Every day at 7:00 a.m., Mateo (names in this article have been changed to protect the immigrants) wakes up next to Maria, his longtime girlfriend. Most mornings, he hops out of bed, throws on his workout clothes, stretches, and goes out for a three-mile run. Sometimes he'll attach weights to his ankles and include a big hill or two for more of a challenge. When Mateo gets home to their one-bedroom apartment in Normal Heights, he showers and has a light breakfast with Maria and their five-year-old daughter Carla. Then he's off to take English at a local language school. Mateo speaks English fluently but still attends classes three or four times a week. Today, he learned the present perfect tense: "By the time I go to school, I've already eaten breakfast."
After class, it's off to work. Mateo's a busboy at two of the better fine-dining restaurants in San Diego. He wears a vest, apron, and bow tie for seven shifts at one venue (four nights and three days) and sports more or less the same outfit for two dinner shifts at the other. Mateo makes coffees and iced teas, crumbs and clears tables, serves food, pours water, and cleans, but he's also learned about fine wine and fine cuisine over the years and is able to interact with the clientele more than most busboys.
After work, about 11:00 most nights, Mateo drives his "baby" — his good-condition, golden 1977 Camaro LT — home to his family, and he goes to bed.
Other days, Mateo plays soccer in the Ocean Pacific Soccer League, where he's a top-notch defensive back. Or he'll take his daughter to Chuck E. Cheese or to the park. He details cars on Wednesdays with a friend for a few extra bucks.
Mateo works 55 hours a week and brings home close to $1000.
A Guatemalan expatriate, Mateo's lived in San Diego for the past nine years. For most of that time, he's wired money to his family back home. Mateo estimates that he sends about half of what he earns back to Guatemala. By now, in the rural southwestern part of that country, this young man owns 140 acres of fertile grazing land, three houses, two bakeries, an apiary, and 78 head of prime beef Brahman cattle, all of which he purchased with money from busing tables.
Mateo's Guatemalan compatriots back home earn an average of $80 per week. They drive taxis and serve street-side sodas and change flat tires and pick mangoes. They wake up in clapboard houses with corrugated metal roofs, walk out across littered dirt lots, hop on rusted bicycles or into dilapidated trucks, and ride over potholed roads to net a pittance at best.
It's not difficult to see why Mateo wanted to move to America.
And now that he's here, he's become a model citizen: paying taxes, donating to charities, going to church, and making it a point never to break the law or cause trouble. In fact, Mateo is one of the most dependable, kind, hard-working, easygoing, humble, and friendly young men you'll ever meet, with never a bad word for anybody.
Mateo's also here illegally.
Mateo is the middle one of seven brothers, aged 36, 34, 29, 28, 25, 22, and 18. "Growing up in Guatemala," Mateo told me, "we had just a little wooden house that my dad built, and sometimes water was coming in and stuff. We slept all nine of us in the same two rooms. t wasn't bad, but one of my goals, my dreams, was to come to this country and send money back to buy a nice, big house for my dad. That's what I did the first three years I was here, was send money back for a new house for my family."
Nine years ago, in April of 1997, Mateo was the first member of his family to leave Guatemala. He was 19. "Ever since I was 10, 11 years old, I knew that I wanted to come to this country," he said. "I just knew it. I remember hearing that American dollars were worth twice as much as Guatemalan quetzals, and I thought, 'Wow, dude, where is that country? That means you can work as many hours and make twice as much money.' Of course, I was just a little kid, so I didn't know anything, really. All I'd heard about the United States was the money and the cars. So I wanted to come here right away, but my dad told me to finish school first, and then I could do whatever I want."
Mateo went to a private school in Guatemala, where he learned how to be a mechanic, and he graduated in 1996. Then he applied for and got a job, and he worked on cars and saved quetzals for seven months.
Eight hours in a garage brought Mateo 30 quetzales a day, about the equivalent of $5. "My dad didn't believe me that I was going to go away," Mateo said, "because I was working in a good place as a mechanic. But after a few months, I went to him and said, 'Okay, it's time to go.' And he got mad, and my mom started crying. But I told them it was my fate, you know. I had to come here. And they were trying to tell me that I could be successful in Guatemala, that I didn't have to leave my country. But I told them the numbers that I was making, the money, that it was only 30 quetzales a day. And I had to go."
Mateo had put together a savings of about 700 quetzales. "I had asked some people how much they thought I needed to travel from Guatemala to the United States," he said, "and they all told me, like, 500 quetzales." And then Mateo added, under his breath, "But that wasn't true." He went on: "So when one of my brothers saw that I was about to leave, he said, 'Okay, listen, here's another 500 quetzales,' so I had 1200, and I thought that was really enough."
