A thoroughly updated and expanded edition of Lovell's classic account of the violence that has wracked Guatemala, from its roots in the colonial past to its aftermath in the twenty-first century.
Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre Columbian Studies, The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies
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Though a 1996 peace accord brought a formal end to a conflict that had lasted for thirty-six years, Guatemala's violent past continues to scar its troubled present and seems destined to haunt its uncertain future. George Lovell brings to this revised and expanded edition of A Beauty That Hurts decades of fieldwork throughout Guatemala, as well as archival research. He locates the roots of conflict in geographies of inequality that arose during colonial times and were exacerbated by the drive to develop Guatemala's resources in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The lines of confrontation were entrenched after a decade of socioeconomic reform between 1944 and 1954 saw modernizing initiatives undone by a military coup backed by U.S. interests and the CIA. A United Nations Truth Commission has established that civil war in Guatemala claimed the lives of more that 200,000 people, the vast majority of them indigenous Mayas.
Lovell weaves documentation about what happened to Mayas in particular during the war years with accounts of their difficult personal situations. Meanwhile, an intransigent elite and a powerful military continue to benefit from the inequalities that triggered armed insurrection in the first place. Weak and corrupt civilian governments fail to impose the rule of law, thus ensuring that Guatemala remains an embattled country where postwar violence and drug-related crime undermine any semblance of orderly, peaceful life.
- Part One: Struggle and Survival
- 1. Q'anjob'al Canadian
- 2. Nobel K'iche'
- 3. Jakaltek American
- 4. Doña Magdalena
- 5. Through a Lens, Darkly
- 6. Devils and Angels
- Part Two: Blood and Ink
- 7. The Delivery Man
- 8. Into the Fire
- 9. Peace of the Dead
- 10. Futility at the Polls
- 11. Civilian Rule
- 12. A Militarized Society
- 13. The Daily News
- 14. The Fiction of Democracy
- 15. Searching for Peace
- 16. Scarred by War
- 17. How Was Guatemala?
- Part Three: Spaniards, Ladinos, and the Enduring Maya
- 18. The Colonial Experience
- 19. The Century after Independence
- 20. Arbenz and the Fruit Company
- 21. The T-Shirt Parade
- 22. Natives in the Backcountry
- A Guatemalan Gallery
- Sources and Commentary
Genaro Castañeda was only four years old when, in 1974, I first saw the Cuchumatanes mountains that are home to him and another quarter-million Q'anjob'al Mayas. The life that awaited him in Canada was a long way off, and Spanish still as foreign a tongue as the English he now speaks fluently. His father, murdered at thirty-six, had only two more years to live.
We first became acquainted in 1987. Genaro was working as a busboy at a Kingston restaurant, looking after tables in the summer patio. Someone at the restaurant had mentioned my name and told him about my interest in Guatemala. Genaro knew, for instance, that I had written a book about the experience of his people and neighboring Mayas under Spanish colonial rule. A puzzled expression crossed his face when I said I had spent ten years researching and writing that book. He paused, then asked, "How is it possible to write a book about my people without knowing our language, without speaking Q'anjob'al?"
The question caught me off guard. I mumbled something about how "ethnohistory" and "engaged fieldwork" could elicit "the native's point of view," but I mostly felt the relevance of these notions shrivel in his stare. Whether or not Genaro was enlightened by my response, he didn't say. We became friends. Genaro moved in and shared my house with me. During our time together he told me about his long journey north, about how a Maya from Guatemala came to be in Canada.
