Migrants’ Emotional Ties to U.S. Expressed in Flags, Tombs and Fancy Homes
September 10, 2018
CHIVARRETO, Guatemala — Perched high on a mountain slope above a hamlet in Guatemala, the sign is hard to miss: 10 metal letters, each 33-feet-high and painted white, spelling out the town’s name. “CHIVARRETO.”
That the sign calls to mind a much more famous one, in Southern California, is no accident.
Residents proudly refer to their hamlet as “Little Hollywood,” and their association with that corner of America is heartfelt.
The sign was the idea of a group of immigrants from Chivarreto who were living in the Los Angeles region and wanted to do something for their birthplace, a gesture that both honored the hamlet and underscored its ties to the migrants’ adopted home in the United States.
They found inspiration in the Hollywood sign they could see on their way to jobs on construction sites and in restaurant kitchens.
Dozens contributed whatever they could afford. Augusto Ramos, a local preacher and radio host, said he was living in Los Angeles at the time and gave $100. People in Chivarreto kicked in more. And the sign was made.
While the impact of undocumented workers has become a major political debate in the United States, migration has also had a profound influence on the many sending countries, often creating a deep emotional connection between the places the migrants left and the places they journeyed to.
For generations, the western highlands of Guatemala — remote, rural and impoverished, with a largely indigenous population — have sent a steady stream of migrants north, seeking work and a better life. As a result, the United States and the promises it represents loom large in the popular imagination here, and symbols of American life and culture are everywhere.
On a hill overlooking the town of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, a half-built, two-story mansion with an ostentatious double portico and 12 rooms stands in sharp contrast to the corrugated metal shacks and simple cinder block homes that characterize more conventional local architecture.
The owner is a 25-year-old undocumented immigrant living in New Jersey who works for a commercial cleaning company.
He has been funding construction of the house since he migrated to the United States more than a decade ago, sending money in spurts to his relatives who have managed the project.
Indeed, many of the newer, larger houses in the areas throughout Central America and Mexico that have seen large-scale migration in recent decades have been built with such remittances.
“I came here to seek my dream,” the owner, Pascual, said in a phone interview from New Jersey. He permitted publication of only his given name because of his undocumented status.
The house’s design was inspired by the homes he had seen throughout the New York metropolitan region while working for the cleaning firm. As he went from house to house, he took note of architectural elements he liked and included them in the plan for his house.
Once construction is finished, he will let his family live there and will join them when he finally returns home. “I never forget where I’m from,” he said. “I never forget where I was born.”
The connection with the United States in this region of Guatemala is also widely referenced in business names, evoking not just the memory of the migrant experience but also, perhaps, the commercial power of an American imprimatur.
In the mountain town of San Pedro Soloma, a tiny barbershop, tucked behind the main cathedral (itself recently rebuilt in part with donations from migrants), is called “El Norte,” meaning “The North.”
Its owner, Domingo Manuel Juan, 50, said the name was inspired by the 12 years he spent in Riverside, Calif. He chose it, he said, as “a reminder” of his struggle to build a life there, “so that it’s not forgotten.”
Throughout this region, the United States flag, that quintessential American symbol, is another recurring motif, its image adorning items as diverse as clothing, advertising and truck mud flaps.
In the town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, the exterior walls of some homes are decorated with hand-painted United States flags, signaling the provenance of the money used to build them — a kind of Made in America stamp.
Marcos Matías flies an actual United States flag on the roof of his two-story house on the edge of a steep mountain slope in Todos Santos. He put it up on July 4 in honor of Independence Day.
During the 15 years he lived in San Francisco as an undocumented immigrant, he said, “we always celebrated Independence Day.”
Since returning to Guatemala three years ago, he has continued the tradition as a show of appreciation for the country that was host to him, however uncomfortably, for 15 years.
He acknowledged that life could be very hard in the United States for an immigrant without papers, and that there were many Americans who did not exactly welcome him with open arms. But still, he was able to find employment as a construction laborer, earning enough to support his family in Todos Santos and build his two-story house.
“Thanks to the United States, there was work,” he said.
In the cemetery of Todos Santos, American flags are painted on more than a dozen tombs, a signifier in most cases that the money to build the structures came from the United States.
On a recent morning, Juan Pablo Martín, 63, and his wife, Marcelina Martín Pablo, 60, came to pay their respects to their son, Pedro Pablo Martín, on the 12th anniversary of his death. He was killed at age 33 in a car crash in Oakland, Calif., where he had lived for eight years as an undocumented migrant.
His coffin was encased in the top vault of a four-level cement tomb the family had built, with each side of the vault decorated with a rudimentary representation of an American flag.
For the family, the flags symbolized more than the source of the money to build the tomb.
“It’s because he died in the United States,” said Mr. Pablo, a farmer.
His son’s body had been flown back to Guatemala, an effort that cost thousands of dollars and was only possible with the financial help of the Guatemalan immigrant community in the United States, Mr. Pablo said.
The couple had brought plastic flowers to adorn their son’s grave, replacing older ones ruined by the sun and rain.
“The old ones don’t work, like old clothes,” Ms. Martín said.
After laying down the new flowers, the couple headed deeper into the cemetery to pay respects to their daughter, who had died in childbirth in Todos Santos at the age of 35. She was buried in a simpler tomb, painted magenta.