In their wake, US-bound immigrants leave communities plagued by poverty and malnutrition

By Jared Olson, photos by Katherine Mellan Lewin |

This past April, Gargoyle journalist Jared Olson and Katherine Mellan Lewin (’18) traveled to report on malnutrition in a rural Guatemalan community. What they found was a slew of deeply interconnected social malaises, many of which lie at the heart of the current immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border. 

Judging by the glittering decorations and the vines adorning the stores, by the progressive aura of the tourism, or even just by the thousands of foreign hipsters who flock here every year in search of spiritual transcendence—“Los hippies,” as the Mayan locals frequently call them—one wouldn’t at first glance think that San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala, is a place where children are so malnourished that growth-stunted nine-year-olds look as if they’re only five, or where babies are so underfed that the hair slips off their scalps.

It’s a disturbing reality, one which often eludes the tourists passing through here: outsiders happily wandering the lakeside town’s bewitching, cobblestoned tourism corridor, garbed in flowing flower printed dresses and bead-laced scarves, unaware of the slums that exist just outside the insular bubble of tourism-centric businesses. In those cracked neighborhoods of ramshackle metal, poverty rates soar, spawning an array of social consequences for the towns Ka’qchikel Maya residents, especially malnutrition.

People often focus on the immigration debate where it ends, at a metal fence along the US’s southern border. But they forget how the entire process starts: in poor towns like this, places where the poverty is so systemic, historically rooted and deeply entrenched that even the introduction of tourism does little to stop the continual hemorrhaging of poverty.

In an almost physical display of irony, some of the same foreign tourists who loftily discuss “alternate modes of consciousness” in trendy cafes and lakeside restaurants often remain simultaneously oblivious to the sheer poverty and malnutrition which exists in shocking levels hardly a few streets away in the hills above them.

“Chronic malnutrition afflicts on average four out of 10 children in Guatemala,” Andrew Raphael concedes matter-of-factly. He is the director of Konojel, a locally run organization which focuses, among other things, on providing nutrition program for the San Marcos’ at-risk Maya youth. “In rural indigenous areas, you can say as much of 80 percent of the community suffers from signs of chronic malnutrition. In San Marcos… I would put it at 60 percent”

According the Roberto Mendoza, a local municipal judge, the community of San Marcos is haunted by “extreme poverty.” In this impoverishment, San Marcos is little different from the hundreds of other villages scattered across the mountainous Guatemalan countryside.

Yet in light of its burgeoning tourism industry, San Marcos represents a series of contradictions that are as baffling as they are unique: a community that is as dependent on tourism as it is exploited by it, and a place where an inherently conservative indigenous community confronted with influx of inherently liberal foreigners. It’s a place where, despite the palpable presence of foreign money, many children can hardly manage to eat.

With the advent of this ostensibly progressive tourism industry, San Marcos is haunted by a gap between the lives of the indigenous locals- who live in hillside slums of ramshackle metal huts overlooking the town below- and the foreigners who, benefitting off a cheap currency exchange rate, have set up shop with their businesses in the more affluent tourism district, which lay on the shore of Lake Atitlán below.

“You can see the breach between the people that come from outside and those who live here,” says Ingrid Paredes, a restaurateur who works with Konojel. “They have more opportunities, while the poor local families (are) up in the mountains, marginalized and without really knowing much, without receiving much either.”

The indigenous Ka’qchikel Maya of San Marcos, as if trapped in perpetual limbo, have been forced into the chaotic world modernity in which they find themselves continuously unable to enjoy the fruits of its promises.

The Ka’qchikel Maya have not always lived in San Marcos. For the majority of their recent history, in fact (“recent,” of course denoting the last several hundred years: Andrew points out that the Ka’qchikel, like many indigenous peoples, have an incredibly strong historical memory) they have been constantly moving, perpetually uprooted, never completely settling down.

Folklore holds that the Ka’qchikel originally came from la boca costa,a region situated at the far end of Lake Atitlán, along the Atitlán Volcano’s forested, sparsely populated western slopes. The legend continues that, around the mid-1500s, they were forced to seek better lands after their people continued to be decimated by marauding lions while going out to work, commencing a long saga of uprootedness which has followed the Ka’qchikel to this very day.

They wandered for many years- “sort of like Jews in the desert,” as Raphael parses it- until they finally settled in San Marcos, where the governor of Sololá gave them land that used to belong to two other communities.

