In impoverished nation, lure of the U.S. is strong
Family gets ahead, but a son still decides emigration is best choice
CIENEGA GRANDE, Guatemala — Celestino and Martina Alvarez walk through the small plot of land with their six grandchildren, past freshly picked corn and a few chickens scratching in the yard, and into the peach orchard that is their pride and joy.
The trees in the orchard are filled with pink flowers, and a few branches have the first small peaches beginning to ripen in the warm Guatemala sun. The couple, who raised five children, all of whom attended college, also owns a small tortilla shop and a little store.
“They persevered. They’re hard workers, and fighters,” Betzabe Alvarez said of her parents. “They looked for options.”
But those options are limited in a country where 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, and half suffer from chronic malnutrition and struggle to find employment.
“We grew up barefoot. At 13 I went to work in a factory,” Martina Alvarez, 59, said. After she got married and had children, she earned money cleaning homes and the local school while her husband held down a job at a factory. But they still struggled to make ends meet.
Then she found a nonprofit program offering “microcredits,” and that has made all the difference. Guatemala is among the countries where small loans help low-income individuals who don’t have access to credit from banking institutions. Her loan was for $6,000 quetzalez, the equivalent of about $700.
“I bought chickens,” she said. Over the next three years, Alvarez raised a flock, sold the meat and paid back the microloan in full.
The money gave Alvarez and her family the edge they needed to get ahead. Along with helping pay the family’s bills, she was also able to make sure her children got an education.
“I didn’t get to study. Back in my day, women were not considered worthy of an education,” Alvarez said.
Three of her daughters have college degrees. Her son and youngest daughter are expected to graduate from college in a few years.
“Since I was a child, that was my dream for my daughters. And thanks to God, they accomplished it,” she said. She also ensured that her daughter-inlaw Clara Vielman got her degree as well.
Vielman said her father helped support the family of nine by working construction jobs in the U.S.
“Sometimes people have a lot of children and don’t have enough work, and the children need an education, need food. That’s why they leave,” she said.
But in Guatemala even college graduates struggle to find a job, and six years ago her husband, Alvarez’s son, joined tens of thousands of Guatemalans who set off for the U.S., seeing that as the best chance to get ahead.
“Some people may see someone with a big home from one day to the next and say they want that, too. But it’s not like that. You have to work hard and study to achieve something one day,” Alvarez said.
When he was deported within a year, his parents eagerly welcomed him home.
“‘I’m sorry, son, but I want you here,’ ” Celestino Alvarez said he told his son. “‘It doesn’t matter if we have just beans and tortillas, don’t worry. You’ll find work, and we’ll live together as a family, son, with my grandchildren and daughter-in-law.’ ”
That son, now 26, has a job working as a vendor for a pharmacy company and is on track to get his degree at the university within two years. His wife helps run the tortilla shop and store. The couple has started to build a house on the family’s small piece of land next door to his parents.
“Thank God, he’s here with our girls, that we’re together,” Vielman said. “They have two daughters, ages 6 and 9.
“Little by little, we’ll get ahead with help of family,” Vielman said.
“It’s a team effort,” said Martina Alvarez, the matriarch of the family.
Martina Alvarez walks through her family’s peach orchard with her grandchildren. Alvarez and her husband also grow corn and have a small tortilla shop in Cienega Grande, Guatemala.