Genaro was born and raised in Yulá, a small Cuchumatán village of about two hundred people. Its name in Q'anjob'al translates as "in the water" or "in the place where there is water." Pre-Columbian in origin, Yulá today forms part of a municipal and parish division called Soloma, which is also the name of a nearby town undergoing radical transformation as remittances sent home by former residents now living and working in the United States reshape traditional patterns of economic and social life. Soloma is itself administered as a municipio, or township, of the Department of Huehuetenango. The city called Huehuetenango, which locals refer to simply as "Huehue," lies about sixty kilometers of treacherous mountain road away. An important administrative hub designed to serve the political objectives of the government of Guatemala over the entire northwestern highlands, Huehue's influence stretches to the border with adjacent Mexico. Its population is made up predominantly of Spanish-speaking mixed bloods known in Guatemala as Ladinos. The city has modern facilities such as banks, hotels, email cafés, and video arcades, yet still feels like another world compared to the rural areas surrounding it.
Genaro's people, the Q'anjob'al, are one of twenty different Maya groups who make up roughly half of Guatemala's national population. Their conspicuous presence underscores a dynamic of survival that few Native American peoples have been able to sustain. Maya survival hinges on how, from 1524 on, natives in Guatemala resisted Spanish intrusion by warfare, flight, disobedience, and deception. Elsewhere in the Americas, especially in Mexico and in Peru, the lure of gold and silver guaranteed intense Spanish exploitation. Guatemala, by contrast, became something of a backwater, a land where Spanish conquistadors could expect only modest, marginal rewards for their adventures. In 1570, for example, a Crown official described the countryside around Yulá as "poor and unfruitful land," a place where the only commodities in abundance were "corn and chickens," hardly the stuff of which an El Dorado could be forged. Paltry resources in remote terrain often resulted in symbolic Spanish colonization, not obliterating conquest. The Q'anjob'al and other Maya peoples were thus able to create for themselves a culture of refuge that was a blend of pre-Columbian and Spanish ways, to take shelter in a culture of resistance with long-term benefits for group survival.
Far more destructive of Maya life in Guatemala than Spanish brutality or greed were outbreaks of disease. Sicknesses brought in from outside, passed from European and African carriers to vulnerable native hosts, served as lethal accomplices of conquest. Maya numbers dropped 90 percent or more during the first century of Spanish rule. Population recovery was slow and sporadic for centuries thereafter.
Some years ago in an uncared-for archive in Guatemala City, I unearthed a letter about the ravages of disease among the Maya of Soloma. Dated May 5, 1806, and written by a Ladino constable named Marcos Castañeda, the letter fills me with immense sadness, for such suffering as it describes fell again on Soloma more recently, albeit for ideological rather than epidemiological reasons. The disease in question was typhus, a historic scourge of the poor. Castañeda's Bosch-like imagery and Dickensian tone of concern, the latter a rather risky attitude for a petty official to assume, evoke a grim picture of what Genaro's ancestors were up against:
For four years now in the parish of Soloma there has been great distress on account of the mortality caused by the typhus epidemic, which kills the Indians without relief or remedy, leaving them only in dire hardship. Through fear of death, my brother and I fled with our families to the solitude of the mountains, suffering there from extremities of climate, leaving our houses and possessions abandoned in Soloma. But God having seen fit to end this terrible affliction, we have returned once again to our homes. We find that most Indian inhabitants have perished and lie unburied all over the place, their decaying corpses eaten by animals that stalk the countryside.
What grieves us most, however, as it would any pious heart, is to see orphaned children crying for the laps of their parents, asking for bread without having anyone to receive it from; to behold widows and widowers mourning the loss of their consorts; and to watch old people lament the death of their offspring. After so much hard work, these unfortunate Indians have been reduced to a life of misery. Having returned from afar, those who survived are without homes to live in, for these were burned to rid them of the contagion. They are also without resources to pay their taxes and without corn to feed themselves.
If no measures are taken to assist these wretched people, they will most certainly starve to death, because they did not plant corn in the places where they sought refuge and so have nothing to live on, both this year and next, for it is now too late to plant their fields. It is a common thing in this parish to encounter Indians, old and young alike, walking from town to town, from house to house, begging or searching for corn and charity. Others seek loans, leaving as security one of their children, for they have nothing else to offer.
