Travel Seminar 2015: Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico

Skirting around elderly people in wheelchairs at the Tucson International Airport, I’m trying to make my flight departing for San Francisco. I’m a little peeved – fuming actually, because I just went through security twice. It was my fault. I packed an exquisite jar of mango marmalada from Chiapas, Mexico in my backpack and was forced to throw it away at the discretion of TSA. My decision to drink half of it before tossing it landed me on the other side of TSA for a moment, only to go back through again. Why is this important? It fed the contempt I had for traveling after having been on three planes in the last 24hrs. Enter the Roots & Routes Travel Seminar.

For the last two weeks, we had been traveling through the Guatemalan states of Quetzaltenango and Huehuetenango and the Mexican state of Chiapas; these countries are separated by a political border. While there, we met and spoke with several organizations and individuals resisting Capitalism and Neoliberalism in various ways, as it exists in Mexico and Central America. From fair trade, organic coffee cooperatives to a Zapatista beach community, we experienced the flavors and snippets of life we were able to witness as we maneuvered through long windy roads past volcanoes and ríos.


Volcanoes Santa Maria and Santiaguito (spewing ash)

Beginning in Guatemala City, the group landed as evening had already settled in, emitting dots of orange glow in the city and bringing the 747 down with a jolt. Upon arrival, these individuals who were to be our guides for the next few days greeted us – the warm, smiling faces of the organization called DESGUA: Desarollo Sostenible de Gente Unida. DESGUA “is a grassroots organization and network of community groups in Guatemala and the United States working to create economic and educational development with and for returned immigrants and Mayan communities in Guatemala. DESGUA sees the promotion of cultural identity and historical memory as integral to a sustainable development process,” (DESGUA).

Gabriela, Santiago, Jorge, and two choferes, Lukas and Gerson, welcomed us and ushered us into vans heading towards a surprising Guatemalan Chinese restaurant. At that time, I was simply recognizing the fact that it was my first time ever in Guatemala – a dream of mine ever since I had first known that one of the women who helped raised me since birth, Liz, was from there. Preoccupied with this thought alone, I had no expectations of how wonderful the individuals of DESGUA would be in leading us on our tour and how much the group would come to love and appreciate them. I’ll go ahead and say here that for the remainder of the trip post-Guatemala I often heard, “I miss Jorge,” or “I miss Gabriela,” and the infamous, “Hola Wendy.”





santiago dancing


My introduction to Guatemala, day 1: NISGUA & 29 de Diciembre

Guatemala, a sacred stretch of Earth with deep Mayan roots, unique traditions & graciousness, incredible natural beauty (rainforests, temperate weather, trees, rivers, volcanoes, two oceans, and the like) – a sacred stretch of Earth infiltrated by oily American greed of the political and economic variety. Who is to blame for Guatemala’s recent tragic history? Guatemala endured a long, brutal civil war lasting from 1960-1996. In 1954 an American backed coup overthrew democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz and put in place Carlos Castilla Armas. In 1960 left-wing guerrillas began to battle the government, commencing Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. For the next 20 years, stability and power had their moments mostly in the hands of the military-dominated government. It wasn’t until General Efrain Rios Montt seized power in 1982 when the most violent years of the war happened. An estimated 200,000 died or went missing, and 40,000-50,000 were disappeared. The majority of this population were indigenous people. This civil war has its context in Guatemala today as the people of Guatemala are still fighting for recognition of the genocide that happened, as well trying to secure other basic human rights in their daily lives which are challenged by international, namely the U.S., corporate-led development among other factors.

