperation for local residents in which migration becomes practically an obligation.
Edwin convinced his dad to take out a loan for $3,900 to pay his coyote, explaining to him that going to the US was his one opportunity to make something of his life. He traveled on top of the train, referred to by migrants as “la bestia” (the beast), and many times went more than a day without eating. He hid in a tiny house with what he estimates were more than 100 other migrants near the US-Mexico border for 18 days, where he ate only one meal of beans, two tortillas, and one egg per day and endured extreme heat.
On day 35 of his journey, he was detained at the US border. From the border, he was transferred to a shelter in Houston, where he spent six months while his case was being processed. Finally, Edwin was given a court hearing, and he was presented with the option to be returned voluntarily to Guatemala.
During this time, KIND had been in touch with the US Department of Healthy and Human Services and with Colectivo Vida Digna about Edwin’s case, and Colectivo Vida Digna had communicated with Edwin’s family and visited his home community. Despite these careful preparations for Edwin’s return and reintegration, Colectivo Vida Digna was given only 12 hours’ notice of Edwin’s arrival in Guatemala—barely enough time to notify his family so that they could rent a pickup to collect their son at the airport.
Since Edwin’s return to Guatemala, Colectivo Vida Digna has accompanied Edwin and his family through the reintegration process. The orientation that Colectivo Vida Digna provides to returned youth and their families promotes family unity, cultural pride, and self-esteem. The Colectivo Vida Digna team worked closely with Edwin to develop a life plan: Edwin decided he was unable to re-enroll in school because he needed to work to pay off his debt, so he opted instead to apprentice with a construction company.
Now, a year and a half after his return, Edwin works building houses, and both he and his sister continue as active participants in Colectivo Vida Digna’s workshops. Despite this and other apparent “success stories,” the Colectivo Vida Digna team is quick to emphasize that the process of reintegration is never easy, as there are no simple solutions to the myriad of challenges that returned migrant youth face.
With all of the recent focus on the humanitarian crisis involving unaccompanied minors from Central America at the US border, Colectivo Vida Digna’s visit to DC was particularly timely. It was extremely enriching and informative for us here at GFC to learn from Colectivo Vida Digna’s keen understanding of the local context in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, as well as to be able to put a human face on a problem that is complex and so often reduced to statistics.
We are grateful for the work that Colectivo Vida Digna continues to carry out, helping Guatemalan youth and their families to live a “dignified life.” It is our sincerest hope that any response to the current humanitarian crisis will be informed by the expertise and extensive experience of local, frontline grassroots organizations like Colectivo Vida Digna.
If you are interested in connecting with Colectivo Vida Digna or learning more about the organization’s work, please contact Eva Miller, Associate Program Officer for Mexico and Central America, at firstname.lastname@example.org.