For the sake of God and a sign of his mercy, assistance should be extended to the Indians of this parish. At the very least the people could be exempted from paying taxes for the years during which they suffered such great misfortune.
Castañeda's appeal, penned to the district governor, met with wilful disregard, a customary response. Not much changed in Soloma after Guatemala attained independence from Spain in 1821. Only in the late nineteenth century did the culture of refuge shaped by the Maya during colonial times begin to break down.
Under land and labor reforms initiated in 1871 by President Justo Rufino Barrios, Guatemala became not so much a "banana republic" as a "coffee republic." Native lands, especially along the Pacific piedmont and in the Verapaz highlands, were taken over by enterprising coffee planters, who also demanded that native hands be made available to perform agricultural labor. Barrios imposed on Guatemala the liberal vision of modernity, a blueprint that would ensure plenty for a few and little for many. His double plunder, very importantly, did not affect all Maya communities to an equal extent. The territorial and social integrity of some disappeared or was dissipated by the joint operation of land and labor encroachments in locales suitable for the cultivation of coffee. In other communities, including Genaro's, land expropriation was tempered by their being situated at elevations that were not conducive to intensive coffee growing.
The land base of Genaro's community may not have been usurped, but after the Barrios reforms his people began to spend part of each year working as wage laborers who migrate to Pacific plantations to help harvest coffee. Maya culture today, however, tends to be particularly resilient in communities that, like Genaro's, guarded their land as best they could against seizure and encroachment, even if labor was (and still is) procured for plantation deployment.
Unlike many Maya families, Genaro's still has some land around which to improvise an existence. The holder of forty cuerdas, about eight acres, Genaro's father was a wealthy man by the standards of his community. Genaro's family also had access to another ten cuerdas his mother shared with her two brothers.
Land is something Mayas in Guatemala relate to in ways that transcend most Western notions of astute property management. For them land is like air and sunlight, a God-given resource over which no one exercises exclusive proprietary rights. Custom dictates that it be worked, protected, and passed on to offspring as a sacred gift handed down from the ancestors with that end in mind. Mayas consider themselves not so much owners as caretakers of land.
Not surprisingly, it is in relation to land that Genaro's earliest memories are lodged: "I grew up on land by the side of the river. On it we raised corn, beans, chilli peppers, tomatoes, carrots, beetroot, and potatoes. Some wheat too, higher up. For fruit we had apples, cherries, plums, and even some peaches. On our land my father kept many animals. With my sister I looked after sheep, watching out for coyotes when my father was away."
Genaro's father, it seems, was away quite often. The reasons for his absence were not always made clear. What Genaro remembers about his father comes not so much from lived experience—he was six years old when his father was murdered—as from what family and friends told him afterward, when he was growing up.
To earn a living, Genaro's father worked the family land, as Maya men habitually have done; but he also spent time in the Ixcán, a coffee-growing region to the north of Yulá. There, unlike most other natives, he did not pick coffee but bought it for resale elsewhere in Guatemala, primarily to merchants who shipped it overseas. Genaro's father was able to carve out a comfortable niche as a small-time middleman because of the capital he acquired from bootlegging, an activity that provided funds for an initial investment in the coffee business and a steady supply of cash thereafter. Bootlegging not only attracted men from all over to Genaro's home—men seeking refreshment or escape—but also gave his father another excuse for being on the road a lot, selling kusha, homemade liquor, in neighboring villages.
In one of these villages Genaro's father met and formed a relationship with another woman, who gave birth in the course of the union to two daughters. Keeping a segunda casa, a second home, is not an uncommon practice in Guatemala. Genaro's father is said to have been as dependable a material provider for his "second family" as for his first.
