Over the months I’ve traveled throughout Guatemala, I’ve met many friends here, and occasionally, as we’ve discussed the U.S. in conversation, I’ve asked them a question:
Quieres ir allí, algún día?
Do you want to go there, someday?
Though no one I’ve met has voluntarily spoken a single bad word about the U.S., the answer, to this direct question, usually involves a shy shrug, perhaps a bowed head.
A friend I met recently here in Cobán replied with this:
“I don’t think I’m wanted there.”
Another friend, in Guatemala City responded, shaking his head:
“I can’t put myself through that.”
I could predict the answer, but each time, it breaks my heart over again.
It makes me think of the caravan of migrants currently making its way through Mexico and toward the U.S. border — the group of a few thousand young men, mothers and babies from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that has so captured the nation and become something of a political prop heading into tomorrow’s midterm elections.
It makes me think of the stories I’ve read and the photos I’ve seen at stops along the dusty route — of hobbled old men, of blistered feet, of tired, crying toddlers, of a weary, hungry mass of people who are, indeed, putting themselves through that.
It makes me wonder how bad it needs to be.
These friends of mine, the kinds of people I’m inclined to meet on my travels in general, are much better off than many of their countrymen. They live in cities and towns. They have jobs. They can afford to eat out at restaurants and drink beers at bars and live normally. They’re not wealthy, but they’re doing fine. They have families here. They have friends. Foods and cultures, specific to place. There is so much pride for their country, for their town, for their home.
They don’t want to leave, certainly not for good.
I’ve also seen glimpses of immense hardships.
In Panajachel, there were so many kids hard at work that it threatened to desensitize a person. They were everywhere — boys pulling wheelbarrows full of snacks with their tiny arms; girls balancing baskets of trinkets atop their heads; both helping their mothers at lakeside stands — collecting the beer bottles, delivering ceviches, shining shoes as their eyes drift to the fútbol game on TV.
They can’t understand money or business, but somehow they understand the great importance of procuring coins — sometimes breaking down into tears when strangers decline to buy what they peddle. In their watery eyes, I’ve seen despair that should be far beyond their reach.
Their childhoods have been stolen. I imagine this pains the parents greatly. But still they haven’t left. Still they stay.
How bad does it have to be?
I’ve seen many beggars on the streets, perhaps especially in Cobán, people who say they haven’t eaten in days, people who say they can’t feed their children.
I’ve seen many with handicaps — missing arms, missing eyes, diseased legs, cleft lips. The longer I’ve stayed, I’ve realized that there is no great safety net for those who go through such trials. Social programs, far from the entitlement status they are in the U.S., are spread thin. In Guatemala, if you come upon terrible luck — two years of minimal rain kills your crops, your legs are taken in a horrific incident — for many there is no where to go but the streets.
And still, these people haven’t left. Still they stay.
How bad does it need to be?
I met people in Guatemala City who didn’t feel that they could walk around their hometown because of extreme crime and violence.
They’re confined to specific blocks and barrios; to certain sides of the street; to lit corners; wary of even driving at night.
Regularly, they get word of beatings, stabbings, killings. In the city limit alone, there are some dozens of gangs.
And still they haven’t left. Still they stay.
How bad does it need to be?
And if these are the people that stayed, who has left?
How bad was it?
I have no doubt that the worst of it has been shielded from me. I have not trekked to out-of-the-way indigenous villages where the malnutrition percentages among children jump to well over 50 percent. I have not wandered into the worst of the crime-ridden areas to see who manages there.
But even so, I understand that it would take a lot for any of us to make that decision — to uproot, to leave our homes, our families, our country, our cultures and all that we know; to go without guaranteed access to food and water; to walk some 4500 miles; to drag our children and carry our babies all that way; to arrive, finally, a place we already know full well doesn’t want us.
How bad was it?
The photos show strollers; little girls in princess shirts; families sleeping, stacked, on pavement; parents pulling their son in a toy car and carrying nothing but two small backpacks and a plastic bag.
There was no work.
There was no food.
Their loved ones were murdered by gangs.
Their children were in danger.
Their departure is a plea to a far more privileged nation that they’re in severe trouble, and they need help. But they’re not misinformed. They realize they could be heading toward danger still, perhaps toward more U.S. military troops than are currently in Syria fighting ISIS, as our president has promised.
I met a young mother, originally from Bolivia, on a shuttle to Lanquín this past weekend. She and her husband, originally from Guatemala, have lived in the states for many years and now live in Guatemala City. Her kids were beautiful and bilingual but understood already the sense of being unwanted.
“I fear the troops may be given the OK to shoot” at the caravan migrants, she said. “But worse, I fear there are many in the states who will be OK with it.”
Most in the caravan are aware of the risks. Still, they walk.
“We prefer to die on the American border,” said one woman quoted in a New York Times article, “than die in Honduras from hunger.”
So they’re heading toward the U.S. — not someday but now; not because they’re intrigued but because they’ve exhausted their choices. They’re wearing through flip flop soles; they’re drinking from rivers; they’re showering with buckets; they’re sleeping under plastic bags in the rain; they’re burning in the sun; they’re shivering in the night; they’re evacuating; they’re escaping; they’re saying bitter goodbyes; they’re putting themselves through this with a dimming hope as the only driving force; with a secure knowledge that nothing, nothing, can be worse than what they’ve left.
How bad was it?
Thanks to our great privilege, we can’t really understand; we can only imagine.