“Because of the situation with the animals, of the lions, people who would go out to work or collect firewood would often never return, because the lions ate them.” Thus goes the story told us by Roberto Mendoza, the soft-spoken member of San Marcos’ municipal government and member of the Konojel board of directors. A quiet, middle-aged man, overflowing with the stories and folklore of the Ka’qchikel Maya, he minces out his words with the same delicate, measured care of a painter daubing acrylics on a canvas.

“They put up with it for a lapse of time,” he continues. “But already having become fatigued by losing family members, the ones who were still alive got together and got out of that place. They moved to a place called Cerro de Oro, which belonged to Santiago Atitlán. But the people of Santiago did not appreciate the presence of the families of San Marcos. They used witchcraft against us. They were quite the shamans, the people of Santiago, and they took the land (of the people of San Marcos). So San Marcos had to emigrate, to find another place. They came to the north side of Lake Atitlan, in a place called Jaibalito. It was the territory of the people of Santa Cruz la Laguna, who also lived in that place. But the wintertimes, the times of rains, brought disasters, landslides, crushing stones. That, neither was a place to live. Then, they found this place which is now called San Marcos la Laguna.”

In the present day, of course, it is not lions, or witchcraft, or landslides that are driving the people out of San Marcos. It is a lack of jobs.

Along the scalloping mountain ridge riding the horizon several thousand feet above San Marcos lays a string of villages composed of brightly-colored houses- nearly all of which have fallen empty. Once inhabited, these pueblos have all become near ghost towns, for nearly all of their residents had long since packed their bags to make the perilous, sixteen hundred-mile journey north in search of work in the United States.

Because Guatemala’s mostly indigenous campesinos were shoved abruptly (and largely without their consent) into a radically integrated global economy, they were forced suddenly to compete against the cheap imported foods of astronomically huge, U.S. farming corporations—an impossible wager for small-scale subsistence farmers like themselves. With no options but to abandon their traditional lifestyles, many have ventured to either Guatemala City or the United States to seek job opportunities, which are now virtually impossible to find in the countryside.

Nearly everyone can name a close friend or family member who’s immigrated to the United States. Immigration—the constant possibility of it, the aura of casting away in search of ever-elusive job opportunities (jobs which rarely manifest themselves in San Marcos)—is for the rural indigenous people as ubiquitous as the sun, the sky, the wind off the lake. In the context of San Marcos’ social situation, it’s not hard to see why some people would immigrate to the US in the first place.

This absence of jobs—unemployment for Guatemalan young men in 2012 was at a whopping 25 percent—is diagnosed by many as the greatest culprit in perpetuating San Marcos’ poverty. Joblessness, in turn, perpetuates and accentuates a slew of interconnected social malaises, from alcoholism to juvenile crime to under-education to—of course—malnutrition:

“They don’t have many opportunities to work,” says Maria Mejía Martín, the coordinator of Konojel’s nutrition program. “Nor to become educated.”

“For me, the greatest difficulty would be the lack of opportunities,” says Ingrid Paredes, the manager of Konojel’s sister restaurant. “They don’t have education, they don’t have ways to leave the community, to see other things, to learn and have job opportunities, to develop, to have fun. Thus, it’s a lack of doors for the local people.”

“… In San Marcos, like many communities in Guatemala” says Andrew, “access to gainful, dignified and decent paying employment is scarce.”

Confronted with the lack of job opportunities, many unemployed Ka’qchikel, especially the men, inevitably resort to alcoholism as a means of escaping their dismal reality.

A lack of jobs in a traditionally patriarchal society, Raphael explains to us, places inordinate social pressure on the indigenous men. Charged with the task of being breadwinners when winning bread is can prove exceedingly difficult, they instead opt to lose themselves in town’s plentifully available, cheaply priced supply of alcohol:

“Men have a higher earning power and more access to study and employment,” he says. “(Thus) having a community in which men are not often giving opportunities for employment can create a lot of problems in the social fabric.”

He explains how frequent withdrawal into alcohol by the men overburdens women with the responsibility of tending to the children, exacerbating the already strained family dynamics within a fiercely patriarchal society. Left to their own devices by inattentive adults, adolescents often don’t go to school, aren’t encouraged to eat well, and resort to criminal delinquency (several “knock-off” or “copycat” gangs, composed of teenagers and modeled after MS-13, have sprouted up in communities like San Marcos) as one of their few viable avenues towards obtaining an otherwise absent sense of self-fulfillment and brotherhood.