Such situations, however, inevitably create problems. In the case of Genaro's father, relatives of the woman with whom he kept a segunda casa—her estranged husband and four drink-loving brothers—reckoned after a while that the liaison was an insult to family honor. Family honor in Guatemala is restored in several ways. One of them is murder. Whether the husband and brothers actually killed Genaro's father by their own hands, or arranged for others to do so, has never been established: life, most people believe, is the most precious gift of all, but it can be bought very inexpensively in Guatemala. Genaro does not rule out the possibility that his father's involvement in the kusha racket or his role as a coffee middleman may have been responsible for the murder. The treasury police employed by the government to track down bootleggers are notoriously vicious. Likewise, guerrillas who had infiltrated the Ixcán in the 1970s would not have considered Genaro's father's moneymaking ventures to be politically sound.
Death leaves so much unasked, so much unanswered. Genaro has an enduring image of his father riding off on horseback, departing on one of his many trips. He recalls traveling once with his father to Barillas, shortly before the murder, on a coffee-buying expedition. His memories of those days are sketchy, but for Genaro it is important to remember his father as someone who could support his family without having to sell his labor cheaply, without having to be bossed about by others.
Genaro's sheltered life within Yulá changed when he started school. School in Yulá was then a two-room hut, attended by about thirty-five children who were taught exclusively in Spanish by two Ladino teachers. One of the teachers also ran the local store.
Acquiring Spanish is not something all Maya children achieve with equal proficiency. Boys tend to be pushed along more forcibly during the learning process than girls, usually because they are the ones who, as grown men, will have more to account for to the Ladino, Spanish-speaking state. Genaro's hushed, sing-song Spanish is considerably more articulate than that of most indigenous Guatemalans, many of whom command only a skeletal vocabulary of oft-repeated words, phrases, and curses. His efforts to learn and be at ease in the language of the conqueror have served him well.
Attending school brought exposure to the world beyond home and community, the world beyond the horizon. Before the trip with his father to Barillas there were shorter school outings to play soccer against the teams of surrounding villages, villages only a few hours' walk away through the fields and the forests, in valleys beyond the mountains.
Few events, however, get people moving more happily from one place to another in Guatemala than a fiesta, especially one held in association with the worship of a patron saint. Genaro has a warm recollection of walking from Soloma to Santa Eulalia as part of a procession that carried a statue of San Pedro from one town to the next. Equally memorable was his first trip to Huehuetenango. As a small boy he went there with his uncle to sell apples at market. Huehuetenango remains one of his favorite places.
Maya children are expected to start working early. For girls this usually involves innumerable household chores: helping with babies and younger children, fetching water, washing clothes, and preparing corn to be made into tortillas. It may also involve learning to weave commercial items for the tourist trade. Often it means entering into domestic service in distant Ladino households, where they are rarely treated well and can be sexually harassed or even initiated while barely adolescent.
For boys, priority training is coming to grips with how best to work the family plot, especially the rudiments of corn cultivation. Genaro was no exception. It is also common for a boy nine or ten years of age to go with his father to a plantation to be guided on how to pick coffee or cotton, shown what kind of working conditions and living arrangements to expect, and generally exposed under paternal supervision to wage employment in the Ladino world.
But when Genaro was exposed, soon after his tenth birthday, to the travails of plantation labor, his father was already several years dead. His first experience of it occurred in the company of five others from his village on a cotton plantation to the south of Retalhuleu. He lived there, along with sixty fellow workers, in a large wooden shack beside the cotton fields. Like many Indians accustomed to the cool climate of the highlands, he did not do well in the suffocating heat of the Pacific coast. He fell sick with fever and within weeks was shipped back home, where it took him months to recover.
He fared much better the next year on a coffee plantation near Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. There, at an altitude salubriously above the coastal plain, he worked a full forty days, earning about two dollars each day. Food and water at this plantation were less of a problem than on the cotton farm; the lodgings were cleaner and more spacious, with fewer occupants.
