Maria Lupe is Learning a Better Way

By Niurka Pineiro

“I encouraged my daughter Bryseida to go with her cousins to Mexico to earn some money for our family.  I did it as a child, so I saw nothing wrong with that,” says María Lupe Felix Aguilón, a Guatemalan mother of six who is so destitute she can barely feed her family.

But after taking part in the IOM-sponsored sessions with clinical psychologist Brenda Canastuj, Maria Lupe has had a radical change of mind.

Maria Lupe adds: “I will not send her again.  But there is no money here, we need to earn cash.  There is no money here.  There is no work here.  In Mexico, my daughter was able to earn a bit of money, not much, but it was something.  I was afraid for her; I worried about her while she was in Mexico.  But I had no choice, I had to send her to earn some money.  My husband does day jobs chopping wood, planting potatoes and other vegetables, but he makes around 25 Quetzales (less than US$3.25) per day, when he finds work.  There is no work here, he doesn’t have a job.”

Twelve-year-old Bryseida used to spend two months each year on the streets of Tapachula selling candy, chewing gum, and other small items.  “I was there with my cousins, so each of us would put in some money to buy our food, and we would just sleep in the park,” recalls Bryseida.

She becomes very serious when she recounts the time two older boys tried to attack her.  Fortunately one of her male cousins was close by and came to her rescue.  She says she never really thought of the risks.  She just knew she had no shoes, no clothes and that her mother needed help to feed the family.

Walter Arreaga, IOM Project Coordinator says some 60 percent of the children from the indigenous communities in the Department of San Marcos, which shares the border with Mexico, go to Tapachula each year to work on the streets.

“These children live in extreme poverty and come from families with many children, so it makes it hard for the parents to provide support.  The IOM project, which unfortunately has run out of funding, assisted 139 children by payingd their school registration fees and by providing small farm animals to the parents so they can earn some money.  The idea is to prevent these children from migrating alone which exposes them to many risks.”

Maria Lupe is a beneficiary of IOM’s program and received pigs and chickens for her to breed and sell. 

But Walter emphasizes that temporary migration to Mexico is an ingrained culture in these communities and something that needs to be reversed.  “This is not something that can be done in a year or two,” warns Walter.  “There is much work to be done in the psycho-social area to dismantle the ancestral culture we find in these communities.  We need more funds to reach more children and families, but also to continue assisting those that are part of the initial project.”

The majority of the parents are not aware of the increased insecurity in the region; they were not aware of human trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation.  When they were children, each year they would go to Mexico for a couple of months and return home unscathed, so why not send their children today?

“We have impressed upon them that times have changed.  Tapachula is a big city where many terrible things can happen to a child alone.  These ingrained habits must change with the time,” states Walter.

Proof of that change is reflected in the numbers.  Of the 139 children assisted by the IOM project, only seven went to Tapachula in the October to January period, traditionally the months when these communities migrate to Mexico.  After reaching out to those seven families, the IOM staff proudly report that all of the children were back home within 10 days.

In a sense, some children are working their way through school by leaving their homes. Sending their kids to Mexico is one way parents raise money for their children’s education. “All of the children have told IOM that they want to study,” Walter said. “Bryseida wants to be a nurse,” she proudly tells us.  

IOM wants to give families a wiser way to fulfill their children’s dreams to get an education –without having to risk their safety.  Maria Lupe now the wiser and is learning that she need not put her children at risk to try to give them an education and a future.

“Persistence, perseverance, continuous support, and funding.  These are what IOM needs to continue the very good work that we have started in these communities,” the IOM Project Coordinator said.

Starting well is a long leap away from finishing well. IOM is exhausting all efforts to raise funding for this destiny-changing project for the little ones in the Department of San Marcos.


Niurka Pineiro is a senior media and communications officer for IOM