(The word "quetzales" sounds like kat-AL-iz. The pronunciation of this word illustrates the beautiful Mayan twist to the Spanish language, with apostrophes in strange places and lots of letters like j, k, q, x, and z. For example: K'umarcaaj, Iximché, Tzolkin, Mazatlàn. It's curious that the rarest letters in English are almost the most plentiful in Guatemalan.)
Mateo was so determined to come to America that he had no qualms about making the dangerous trip by himself. But the day before he was going to depart, his childhood friend Carlos came looking for him. Carlos had already tried unsuccessfully to leave Guatemala three times and had heard that Mateo was going to go. "Carlos came to watch me play soccer one day," Mateo said. "And I thought he was already gone to the USA. But he told me he couldn't make it. So I told him, 'Okay, well, let's go tomorrow. I'm leaving tomorrow.' And he said, 'Really? Okay, well, let's go.' "
And just like that, they went.
"We took a bus to the border," Mateo began, "near Unión Juárez, and we paid two pesos each for a little rowboat to cross into Chiapas, Mexico. You can get permission to cross the border, but it costs money and it takes time, so instead we decided to go and we just went. But when I saw the border, I'd heard it was different and everything, but I didn't really believe it. And then I saw how people live there, houses made of plastic and piles of metal and people lying in the streets. It was really different. The way they spoke, the way the people looked. I was, like, wow, this is such a strange place."
It was the first time Mateo had ventured more than a few hours from his hometown, and his plan was to travel thousands of miles more. So. What did Mateo bring with him for his odyssey?
"I had a map, a pencil, and a notepad," he said. "Two pairs of socks, shoes, two pairs of underwear, a T-shirt, and a button-down shirt. I still have the map and the shirt, because that was my shirt, you know, the one I wore to get here."
That's all Mateo had with him?
He laughed. "It's only supposed to take two or three days to cross Mexico, if you know how to do it," he said.
But Mateo and Carlos were in fact beginning an adventure that would last over three weeks.
"The first night in Mexico, we stayed in a nice hotel," Mateo said, "because at that time we thought we had plenty of money. We didn't know. So we thought, no problem. We changed our quetzals into pesos, and we had about 2200 pesos between us, and it seemed like a lot."
Their plan was to take buses and to have the various drivers drop them off before they'd reach immigration checkpoints. "We only wanted to travel during the day," Mateo told me. "So, like, 6:00 or 7:00 o'clock, that was it. We'd get a hotel and get off the street."
The first few nights, under the impression that their trip would be easy, they did a little sightseeing in the state of Oaxaca, staying in hotels near the beaches and enjoying the new surroundings. The first indication that things might get tough for them occurred on a bus in southern Oaxaca.
"Some federales stopped our bus and got on and started asking for papers," Mateo said. "And we didn't have any papers. So they made us get off the bus, just me and Carlos, and I was, like, 'Wow, dude, this is it. We're getting sent back home.' And the guy asked me where we were going, and I said, 'Oaxaca.' And he said, 'Oh, yeah?' And before this, I'd made sure to ask someone else on the bus about some places in Oaxaca. So I told the federale about this place in Oaxaca where we were going, and he said, 'Oh, really? Okay. Well, you guys are from Guatemala, right?' And I told him, 'No. We're from Chiapas.' And I told him the name of a little town in Chiapas. And he said, 'Oh, yeah? What dialect do they speak there?' And I just started laughing, because I didn't know. And he said, 'You're lying to me. You're going back home.' And then he said that he would do us a favor, and he'd let one of us free, but the other would have to go back home. And we said, 'No way. Either both of us stay, or we both go back home, but we're staying together.' And the guy was cool. He let us go. He didn't take any money. And he let us get back on the bus. I thought maybe somebody told them that two guys were on the bus from Guatemala. But then he saw that we weren't bad guys, so maybe that's why he let us go. I don't know."
Mateo and Carlos had a second run-in outside Mexico City, when federales again boarded their bus and asked for IDs. "They asked us some questions, and we told them we were from Mexico. But we have this word for money in Guatemala, pisto. But pisto in Mexico is tequila or cerveza. And I didn't know that. So the guy asked me how much pisto we had, because he was trying to catch me, and I said, 'I don't have a lot of pisto, I only have, like, this much.' And he was, like, 'You're lying to me! You're from Guatemala! You're chapin.' Because chapin is the word Mexicans use for people from Guatemala. And I just starting laughing again, because he caught me. So they said we had to pay them some money. I think we gave them, like, 300 pesos total, and then they let us go."