Genaro's most enjoyable and most lucrative spell as a wage laborer was on a coffee plantation, Finca La Florida, near Pochuta. He speaks almost fondly of his time there: hard work, for sure, but good pay, tasty meals, comfortable beds, and a river nearby to bathe and even to frolic in. At Finca La Florida, in the company of his best friend, who met and later married a young woman who also worked on the plantation, Genaro fulfilled an eighty-day contract before returning to school in Yulá.
By age twelve he had gained enough confidence and experience to test even deeper Ladino waters. Huehuetenango, which he had visited or passed through on several occasions, would have been challenge enough. Even more so was Guatemala City.
La capital. Perhaps the most striking feature about Guatemala City is how it appears to bear very little relation to the land and people over which and whom it presides. If Nero fiddled as Rome burned, then the government of Guatemala is a symphony orchestra playing in the midst of even greater conflagration. What do the bright lights and commercial paraphernalia of downtown Guatemala City, the multinational consumerism and chic glitter of Sixth Avenue, the elegant mansions and flashy nightclubs of Zone 9, have to do with the events and circumstances of a life like Genaro's?
I struggle with the contradictions of its capital city each time I visit Guatemala. When I mention this to Genaro, he shrugs. Why did he go there, what did he do there, how long did he stay there? "Para ver. To see what it was like. I worked as a lustrador, a shoeshine boy. I cleaned boots (fifty cents), and shoes (twenty-five cents) for about six weeks. During the week I looked for customers at the main bus terminal, where I'd make two to three dollars a day. On Sundays I'd go to the zoo, where I'd usually make four dollars, sometimes even five. I had a bed in a room with two other boys in a house in Zone 4. It wasn't bad."
He talks into the tape recorder so casually. It is a warm summer day in southern Ontario. The sky is blue and cloudless. Birds sing. Squirrels scramble across the lawn. The flowers gleam, the grass soaks up water, the trees provide shade. In the garden, as I listen and scribble, it crosses my mind that I first left Scotland at the same age Genaro left Yulá for Guatemala City. I travelled with my youth club from Glasgow to Stranraer and then across the Irish Sea to Belfast. There, playing soccer, we beat a team of boys representing a youth club on the Ormeau Road. We celebrated and slept in their church hall. We toured the premises where Cantrell and Cochrane made pop and visited Gallagher's cigarette factory. I drank free samples at the pop place, but did not have the nerve to smoke the cigarettes some of my teammates plundered at Gallagher's. I certainly would not have had the courage to head off for an unknown city and chance my hand at shining shoes.
When Genaro returned home from Guatemala City, the countryside around Yulá had become a dangerous place to be. By 1982 insurgents who had earlier set up a base of operation in the Ixcán, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, were at the peak of their strength. Their actions, along with those of another insurgent group, the Organization of People in Arms, were so widespread that the Guatemalan army found itself losing control over entire areas of the western highlands. A desperate situation called for drastic action. It came in the form of intimidation and slaughter in rural areas where, at the local level, the guerrillas had experienced some success in building popular support for their cause.
Maya communities paid dearly for their proximity to revolution. Genaro's village cannot be said to have suffered the worst of counterinsurgency. Some communities no longer exist, their houses burned, their fields untended, the pens of their animals empty. The people who used to live in them are dead, scattered, or haunted still by their being herded into "model villages" set up by the army as a means of social control. Dreadful things happened, and much also that will never be known.
What Genaro knows is that guerrillas passed through Yulá late one night and painted slogans on the walls of the bridge, the church, the school, and some houses. They melted back into the darkness before dawn. The following morning the villagers awoke and looked in horror at the graffiti defacing their community.
Terrified that an army patrol might arrive and think their village a guerrilla stronghold, people set to work, daubing over propaganda with mud, paint, and whitewash. Fear lurked for days, for by then they well knew what could happen to a community suspected by the army of cooperating with the insurgents. It mattered little to the army how cooperation was gained, that it arose in many instances from the same fear of guerrillas that people had of government soldiers. Whether voluntary or coerced, sympathy for the insurgent cause, however the army chose to define it, was punishable in the most barbarous ways imaginable.