“It’s a problem that affects many of the families,” says Paredes, discussing the rampant alcoholism which has taken root locally. “If you’re in a world where you don’t have opportunities, where you don’t have much hope, you live to maintain your family. (And when) you’re never going to have sufficient means to sustain it, all the pressure falls onto you, for the system is patriarchal. So yeah, alcohol surely is a means to disconnect and avoid this reality, and surely, if they drink and forget, the next day they’ll return to see it, so it’s just better than they continue drinking to continue forgetting.”

Her face inflamed with a sudden, subtle flash of cynicism, Paredes tells us how she believes that, through the cheaply priced liquor, the proliferation of alcoholism in San Marcos occurs by design, deliberately encouraged by businesses to produce profit at the expense of the poor community’s health:

“The truth is that the businesses who sell alcohol here,” she says, “…coincidentally offer it at at low quality and a very low price. So I think there is also a market strategy that indirectly encourages alcoholism to increase in poor communities, and this comes directly from the companies that manufacture these products.”

Paredes says that the economic impoverishment of San Marcos is but one infinitesimal piece of the larger economic restructurings that’ve long since swept the world. Because of this, there is on one level a certain cosmic futility associated with the nonetheless noble, necessary social work executed by NGO’s like Konojel:

“The truth,” she says, “is that there are the interests of large corporations and governments in maintaining this situation. And of course, they maintain it.”

Alcohol isn’t the only Trojan horse currently importing cheap, unseen consequences into San Marcos. In fact, the vast majority of food consumed by the local indigenous population here is cheap, imported, and processed. The plastic shelves in the local stores are overflowing with the cheap products: Oreos, Fritos, Doritos, Lays. The contrast between the brightly colored manufactured goods and the dilapidated buildings in which they’re displayed—cracked cement structures from the 1980’s with peeling paint murals on the walls—is a stark reminder of the contradictions at play in San Marcos.

Paredes says that most the limited healthy food that is available “isn’t from San Marcos. It comes from San Pedro, from the capital, from Panachajel, and it has a cost to bring it, a cost to serve it here; the local people don’t havethe means to pay for this food.

Saturated with the overwhelming advertisement for the cheaper but unhealthy imported food, food which is more feasibly obtainable to the poor local population, people develop unhealthy eating habits from a young age which, later in life, come to haunt them in the form of diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, or stunted growth. That many people here suffer from both starvation and diabetes simultaneously isn’t, and shouldn’t, be surprising: what little food they can feasibly obtain on a regular basis nonetheless clog their arteries, cutting short their life expectancy by years, sometimes decades. In a tragic but perhaps unsurprising irony, it’s not unusual amongst the indigenous communities in places like San Marcos for people as young as twenty-five to die of such easily preventable diseases as diabetes.

“A lot of the processed and sugary foods that are making people here sick but are affordable,” says Andrew, “they’re really new introductions, or they’ve been introduced relatively recently to the local culture.” He says that a greater educational program which delineates the dangers of overeating such foods for local population is necessary to reverse the trend in malnutrition. “But it takes time,” he says, “and it takes a coherent and cohesive plan from local and state educators.”

“Sometimes here,” Ingrid says, “there isn’t potable water, but there are chips, soda, coke… (the vendors) have exchanged a banana for an Oreo; they’ve exchanged a tortilla with something for a Lay or Sabritas.”

The absurdity both of these rural “food desert” communities and of the inequality visibly permeating their geography- these rural hamlets where cheap junk is more accessible than nutritionally sustaining food; where kids in hillside slums suffer from malnutrition while tourists eat in gourmet lakeshore restaurants below- is made more ironic by fact that, long ago, the Ka’qchikel once maintained a healthy agricultural lifestyle which gave them an easy route to obtaining proper nutrition.

“Around thirty years ago,” Roberto says, “it was the Ka’qchikel people, the local people, who owned, lived, and harvested their lands. On the bank of the lake, in the area of San Marcos, before the arrival of the foreigners, they sowed onions, tomatoes, carrots, onions, beets.”

Roberto tells us of how the arrival and gradual buy-off of land in the 1970’s and 80’s by foreigners armed with the far stronger American and European currencies cut of the Ka’qchikel off from their agricultural way of life. After exhausting the money originally obtained by selling their lands, it was realized that they had been severed from a previous, healthier way of life.

“Before,” says Maria, “we were eating beans, tortillas, lots of herbs. More organic.”

“That’s what they were eating before,” Roberto continues. “But when the highway came, when the new means of transport came with it, junk food started to be introduced, and the people liked to buy Coke, to buy Pepsi. But no one realized the consequences that came through the great sicknesses that these foods caused.”