Their money was disappearing, and they were only a third of the way through Mexico. They needed to make a decision. "We didn't have enough money for the bus anymore," Mateo said, "so we decided to take the train, because it costs less. But the second-class train is unbelievable in Mexico. Really unsafe. There were no lights, and the seats were all broken, and there were bad people everywhere and dirt and water and stuff. It was really bad."
Mateo had been calling home, collect, from a pay phone, every evening, and telling his family that things were fine and that Carlos and he were getting closer to their destination every day.
At first, that destination was supposed to be Miami or New York City, via the Laredo, Texas, border crossing. "I had friends from school in Miami and New York," Mateo said, "and I had their phone numbers in my pocket."
They took the train from Mexico City to Saltillo and had to get off more than once because the federales kept boarding the train. Along the way, they stayed overnight with some Good Samaritans they met, and after a few days they finally made it to the border of Texas, to Piedras Negras. They had no money left. Mateo bought one tamale, and they split it, and that was it. No more pisto. "But we were there," Mateo said. "We made it to the border."
The thing was, Mateo's contacts in Miami and New York City didn't answer the phone. He tried for two days to reach them, but they never called back. He and Carlos were staying in special houses provided by the church for wayward travelers along the Mexican side of the border. The church supplied simple meals for them as well. It was the only way they could eat.
Fifteen hundred miles, two weeks, but still, no answers from the States. And no money! It seemed that their epic trip might be dead at the border.
For the first time, hopelessness set in. The two young men finally discussed the possibility of giving up. After a few days, Mateo called home and asked for advice. "I told my brother, 'We're at the border, and just find somebody who can help us,' " Mateo said. "And my brother asked a girl he works with, and her brother lived in Tucson, Arizona, and we called him. And this guy asked us where we were, but we were so far away from him. And we told him we didn't have any money at all, so he couldn't really help us."
But then one of Mateo's brothers remembered a "cousin" in San Diego. "He's not really a cousin," Mateo told me, "but we say that in my country. He was, like, a close friend of my mother's sister when he lived in Guatemala, years ago. But the family knew him, and he was from my town, and now he lived in San Diego and maybe he would help us."
So Mateo's brother called the San Diego cousin and made sure he remembered who Mateo was, after so many years. Pedro not only remembered Mateo but was more than willing to help. He wired money, $200, to Piedras Negras and sent instructions on how to get to Tijuana by train, where Pedro could help Mateo and Carlos get across the border.
Great. Tijuana. Only 1500 more miles to go.
About a third of the way to Tijuana, in Chihuahua, Mateo's iron will began to show cracks. "In Chihuahua was where I was really over it," Mateo said. "I was, like, 'You know what, dude? I got to go back. I'm not going to make it.' We had no money, and I was so tired."
But then the northbound train showed up and they got on. They could do it. Only a few more days without food and with minimal water.
Except that there was one more snag in store for Carlos and Mateo. "On the train there were these guys from El Salvador," Mateo related, "and they had long hair and tattoos, and they were getting drunk. Six guys, and they came over to me and Carlos, and they started bothering us. They asked us if we wanted any beer, but I said no, we didn't drink. And this one guy says, 'No? You don't drink?' And then he pours his beer all over us, all over our faces and heads. And one guy grabbed Carlos around his neck, and we couldn't see anybody, because the train was totally dark. And they took us outside the train, in the outside-part between the cars, and the train was still moving, and they said they were going to drop us down there and kill us, and I was, like, 'Oh, man, we're going to die.' "
But then Carlos broke free and pushed the man who held him, and he and Mateo started running through the train with three of the bullies chasing after them. "And then we found this guy, this big, older guy, and he was, like, 'Hey, what's going on, guys?' And we told him these guys wanted to fight with us, and he told us to sit down and he made sure we were okay. He wouldn't let those other guys come near us. I don't know if he was a federale or what, but he was a big guy."
After three full weeks, Mateo and Carlos made it to Tijuana. "We called my cousin, Pedro, in San Diego, and he called his friend in Tijuana, and we got to sleep in a bed and eat some food. We stayed there in Tijuana for, like, three days, and then I got sick. I got so sick."
But the plans were in motion, and when Mateo was well enough, he and Carlos followed a guide, a "coyote," through the hills of northern Mexico into southern California.
"We walked for three days and three nights," Mateo said. "My cousin found us a guide and paid him $700 to cross us. Seven hundred dollars for me, and $700 for Carlos."
Mateo's family hadn't heard from him in ten days, and they were worried. But finally he called them and told them everything was all right. He and Carlos had made it to the land of the free.
