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It’s A Small World

Guatemalan students seek refuge in the United States

Amelia Mineiro

Amelia Mineiro

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With a rich history and breathtaking culture, Guatemala’s Mayan roots yield ancient architecture, majestic volcanoes, vast rainforests. Despite its abundant beauty, Guatemala also faces a terrible past. Emerging from a 36 year civil war in 1996 has left the country of 15 million people ravaged with crime, violence, poverty and severe malnourishment. The war left the tiny nation without rule and, in the chaos, gang violence spread. Many minors make the journey to escape that violence and head towards the opportunity of the jobs and free education provided in the United States.
It’s a small world, after all. While seeking escape from their homeland some of these refugees have landed here at our very own La Costa Canyon High School. With little formal education and speaking a wide variety of Mayan dialects, many incoming students know limited Spanish and virtually no English.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) website, 14 million people of Guatemala thrive on the country’s fertile land. More than 52 percent of the population is engaged in agricultural work, relying on what the Earth gives in order to meet their families’ basic needs. Many are not only fighting to better their lives, but are fighting just to survive.
“We lived by working in the fields, harvesting potatoes and looking after animals,” Guatemalan junior Noemi Fones said. “To get money people buy animals, take care of them and sell them once they are big enough just to be able to have enough money to live off of. From that income, we buy food and anything that might help us out at home.”
Guatemalan people face severe poverty and low life quality.
“I am a poor child in Guatemala, and so is my family,” Guatemalan junior Marcos Paulo said. “My family and my mother wanted a better life, but we never could in Guatemala. We lacked money and jobs. We couldn’t do anything without money, because my mom and I wanted to do something in our future.”
In the wake of the civil war, a corrupted government has taken control of Guatemala, seeking money and power, which has widened the gap between the rich and poor.
“The president is never aware of the people–his only mission is to achieve presidency to get money,” Guatemalan sophomore Maura Zacarias said. “He doesn’t worry for people when there are earthquakes or strong rain. The people’s houses break or the rain seeps in through the bottom of their house.”
In response to the lack of governmental enforcement, many towns have become caught in the whirlwind of gang violence and corrupt officials.
“Some of them are claiming political asylum because their towns are being overrun by gangs or by the army,” English Language Development (ELD) counselor Lisa Levario said. “A lot of them are coming here traumatized not only from what’s going on in their own town, the poverty and violence, but traveling across a whole country for three months just to come to the United States to get an education or to help their families.”
Some travel to the United States to avoid gangs and violence in their home country, while others come seeking further education and job opportunities.

The journey from Guatemala leads through Mexico to the United States and takes months to complete. Despite a long and often dangerous journey, many Guatemalan children and teenagers still seek refuge in the United States.
To get to the United States, the arduous journey entails long hikes through the desert and often requires money that many Guatemalans do not have.
“They have to cross Guatemala, then all of Mexico then arrive to the United States,” Guatemalan sophomore Maura Zacarias said. “Many people are left dead in the desert or they do pass over the border, but it costs a lot of money.”
In addition to the long, expensive trip, the deserts hold dangers from the wildlife.
“There are serpents and snakes, and wild animals,” Zacarias said. “Little kids also cross the border, just to help their family and friends and to be able to move forward in life.”
Often traveling alone or in groups of minors, the trip holds many threats, including violence, rape and murder. Many students endured these harsh conditions where they feared for their lives and safety while crossing the border.
“There are stories about girls who come across and they get molested and raped,” English Language Development (ELD) counselor Levario said.
The lucky few make it across without capture or detection. But others are caught at the border, and sent to detention centers where they could spend weeks confined to one room.
“The [United States Citizenship and Immigration Service] catches them and puts them in a detention center,” Levario said. “This young man said that they’re in a big room with a lot of beds, they feed them once a day and they’re not allowed to go outside.
U.S. policy dictates that Mexican child immigrants be sent quickly back across the border. However, under a 2008 law meant to combat child trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, children from Central America must be given a court hearing before they are deported or allowed to stay.
“I’m proud that I have a case with immigration,” Guatemalan junior Marcos Paulo said. “I have my lawyer and now that everything’s going well, some months from now I’m going to get my identification and my work permit. I’ll be able to work and help my family, because I’ll be able to pay back the debts that I owe.”
Students come to America for many different reasons, often including the opportunity for free education.
“We want to come here to get a better education because where I lived, there was a lot of violence,” Guatemalan student *Claudia Sánchez said.
With very little formal education in Guatemala, many of the students experience culture shock from an unfamiliar way of life. Spanish and Mayan influences have shaped Guatemalan culture, including types of food and religion. When first arriving in America, students become overwhelmed with the stark differences between the countries.
“The food is different, the clothing is different, the customs are different, the language is different,” ELD teacher Catherine Close said. “I think it has to be really overwhelming to jump into a different culture. It would take tremendous patience, fortitude and a real desire to overcome.”
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) website, only 22 percent of children who complete the sixth grade in Guatemala move on to the junior high level. This is largely for economic reasons as most families expect children to contribute to the support the family after the sixth grade.
“In Guatemala, many people don’t graduate for lack of money or maybe because the parents don’t have a job,” Zacarias said. “It hurts me to know that Guatemala is in second or first place for illiteracy. The president is never aware of the people–his only mission is to achieve presidency to get money.”
Most Guatemalan students are unable to go to college or earn level of education higher than elementary school. Some aren’t even literate in English or Spanish, and only speak Mayan languages.
“The classes that I take, I cannot understand because they speak in English,” Zacarias said “When you can’t speak English, you feel like you’re a level below everyone. You feel like a lesser human being.”
Education after elementary school in Guatemala isn’t mandatory, as it is rare and expensive, however many of the Guatemalan students at LCC have the goal of receiving a high school diploma or going to college.
“These students are teenagers just like anybody else and they’re happy to be here,” Levario said. “Some of them come from very humble beginnings, but yet they want an education and they want to be successful.”
Despite the new opportunities provided in the United States, Guatemalan students still feel discriminated against because of their roots.
“You feel alone and unwanted, and you feel like [Americans] want to crush you,” Zacarias said. “I know so many Americans that are racist, but others are different. Maybe they don’t like us because we don’t share the same lifestyle and compare our lives to theirs.”
Despite the abundant resources of America and LCC, alienation due to racism affects the students on campus.
“I wanted to leave the school because no one would help me out,” *Sánchez said. “Everyone made fun of me because I couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t understand them. I always felt alone and very bad.”
With ELD classes, the free lunch program and a supporting staff, LCC has worked to welcome the Guatemalan students with open arms.
“One of the things that makes LCC such a unique place is that we do have certain demographics that are different than other schools,” Principal Bryan Marcus said. “We need to make sure we’re creating curriculum to support them, the right structures to connect them and every opportunity for them to excel.”
The free education provided at LCC has dramatically changed the lives of many Guatemalan immigrants.
“I have to say thanks to the school, because I’m getting the knowledge that I need to succeed and the opportunity to be able to study,” Guatemalan junior Noemi Fones said.

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