The population of the province of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, is majority Maya. It’s a remote region near the border with Mexico, about a seven-hour drive from the capital, Guatemala City, on roads that are breathtakingly steep — often unpaved and very narrow.
The village of San Antonio Las Nubes is high up in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountain range in Huehuetenango. It’s name — San Antonio of the Clouds — comes from the vast blanket of fog that wraps around the trees.
Thirty-two-year-old Oscar Leonel Lopez has lived here his whole life, except for a couple of months when he attempted to migrate to the United States in February last year. “My intention was to head to Florida,” he says, but he was caught at the border and quickly deported. Lopez has a wife and six small children.
“I made the decision to migrate to the United States because there are no jobs here,” he says, “that’s why women, children, everybody is leaving my country,” to make a decent living, he says. “My family didn’t have money to send me to school and have a profession. Maybe my kids can get an education and can create a better life for themselves.” Lopez says poverty forced him to quit school after seventh grade.
The number of people leaving Central America and arriving at the Southwest border is up and so are deportations under President Trump’s harsh immigration crackdown. The largest group of unauthorized immigrants comes from the so-called Northern Triangle consisting of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In Guatemala, the most northbound migrants come from Huehuetenango Province.
‘What we suffer here is worse than what we risk’
Lopez knows that immigration laws have changed in the U.S. and that the journey has become more dangerous, “but what we suffer here is worse than what we risk” he says. “People are pushed to gamble the journey, to lose money [borrowed to pay human smugglers], because if I’m lucky to cross, I know I’ll have a job.”
But jobs are not the only force driving illegal immigration from Guatemala.
“There are many Guatemalans who are already there [in the US] and have been able to build nice houses here,” he says. “That’s what we see here.”
Lopez is talking about the new, stately-looking, cement-block, western style homes nestled among the more typical, one-room wooden homes like his — clear evidence that the gamble is worth it, he says.
Oscar Lopez farms a small parcel where he grows corn. “When crop prices are good, I can take care of my family, but right now the drought is killing our crops.” Lopez says that he doesn’t have other resources or a bank account so “if I lose my crop — that’s it. I don’t make any money.”
Grandparents who never considered leaving
Natividad Galicia and her husband Diego Saucedo are Lopez’s grandparents. Their farm and home are next to Lopez’s. They grow corn and broccoli, and raise chickens and sheep for sale. Galicia is 79 and Saucedo is 85, but they are far from retired.
“We don’t have money for basic things” says Saucedo. “We can’t buy food, can’t set up a business and can’t even clothe ourselves properly.” He looks down and points to his heavily worn out clothes and shoes. “We eat tortillas and some vegetables,” says Saucedo, “we rarely eat meat, maybe once a week.” The couple finishes each-others’ sentences. “We also eat beans,” says his wife.
As the sun sets, the couple walks down through their tiny corn field to check on their animals, pushing the corn leaves away with their hands to open a trail. A donkey’s animated hee-haw is heard in the distance.
“Here are our four sheep,” says Saucedo proudly. His wife adds, “We keep them in this pen because the coyote harasses them.” Losing even one sheep would be a significant loss of income for them — they each sell for about 300 or 400 quetzals or the equivalent of $40 to $50. It takes them months to fatten their sheep for sale.
Saucedo’s front teeth are missing, but otherwise he and his wife look to be in good health. They have never had health insurance. “We fence off on our own out here,” if we get sick we use home remedies, says Natividad Galicia with a soft smile on her face.
Asked if they ever thought about migrating to the United States like their grandson, Galicia responds without a hint of hesitation: “Of course not. Never. We’ve always been poor, but never thought about it. Not even when we were younger.” Saucedo adds, “People back then didn’t talk much about migrating and we never had the money to travel — it’s too expensive and it’s dangerous,” he says. “What if we got lost because we don’t know the way?” he asks almost whispering to himself. His wife adds, “but it’s different for young people today” she says, “they all want to leave.” She giggles, “but many come back quickly. The U.S. isn’t letting them stay anymore.”
Finding a way to stay
Oscar Lopez is still trying to find an alternative income to support his large family. He plays guitar and electronic drums with a marimba band and earns some cash when he’s occasionally hired to perform at parties. And, since his deportation last year, he’s the recipient of a scholarship funded by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization through the Association for Sustainable Development of Youth, known by its Spanish initials, ADESJU. It’s an organization in Huehuetenango City that works to provide young people with an alternative education and seeks to deter them from migrating to the United States.
Lopez knows he’s lucky. He’s studying to become a certified electrician. “Maybe as an electrician I’ll earn enough money to support my family,” he says.
ADESJU also supports a community program in San Antonio Las Nubes — Sunday movie night. Lopez and a handful of other young men screen educational and Hollywood movies on a 52” television screen in a vacant one-room home that belongs to a family that migrated to the U.S. Lopez and his group make snacks like French fries for purchase on movie night. The idea is to provide much needed entertainment, encourage relationship-building in the community and offer young people a chance to make extra income.
“Will I make the journey again?” Lopez asks himself out loud. “If I have an opportunity, of course,” he says, “but right now I want to work hard here. I have a way to provide a decent life for my family. I’m happy here in Guatemala.”