In the same places where they once cultivated pumpkins, carrots, and beets, there now lay blocks of trendy hostels, restaurants, and yoga meditation centers, places which which—though benefiting community members to a certain extent—ultimately play to the financially benefit of their foreign owners. And in the same places where a local culture once sustained itself through the cultivation of its own agricultural fruits, children now fed on a steady diet of cheap, imported junk food descend to levels of malnourishment that are close to being life-threatening.

Funded by a combination of foreign donations and the profits gathered from its new sister restaurant of the same name, Konojel employs a team nearly entirely composed of local indigenous women to combat poverty and its various symptoms in the San Marcos community. In perhaps its most crucial program, the organization provides daily nutritional lunches to the community’s most at-risk children, ensuring they are properly nourished throughout all crucial stages of their development, from the moment they are in their mother’s wombs until they reach the age of around ten or eleven.

Looking out from the roofed-in porch of Konojel’s Casa Antigua kitchen- the converted cement-community building where children receive these daily meals- one can see a midafternoon haze settling over the lake below, the contours of the distant shoreline dimmed in a narcotic diffuse of white. From atop a roof somewhere nearby comes the hard, resounding tap of a hammer against wood. A soft breath of wind rises up for a moment: down below, the pale surface of the lake is textured by the midday upsurge in wind, and the water is flecked with whitecaps.

Little moves during this hot midday hour: the warbling cries of songbirds cut piercingly through the vast silence floating above the now-dormant town, their sound drowned out only by the occasional motorbike as it whips past with a rattling, mechanical roar.

But the women in the kitchen only a few feet away are already hard at work preparing lunch for the kids, due to arrive at noon to receive their nutritional meal.

This week is la Semana Santa– the Christian week of worship celebrated in Latin America in the days leading up to Easter- meaning that many of the kids, already not expected to show up to school, will not be expected here either.

Quietly, the women work away in the cool darkness beneath the kitchen’s bright, broad windows, their intricately bejeweled, traditional Mayan dresses rippling in loose, color-splashed waves behind them. Gently pressing with their hands in a line at the wood table, they slowly knead out a corn-based mixture of orange dough, which will be later sautéed on a hot iron plate into tortillas. With a periodic, crisp wooden crack, one of the women cuts away at a mess of vegetables. Across the room, another fetches a vase for a blender, filling it with pineapple chunks. Pouring water into the mix, she caps off the vase, presses the button and lets the blender scream as she continues with the seemingly endless list of tasks that must be completed in order for the food to be ready in time.

“For me,” says Maria, “my job at Konojel is to support the community so that the kids can have their own food. It’s very important as well to know which kids don’t have food. Konojel is giving the opportunity so that they will be able to have a lunch, and for me, it’s important to understand the needs of which families.”

Even as the first kids show up, Maria remains immersed in the task of preparing the lunch. With the number of children rising up to seventy some days, such a task can prove to be a marathon in cooking. Tending to the kids thus falls on other members of the organization, such as the youthful-looking, aspiring twenty-one-year-old teacher Laura Maria Sancoy Perez:

“Without this organization, I don’t know where the kids would be on the streets,” Laura says. She navigates the swarm of children with the calm ease of a herder tending to her sheep. “… There are many kids on the streets today, learning things that I would say are negative, and (they) don’t like to learn new things. Or there are kids (on the streets) that can’t even be consideredkids. Perhaps of all the kids we have here- perhaps it could have been one of them. But thanks to the organization Konojel has changed many kids, has helped a lot of kids; it has helped families that truly need it.”

Wild and unruly, the kids bounce with a fitful playfulness about the porch, fenced in by bamboo, which lay adjacent to the kitchen, from which the growing sounds of banging plates and silverware gradually crescendos like an ever persistent, uneven background music.

The workers who frequent the corridors of Casa Antigua seem to be commonly anchored by the fact that that, through Konojel, they’re giving back to the community they love by fighting the poverty that haunts it at the roots, helping avoid children avoid the slippery slope of malnutrition and its litany of consequences before it becomes too late in their lives to change anything.

“It’s very important for me that the kids here in Konojel are happy,” says Martín, remarking on how it feels to see the kids eating every day at lunchtime. “I’m a mother. So if a child isn’t ok (in any sense), I don’t feel ok, because I want for the kids to be happy and healthy at Konojel.”

Many of the worker’s harbor memories of past lives speckled with family tragedies: an all-too-common experience in a land lacking neither proper health infrastructure nor the proper education that could combat otherwise commonplace health problems.

Yet in many cases, these function as driving impetus’ to help the children in Konojel.