guate war

On that first day we had a talk by Ellen of NISGUA, Network In Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, and learned about the accompaniment work that they do in order to lessen violence and support organizing in Guatemalan towns. After the talk, we were whisked away out of the ciudad to a community called 29 de dicembre. 29 de dicembre is a community of ex-guerrillas and their families, living together and supporting one another through the community. While there, a woman named Leticia (among other community members), gave us a tour around town and told us about her life. Leticia is a teacher for the children of 29 de dicembre. They have a philosophy, which is to teach the children of their community their values, in order to give them the best education possible, which is not guaranteed at Guatemalan public schools. Moreover, the parents of these children are ex-guerrillas, so they teach their children about Guatemala’s history and why they are where they are today. History regarding the civil war is not widespread in Guatemalan public school classrooms; this is something that hardly exists in Guatemalan historical memory, perhaps because of the taboo subject matter (since little has been done to reprimand the government-backed military that caused the genocide) as well as the pain associated with these memories. Later that evening, we continued on our drive to Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala and a beautiful mountainous town with colonial architecture and a large town plaza. That night we had dinner at the awesome Café R.E.D.

cafe red   bridget and gaby

Days 2-3: Xela, Café R.E.D., & Cajola

The existence of Café R.E.D. can be attributed to the hard work of co-founder Willy Barreno. But he is not the sole man behind the project; Santiago, one of our tour guides from DESGUA and Ceasar were also founders. Willy once lived in the United States seeking work, but decided to return to Guatemala as an “ex-migrant,” because the lifestyle and greater overarching goals of the metanarrative of the American dream did not align with his personal motives. He did not like living in the U.S., and though his son still lives there, yearned to get back to his roots, back to his country. Café R.E.D. “is a social entrepreneurship venture, seeking to address the difficulty of return migrant re-integration; supporting the local economy by buying and marketing local furniture, food and fair tradecrafts; providing a space for people to trade their experience with local economic experts; and working to build and strengthen a local sustainable economy,” –DESGUA.  Café R.E.D. is composed of a restaurant, a training program which teaches locals who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a several years of schooling how to cook and work in the restaurant business, and an in-house store which sells local artisan crafts. The organic/fair trade/local model is apparent throughout the business model, and Willy is a master of facilitating this entire process. As of late, he is working to take his hand out of the “everydayness” of Café R.E.D., hoping that the people will take it on more as their own. And everyday, his contacts increase, adding more life and energy to the Café and the training program. Café R.E.D., while successful with foreigners and tourists, remains of ambivalent interest to the local population. Its competition are the Dominoes Pizza and McDonald’s around Xela. These are the most popular restaurants in town. Unfortunately, this phenomenon speaks to the results of neoliberal globalization in the area, but also the fact that there are many foreigners living in Xela.

mas amor

A message inside Cafe R.E.D.’s walls

Over these few days we were lucky enough to have talks on the subjects of the hegemony of capitalism in Guatemala, the work of DESGUA, and a talk by three “ex-migrants,” (the stories of their lives, their very different journeys to and from the U.S., and experiences being back in Guatemala). Jorge, one of DESGUA’s guides, gave us a lecture on the MEGA-PROYECTOS that are putting Guatemalan land at risk in terms of ownership, resources, and environmental damage. Jorge told us that we cannot think about Guatemala in terms of a nation-state, but instead as una finca. To the government, those in power, and foreign interests, Guatemala is an untapped natural resource, seen as a giant plantation. The families of the old oligarchies continue to be in power with their own businesses at the center of their political and economic agendas. When it comes down to it, there are 8 central ruling families in Guatemala who have all the power in the government. In fact, Guatemala has the most conservative, extreme government in Central America. Bearing all this in mind, we ventured to a town outside of Xela called Cajola the next day.

hist memory

A museum in Santa Anita, Guatemala to keep the historical memory alive surrounding the Guatemalan Civil War.

About 30 minutes to an hour outside Xela lays a little bit of a more rural farming and agricultural town called Cajola. Here, we were given a tour of the town and were able to see how this town 1) makes a living 2) forms a community and 3) educates their youth. Starting off our tour in a traditional Mayan loom producing area, we saw how women in Cajola specialize in Mayan weaving to make textiles, clothing, and accessories. We made our way to the houses where eggs and chickens are kept, as well as a wood shop, where furniture and woodworking is done. What is notable about Cajola is the fact that the community is made up of mainly women – most men have migrated north to look for work. One woman, Leticia, was able to talk with us about the women’s role in the community. She claimed that women here are not appreciated enough for their economic role in the household. Furthermore, women are not waiting, sitting around for their husband and their husband’s money – they are working very hard to provide for their families. It’s also the men who migrate, not the women, and this reflects on Guatemalan culture and society. Women here technically need their husbands “permission” to leave the house and to go out. Men don’t. Men are able to migrate.