Some villagers feared that the guerrillas might return first and, seeing their slogans erased, accuse people of casting their lot with the army, of being on the side of counterinsurgency. But this was deemed the lesser risk, for although the guerrillas were known to assassinate collaborators or undesirables—a woman who ran a bar in the village had been killed after she ignored warnings to stop selling cheap liquor—their cause could never be served by indiscriminate slaughter or full-scale massacre.
The army itself did not arrive in Yulá, but an order from the regional commander did. It called for all able-bodied men between sixteen and sixty years of age to form a civil defense patrol that would act, under army supervision, as a buffer between soldiers fighting for the government and guerrillas fighting to overthrow it.
Although civil defense patrols originated with the counterinsurgency measures of President Romeo Lucas García, it was under the rule of his successor, General Efraín Ríos Montt, that they were most actively and successfully promoted. Now disbanded, though some of them have become the nucleus of local development committees, they existed in many areas, allegedly functioning as a means of community self-protection.
Most Maya men resented civil defense duty. Besides forcing them to align with, and possibly even fight alongside, the national armed forces, patrol service disrupted normal working routines. It took people away from their fields. It made it difficult to plan projects or lengthened their time of completion. It stifled mobility. It especially created problems when a patrol member had to be absent from his community, in which case permission had to be solicited, a travel permit obtained, and a suitable replacement found, persuaded, and paid to act as a substitute.
Even before Genaro reached the age of eligibility, he was pressed into service in the local civil defense patrol. He served as an emergency recruit, standing guard at the outskirts of Yulá while more senior patrol members were engaged in a distant reconnaissance. Not to have served, to have run away as some youths did, was to be considered subversive.
It was a scary experience. Given antiquated guns but no instructions about how to use them, one underage patrol member accidentally shot himself in the leg. Most frightening of all for Genaro was when he had to leave the checkpoint at the entrance to Yulá and comb surrounding hills in search of guerrillas. He had heard about exchanges of fire between insurgents and civil defense patrols in which the patrols, poorly trained and ill-equipped, had been wiped out. Although no such skirmish occurred, Genaro began to worry that, inevitably, one day he would qualify for regular duty in the civil defense patrol. After that loomed conscription, forced membership in an army that, as he put it, "would teach me to hate, teach me to kill."
His fear and confusion turned to panic when, in a town called Chiquimulilla, he was apprehended by the army, thrown in jail, and interrogated. What was he doing so far from his village? Why wasn't he there serving in the civil defense patrol? Was he travelling alone or with someone else? Who did he know here in town? Where were his papers? Just awful, muy horrible, is how Genaro describes the experience of being locked up overnight, waiting for daybreak with about two hundred others in a compound that had no bunks or toilets, only enough room to stand upright.
Genaro had gone to Chiquimulilla with one of his relations, Cruz Sebastián, to sell ice cream at the annual fair. With earnings and some help from his mother, he and Cruz had purchased a small ice-cream maker, transported it by bus from Soloma to Chiquimulilla, found a local supply of ingredients, and set up shop. Before the army picked him up Genaro and Cruz had sold out their ice cream day after day. Business was terrific. He smiles as he remembers, then turns quiet and forlorn.
Luckily for Genaro, he was carrying a pass signed by the commissioner in charge of the civil defense patrol, which authorized him to be absent from his home for up to forty days. Cruz had taken pains to attend to this matter before he and Genaro had left Yulá. The pass convinced the officers who questioned Genaro that he was not evading service in the civil defense patrol or engaged in subversive activities in Chiquimulilla. He was later released, unharmed but shaken.
The experience was a pivotal one. He decided to act. What he decided, at an age perhaps shy of parental consent but certainly not personal courage, meant leaving things behind: his home, his mother and sister, his friends, a land, a people, a way of life. Genaro resolved to flee Guatemala altogether, to escape forever from the clutches of the army, first to Mexico and then to the United States.
