When I got off the bus in Nebaj, a large city in northern Quiché, about seven hours away from Santiago Atitlán, everything still seemed to be relatively normal — as normal as Guatemala could be. We were riding old recycled American school busses forty miles an hour over steep and decrepit mountain roads with salesman, like live commercials, stepping on the bus every other minute to advertise their miracle product and walk down the aisle to see if anybody was in the market for their goods. Reggaeton and ranchera music drowned out their voices and the g-forces that followed the intense pinpoint curves did their best to discourage the salesmen, or at least persuade them to do sitting live commercials, but they persisted to stand and scream. The busses further deterred these salesmen by dodging every which way to avoid hitting stray dogs and indigenous women with baskets on their heads, but these salesmen were relentless. As normal as Guatemala could be.
And then I got on the van headed to Chajul. My dear friend Liat was posted there by Peace Corps and, five months into our service, I figured it was about time to visit her and the magical world she claimed to live in. Passing through Nebaj, only forty minutes away from Chajul, I was beginning to have my doubts about her assurances that Chajul was completely set apart from Guatemala. The fería was passing through Nebaj, bringing with it trampolines, second-hand bumper cars, deceptively fast ferris wheels, and fried plantains, tortas, tacos, atol, and hot dogs. Besides the red traje typical to the Ixil Region and the Ixil language, nothing was all that new to me, and I doubted Chajul would change so much in so little distance. The first hint came when I was paying the van fare. When I saw the ayudante, the fare collector, come towards the back of the van where I was seated, I asked the older man on my left how much the fare was. No response — just a smile. I asked the young mother on my right the same question and I got the same response, and once more when I asked the two men in the row in front of me. Then I remembered Liat telling me on a phone call that most people in her site neither understood nor spoke Spanish. The ayudante knew enough to say “siete” and got that little problem out of the way; but as we drove up from Nebaj, towards the northernmost town of the Quiché Department until Mexico, and the city all but slipped away, I was beginning to realize that I was entering a very different little world.
The Guatemala I knew receded as the van climbed switchbacks up the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, through villages that could not have changed much over the past hundred or more years. The only thing that remained constant was corn, fields and fields of corn. Even in the poorest of towns of Guatemala where electricity doesn’t reach, running water doesn’t flow, and rain rarely falls, it is sure that somehow and some way, corn is being grown and eaten. It is the lifeline of the people and, in that sense, of the culture as well. But there were no traces of the large banks, television stores, earthquake-resistant houses, or tourist cafés that I had become used to seeing in Santiago Atitlán. Instead, when I got off the van in Chajul, hundreds of miles away and seemingly a century behind the place that I left in Santiago Atitlán, I was surrounded by adobe brick homes with no electricity, small wooden shacks selling the same products as every other store, dirt roads, and endless, untouched forest. It was a world foreign to me and, as I was followed by a dozen people after getting off the van and meeting up with my friend Liat, I realized I was something very foreign to them.
Chajul is the last municipality in the department of El Quiché until the border of Mexico. It is impoverished by Guatemalan and any other standards, with limited resources and little to no education. Schools exist, but parents do not see much value in education — it is too long of a process. If there is no firewood or corn at the dinner table, the family will go without a meal. So instead of going to kindergarten, the young boys of Chajul are as likely to carry firewood or work the fields with their fathers, and young girls will be learning to cook and clean with their mothers. It is unfortunate to see that many children are not in school, and its effects are obvious, but in times of hunger and desperation there is little other choice. As a result of its proximity to the Mexican border and its fragile economic condition, illegal immigration is rampant. Every firework that goes off in Chajul, Liat told me, means that somebody’s family member made it past the United States border safely. As we walked down the crumbling dirt roads of Chajul, with the sun setting over the western mountains and a range of children, adults, dogs, and pigs following us strange white people, a firework went off. It must have been odd for these people to see us walking down their quiet streets. They know nothing of tourism and little of the United States aside from the fact that it is a destination — a way to make their family rich.