Mateo and Carlos stayed with Mateo's cousin for a month, and Mateo began to learn English. "I talked to my aunt and my uncle and my father, and everybody told me the first thing was that I had to learn the language, and I had to obey the rules. And I remember my cousin said, 'If you want to come to this country to have a party, go back home. But if you want to come to this country to make money and be peaceful, then stay here, no problem." Mateo took classes all day for almost three months, at a language school in University Heights, and then he went out to look for a job.
"My cousin went up to Los Angeles and got me a fake Social Security number," Mateo said. "That was all I needed to look for a job."
Mateo found work in a local fine-dining restaurant and started out as a dishwasher, though he quickly found his way into the kitchen proper, working the prep line. He cut vegetables and made pastries. "They called me morro," Mateo said. "Morro is what they say in Mexico for 'boy,' you know, like 'He's our boy.' They've called me morro since 1997."
They took Mateo, their morro, under their wing. Co-workers gave him rides to and from the restaurant. He worked seven nights a week. Mateo paid attention and asked questions and tried to learn everything he could about the business.
For a long time, it was learning English during the day and working at the restaurant at night. Mateo walked to school and then got rides to work, every single day, week after week. But there was always a little time for Mateo's first love, soccer. He'd play whenever he could. He also met a girl at the language school -- Maria, from Guadalajara -- and they began dating.
"I remember that first paycheck," Mateo said. "It was $700, and I was, like, 'Whoa, dude.' Unbelievable. I paid off my cousin and bought some clothes, and I sent $200 home to Guatemala." Soon enough, Mateo had taken care of all his debts, and within a year or so he'd saved enough money to move out on his own.
One of Mateo's co-workers at the restaurant sold Mateo his first car, a Honda Prelude. "He wanted $2500 for the car," Mateo told me, "but I couldn't afford that. So he said, 'Okay, give me $700 next week, and you can drive the car. And then pay me $500 more next month, and the car's yours.' And I was, like, 'Really?' And he said, 'Sure. No problem. You're morro.' "
Mateo's characteristic humility crept into his voice as he lowered his head and said, "I've found the right people. So many people have really helped me."
Six years ago, Mateo filled out a form with the Internal Revenue Service and told them that he wanted to take care of his taxes. They gave him a tax identification number, and he paid back taxes to 1997. Since then, he's taken care of his duties to the United States government just like every law-abiding legal American citizen.
"I'm grateful to be in this country," Mateo said, "and to be able to work as hard as I want to work and to make the money that I deserve for working hard. This is a great country, maybe the greatest in the world, and I'm happy to be here. But I can't believe that I've been here for nine years, and I have a daughter who's a U.S. citizen, and I learned the language and I pay my taxes, but I still can't get papers to stay here legally. That's too bad."
Local immigration lawyer Christopher Macaraeg told me that there is virtually no way for Latin Americans to live and work legally in the United States unless they have a family member already established here or a workplace petitions on their behalf. "About the only other way is if they have enough money to start a business or if they're specialists in some profession, like science," Macaraeg said.
"I've been to lawyers," Mateo told me. "Many lawyers. They say there's nothing they can do. The restaurants I work at can't even sponsor me, because I'm not a chef, and for some reason restaurants can only sponsor chefs. And the thing is, I love this country. I love it like it's my own country. So many great things have happened to me here. If they'd let me, I'd buy a house and really make my home here. But instead, I could get sent to the border, anytime, just like that."
Which is to say that every day, Mateo faces the threat of deportation. One time when I saw him, he had just been pulled over by a policeman for a broken taillight. He carries no identification, because the Department of Motor Vehicles won't issue him any, but let this story be an indication of what a sweet, kind, smiling young man Mateo is (and also what a compassionate fellow this particular police officer was): Mateo told the officer that he didn't have a license, and the policeman said, "You mean, you don't have your license with you?" And Mateo told him, no, he couldn't get a license at all. He was just here in this country working hard and supporting his family. And the officer told him to make sure to get his taillight fixed, and he let Mateo go.
That was last year. Eight years ago, Mateo wasn't so lucky. Before his daughter was born, and before he could speak English very well, he was in fact deported one night, right out of his bed at 1:00 o'clock in the morning.
"I was staying with my cousin still," Mateo said, "and he got pulled over by police for speeding, but he didn't have his license. But he said he had a license at home, so the police followed him back to his place, and they followed him inside. And he had his license, but the police woke me up, and they woke Carlos up, and we didn't have any papers, so they took us away. I told them we were from Mexico, so they took us to Tijuana, and they left us there, and, oh, man, we had to walk back over again."
