Claudia Gómez Gónzalez, Jakelin Caal Maquin, and Felipe Gómez Alonzo. All were indigenous Guatemalans who died at the Southern border this past year. It is no coincidence that the only three migrants who died along the border during 2018’s migration crisis shared this background. If we want to make the United States a truly inclusive nation, we must learn more about the people who seek refuge here—especially indigenous Guatemalans.
There are many reasons why this specific population comes to the United States to seek asylum. Guatemala is recovering from a 36-year-long civil war, and for many families living in poor rural communities, surviving on as little as $70 a month, there are few opportunities to escape poverty. However, many Americans cannot understand why many of these families make the difficult choice to trek to the United States by foot despite risks to their health and their limited ability to communicate with Spanish-speaking interpreters.
For almost a year and half, I lived in a town called Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala, where I worked with an indigenous Maya Tz’utujil women-led nonprofit that works to reverse the staggering local 79% poverty rate.
During my time in Santiago Atitlán, I spoke to many sisters, daughters, and wives who depend on the money sent monthly by male relatives who had crossed the border. Beyond escaping poverty and lifting their families out of it, their relatives had also left behind the violence that plagues Guatemala.
In my first month there, I heard stories of three young men from the town who were murdered by gang members while working bus routes— and these would hardly be the last murders during my time there. Violence against indigenous people is rarely prosecuted.
The Guatemalan government’s apathetic attitude to the terror that haunts daily life in these villages is an outgrowth of the civil war of 1960 through 1996, which killed 200,000 people, as the government largely targeted indigenous peoples in rural areas. The military dictatorship oversaw 626 massacres, like the one in 1990 in my town. Men, women, and children were brutally killed, and indigenous culture, such as wearing Maya clothes, practicing traditional crafts, worshipping Maya deities, and speaking Maya dialects, was persecuted by the U.S.-backed military government. 22 years later, the cost that the Maya people continue to pay extends far beyond lost lives.
Even though indigenous people, mostly Maya groups, make up 39% of the population, they are practically invisible to an overwhelmed and corrupt government. There are few opportunities for indigenous people who move to the cities, where non-indigenous Guatemalans don’t speak their languages, and where unspoken racism and colorism govern everyday interactions.
So in 2018, when erratic conditions that some attribute to climate change destroyed crops and the government became increasingly authoritarian, it only made sense to migrate north and escape an unimprovable situation.
Asylum was originally intended to protect those who feared persecution in their native country, as many indigenous Guatemalans do. But our ability to process their asylum claims is hindered by our unwillingness to listen, to truly comprehend the trauma they brought and what they left behind.
Even in the media, the parents of the dead indigenous children are blamed for signing waivers in Spanish stating their children did not need medical care, but one cannot give competent consent in a language one does not comprehend.
Those who support freedom for all immigrants often say the deaths of Claudia, Jakelin, and Felipe were unnecessary and cruel. But until we start offering solutions, such as demanding that United States provide Maya-speaking translators and equip the American immigration system with professionals who understand the economic, educational, medical, physical, and cultural conditions of the people who come here, we won’t see change.