Why has Guatemala's highlands embraced the American flag?

The US flag is seen on houses, clothing across Guatemala's highlands. But the reasons for its display may surprise you.

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    Why has Guatemala's highlands embraced the American flag?
    A man from San Juan Atitan stands in the municipal central plaza with a traditional bag with the US flag [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

    Todos Santos Cuchumatan, Guatemala - There is a lot of uncertainty in the Guatemalan highland town of Todos Santos Cuchumatan.

    Many here have loved ones who, knowing the potential outcomes - detention, deportation, sickness or even death - risked everything, trekking north to the United States in hopes of finding work to send money back home.

    "The detentions have affected here a lot," said Debora Pablo Mendoza, a 25-year-old nurse from Todos Santos Cuchumatan who migrated with her daughter to the US in 2016 and returned in January 2019, told Al Jazeera.

    "Many families here are waiting for a response," she told Al Jazeera. "The worry here is worse than before."

    But for a community that has embraced the American flag as its members migrate to and return from the US, the uncertainty also comes with hope.

    "There is fear, but the people here have not given up in trying to reach the United States," Mendoza said.

    It is estimated that one in 10 Guatemalans lives outside of the country, with nearly 98 percent of those living in the US. At least 5,000 people from Todos Santos Cuchumatan alone reside in Oakland, California.

    Guatemalans living in the US sent about $8.19bn back home in 2017, and more than $9bn in 2018, or 11.3 percent of the country's gross national product (GNP), according to data from the Guatemalan National Bank. That money, especially here in the highlands, is used to buy cars, build houses and send their children to school.

    "We are able to live because of the money our family sends from the United States," said Marina Vicente, a 46-year-old in the village of Sacchilaj, San Juan Atitan, a Maya Mam town, a short distance from Todos Santos Cuchumatan. Many here, including Vicente's husband and five other family members, have left in search of the "American dream".

    The American flag

    The community's connection to the US is hard to miss in Todos Santos Cuchumatan, where the American flag is painted on buildings, incorporated into clothing and displayed on gravesites of those from the town who died in the US. 

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    "The buttons printed with 'USA' are the ones that most people ask for," Josue Jimenez, a 16-year-old tailor in Todos Santos, told Al Jazeera. He began to sew when he was 11 years old after his father returned from the US.

    "The dream of everyone is to have a house, a car; this pushes people to go [to the United States]," Pablo Mendoza said. "They see things that they could not have. But if you go there, then you can have something nice."

    Guatemala American Flag
    A tailor shows Al Jazeera buttons bearing the label 'USA' in Todos Santos Cuchumatan [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

    The region has long suffered from social exclusion due to the large number of indigenous residents and distance from the capital.

    According to research by Mark Penate and Fidel Us for the Guatemala City-based Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), for every quetzal ($0.13) the Guatemalan government invested in a non-indigenous community, the government invested 0.45 quetzal ($0.059) in indigenous communities. As a result, going north becomes one of their only options to escape poverty. 

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    Prior to the 1980s, residents of Todos Santos Cuchumatan and other parts of the region migrated yearly to the Guatemala's southern coast to harvest coffee, cotton, and sugar cane.

    But this changed in the 1980s at the height of Guatemala's 36-year-long internal armed conflict, in which more than 200,000 people - the majority of whom were indigenous - were killed. Families sought asylum in the US as violence increased in the region.

    Beginning in the 1990s, residents began to leave Guatemala for the US due to economic reasons. According to Fortunato Pablo, a local historian in Todos Santos Cuchumatan, immigration to the US increased following the devaluation of the Guatemalan quetzal in the late 1980s.

    "People in the United States began to earn more money, and people here began to see their neighbours with family members in the United States living better," Pablo told Al Jazeera. "So people began to go."

    Guatemala American flag
    A man walks through the cemetery where graves are painted with the US flag in Todos Santos Cuchumatan [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]  

    Al Jazeera spoke to nearly three dozen individuals, from towns across the departments of Huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango, who estimate that the American flag began to appear in the region around early 2000. Residents said that the US is a symbol of pride in the region but when asked, many are quick to point out that displaying the flag is to show gratitude for the opportunities they received rather pay than an homage to the US government.