(Mateo's girlfriend Maria also walked across the border illegally. Her trip from Guadalajara in 1999 took three days. Today, Maria works full-time as a housekeeper for $1200 a month and assumes the main duties for raising little Carla.)
Mateo's second expedition to the United States took him eight days. "The border patrol found us on the second day," he said, "and they caught our guide. Me and Carlos ran, but they were calling after us with a loudspeaker saying, 'Don't run! You have no food! You have no water! You'll get lost and die!' But we ran anyway, even though they were right. We had no food, and we ran out of water the next day, and the sun was hot, and we didn't know which way to go."
Mateo and Carlos wandered aimlessly for days through the hills. "I know what it's like to starve," Mateo said, "and it's bad. But having no water.... That's so much worse. You get so you can't breathe, and you start, what's the word, you start hallucinating. I thought I was going to die out there. But then we found, I think you call it a puddle. We found a puddle. And it was clear, and it tasted good. That was the best drink I ever had. Man, I still remember drinking that water."
After five days alone in the daytime sun and the chilly desert nights, Mateo and Carlos came across another guide who was bringing three immigrants across the border. The guide gave them food and agreed to lead them, and soon they were back in San Diego.
Immigrants had it different back in the early days of this country. One hundred fifty years ago, if you could make it to these borders in good health, and if you bore no previous criminal record, then you'd earned your passage.
At first, this country needed immigrants. The colonies, and later the fledgling states, relied heavily on an incoming flood of able-bodied foreigners.
It wasn't until the 1870s, when anti-immigrant propaganda began spreading, that the U.S. government was forced to impose restrictions on who would be allowed to seek American citizenship. By 1924, Congress had passed quota laws against almost everyone, in an effort to cater and shape the ethnicity profile of our national citizenry.
Still -- as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau -- over 11 million illegal immigrants have entered the U.S., and as many as 500,000 more are crossing the borders every year. About half of these "aliens" are Mexican, with several Central American and even European countries also represented. Some sources report that as many as 1 in 10 Mexicans and 1 in 10 Guatemalans now live and work in the United States, and most of them are here illegally.
In an unofficial AOL poll conducted the day after the infamous May 1 nationwide walkout by Hispanic immigrants, two-thirds of those polled said that illegal immigrant status should be a felony crime. The same percentage of Americans (67 percent) indicated that they sympathize with illegal immigrants in the U.S. "very little or not at all."
The walkout occurred in an effort to see Congress pass immigration reform that would provide a path toward citizenship. Instead, the Bush administration has militarized the border and criminalized people who are here illegally.
But I always remember that ours is, by definition, a country of immigrants. We're the world's admirable "melting pot." The United States of America. A land of previously tired, poor, and huddled masses who yearned to breathe free.
Mateo's homeland was Guatemala. Guatemala is the northernmost country in Central America, due south of Mexico. Guatemala also borders Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador to the east and south.
According to the humanitarian organization CARE, the average annual income in Guatemala hovers right around $4000, with half the workforce in agriculture, 35 percent in services and 15 percent in industry. Just 55 percent of the population is literate. Mateo's father, however, always insisted that his sons become educated. " 'Go to school, go to school, go to school,' that's what my father always said to us," Mateo remembered. In a recent edition of the Human Development Index, a table that ranks countries according to life expectancy, educational attainment, and income per person, Guatemala placed 117 out of 174 nations.
Now, if all goes well, by 2010, Mateo's cattle business alone will generate more than 20 times the average annual income for his country. Converting this to U.S. funds (our national average income is about $40,000, according to the Census), we might say that when Mateo returns home to run his own business, which he does plan to do someday, he'll be worth the equivalent of nearly a million dollars a year, relative to his Guatemalan neighbors. And to think that in 1997, this young caballero was a full-time dishwasher.
Mateo uses money wire-transfer services to send funds home. He usually goes to a company called Giromex. According to the World Bank, remittances by emigrants represent the second-largest source of external finance to developing countries, after foreign direct investment, surpassing even foreign aid. In particular, Mexico currently receives the most remittances of any country in the world: over $16 billion in 2004. Literally millions of unemployed Mexicans living in Mexico are dependent upon money wired from Mexicans living in the United States.
The numbers for Guatemala are similarly sizeable. Money sent home from the U.S. amounts to over $1.2 billion a year, which is more than the combined value of traditional exports: coffee, sugar, and bananas.
"Always I wanted to buy land to have cows," Mateo said. "That was one of my dreams, too, since I was a little kid. So the first three years I worked here, I got myself what I needed, and I sent money home to get my parents their house. But then, after that, almost all the money has been for land and for cows.
