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Pastor Karen Castillo has commented over the past few years on how migration from Guatemala to the U.S. has affected the ILAG churches. Recently she answered questions on migration, and the following is a summary of her responses. She prefaces her answers to say that these are her observations based on personal conversations and experiences.
People leaving Guatemala are motivated by a need to survive. They suffer from lack of access to basic services, such as education and healthcare. As most of our congregants are subsistence farmers, climate change is a huge challenge. People have no information on how to plant and harvest in a different way when the rain cycles have changed drastically.
In the community of San Antonio Tzejá, there are 17 church families with 12 of the men in the States. In another community, Aurora 8 de Octubre, 15 men from 42 families are in the States. These numbers are devastating to these churches and to their communities.
Migration is a business between the government and the "coyotes" (people who recruit and lead others to migrate to the U.S.). The "coyotes" charge exorbitant rates, about $15,000-$20,000 per trip to the States. The government condones these business transactions, as it increases the wealth level in the country. Guatemalans now can afford to pay for private education and private healthcare. The government can enjoy the increase in the national budget while the "coyotes" get rich with land and money.
However, families suffer greatly when the male leaves. I have seen instances where these men seem to lose their Guatemalan identity once they settle in the U.S., especially if they move in with a sibling who migrated earlier and has shed a rural indigenous way of life. And when a father leaves all of his children behind, there is no one to pass on the farming knowledge. If they receive money sent by their father, the first thing they do is buy a motorcycle and build a house. They depend on this money coming from the States, but sometimes the money stops coming. Those who migrated cannot pay the "coyotes," the dependents cannot pay any debts they have incurred, and the family loses their land, their one source of income.
Women suffer tremendously once their spouse/partner has migrated. These women lack money for food, clothes, education, and healthcare, as they are not accustomed to, or not allowed to, work outside the home. In desperation, a woman may give her children away to other families who can feed them. In other cases, she may return with her children to live with her parents. Extended family members do what they can, but the reality is that this woman may have been given away in marriage in the first place because the family could not afford to support her.
A woman may also become the target of community gossip, especially if she uses money sent to her by her partner to build a big house. The husband's family will get jealous, pass on gossip that the wife is cheating on him, causing the husband to ask his family to kick her out of the house. She then has to return to her parents with empty hands, as women cannot own property. It is so complex.
Women and children are always the most vulnerable groups in the rural communities. People take advantage of a woman economically, as many will want a portion of any money she receives from her husband. And sexual abuse is common. Women living in a village without a man in the house always face unwanted visits at night. Sometimes family members of her husband will serve as her protectors.
Our ILAG Pastoral Team is addressing the topic of migration at our leadership meetings. We directly discuss how to support the women and families left behind. We take a census count regularly to know how many families have a husband in the States. We pray with the women left behind, and we pray for the women left behind. We also pray for the men working in the States, living in a different culture, facing insecurities, and dealing with the risks of being far away from home. Importantly, we create support groups among all church women to discourage gossip and become part of the solution. We encourage a family in need to communicate directly with our ILAG staff, leaders or regional coordinators so that we can help them.
Our SEED project is also working to mitigate the problem by helping to provide food, as participants are becoming successful in growing more bountiful and more varied foods. But we are going beyond that by reaching out to the schools in each church community and making contact with the city council members. The ILAG provides scholarships to allow children and youth to continue their education. Through all of these connections we encourage local programs to offer help as we seek to support the whole community.
We have heard that migration is a solution chosen out of desperation—when a person has nothing else to lose and is in great need to provide for his/her family. Please pray for our struggling families.
Pastor Karen Castillo, President
Iglesia Luterana Agustina de Guatemala (ILAG)