weavingweavin 2Women in Cajola weaving

Another thing we learned in Cajola is that the Megaproyectos are a huge cause for migration. Indigenous people are losing their land and foreign capital is coming into the town via mega corporations purchasing land to pursue infrastructural projects, which boast “success” for the country yet degrade the environment and disrespect the local needs of rural populations. Northern Guatemala is especially susceptible to these infrastructural projects being on the border with Mexico. The Guatemalan government believes that building projects such as trade routes in the area will provide more jobs, better services, and further increase investment. Those who suffer the most are those who have lived on and from the land without modern infrastructure since before corporate interest grabbed hold of the region. A great percentage of those who migrated and continue to migrate are indigenous – it’s in some ways a mass exodus. But that doesn’t mean the people who live in Cajola aren’t fighting for the rights to their land. In fact, they organize to keep their mountains, rivers, and skies free of industrial invasion. I felt as though we were witnessing a Guatemala on the cusp of being taken over by Megaproyetcos, yet at the same time a strengthened Guatemala unwilling to let this happen at all. Sadly, as we were traversing the roads between Xela and Cajola, Gabriela, one of our DESGUA guides, noted how much more construction there is in the area, creating new roads and waterways in the spaces between towns.

Last days in Guatemala: Santa Anita

Leaving Xela on our way to Santa Anita, we had the special opportunity to participate in a Mayan ceremony at some Mayan Temples called Takalik Abaj. Takalik Abaj immediately transported me into another world, or so I imagined. It was calm, beautiful, and dispersed throughout the park were very ancient Mayan ruins. It was so cool! DESGUA’s spiritual leader shared a Mayan ceremony with us. He set up what was to be the ceremonial space for the session. Using a variety of flammable items, he had us each take a candle to place in the pit. We are also ascribed our own Mayan astrology nawals. Mine is Aj, whose symbol is a sugar cane stalk or reed and is recognized by the nawal animal of the armadillo. The Mayan ceremony specialist recited many prayers, asked us our intentions, even encouraged us to make a wish, and invited us to the fire nawal by nawal to light our candles. It was a spiritual experience, and one that felt necessary in this sacred land. As the ceremony came to a close, we were able to tour Takalik Abaj for a bit. One of the coolest things I saw was a rock which served as a stand for the Mayans to star gaze – there were engraved footprints in the rock which pointed the person in the correct direction to observe a particular planet.

fire at Takalik Abaj

Onward from here, we circled montañas and forests full of life to arrive at Santa Anita. Santa Anita is a community of 45 families founded after the peace accords were signed between the guerrillas and the Guatemalan government. The community was founded by ex-guerrillas who needed to find a way to support themselves and their families after the war. Santa Anita has vast amount of coffee growing land where they grow and sell fair trade, organic coffee. Their motto is more or less “fighting with shovels, not guns”. Within the community, they also have a school so that they can ensure their children can get an education. Santa Anita is organized so that everyone in the community has a job, which rotates every two years. They change the jobs around so that everyone knows how to do each others job, making it an equal society. Moreover, they get paid based on how many people are in their family rather than how much they’ve worked. Together, the people of Santa Anita work collectively to create a healthy, educated, safe and economically viable living situation.


At a waterfall outside of Santa Anita

hikeOur final evening in Guatemala culminated with Santiago, an ex-guerrilla member of DESGUA, telling us the story of his life from before he decided to join the guerrillas. He told us of how when the U.S. intervened in Guatemala, many people were saying how the guerrillas were communists. Back in those days, Santiago told us, you couldn’t talk about socialism openly. Many of the guerrilla fighters were young people and farmers. However for him la lucha sigue. It was “a just and necessary war,” Santiago says, that lasted 36 years. In rural areas, injustice and poverty continue and his generation has survived to see Guatemala after the war. 80% of Guatemala is indigenous, so this means that there is still a fight to be won for those who are today systematically denied power in a country ruled by 8 wealthy oligarchical families.