"To buy the land is easy," Mateo explained. "But to build the land, that's hard. That takes a lot of money, too, and that's why I'm still working hard. You need fences and corrals and water and you have to keep the grass in good shape and you have to take care of the cows. Also, we want to get our own truck to move the cows. That will save money for us later on."
In Guatemala, a small young cow costs about 2000 quetzales. After a year of grazing, the fattened adult cow might be worth about 4500. Figure that it costs about 500 quetzales to take care of the cow for that year, and the profit is about 2000 per cow, or a little over $250 dollars, at current exchange rates. Bulls cost more like 11,000 quetzales each. And you can figure about 25 cows per bull and ten acres per cow.
After initial investments in land and equipment, a good Guatemalan rancher could net a five-time return on his money every year.
Mateo's land in Guatemala is green and lush. But he's never seen it. He's never seen the house that he bought his parents, or the bakeries that he purchased for his brothers. In fact, he hasn't seen any members of his immediate family in over nine years.
When I told Mateo that I was going to be traveling to Guatemala for this story, he was instantly excited. He helped me plan and coordinate arrangements with his family and find a translator for the time I'd be there. He gave me his video camera. "I want to see my land," he said, "and the house my parents live in."
On the morning of my trip, an Iranian cab driver picked me up and took me to the airport. Four years ago, this cabbie married an American and became a U.S. citizen. In the '90s, he used to send money to his parents in Iran to help them invest in a house. "But it's much more difficult to send money to Iran now," he said. "The government is very corrupt and very unstable. We don't know for certain how it will be there next week or next month." And then my Iranian-American cab driver echoed a sentiment I'd read in more than one piece of social commentary: "The government in Mexico is corrupt, too. And maybe in Guatemala, I don't know. But the people in those countries have it very tough, and the government doesn't help them. They can't make any money and save and provide for their families."
On this note, my Lonely Planet official guidebook for Guatemala contains the following paragraph: "Despite cuddly-sounding democratic institutions and constitutions, Guatemalan politics has continued to this day to be dominated almost without pause by corrupt, brutal strongmen...for the benefit of the commercial, military, landowning and bureaucratic ruling classes. While the niceties of democracy are observed, real government often takes place by means of intimidation and secret military activities."
(Sounds horrifyingly close to the recent W. Bush United States.)
Mexico's President Vicente Fox says that generating new jobs in Mexico will keep Mexicans from leaving, but what about the even more fundamental issue of a self-serving government that does whatever it wants and also keeps its own citizens down?
I shared the plane to Guatemala City with an interesting crowd: seven water experts from Texas on a civic mission to build a water-purifier for a small town in central Guatemala, a wedding party on their way to Antigua, an elderly woman who rents a house near Lake Atitlan for three months every year, an Internet lawyer traveling to help a company set up protected e-mail accounts, an American man scouting for inexpensive property investments, and a few Guatemalan locals and young tourists. One of the water missionaries and the Internet lawyer discussed how going to Guatemala meant leaving the rest of the world behind. "I usually get 40-50 calls a day," said the lawyer, "but down here the phone won't work."
The original culture in Guatemala was the Mayan. Back when Europe was still napping through the Dark Ages, Mayans developed writing systems, mathematics, calendars, and vast stone cities, all without metal tools, beasts of burden, or even the wheel.
The Mayan Bible is called Popol Vuh. Popol Vuh is an interesting read, to say the least. In it, the Guatemalan gods seem amusingly mistake-prone. One of these gods has to try three times to create humankind before he finally gets it right.
I don't know if it says anything in Popol Vuh about the physical appearance of Guatemalans, but I did read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that ancient Mayans considered flat foreheads and crossed eyes to be beautiful. These ancient peoples would even go so far as to fasten boards to their faces and stare at beads dangling in front of their noses to achieve the desired physical effects.
When I got to Guatemala, I was met by one of Mateo's younger brothers, Victor, 25, and a friend of the family, Oscar, 31. The two of them brought a translator for me, a 21-year-old Guatemalan named Gustavo. Gustavo had grown up in Ontario, Canada, and he therefore spoke perfect English, complete with an amusing Canadian "eh?" thrown in every now and again.
Through Gustavo, they told me that we'd leave my rental car at the hotel, because it wouldn't make it where we were going. In fact, I'd already suffered a flat tire, which Victor and Oscar fixed in about four minutes. But they considered Victor's 1997 Toyota truck more roadworthy for rural Guatemala, so we all piled in and set out on our way.
