US migration the dream of Guatemalans from the village

Yalambojoch (Guatemala) (AFP) –


Emigrating to the United States to escape poverty back home is the dream of many residents of the Mayan indigenous community in Yalambojoch, western Guatemala.

It was the dream that ultimately cost eight-year-old Felipe Gomez his life after he crossed into the US with his father Agustin.

The child fell ill while in US border control custody and died in hospital on Christmas Eve of an unspecified infection.

His 31-year-old mother, Catarina Alonzo, has been left distraught by the loss.

With reddened eyes and a distant gaze, Alonzo remembers the vow her son gave before leaving for the promised land.

"I'm going with my dad, mummy. I'm going there to study and after that I'll work to send you money," she said in the Chuj language as her step-daughter, also called Catarina, translated into Spanish.

From her humble home in the mountainous Chuj village, Alonzo said "no one's to blame" for her son's death. But now, all she wants is to repatriate his body.

She acknowledged that she and her 47-year-old husband agreed young Felipe would make the journey because life in Yalambojoch "is tough."

Employment is scarce in the remote Nenton municipality where the village is located, close to the Mexico border some 185 kilometers (115 miles) northeast of the capital Guatemala City.

Felipe's sister says her father heard he would have a better chance of remaining in the US if he took the child with him, but insisted her brother wanted to go.

"The child was happy, he was excited by the prospect of going there to study and to better himself," said the 21-year-old.

In the family home, an altar has been set up in Felipe's memory with flowers, candles and photographs.

- Lack of work -

Yalambojoch is a place where the benefits of migration to the United States are starkly visible.

Precarious homes made of wooden boards teeter next to more solid structures built with concrete paid for by the remittances sent home by US immigrants.

"Every person who goes and manages to stay in the US, the first thing they do is save up their money and send it to start building" and helping the family left behind, said local mayor Lucas Perez, 45.

He lamented the fact that locals feel obliged to migrate due to a lack of work, while even farmers earn only $4.50 to $6.50 a day.

Those doing "a little better" are builders, who can make up to $13 a day.

The staple diet in this Maya village of 1,500 people is beans and corn wraps, while most people try to raise a pig every year to sell, said Perez.

According to official statistics, more than 59 percent of Guatemala's 16 million people live in poverty, but that figure rises to 80 percent in indigenous villages, mostly in the north and west.

They're the ones most likely to embark on the long route to the US in the hope of migrating.

Over the years, remittances mostly sent from the US have become an important pillar of Guatemala's economy, equivalent to 70 percent of its exports and bringing in $11 billion a year.

"Here we don't count on help from the government or governor, much less the municipality," complained Perez.

Politicians "come during the campaign, but once they're in power, no one remembers" the community.

Quite apart from poverty, Yalambojoch suffered greatly from military repression during the 1960-96 civil war and in 1982 the village was abandoned when its inhabitants fled over the border into Mexico.

- Funds needed -

Felipe's death wasn't the only one affecting an indigenous Guatemalan child migrant to the United States this month.

He died the same day that seven-year-old Jakelin Caal was buried after also dying on December 8, possibly from dehydration, in a US hospital after she and her 29-year-old father Nery were apprehended by border police when chasing the "American Dream."

They came from the Q'eqchi community -- one of the largest Mayan groups in the country -- in Raxruha, 145 kilometers to the north of Guatemala City.

Following the deaths of the migrant children, the US Department of Homeland Security said all minors in border control would be given thorough medical screening.

Meanwhile, the head of border security, Kevin McAleenan appealed for more funds to deal with the "enormous flow" of families crossing from Mexico.