Giving Women and Children in Guatemala More Reasons to Stay

by Niurka Pineiro

“I was 10 years old the first time I went to work in Mexico.  After I had my children, I tried my luck again and I worked in a coffee farm.  I cried so much because I was not making enough to bring back to my family.  I walked two days and one night to get there.  I wanted to go further inside Mexico to see if I could find a job that paid a little more, but it is just too far.”

Esperanza Gabriel Aguilar, a beautiful Guatemalan woman with a wide brimming smile, belies all of the suffering she has endured.  She has nine children, has crossed mountains to find a 15-hour-workday farm job in Mexico for which she is poorly paid, has been abused by her husband and today can barely feed her children.

But the indigenous women of Concepción de Tutuapa are no shrinking violets.  They risk being robbed and killed crossing into Mexico and stay alive on the meager food rations they receive, just to bring some money home to their families in the mountain villages located in the Department of San Marcos in western Guatemala.

“Once, I arrived at a farm to find some 1,500 people waiting in line for jobs.  Well, I got the job, but I only managed to fill one to one and half boxes per day.  I would eat my breakfast at 8, three hours after I had started working; it was small and already cold.  I cried, oh how I cried, because I knew how little I would be taking back to my family.”

 She wipes away her tears and smiles again, “Another problem we have is that the husbands drink.  My husband mistreated me; he would tell me I could not voice my opinion.  He humiliated me.  He would say, you are not a man, you are under me.   My children suffered because they witnessed how my husband treated me.  I am woman, I am a victim.  He would tell me nobody loved me.  I am so grateful that we are receiving this training and support from IOM.”

Brenda Canastuj, a clinical psychologist and herself an indigenous woman, knows only too well the hard details of surviving in these remote mountains.  “Today we are holding a psychosocial support session for parents and their children.  This IOM project focuses on building self-esteem.  We see many attitudes that confirm low self-esteem.  Sometimes there is violence in the home, there is also the machismo; this is another reason why children want to leave the home and migrate.  We also focus on reinforcing their identity. We work on gender equality—our culture is very much a male culture.  By strengthening their identity and self-worth, these parents and children can start working on issues inside the home and in their communities,” says Brenda.

With a bit of coaxing from community leaders and Brenda’s gentle persuasion, more and more men are joining the sessions.

Esperanza’s oldest son Freddy followed in her footsteps and set out to find a job in Mexico.  Most of the children from these villages travel to the Mexican border town of Tapachula each year to work as street vendors.  There, they are exposed to drinking, smoking, drugs and even sexual exploitation.

With his head lowered and sadness clouding his eyes, 15-year-old Freddy listens as his mother tells her story.  When it’s his turn to speak, he’s nervous but finally admits that he went to Tapachula like many boys in his village to find work. But all he got was a park bench where he slept for a few nights before returning home.

Freddy is back and in the 8th grade.  The IOM project is helping him and his parents by providing small farm animals so they can breed them and earn some money, and by paying for the children’s’ school fees so they are not forced to emigrate.

“Discrimination against women is a big problem in the indigenous communities, which also have a high rate of emigration.  And so the IOM project raised awareness about the central role the woman plays in a family, and encouraged a more inclusive decision-making process within the family.  Working with the central and local authorities, IOM carried out a series of training workshops which also looked at how migration impacts women – either as a migrant or [as someone] having to cope with the migration of a family member.  Because when the man migrates, the woman must take on every role, including financial support with very little or no means to care for the family,” explains Walter Arreaga, IOM Project Coordinator.

“Some of the other boys who were there would invite me to drink beer and smoke cigarettes.  But that’s not why I went to Tapachula.  I wanted to work so I could help my mother,” says Freddy, and he adds shyly: “I have always liked dance.  I dream of being a dancer.” A mother’s love and admiration compensate for all the hardships that life throws her way.

Esperanza smiles, sits closer to her son, and confesses: “We went to Mexico together once.  We were going to try and find work on a farm.  On the way there, we came across a big snake, and, oh my, this child was so scared he said he didn’t want to continue, so we came back home.”

“I tell my younger brothers and sisters ‘don’t go to Tapachula’.  They should go to school like me,” Freddy adds.

“I am so thankful for this assistance.  I got three pigs that I am breeding, my oldest boy is in school and I’m hoping that the other children will receive the same assistance so they can go to school.  I have to thank you, thank you – IOM – again and again. . . . because I cannot repay [you] for this help.  I have no money,” Esperanza says.

“You can’t imagine how many young men need this help.  They can’t go to school so they end up drinking, smoking, and risking their lives by going to Mexico to find work.  Brenda is helping us so much.  Our children need to learn so much.  I am so happy she is here with us,” Esperanza concludes and flashes her lovely smile.

“Sadly, we have no more funds to continue this project although the needs are great.  Our local partner for three years, Asociación ADINT, is desperately trying to raise funds to continue the work but so far it has not been successful,” says Walter.

Walter explains that temporary migration to Mexico is an ingrained culture in these communities.  IOM’s initiatives have only started to challenge this prevailing culture. “This is not something that can be done in a year or two,” he adds.

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Niurka Pineiro is a senior media and communications officer for IOM