He moved quickly. From Chiquimulilla he and Cruz travelled back to Huehuetenango. There was no time, in the rush of action, to return to Yulá and say goodbye. His mother and sister, furthermore, would try to persuade him to stay, even though they realized the inevitability of some kind of military service and Genaro's fears of such involvement. He asked Cruz, who was going back, to explain the situation as best he could. In Huehuetenango, Genaro applied for papers that would enable him to enter Mexico, legally, for a short while. These he obtained without difficulty, although he lied about his age and why he wanted to leave Guatemala: he said he wanted to visit a friend in Chiapas. He sold some of his clothes, a suitcase, and the ice-cream-making equipment, not making much money. Cruz went with him to the bus station, and after purchasing a ticket Genaro was left with fifty quetzales, then about twenty dollars, to his name. From Huehuetenango he travelled by bus west to the border town of La Mesilla.
The first rains had already fallen. Green with corn, the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes rose like a fortress from the banks of the Río Selegua. Genaro crossed into Mexico, turning his back on the past.
Borders are not just lines on a map. They are mental as much as geographical constructs, states of mind, not mere arrangements in space. A border is something we carry inside ourselves, so the realms that lie on either side are in part our own creation.
Genaro was headed toward one of the most palpable borders in existence, the border between Mexico and the United States. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes considers the line marked by the Río Grande less a border than a scar, a scar that divides the rich from the poor, the strong from the weak, those whom history has blessed from those whom history has damned. The scar separates not only Mexico from the United States but also the United States from all of Latin America. It is a scar that still bleeds, and the blood runs north.
Like many people from Latin America, Genaro first formed an image of the United States from hearsay: "I was told it was a free place, a place where there was no war, a place where you could work and study in peace. I was told that life there was easier." His perceptions were reinforced by a group of fellow Mayas he met in the Mexican city of Villahermosa. One of them, Tomás, had actually been to the United States. Like Genaro, Tomás and his friends had fled Guatemala—they lived in San Miguel Acatán, a town not far from Soloma—to escape the violence. Genaro benefited considerably from their support in Mexico. He found work as a gardener and for two months planted flowers in parks, plazas, and other public places. One of his jobs was to design the display for a floral clock. Staying in Villahermosa, however, was risky. If he was stopped by the Mexican authorities, Genaro was told, he would most likely be relieved of his savings and shipped off to one of the refugee camps that had sprung up in Chiapas close to the Guatemalan border. Farther north he would be safer, so with Tomás and his friends he journeyed all the way to the border city of Reynosa. There they made plans to cross the Río Grande into the United States. The savvy Tomás said there was no need to hire a coyote to guide them; besides, there was no way they could afford one.
Their plans worked out. Genaro is short in stature, but the river was low enough that one night he was able to wade across it, balancing his possessions in a bag he carried on his head. No border patrol lurked on the other side. With two other Guatemalans he walked from early morning until about three in the afternoon, when they arrived at a country store. There they pooled money and called a taxi, which drove them to McAllen, Texas. Not yet fourteen, Genaro had made it to El Norte.
His good luck continued, mostly because he stuck close to Tomás, who put his wits to good use: first, a place to stay; next, a job to pay the rent. Genaro found work on a farm between McAllen and Edinburg. He fed chickens some of the time, fed fighting cocks the rest. Weeks passed uneventfully, and then his luck ran out.
Outside a store in Edinburg, where he had gone to buy groceries, officers from the U.S. Border Patrol questioned him politely, but insistently. Unable to produce papers, Genaro simply informed them he was Mexican. The officers escorted him by car to the border and watched as he walked across the bridge back into Mexico.
