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.

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