U.S. flags and fancy homes in Gu­atemala

The so­cio-eco­nomic and emo­tional con­nec­tion be­tween the United States and Gu­atemala.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire - KIRK SEMPLE

Each year, thou­sands of Gu­atemalans cross the Mex­i­can bor­der into the United States in or­der to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies, with a sig­nif­i­cant rise in num­ber since 2007. As a re­sult, a strong so­cio-eco­nomic and sen­ti­men­tal con­nec­tion has been forged be­tween the two coun­tries, and in Gu­atemala, Amer­i­can sym­bols are ev­ery­where.

Chivar­reto, Gu­atemala — Perched high on a moun­tain slope above a ham­let in Gu­atemala, the sign is hard to miss: 10 metal let­ters, each 33-feet-high and painted white, spell­ing out the town’s name. “CHIVAR­RETO.” That the sign calls to mind a much more fa­mous one, in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, is no ac­ci­dent. Res­i­dents proudly re­fer to their ham­let as “Lit­tle Hol­ly­wood,” and their as­so­ci­a­tion with that cor­ner of Amer­ica is heart­felt. 2. The sign was the idea of a group of im­mi­grants from Chivar­reto who were liv­ing in the Los Angeles re­gion and wanted to do some­thing for their birth­place, a ges­ture that both hon­ored the ham­let and un­der­scored its ties to the mi­grants’ adopted

home in the United States. They found in­spi­ra­tion in the Hol­ly­wood sign they could see on their way to jobs on con­struc­tion sites and in restau­rant kitchens. Dozens con­trib­uted what­ever they could af­ford. Au­gusto Ramos, a lo­cal preacher and ra­dio host, said he was liv­ing in Los Angeles at the time and gave $100. Peo­ple in Chivar­reto kicked in more. And the sign was made.


3. While the im­pact of unau­tho­rized work­ers has be­come a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal de­bate in the United States, mi­gra­tion has also had a pro­found in­flu­ence on the many send­ing coun­tries, of­ten creat­ing a deep emo­tional con­nec­tion be­tween the places the mi­grants left and the places they jour­neyed to. For gen­er­a­tions, the western high­lands of Gu­atemala — re­mote, ru­ral and im­pov- er­ished, with a largely in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion — have sent a steady stream of mi­grants north, seek­ing work and a bet­ter life. As a re­sult, the United States and the prom­ises it rep­re­sents loom large in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion here, and sym­bols of Amer­i­can life and cul­ture are ev­ery­where.

4. On a hill over­look­ing the town of Santa Cata­rina Ix­tahua­can, a half-built, two-story man­sion with an os­ten­ta­tious dou­ble por­tico and 12 rooms stands in sharp con­trast to the cor­ru­gated metal shacks and sim­ple cin­der block homes that char­ac­ter­ize more con­ven­tional lo­cal ar­chi­tec­ture. The owner is a 25-year- old unau­tho­rized im­mi­grant liv­ing in New Jersey who works for a com­mer­cial clean­ing com­pany.


5. He has been fund­ing con­struc­tion of the house since he mi­grated to the United States more than a decade ago, send­ing money in spurts to his rel­a­tives who have man­aged the project. In­deed, many of the

newer, larger houses in the ar­eas through­out Cen­tral Amer­ica and Mex­ico that have seen large-scale mi­gra­tion in re­cent decades have been built with such re­mit­tances. “I came here to seek my dream,” the owner, Pas­cual, said in a phone in­ter­view from New Jersey. The house’s de­sign was in­spired by the homes he had seen through­out the New York metropoli­tan re­gion while work­ing for the clean­ing firm. Once con­struc­tion is fin­ished, he will let his fam­ily live there and will join them when he fi­nally re­turns home.

6. The con­nec­tion with the United States in this re­gion of Gu­atemala is also wide- ly ref­er­enced in busi­ness names, evok­ing not just the mem­ory of the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence but also, per­haps, the com­mer­cial power of an Amer­i­can im­pri­matur. In the moun­tain town of San Pe­dro Soloma, a tiny bar­ber­shop, tucked be­hind the main cathe­dral (it­self re­cently re­built in part with do­na­tions from mi­grants), is called “El Norte,” mean­ing “The North.” Its owner, Domingo Manuel Juan, 50, said the name was in­spired by the 12 years he spent in Riverside, Cal­i­for­nia. He chose it, he said, as “a re­minder” of his strug­gle to build a life there.


7. Through­out this re­gion, the U. S. flag, that quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can sym­bol, is an­other re­cur­ring mo­tif, its im­age adorn­ing items as di­verse as cloth­ing, ad­ver­tis­ing and truck mud flaps. In the town of To­dos San­tos Cuchu­matán, the ex­te­rior walls of some homes are dec­o­rated with hand-painted U. S. flags, sig­nal­ing the prove­nance of the money used to build them — a kind of Made in Amer­ica stamp.

8. Mar­cos Matías flies an ac­tual U. S. flag on the roof of his two-story house on the edge of a steep moun­tain slope in To­dos San­tos. He put it up July 4 in honor of In­de­pen­dence Day. Dur­ing the 15 years he lived in San Francisco as an unau­tho­rized im­mi­grant, he said, “we al­ways cel­e­brated In­de­pen­dence Day.” Since re­turn­ing to Gu­atemala three years ago, he has con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion as a show of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the coun­try that was host to him, how­ever un­com­fort­ably, for 15 years.

9. He ac­knowl­edged that life could be very hard in the United States for an im­mi­grant without pa­pers, and that there were many Amer­i­cans who did not ex­actly wel­come him with open arms. But still, he was able to find em­ploy­ment as a con­struc­tion la­borer, earn­ing enough to sup­port his fam­ily in To­dos San­tos and build his two-story house. “Thanks to the United States, there was work,” he said.

10. In the ceme­tery of To­dos San­tos, U. S. flags are painted on more than a dozen tombs, a sig­ni­fier in most cases that the money to build the struc­tures came from the United States. On a re­cent morn­ing, Juan Pablo Martín, 63, and his wife, Marcelina Martín Pablo, 60, came to pay their re­spects to their son, Pe­dro Pablo Martín, on the 12th an­niver­sary of his death. He was killed at age 33 in a car crash in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, where he had lived for eight years as an unau­tho­rized mi­grant.

11. His cof­fin was en­cased in the top vault of a four-level ce­ment tomb the fam­ily had built, with each side of the vault dec­o­rated with a rudi­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a U. S. flag. For the fam­ily, the flags sym­bol­ized more than the source of the money to build the tomb. “It’s be­cause he died in the United States,” said Pablo, a farmer.

The United States and the prom­ises it rep­re­sents loom large in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion here.

(Daniele Volpe/ The New York Times)

A house be­ing built in Gu­atemala with money from a mi­grant worker in North Carolina, near Chi­antla.

(Daniele Volpe/ The New York Times)

A statue in honor of mi­grants on the road to San Pe­dro Soloma, Gu­atemala.

(Daniele Volpe/ The New York Times)

A sign high above Chivar­reto, known as “Lit­tle Hol­ly­wood,” Gu­atemala.

The ceme­tery of To­dos San­tos C

Volpe/The New York Tim

A young woman on

(Daniele Volpe/ The New York Times)

uchu­matán, Gu­atemala.

(Daniele mes)

the out­skirts of San Francisco el Alto, Gu­atemala.

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