Deportation was only a momentary setback, for it was clear to Genaro that what he had done once he could easily do again. Early next morning, near Hidalgo, he waded once more across the Río Grande. His second stint in Texas, where he watered orange groves near Edinburg, lasted about a month before la migra, U.S. Immigration Services, caught up with him. Genaro once more declared he was Mexican, and so was again delivered back to Reynosa. This time he stayed longer, thinking things over. The trick, it seemed, was not just to cross the border but to get far enough inland to a bigger place than either McAllen or Edinburg, to a place where the work of la migra might be less efficient. He looked at a map and opted for Houston.
He waded one last time across the Río Grande. After drying off in Texas he made his way to the Greyhound station in Edinburg, where he caught a bus that sped up Highway 281. He had gone about seventy miles inland to Falfurrias when a border patrol flagged down the bus. An officer boarded, approached Genaro, and asked him his nationality. This time he told the truth: "Guatemalteco." Guatemalan, not Mexican. The officer did not believe him. Genaro was ordered off the bus and put in a waiting patrol car. He was taken to headquarters in Falfurrias where, when questioned, he repeated he was Guatemalan. His truthfulness was finally taken seriously. Instead of being accompanied back to the border, he was driven to a detention camp for Central American aliens located halfway between Brownsville and Harlingen, near a place called Los Fresnos.
For an entire month Genaro fretted in detention. During this time he was noticed by a visitor to the Los Fresnos camp, his youthful Maya features standing out among the older, predominantly mestizo (mixed Spanish-indigenous) traits of other Latin detainees. The visitor contacted a local church group that had decided to challenge U.S. immigration law by offering sanctuary to individuals and families, especially from Central America, who had fled their homes through fear only to be denied refugee status in the United States. Through the mediation of the sanctuary movement, Genaro was released from detention; a bond was posted with U.S. Immigration Services to guarantee future knowledge of his whereabouts. He was taken to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was placed in the care of Quakers, who welcomed him as one of their own.
Genaro lived with the Quakers for three years. In Baton Rouge he began adjusting to life in El Norte. Different sights, different sounds. Different wants, different needs. A different sense of time, a different sense of place. Different premises to wake up to in the morning, different expectations to go to bed with at night. It was all, he says, just so vastly different, especially the language. Learning English was not easy, but immersion in school and at home—he spent hours and hours in front of the television—soon produced encouraging results. Today, Genaro's spoken English is impressive, softly voiced and less noticeably accented than that of most Latin American immigrants.
He had two options concerning how to secure the legal right to remain in the United States. The first was to apply for status as a resident alien, a costly, protracted procedure, one that might not produce the desired outcome. The second was to be adopted officially as a member of the family he was living with in Baton Rouge. Of the two options the second carried the best chance of success, but it necessitated formal severance of ties with his natural mother—and acknowledgment of this step on her part as well as his.
The paperwork for option two was pursued, but Genaro could not bring himself to follow it through. It represented an emotional barrier far more difficult to traverse than trekking through Mexico and crossing the Río Grande. Moreover, he worried that his legal adoption in the United States would get his mother into trouble, for word had reached him that she had been questioned about his absence from Yulá.
As the dilemma grew, another option materialized. A church organization in Georgia found out about Genaro's case and suggested that permission to enter and reside in Canada might be more readily attained than applying for resident alien status in the United States. Contact was made with a refugee support group in Kingston, Ontario, whose members were informed of the particulars of his situation. Despite changes to Canadian immigration law, an application to allow him to enter Canada as a landed immigrant was processed favorably in six months. Judging from the scores of cases I've been consulted about since, I reckon that getting his immigration papers in prompt, satisfactory order was a stroke of considerable luck.
Genaro took leave of the Quaker family in Baton Rouge. He did not want to go, but neither did he wish to squander an opportunity to enter another country on a firm legal footing. He boarded a plane and arrived in Toronto several hours later. At age seventeen, four years after he fled Guatemala, Genaro's life as a Q'anjob'al Canadian had begun.