Youth in Santa Anita dancing

dance luchaLater that night in the now seemingly haven-like community of Santa Anita, we were surprised by having a big show put on for us by the children of the community! A number of exciting routines in homemade, fabulous costumes were performed in the spacious backyard of the community’s hotel we were staying in. It was truly a treat to watch the dances performed by the kids there. They clearly had put a lot of time into the performances, and it meant a lot to us to see this message of gratitude for our presence. We all felt extremely grateful to have been there and to have been so welcomed by the community – also to have heard stories from community members who were also ex-guerrillas. The very next day, we were to cross the border from Guatemala to Mexico and say goodbye to our friends at DESGUA. The Guatemala trip was over!

My personal theme song for this trip by UB40…

–Bridget Thompson

….Entonces, MEXICO…

We started our journey Northward, to gain some perspective on the migrant journey; though clearly our camino would be much different. We left Guatemala with our luggage on our backs, walking across a bridge that overlooked the river choked with rafts crossing, children swimming, bright shirts dotting the light waters. After we crossed the bridge, we bypassed a large line of people waiting outside of the immigration office at the border. I did not know what they were waiting for, but I did feel strange as we breezed past to fill out our visa forms. We wrote our country of origin “USA”, put our luggage through a metal detector and were promptly out on the other side in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico.

We met up with our guides Julio César and Mercedes outside of an agency that advertised trips to popular crossing cities to go North. We drove to the market to find Diego, a human rights worker in the area, and with him wound our way through the crowded market down to the river. This was known as the “informal crossing” within sight of the bridge we had crossed to officially enter the country. The river was low and the crossing was busy- mostly commercial crossing taking goods between Mexico and Guatemala, especially the cheaper products from Mexico going across. People walked out onto man-made peninsulas and took rafts with their goods across; there was no way to tell who were migrants heading North and who was accompanying their goods to Mexico. “This is what free trade looks like,” Riley remarked. Currently, there is very minimal police and military presence—this part of the border is still porous, like the US-Mexico border used to be when people crossed daily to go shopping or go to work. But in 5, 10 years, will the idea of informal crossing still exist? As we traveled deeper into Mexico, we saw the efforts to formalize, militarize, and ultimately, close the border. (Check Todd Miller’s thoughts on the Mexico-Guatemala Border)

We weaved our way back through the riverside market and Diego took us next to another crossing point between Guatemala and Mexico, a more formalized one where vehicles often cross. He told us this was where many used cars from the US crossed into Guatemala; cars that had been in accidents in the US and were taken to be fixed and sold in Guatemala. We walked up to the crossing and Diego told the agent he was with una coalición de derechos humanos and we were all from the US; we just wanted to cross quickly to check out the other side. She waved us through, none of us showing a paper or ID or anything. We simply walked over into Guatemala and saw large coach buses lining the streets—a city of deportation where many Guatemalans are taken, just barely across the Mexico-Guatemala border, into the unknown. Central Americans from other countries farther South are deported just over the border line of their country, into unfamiliar cities, but certainly far from the US-Mexico border, in line with US anti-immigrant interests. This can mean being dropped off in the middle of the night, without money or your belongings, in a city you have never been to. And unlike our experience, you can’t just walk across the border to try again.

zoe 2

When we walked back to cross into Mexico, we were stopped immediately and told we couldn’t enter without passports. We explained we had informed their compañera that we were just going to check it out and she should tell her fellow agents we’d be headed back across soon. But he said he hadn’t heard anything about this; sorry we can’t cross without passports. My heart started to beat faster…our passports were in the van, literally yards away! The bureaucracy of border crossing definitely has a way of making you feel powerless, even when you yield the passport with the most privileges. The agent went to ask her if we really had just crossed and returned with a smile, waving us across.

