Monday, November 19, 2007

Immigration From the Other Side

Guatemala is a lovely country, especially in the mountains during the rainy season. Yes, it rains most days but usually for only a part of the late afternoon. The view for the rest of the day is of lush, deep green fields filled with vegetables, coffee and fruit supervised by puffing volcanos. Because plots are small, there is a checkerboard effect that is missing in the large farms in the United States. Farming sustains two-thirds of the population, but only at a very basic life style. When the family outgrows the production of the family plot, something has to give. The first move is to the cities of Guatemala. When work is not found there, the next move is to the United States.

During a two-week stay to study Spanish in Quetzaltenango (known as Xela), I had the opportunity to speak candidly with my teachers and host family about the immigration problem from their perspective. Everyone has a relative in the U.S., but the stories are seldom happy. A typical scenario came from my first teacher. Rosalba was young, in her 20's, unmarried and living with her sister. Slender and wide-eyed, my instructor smiled readily and was an organized, fun teacher. Her family had initially consisted of her parents, two brothers and three sisters. They lived in a community outside of Xela. About 15 years ago, her father immigrated to America in search of a job. Initially, money was sent back to her mother and her father visited once or twice a year. The last time he came, he wanted a divorce as he had met someone else. This was devastating to her mother. The payments stopped after that visit. One at a time Rosalba’s brothers also crossed the borders and never returned. Her mother worked to support the girls, but later developed severe diabetes and died. Rosalba was tearful speaking of that time. What was a family of seven was now a family of three girls. Her brothers cannot visit because of the difficulty in crossing the borders to return to their lives in America. Immigration has taken away Rosalba’s family with no financial benefit to those left behind.

Rosalba’s stories and those of others were a surprise. It was expected that many families had members working in the U.S.. What wasn’t expected was the gradual cutting of the bonds that hold families together despite separation. As in Rosalba’s situation, money often comes at first but there’s no guarantee that it will continue over the years. Many children are growing up in female-headed households. The homes that took in English students at The Minerva Language School were all led by women, most with young children. My host family consisted of a grandmother raising a granddaughter, a teenage son, and another daughter who had a baby boy. The teenage boy was the "man" of the house.

My second teacher advised me that immigration and the long war had torn apart the close Latino families. Guatemala suffered through an internal war for 34 years, which slowed economic development. Whole villages of indigenous people were destroyed during this time. Carmen told of a terrifying experience when her bus was held up by guerrillas, the driver shot and the passengers left on the side of the road after being robbed. However, in 1996 , a negotiated settlement between the government and the guerillas was signed and Guatemala has been able to concentrate on living peacefully.

The tourist industry is booming. Many indigenous farmers, weavers and artists have formed co-ops to directly market their products. Korea is investing heavily in textile factories. Agricultural exports have grown from the traditional sugar, bananas and coffee to include broccoli and flowers. The United States is its major trading partner. Yet more than half of the population lives in poverty including 17% who live on less than $1.00 per day. The exodus for better paying jobs in the United States continues.

In Guatemala, the war has been resolved but immigration still divides families. Countries on both sides want what is best for their people. Jobs are the key to the solution and local jobs keep Guatemalan families together. But until there are enough jobs paying livable wages, there will be immigration pressures. Both sides need a resolution that will keep the immigrant’s family unit intact. Their economy and ours depend on it. So, until the next column, remember "there’s always two sides to every story."

Minerva Language School - 24 Avenida 4-39, Zona 3 - Quetzaltenango, Guatemala - 502-7767-4427 - - $135 per week for course and homestay

Escuela de Espanol San Jose el Viejo - 5a Av. Sur, #34 - Antigua, Guatemala 502-7832-3028- - $220 per week for course and homestay

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Revisiting Cambodia and Vietnam

They were my seatmates on the flight from Taipei to Phnom Penh, Cambodia - an American couple from the enormous Cambodian community in Los Angeles. In preparing for my trip, I had read much of these young Asians whose families had escaped from Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s. This next generation was starting to revisit their native country to connect with their roots. The wife actually remembered, as a child of four, her family’s escape to Thailand in 1979. They walked hundreds of miles, stopping for food at night and sleeping under trees. Her most vivid memories were of the times they had to run because of gunfire and her uncle would pick her up and carry her. None of her relatives that stayed in Cambodia survived.

On our bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was an American Cambodian from Washington, D.C., who had immigrated from a Thai refugee camp after escaping the Pol Pot regime. It was the first time she had been back and the first time to meet her grandparents. It was strange seeing this very American girl and her very Cambodian parents and siblings. She was quite helpful in translating all of the action by the bus driver, especially when we pulled to the side of the road and sat while he yelled on the phone with somebody. (We had apparently left a passenger stranded 10 minutes back and the company wanted him to return. The entire bus booed that idea so we kept going.)

These stories brought back memories of the five or six Cambodian families who were sponsored by churches in my hometown in 1980. At the time, I truly had no idea what they had been through but was made painfully aware of their trauma when we visited School Number S-21 in Phnom Penh. It was used as a prison and torture facility during the Khmer Rouge. Of the 10,000 people who passed through the prison, only seven survived. One fourth of the population of Cambodia died under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Gruesome stories were the norm. It was only four years of such oppression, ending in 1979, but Cambodia is only beginning to heal. It is becoming stable enough to benefit from the large tourist industry. Siem Reap, home to the incredible ruins at Angkor Watt, is the first city to provide the hotels, restaurants and transportation necessary to attract visitors.

In Vietnam, one million South Vietnamese escaped by boat after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and many immigrated to United States. For that we should be grateful. As a group these families have been enormously successful in their adopted countries. Thirty years later it is their children, educated in the Western world, who are interested in returning to Vietnam to learn of their past and to create business opportunities. On a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta, I praised the English of one of the tour members only to discover he was an American, living in Portland, Oregon, and with his family owns five Vietnamese restaurants. My comment was embarrassing for me, but he got a good laugh out of it. He helped us identify many of the unfamiliar fruits and vegetables we saw for sale, especially on the world’s largest floating wholesale market. This armada of produce laden boats served farmers dropping off their products, and restaurants and stores buying in bulk. We could only gape at this unusual distribution method. We were not happy to learn from our Portland Vietnamese friend of a recent outbreak of Asian bird flu that had killed many ducks in the very town where we found ourselves. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Vietnam suffered through some years of trying to make a communist economy work. Fortunately, their leaders decided in 1986 to test out a freer market and the economy is now booming. Yet the cost of living has remained low. Our hotels in Vietnam ranged from $5 to $12 a night and most of our meals were under $3. With a population of 150 million and 95% literacy, Vietnam is poised to become a dominant player in that part of the world.

Late in the trip, I met a Vietnamese American airplane mechanic with Boeing in Wichita, Kansas, who escaped Vietnam by boat when he was two-years-old. His two-month-old sister had to be left. He was painfully aware that there was a discussion of whether to bring him with the family when they departed. A different decision would have given him a totally different life. But he is now very committed to helping his family that remained in Vietnam and making sure his children are comfortable with their heritage. This is the consistent attitude we found as these children of those who fled Cambodia and Vietnam are making their first round trips, not to stay, but to help.

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