Guatemaya, el sueño guatemalteco, and Rethinking the Idea of Living Well vs. the Good Life

Arriving in Guatemala City a day late due to airline troubles, we quickly met Santiago Boc Tay, Cesar Domingo, and Willy Barreno the founders of DESGUA (Sustainable Development for Guatemala) and owners of Café R.E.D (restaurante, escuela, despensa “Restaurant, school, and fair trade store.” Also RED in Spanish means network, they described their organization acting as a spider web spreading out to make connections and to strengthen other people and places in Guatemala) two organizations joined at the hip and committed to improving the lives of returned migrants and Mayan peoples of Guatemala. After briefly meeting them, they drove us four hours to Quetzaltenango (Xela), the second largest city in Guatemala, home to a quarter of a million people. Café R.E.D, located just blocks from the central plaza, was our home for the first five days of our trip, but set the tone for the rest of our time in Guatemala. The best way to unpack the experience is to share DESGUA’s mission statement because all of our days were spent meeting people and organizations that embodied it.

DSC03446 DSC03449 Guatemala City – Fly In

DESGUA: Is a grassroots organization and network of community groups in Guatemala and the United States working to create economic and educational development with, and for, returned immigrants and Mayan communities in Guatemala. DESGUA sees the promotion of cultural identity and historical memory as integral to a sustainable development process.

Through lectures and ‘field trips’ we were exposed to positive growth of local Guatemalan economics, educational opportunities, indigenous culture, difficult history, and sustainability that has been around for centuries.

From the very first day, the pursuit and the creation of the ‘Guatemalan dream’ (‘To live with dignity and to live well’) was large piece of our studies. For instance, our first morning in Xela was spent meeting with several Guatemalans who immigrated to the United States seeking opportunity.

The individual immigrant stories in the United States were different; for instance, Giovanni crossed the Californian border when he was a child. He studied music in school, but suffered from a racist school environment. While living in Denver in his 20s, he was deported. Claudia, who immigrated to the United States when she was young, took on parenting responsibilities for her little brother and sister when she was young because her mom died from cancer. While working at a beauty salon, her boss under paid her and attempted to get her deported. She found that the ‘American dream’ was not attainable for her or other undocumented immigrants. There are many reasons why people immigrate to the United States: poverty, debt, exploitation, a lack of dignity, and many more.

DSC03463Café R.E.D

DESGUA wants to find ways to change this, but right now, neoliberal economics are making immigration one of the only options for Guatemalans. Immigration can show, among many things, that people are desperate and seeking options. A major economic force that contributes to immigration are megaprojects (foreign-owned mass scale factory farms, oil drilling, and mining). Professor Luis Recancoj at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala met with our group and dissected the history and effects of the Guatemalan oligarchy and foreign-owned industries that have destroyed indigenous land, contaminated the environment, and have kept Guatemala’s rich resources in the hands of the wealthy. The projects got their start from a variety of places. A big culprit of Guatemalan resource exploitation and elimination of rural Mayan and indigenous lands started with the Kissinger Report in 1960s (using military and political powers to make foreign countries favorable for United States corporations), followed by a list of free trade agreements from Canada and the United States that tapped into Guatemala’s oil wells, gold, silver, and bananas. The trade agreements, and consequently the redistribution of land led to, and prolonged, the 36 year-long Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996) where indigenous and Mayan farmers fought to keep their land from the CIA and School of the Americas-supported Guatemalan military (

The civil war’s history and its effects were illustrated in the small village of Nuevo Amanecer, a community of expatriates near the border of Mexico and Guatemala. We spent two days in the humid, and mosquito-saturated village that was established in the late 90s. Many of the young adult leaders were born in Mexico, but chose to return to start farms and to build a community of multigenerational families. Within the community, Spanish is the primary language, but there are some Mam speakers, an indigenous Mayan language. Like many indigenous communities in Guatemala, farming means survival and autonomy. Despite the end of the civil war, small farmers all across Guatemala are still suffering today. While in the village, we watched with community members, a short documentary about large factory farm agriculture.


