With Guatemala in the headlines as asylum seekers from that country have arrived at the U.S.–Mexico border, Carlos shared his story with the KBI. At 18 years old, he has already experienced a lifetime of discrimination, violence and trauma throughout his childhood. His journey sheds light on the compelling reasons Guatemalans are leaving their homeland to seek protection and safety in the U.S.
For 18-year-old Carlos and his family, discrimination and persecution were a regular part of life. As Kachiquel Maya from a small indigenous town in Guatemala, they were singled out by others, the children bullied at school (forcing Carlos to leave after first grade), and their safety and livelihood precarious. Such conditions are persuasive enough reasons to migrate and seek asylum, but what finally drove Carlos and his father, Roberto, to leave their family and their homeland was gang violence—each received death threats with no hope of protection from law enforcement or the government. There was nowhere in the country they could go where the situation would be different or where they would be safe. (Names and identifying details have been changed for security reasons.)
They left behind Carlos’ mother, his two brothers (23 and 24) and two sisters (19 and 2). The youngest is the delight of the whole family. Deeply committed to each other and to their evangelical Christian faith, they are very close, and support themselves through working their pea and chipilin (a leafy green) field. Carlos considers his parents the “best in the world,” and respects the example they set for their children—aligning words with actions, behaving with decency in all exchanges, and treating others with kindness.
So when Carlos took a job selling coal and firewood to supplement the family income and gang members targeted him for recruitment, Carlos stood by his strong faith and family bond. He refused. As he explains, “I don’t wish to cause harm to my neighbors or other people in any way. But as a gang member, if someone doesn’t turn over the money that they demand, you have to kill that person.” In fact, Carlos was now afraid of being killed for rejecting the gang’s demands; such a fate had befallen several people he knew, including his cousin. Roberto, too, received death threats from the gang.
The thought of leaving their family was heart-wrenching, but fearing for their lives, they fled the country. Knowing a decade-old deportation order would complicate Roberto’s asylum claim, they first decided to settle in Mexico and look for work, posing as indigenous Mexicans from Chiapas. Father and son travelled north and found work for a little while in a small Sonoran town. But once again, they were beset by gang threats, this time because the local gang members identified them as Guatemalan and insisted Carlos and Roberto leave Mexico immediately. Warning that “no one in your situation has ever left here alive,” the gang kidnapped them, tying them up, taking them away in a truck, and threatening to cut off their fingers one by one, then their hands, unless they revealed their true nationality. Amazingly, they released Carlos and Roberto when they admitted their Guatemalan citizenship, but stole all they had, even the pesos sewn into the insides of their shirts. Carlos said, “Here in Mexico, it’s the same as Guatemala. There is no freedom, there is no accountability. You can report crimes and the police won’t do anything, and so the crimes just continue.”
Now in Nogales, Sonora, after their harrowing experience, Carlos and Roberto are considering their options. Because of gang threats, they are afraid to remain in Mexico, and returning to Guatemala is a near-certain death sentence. Carlos explained, “Indigenous people are disposable there. I feel like they are trying to exterminate us again,” referring to the 1980s war in which his father fought and in which tens of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans died, including his grandfather.
At the KBI comedor, Carlos and Roberto share meals, stories, and a solidarity borne of common suffering and hope. Carlos plans to seek asylum, though knows the challenges involved. Roberto is looking into alternatives. Both miss their family beyond measure, and Carlos’ deepest wish is that one day Guatemala will be a place they can return to and live in safety with their entire family together. Even as he and his father navigate the current uncertainty they face, this distant dream remains alive .