We drove to Tapachula that afternoon, after passing through 9 interior checkpoints, a technique the US also uses to make certain that even if migrants can cross the border, they can’t move into the interior of the country. Julio described the checkpoint as a recepto, a sacred and respected place that in this case, apparently proved the Mexican’s government’s dedication to the security of its people. Many of these checkpoints had just gone up within the past 10 months, very new developments as part of US-backed policy like Plan Frontera Sur, which encourages increased militarization of the Mexico-Guatemala border. That way, the US-Mexican border is just the “last line of defense.” We passed a detention center, with 9 buses outside deporting Central Americans to the Mexico-Guatemala border. Julio told us that often, Mexican campesinos can’t prove they are from Mexico without official ID and are deported further and further South, some all the way to Nicaragua. Because as we heard quite a few times on our trip, the belief is that the problems come from the South. Therefore, the troublemakers are sent back to the South. All of this felt very reminiscent of the US: increased militarization and border security is something to be respected and treasured and those who it stops, those who it kills, are criminals anyway.

In Tapachula, a major staging ground for Northward migration, we met with El Centro de Derechos Humanos-Fray Matías. As a promoter of the rights of migrants, they work with many Central Americans seeking refuge in Mexico, as well as migrants seeking the right to work and earn a livable wage. When talking about the Mexican government, I heard a lot of the justifications I hear in the US, namely social control in the name of national security. The representative told us that the view the US has of Mexico is echoed in Mexico’s beliefs about Central America: todo malo viene de más el Sur (everything bad comes from further South). Tapachula used to be a major place to board trains going North, until 2005, when a hurricane destroyed the tracks. Now, getting from Tapachula to one of the next stops along the way, Arriaga, takes about a week, instead of a day and a half. And the Mexican government claims it is protecting migrants from danger by detaining them and preventing them from boarding the trains, as well as running ads addressed to Hermano Migrante about the rights migrants have. But the government, migration authorities, narcotraffickers, assailants, and others clearly abuse these rights, as shown by the need for the work of this group.

After a night in Tapachula, we headed to Salvador Urbina, a rural community home to Cafe Justo. To create an alternative to migration, community members have created a coffee cooperative in which farmers get a fair price for their coffee, as well as a share in the profit of roasting, packaging, and selling the final product. This means that 100% of the final product value remains in the community, creating a viable economic alternative to migrating North. We toured their facilities and saw how the coffee beans are sorted by size and quality; the biggest ones headed to the US and the smaller consumed within the community. The beans for exportation are sent to Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico right on the US-Mexico border to be toasted. We saw their water purification system that provides potable water to the community. Then we went to see the coffee plants, beautiful red berries alongside white flowers, the green of the leaves completing the colors of the Mexican flag. We finished our tour and went to swim in the nearby river before heading to our homestays for the night.


I was so grateful to be able to stay with a family from Salvador Urbina and talk with them about the Border Studies Program and their experience being able to stay in the community where they were born. No one wants to leave their roots, their family. As we have seen on this trip, resisting the forces pushing people North takes organized community resistance that can serve as an example to us all for contesting the forces of capitalism that have bolstered the divide between South and North. Tyrian and I played about 20 rounds of Uno with the kids, and I went to bed so grateful for all the communities who had embraced us over the course of the trip.

Early the next morning, we headed back to Tapachula to have breakfast at Casa Belen, the migrant shelter there. As soon as we entered the shelter, 3 kids yelled and ran past, playing a game of tag. I exclaimed how nice it was that they even had a playground there and Anne pointed out how sad it is that that’s necessary at a shelter; it speaks to the populations who are forced to travel North. Though the majority of migrants were young men, one of the directors told us they have rooms available for families traveling through. Just like in the US, so many people are risking their lives to plea for refugee status only to be told that their experiences aren’t worthy of fleeing, that their fear is not great enough, or that the threat to their lives is not strong enough.

As a jarring and poignant reflection of our privilege to be visitors in the migrant shelter and in many locations along our trip, we headed to Boca del Cielo, a beach town. The landscape was incredible—we took a lancha to cross the river to the island surrounded by the river on one side, the ocean on the other. We all felt tense, sad, confused. How much was this travel seminar a vacation? We stayed with the Guiri Guiri Collective, started and maintained by European ex-pats that supported El Consejo Autónomo de Chiapas, an organization that defends rural territories against development projects and other destructive neoliberal interventions. So what was our role as visitors from the US in the struggle to retain territory and autonomy in a region where the Mexican governments wants to build more highways to increase tourism and where transnational fisheries are putting fishermen out of work?