It's difficult to present the street scenes in Guatemala in a way that can be easily visualized. For one thing, I found it hard to pay attention. The temperature got up into the 90s, and the humidity was in the 90s as well. Hot, thick, and wet. And then the windshield of the Toyota had been pinged four times over the years by little stones, and all four of the pings had expanded until the whole front window was threaded with webbed and snaking fractures. The next hindrance to awareness was the constant bouncing: we jolted, jerked, and joggled every which way on the pocked, patched, and sometimes cobbled Guatemalan roads. In the end, concentrating on anything while driving was like trying to watch footage from an unsteady handheld camera with a cracked lens.
Then figure in the traffic: zigzagging bicycles (all rust-colored), small children running, women crossing the streets with baskets on their heads, small taxis that looked like boxy foreign golf carts darting and swerving, slow rickshaws, loud diesel buses, big trucks, other cars. And all of this on roads barely more than a single lane wide.
What I've just described were the main roads.
The side road leading up to the house of Mateo's parents, in a township called Nuevo San Carlos (population around 1000), was basically a long, uneven pile of differently shaped rocks. We crawled and bounced along at about five miles per hour. Later, after viewing the footage I'd shot, Mateo would comment that this road used to be even worse.
The house Mateo bought for his parents is easily the nicest one in the area. It's sturdy and solid, a rectangle with a flat roof, all plaster and wood, with a concrete foundation, real windows, and no leaks. It wouldn't look out of place on the streets of San Diego. I'd estimate the floor space at around 1000 square feet.
There's no such thing as a lawn in Guatemala. For all the green lushness of the countryside, the concept of cultivated grass around a homestead hasn't caught on down there yet. It's all packed dirt lots with mango trees, banana trees, leafy weeds, thick bushes, and big rocks.
When we pulled up to Mateo's place, his smiling father came out into the dirt lot and greeted us. Through the open entryway of the house, we could see into the back yard, where Mateo's mom was standing inside a covered fire-pit pounding and molding tortillas.
When Mateo would later view the video footage I'd shot for him -- the hellos from his parents and brothers, the old streets he used to haunt, the bakeries he'd bought, his beautiful land -- his initial response was: "Thank you for this tape, but I'm very disappointed. I thought my parents' house would have a better entryway and a nicer kitchen with a bigger indoor stove. I keep asking my dad if he needs more money, and he always says, 'No, no, we're fine.' But it's not fine. They need to have a better stove and a better doorway than that."
Numerous chickens and dogs were running around in the yard. Almost every house had chickens, dogs, and even pigs living nearby. Mateo's mom gathered eggs from the chickens to make us breakfast. She and another woman, one of Mateo's sisters-in-law, would eventually cook us an exceptional breakfast. But after the preparations, these two women took seats away from the breakfast table and watched the men eat. Every so often, the señoras would notice that a glass was empty, or someone needed more black beans, and they would jump up and take care of things, like waiters or servants. (When I mentioned coffee, I was offered hot water and a jar of Nescafé. Ironic, I thought, that some of the best coffee in the world is grown in Guatemala, but because almost all of it's exported, you'd be hard-pressed to get a cup of it there.)
After we ate, we piled back into the Toyota and headed off to the main town in the region, Retalhuleu (population 40,000). Mateo's dad joined us, holding on in the back of the truck.
Even the smaller Guatemalan cities have running water and trash pickup and many other trappings of modern living, although these services can be erratic, and when things break, they'll often go unfixed for weeks or months. Mateo told me that the garbagemen in Nuevo San Carlos in the '90s used to pick up the trash in town and then take it to the riverbed just down the road and dump it out there. "They did that for a while," he told me, "and then it started to stink everywhere. It took a long time before anyone came and did anything about it."
The storefronts in Retalhuleu were basically hollowed out of a single, curving, half-mile-long row of 20-foot-high concrete. The only differentiation between one store and another was the colors of the paint, which were always loud, bright yellows, pinks, and reds, with some blues and greens thrown in. There were few real doors anywhere, just openings in the concrete façades where gates could be closed or metal grates pulled down. The bakeries Mateo bought for his brothers, a few hundred yards apart along the middle of the strip, were small and well equipped. (It didn't seem to bother either brother that their breads were in competition for consumers.) Victor, in particular, was proud of the bread he made, and he would eventually send me home with some. It was delicious, finely textured and slightly sweet.
(Before we leave Retalhuleu, I want to linger for a moment on the dozens of women I saw who were carrying huge baskets on top of their heads. No hands. Just an incredible balancing act as they glided along at a normal pace, turning to look at things, stopping, starting up again. To illustrate the incongruence in Guatemalan culture today, at one point in the Guatemalan capital of Guatemala City, I saw two of these top-of-the-head basket-carrying women standing in front of a poster for Hilary Duff's latest CD.)