    US history and 'the Guatemalan dream'

    But the display of the American flag has also generated frustration and debate in the western highlands, given the history of US intervention in the region and, more recently, the treatment of Central Americans. 

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    "The United States has been the country that has contributed to the poverty and malnutrition in our country," said Eduardo Jimenez, a 38-year-old Maya Mam from Cajola, Quetzaltenango, and former director of the Cajola Group, an organisation that supports returned migrants and works for local development. Jimenez migrated to the US in 1996 before returning to Guatemala in 2005 to work on community development.

    In 1954, the US backed a coup d'etat against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, eventually throwing the country into a 36-year-long internal armed conflict that ended in 1996. Following the coup, successive US administrations supported the various dictatorships in Guatemala, especially during the Ronald Reagan administration.

    During this period, the Guatemalan dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt carried out a genocide against the indigenous Mayan people, especially in the highlands.

    "We are trying to teach the people about the history of the politics of the United States and how it has contributed to poverty," Jimenez told Al Jazeera. "People do not understand why there is poverty and why there was the war. We want to create a local economy where the people do not have to migrate to the United States."

    Guatemala American flag
    A house in the village of Checoche, San Juan Atitan constructed with money earned in the US [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

    The country's history is compounded by the hostility shown to Central Americans by the US government in recent years. Thousands of Guatemalans have joined Hondurans and Salvadorans in large caravans headed to the US-Mexico border. Thousands more have gone on their own.

    But at the border, they've been met with US President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy. Many have been detained, others deported, and thousands of others continue to wait on the Mexico side of the border due to the US's metering policy, meaning only a few asylum seekers are allowed to make their claims each day.

    The American dream is based in material desires. The Guatemalan dream is to feel happy with the resources we have and to also to be happy with the ancestral culture we have, because it is part of the history that has been taken from us.

    Willy Barreno

    Guatemala now has the highest number of migrants and asylum seekers apprehended at the US southern border, according to US government data. The policies come as Trump falsely labels those fleeing violence, extreme poverty and political persecution part of an "invasion".

    On Tuesday, Trump said he was considering tariffs, remittance fees or a "ban" on Guatemalan immigrants after the Central American country decided not to pursue a third safe-country agreement with the US in which Guatemala would agree to take Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers who first arrive in the country. 

    But many people in Todos Santos Cuchumatan say there's a difference between the rhetoric of US government and the American communities who have welcomed and provided opportunities to those who have headed north. 

    "Trump is just a person, he may be the highest authority right now, but he doesn't represent the United States, this doesn't change the way people who are not originally from the United States feel about the country" Jorge Calmo, a 24-year-old civil engineering student in Boston Massachusetts, who is from Todos Santos Cuchumatan. He migrated to the US when he was 13-years-old.

    "People will keep going to the United States because they see it as the land of opportunity," he said. "They know if they make it, then they will have a better lifestyle."

    Calmo visits his hometown once a year but does not want to return.

    Others, however, who did return have sought to create opportunities in the country so the people do not migrate. 

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    "The root of the American dream is competition in place of being collaborative," Willy Barreno, a 47-years-old from Quetzaltenango who migrated to the US just before the signing of the peace accords that ended the 36-year-long internal armed conflict, told Al Jazeera.

    "This competition has psychologically pushed many youth to the United States," he said. "Displaying the US flag is representative of this competition."

    Barreno returned to Guatemala in 2006 intending to build the "Guatemalan dream". He founded the organisation, Sustainable Development for Guatemala, or Desgua, in 2010. The goal is to connect returned migrants with the Guatemalan youth to teach them skills that were learned in the US.

    "The Guatemalan dream cannot be a copy of the American dream," Barreno told Al Jazeera.

    "The American dream is based in material desires," he said. "The Guatemalan dream is to feel happy with the resources we have and to also to be happy with the ancestral culture we have, because it is part of the history that has been taken from us."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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