Boca Del Cielo, Chiapas, Mexico

El Centro de Derechos Humanos Digna Ochoa, as well as representatives from other organizations working for a more autonomous Chiapas, came for a plática with us. They told us about their efforts to support community resistance to investment projects and increasing military capacities. They described the national conditions as perfect for a dictatorship, ripe for violations of human rights. The government uses fear to force communities to sign contracts that allow for desarollo: more hotels, more highways. One of the biggest fights is against paying for electricity, which is set at an exuberant price for Mexican citizens, while it is very cheap for transnational corporations. Communities in Chiapas have stopped paying for their electricity, but the government has not cut their lights because these communities have organized in resistance. Even though the government has responded to Digna Ochoa’s community organizing efforts by jailing their leaders and vigilantly monitoring their offices, they keep fighting to show people that atrás del miedo, hay la libertad (beyond fear is freedom).


We also had the opportunity to talk with Julio César about el otro mundo of Zapatismo. Zapatistas have told the state they do not want a part in their corrupt system of high electricity tariffs, investment projects that destroy local communities, and state-sanctioned discrimination against indigenous people. And therefore, they have created and continue to create the world they want to live in. Caracoles govern Zapatista communities, made up of members from each municipality, whom they consult regarding every decision. The caracol is a Mayan symbol, a spiral that represents the process of dialogue, the necessity of conferring with each and every person. A slow process, but maybe that is just what we need in a world that leaves behind the humanity of so many.

The next day, we took off for Arriaga, one of the next stops on the Northward migrant journey. We spent the morning at a migrant shelter, a brief place of refuge for those who have not been lucky enough to be a part of a community with the resources to resist migration. A man from Nicaragua had traveled the furthest of any migrants there that day, en route to hacer la diferencia, to make the difference for his family by sending money back home. He was making the journey we had quickly bypassed, barreling through interior checkpoints with American citizenship and plenty of mangoes to snack on. He had been going to school, but realized there was no point, that he would just end up a jornalero (day-worker). He had made friends along the journey, but told us he couldn’t trust anyone and couldn’t become too close because everyone will have to go their separate ways very soon. And even after having to leave behind everything he knew and loved, watching helplessly as assailants snatched young girls and filling with fear when he thought of having to board a train northward, he emphasized the beauty and positivity of his journey. He had bathed in rivers, seen the most beautiful mountains, and proved his faith is greater than just his word. His positivity amazed and inspired me.

Lastly, we went to the train tracks of Arriaga, where migrants board the barreling bestia, home to narcos, assailants, and nighttime migration raids. We talked with a train driver waiting out by the tracks and a railroad security guard, who seemed resigned to the reality of the tracks. They said they couldn’t do anything about it, couldn’t stop migrants from boarding the train, and couldn’t stop gangs from separating the train cars in order to kidnap all the migrants atop the car. And the reality they have accepted is one that will never affect them or us like it will the hundreds of thousands forced North in the most dangerous ways possible, as the once porous borders of Guatemala and Mexico, Mexico and the US, are sealed. As we piled into the van, a man ran up to us, pointing to his piel negra (black skin) and ours, mostly blanca, and saying we look so different, could we please give him some food for the children he is traveling with? And we had one mango we gave to him, but that clearly was not enough.


At the train in Arriaga, Chiapas, Mexicozoe5

En route back to Tucson, I thought of the migrant from Nicaragua, leaving everything behind to hacer la diferencia. Of the inspiring resistance of communities that stand up to the state and of those who do not have that choice. Of our predictions confirmed that the Guatemala-Mexico border was being reinforced to mimic that of Mexico and the US, that the state continues to criminalize migrants who are seeking safety and the right to live. Of our journey, so fast, so painless across the borders and of the need to slow down like the caracol and listen, to unlearn what we have been told about migration and national security and our safety because I don’t feel safe living in a world where the lives of so many are devalued because the cardinal direction they come from.

–Zoe Martens

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