After a half hour or so, we drove out of Retalhuleu, into the green countryside, to have a look at Mateo's pastures and livestock. Mateo's cattle were Brahmans, and some of these beasts were huge, with the lines of their bony backs towering over my head. Brahmans have an abundance of loose skin dangling down beneath their necks, as well as humps on their backs. They are the sacred cattle of India, and they do look majestic, if not exactly holy.
The fences around Mateo's land were representative of the Guatemalan people's resourcefulness. Between the strings of barbed wire running along, there was not one fence post -- the wire fastened to lines of living trees and bushes and branches stuck into the ground.
Mateo's land was worked year-round by two vaqueros. Both of these rugged fellows bore the accoutrements of American cowboys: wide-brimmed hats, blue jeans, collared long-sleeved shirts, and leather boots, but they rode bicycles and carried machetes. (As an aside, the only beasts of burden I saw in Guatemala were the people who pushed or pulled their own wares in carts.) The vaqueros sported compelling examples of a peculiar Guatemalan style: gold teeth. Mateo told me he can't remember how gold teeth became popular in his home country, but nowadays thousands of Guatemalans show off dental twinkles. One of Mateo's cowboys literally had more gold teeth than real teeth inside his mouth.
It was very hot and very damp. As we visited the various plots of land, flies and mosquitoes swarmed. Our shoes became thickly encrusted with mud. But we were lucky. It was the rainy season in Guatemala, and on any given day there'd be more than an 80 percent chance of rain. Two hundred eighty inches of rain -- over 23 feet -- on average, falls during every June. But I didn't get wet at all in my time in Guatemala, unless you count the muddy shoes and my own sweat.
We met a man outside of town, and when he saw me he said, loudly, "America's number one!" When I answered, "Maybe," he seemed noticeably surprised.
Eventually, we drank Canada Dry out of green glass bottles and feasted on fresh fish and shellfish on a seaside deck in Champerico, and we picked mangoes out of a tree and ate them.
Traveling through the countryside, I witnessed another example of Guatemalan resourcefulness: when Victor's Toyota got a flat tire, our cowboy immediately produced his machete, filed a stick down into a point, and stuck it in the hole, plugging the leak. Later, we would take the tire to a pinchazo (which means "flat tire") to have it more permanently fixed. Pinchazos, which advertise by prominently displaying tires with the word pinchazo painted on the treads, were more plentiful throughout Guatemala than any other business, which stands to reason, given the condition of the roads.
One thing I noticed, looking at the people: the default facial expression for most Guatemalans -- if I might risk a generalization -- is one of serenity. But it looks like a hard-earned serenity, a kind of postresignation serene. I'm reminded by these faces that until 1996, Guatemala suffered through 25 years of civil war. Hundreds of thousands were killed. (Mateo told me there was no violence in his town as he grew up.) And even before the recent troubles, Guatemalans were repressed and attacked at least since the Spanish colonialists started all the modern trouble in the 1520s. There's a calmness to these Guatemalan faces, yes, but it's a calmness with an alarming depth, as though calm were the only choice left to them in the wake of hundreds of years of defeat.
At the end of the day, I said goodbye to my gracious hosts, got in my rental car, and took the main road for the three-hour drive back to Guatemala City. Thunderstorms followed me, corrupt policemen pulled cars over purely at random, and I saw 3 of the country's 30 volcanoes looming pointedly along the scenic route.
Passing through customs at the airport in Dallas, Texas, coming home to America with all my papers in order, I was asked by the immigration officer what I'd been doing while I was out of the country. I told him about this article, and he took an interest -- more than an interest. He talked to me for nearly five minutes -- about his job, his home in the U.S. border town of El Paso, and a personal moral conflict -- while the line of travelers began to accumulate behind us.
"That's a good thing to write about right now," he assured me. "But there's so many angles in that subject. For one thing, a lot of people are mad at immigration officers, but we're just doing our jobs."
Did he think illegal immigrants were bad for our country?
"About the only negative effect I've seen is my property taxes in El Paso have gone up," he said. "Because of the strain they put on schools and housing. But other than that, I just don't know anymore. When I started doing this job, I was proud. I thought I was protecting our country. But now I deal with these people every day, and I realize they have lives, and my decisions -- although they might make me look good to my bosses -- my decisions could end up ruining someone's life. And for what? My property taxes? Being an immigration officer now is a tough job. I don't know if I can do it anymore."