Laura, in particular, works through the painfully recurrent memory of having lost her mother recently to poor health, inadvertently thrusting her into a mother-role for her younger siblings. But, reflecting a resilience often found amongst people with little to no means, she’s channeled her own tragedy as a way to help her push forward into the future:

“These times since my mother had passed away have been very difficult, too difficult,” Laura says, uncharacteristically choking up with emotion. “Because I have had to play the role as a mother. And surely, I have a long way to go before I can adequately fill that role.”

Tears roll down her face as she recounts to us this painful story, is unable to fight them back. Two faintly discernable strips of streaming down from her eyes, she continues her story:

“She (my mother) was still alive when I started to work here, and she always told me: ‘For all the problems we’ll have, you have to keep going, you can’t give up.’ And that’s the only thing that I always have in mind. I know that, although I don’t see her, she continues to watch over me, and I know that she’s happy about the work that I’m doing. Because what I’m doing isn’t for me, (but) for the welfare of the community.”

Helping the San Marcos disadvantaged children live healthier lives with the potential for more opportunities for a better future bestows meaning to many of Konojel’s workers, provides purposeful employment that makes sense of the social problems so deeply enmeshed in the community. The fact that there have been numerous documented success stories of young people benefiting from a program like this has only acted as fuel to keep Konojel’s workers going.

Andrew relates to us the story of a baby girl who had been so malnourished that hair fell from her scalp, but whose health had been salvaged last minute by Konojel:

“A few years ago,” he says, “I was walking home from Konojel, by the middle school. I passed a woman of about 40 years sitting on a step, with two baby girls in her arms, breast feeding them at the same time. I noticed one of the girls had a hair issue that’s clearly a mark of malnutrition. I inquired and the woman told me that on one breast was her daughter and the other her granddaughter. She was feeding both at the same time.”

He relates how he referred Martín to their household to verify that the children were indeed at-risk. Soon, they were enrolled in a program in which their older brother picked them up a lunch every day and brought it to their home. Now, the girls are as health as any other child.

“I see the girls a few times a week now,” he says, “and they look amazing. Super verbal, outgoing, lots of hair.”

And as we watch the kids gather round to play at the far end of the porch, each one as joyous and overflowing with life as any other kid, it’s understandable to see why.

Not all is tragic in San Marcos. Fiercely proud of of their indigenous heritage- ninety percent of the local population still speaks Ka’qchikel- many people have nonetheless found ways to carve out meaningful lives against a backdrop of incredible poverty, doing so not only with resourcefulness, but with doses of vigor and brio that’re nothing short of inspiring.

Mendoza the judge continues with his work in the municipal government, proud of his heritage and the work he does to benefit his community. At Konojel, Laura pushes forward in her role working with the children, and Maria- ever the stoic of few words, smiling but rarely talking- has no complaints about her life as an indigenous woman; is in fact proud of it. At Konojel’s sister restaurant in the tourist district down by the lake, Ingrid feels a deep satisfaction to pursuing social just causes within the tightly-knit local community.

Poverty, joblessness, and malnutrition haunt San Marcos. But many people are proud of who they are and nonetheless survive, day in, day out, with a smile on their faces:

We ask Roberto, ever the articulate storyteller, how he feels about his Ka’qchikel heritage:

“Let me tell you,” he says with a suppressed smile, his face warm and humble and moving. “That is the most wonderful thing in the world. The customs, our traditions, and the characteristics that we have, all of it. Even our skin. It’s so unique, you know? So I feel satisfied and honored to live and have this ethnicity.”

Our last few days in San Marcos happen to coincide with the ending of la Semana Santa.

Walking out one evening, we watch as the town’s residents- having closed off the streets to all car traffic- render a series of intricately depicted Biblical scenes onto the cracked, uneven pavement, delicately dispensing colored sand from homemade instruments of metal. Their faces are reverent in the flickering candlelight, and the vibrant, rectangular murals they created in the space of a few hours- adorned with garlands of purple flowers- stretch with endless abandon through the towns backstreets, their very presence standing like a testament to the spirit of these people.

As the pale evening sky fades to darkness, we walk to one street corner where a family draws out their images with the same absorption of Buddhist monks attending to their mandalas. The air bitter with the ripe aroma of herbal incense, we stop for a moment to take a picture. One of the boys notices us and is momentarily distracted from his work. Embarrassed to have interrupted, we almost leave for a moment. But the boy- lively, generous- tells us that it’s no matter.

He throws up a peace sign, and smiles.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Be the first to comment on "In their wake, US-bound immigrants leave communities plagued by poverty and malnutrition"

Leave a comment