Braving Tragedy: Young Guatemalans In Pursuit Of U.S. Dream DESPITE Grim Losses

By Alan Hume | Friday, 12 April 2024 03:00 PM
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In the humble mud-brick bedroom of her parents in Comitancillo, Guatemala, 17-year-old Glendy Aracely Ramírez has spent nearly two years praying by an altar.

The altar, adorned with a large crucifix, also holds a picture of her sister Blanca, a 23-year-old migrant who perished with 50 others in a smuggler's tractor-trailer in Texas.

Glendy's prayers are twofold: for her family's health and for her own journey to the United States. "My mom asks God that she won't have to see another accident," she shared. Despite the postponement of her journey due to escalating violence among Mexican drug cartels that control migrant routes to the U.S., Glendy remains resolute.

Her determination mirrors that of tens of thousands of young people from this region who, despite the deadly risks, choose to leave their homes in search of a better future. Blanca's fatal journey was her third attempt to reach the U.S. "I want to go there, because here there are no opportunities, even though Mom says that I'll suffer what Blanca did," Glendy confessed, sitting with her mother, Filomena Crisóstomo, in their tidy dirt-floor courtyard.

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The escalating numbers of migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have made migration a top concern in this U.S. presidential election year. Among these migrants, the largest group of unaccompanied minors has been from Guatemala — nearly 50,000 of the 137,000 encounters recorded by border authorities in the last fiscal year.

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Most of these migrants hail from tiny hamlets in the predominantly Indigenous Western Highlands. Here, daily wages barely reach $9, significantly below the supposed legal minimum. Many families, living off the corn and beans they grow on tiny plots of brittle clay soil, are constantly reminded of the potential prosperity in the U.S. by the multi-story concrete homes in their communities, built with remittances from loved ones in the United States.

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In Comitancillo, two murals serve as a stark reminder of the perils of migration. They memorialize the nearly two dozen local migrants who died in recent mass tragedies, either asphyxiating in the trailer in San Antonio, Texas, in June 2022, or shot and set afire by rogue police officers in Camargo, Mexico, in January 2021.

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The Rev. José Luis González, a priest with the Jesuit Migration Network, noted that nearly all of the families affected by the massacre have since had at least one relative migrate to the U.S. "It’s an evident sign that the fear to stay is bigger than the fear to go," he said.

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The Jesuit group has been a constant presence for these families, providing legal updates, psychological, humanitarian, and pastoral assistance. They recently held workshops to help relatives of those lost in Camargo or San Antonio process their depression and grief.

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Virgilio Ambrocio, one of the few fathers at the meeting, lost his eldest daughter, Celestina Carolina, in the trailer tragedy. She had been making less than $90 a month as a housekeeper in Guatemala City and sending half of that back home to help feed her siblings. "The hardest part is, who’s going to help us now," Ambrocio lamented.

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Ursula Roldán, a researcher at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City, identified the primary driver of migration over the past 10 years as the inability to secure jobs that pay for basic necessities. This issue is compounded by the debts families incur to pay smugglers, which would take a decade's worth of in-country wages to repay.

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Rising violence in the Mexican regions bordering Guatemala and the effects of climate change on subsistence farming are also pushing more migrants to head to the U.S.

Reina Coronado, a mother of eight, has tried to convince her children not to risk their lives. However, her daughter Aracely Florentina Marroquín, 21, decided to migrate after feeling she had wasted her family’s money in studying since she still couldn’t get a professional job.

Marcelina Tomás has been praying for strength since her oldest son, Anderson Pablo, was murdered in Camargo. Recently, his younger brother Emerson, 17, also migrated to the U.S. Anderson had been working in the fields alongside his father, earning around $6 a day. Their wages were enough to afford tortillas each day for the family of 11, but not much else.

Anderson's dream was to earn enough to move the family from their one-room, mud-brick house to a concrete one with separate spaces for his parents, his brothers, and his sisters. They now live in such a house, built with donations received after his death. However, the room with the altar remains empty. They’re keeping it as Anderson’s room.

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