One could literally walk through Chajul and hand pick whose family members illegally work in the United States by the size and construction of the houses. Homes are either made of adobe brick with wooden roofs, no electricity, and an open fire acting as the kitchen; or they are large multi-level cement structures with stoves, televisions, running water, and electricity. Due to the strict housing restrictions of Peace Corps, I wasn’t surprised to end up at a home in the latter category. It is ironic that, at least in Chajul, the only homes that meet the organization’s housing requirement are funded by a relative illegally living in the United States. Peace Corps, by paying these families for housing its volunteers, further supplements their income which enlarges the wealth gap in Chajul, raising the allure to illegally immigrate to the United States. Liat’s host family’s house was three stories tall with modern rooms, an iron stove, hot showers, and a tiled staircase. As her family speaks little to no Spanish, all that Liat knew for a while was that the son of her host father lived somewhere in the United States and worked at a restaurant. Finally, one day, the son’s wife was talking to him on the phone when Liat pointed to the phone, asking to speak with him. Liat asked him which state he was living in – “Iowa,” he answered. Then she asked him where he was working – “Panda Express.” I decided then and there that, no matter its mediocrity and super-high sodium content, I would be eating Panda Express next time it was available.
I was proud of the idea that a single restaurant in the United States, whether conscious of it or not, was offering a better life for a family of seven in the small and isolated Ixil town of Chajul. I also realized that there were many unseen sacrifices and externalities in the whole ordeal. It is often unsaid in the immigration debate that few to no people truly want to immigrate. Few people want to leave their families, their home, their culture — everything they know. I imagined this man from Chajul, with no ability to speak Spanish much less English, having to navigate trains, cars, deserts, and borders before ending up in the United States for the benefit not of himself, but his family. No, people against immigration, this man did not go to the United States to eat your hot dogs, light your July 4th fireworks, and steal your job because it would buy him a new Nintendo. This man went to a strange land as a stranger to work a minimum wage job for the sake of his daughter that he has still yet to meet, his wife, and his family. Maybe he knew something of the American dream before crossing the border, but to raise enough money to feed his family and build a large house while working for less than eight dollars an hour, this man from Chajul was probably doing little besides working, eating, and sleeping. It is a massive sacrifice that we must acknowledge, respect, and support.
Liat and I, walking through the calm and beautiful streets of Chajul, often talked about how much we loved the place. We loved how the forest was endless, how the language and culture were nearly untouched, and how we didn’t want anything to change. But we also acknowledged that this lack of change wasn’t really working. Children were literally starving and their parents couldn’t think of any other solution besides working in the United States. On a secondary level we might be against urbanization, globalization, and all these other big terms that imply Westernization and the assimilation of culture; but on a simpler level people are hungry and dying. Not that it is for us to decide what a foreign place should become or whether it needs to change, but it seems that maybe sustainable development, whether that changes its people slightly, might be better off than having to resort to immigrating to the United States where the people would be strangers, just as poor, and more lonely than the place they left. We often romanticize about the places that haven’t changed for centuries, and about how we do not want them to, but there are more important and urgent matters that we must acknowledge. Although they might be subtle, changes are already reaching Chajul. Prices are going up, and suddenly the work and income of these people that have fed their families for hundreds of years is no longer enough. We have to consider that the people of Chajul just might be happier and less hungry as a whole if they had the resources to send their children to school, replace their open fires with stoves, and maybe even work a desk job; and those resources might come from some form of development or work that is completely foreign to them. While we should make no decisions for other people, it could be a good idea to at least introduce them to new ideas – for better ways forward than to risk their lives and leave their home.
For now though, Chajul is a small place unknown to the world and most Guatemalans; just as the world and most Guatemalans are known to Chajul. Its local food boxbol is cooking over the open fires, the millions of acres of forest remain untouched, and the rivers are still clear, “undeveloped,” and uncontaminated. I left the ancient town at four in the morning on a bus, as if I was still dreaming, for who would send an American school bus to Chajul? But it was there, and so I was I, in the for now untouched town of Chajul, somehow lost in time — an exception to the rule, for better or for worse.