We learned that foreign agricultural companies like Dole Fruits exhaust the flat Guatemalan lands, pump gallons of chemicals and pesticides into the land and subsequently into the rivers killing fish and vegetation and flooding nearby small farms with murky chemical ridden waters; they introduce invasive crops like African Palm, which demand excessive water (leaving little for the small farmers), cut through indigenous lands with highways, and redirect rivers to serve the corporation’s needs. The indigenous farmers cannot compete when floodwaters destroy their crops. Many have no choice but to buy pesticides and GMO seeds to compete, and in doing so, go into debt. For those who work for the Dole banana plantations, they earn pitiful wages and are constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals. Living in such a predicament, there is no wonder why people immigrate to feed and to house their families. For many Guatemalans, there are not many options.

Ceiba is also the national tree of Guatemala.

When we visited Nuevo Amanecer, the effects of remittances were obvious. The village was built on a long dead-end street, were the houses, the two schools, the church, and the community space lined the road. From the cobblestone street, several houses were brightly lit. They had flat screen television sets, computers, freshly painted walls, and new furniture, all of which were visible from the open windows and doors allowing the cooler, still humid, night air to flow through. This seemed to be a more fortunate village than other Guatemalan communities; they produced honey (although right now their honey production was down because their bees were struggling to produce substantial amounts. For what reason, it was unclear. It could be related to the global honeybee decline (See article following the post for more information on the honeybee struggle in the United States). The village also hosts dozens of plants and herbs used for medicines. Immigrants from Nuevo Amanecer and other Guatemalan villages have established an immigrant community in Morristown, New Jersey (See article following the blog post for more information).

DSC03612 DSC03596 Honeybees in Nuevo Amanecer

Nuevo Amanecer gained their land with the support of a local priest that helped them buy the village property and several outpost worksites; in fact, we were lucky and got to visit a coffee worksite. The community is not obviously in debt, which is a rare and fortunate circumstance among small farming communities in Guatemala.

Developing and supporting small projects, like beekeeping, seems to be a way to achieve financial security, to improve village resources, but also to trade with other villages. For example, the village of Cajolá, located near Xela, is home to a large Mayan indigenous population. Mayan Mam weavers, is a group of local women that built several looms to practice traditional Mayan cloth weaving that they sell at Café R.E.D, in Xela, and other nearby towns. Sharing the four story concrete building with the Mayan Mam looms was a ‘clandestine’ pre-school that taught not only Spanish but also Mam to the children. The bilingual school seeks to maintain Mayan culture through teaching their indigenous language. Unfortunately, after preschool, few if any schools continue to teach the language. Aside from the weavers, Cajolá had eggs collected from several large chicken coops, and a woodshopthat made furniture for the village. These small projects strengthened the communities, provided jobs, and especially in terms of the Mayan weaving, protected and passed on weaving traditions.

Another village we visited was unlike the others. La Florida, a small 50 family indigenous village deep in the green mountainous jungles of northern Guatemala was almost completely autonomous, achieved through decades of struggle. Prior to owning the land collectively, there was a plantation owner whose old house, “La casa grande,” provided our overnight shelter. The master was abusive, exploited the village, paid women only half of a man’s salary for the same work, and raped the women. In the mid-80s, the community unionized, wrote a constitution, and resisted the landowner. The civil war occurring at the same time could have motivated la Florida’s resistance. After some time the landowner abandoned the village, and the people of La Florida successfully became autonomous in the early 2000s, from my understanding.

DSC03532   DSC03550     La Florida – Coffee making…

Spending only a night in La Florida, we were unable to see the full extent of their lives, but what we did see was unbelievable. Within a stones throw of each wood plank and tin-roofed house, there were almost 35 different edible plants. The villagers do not use pesticides or chemicals. They still grow food like their ancestors did centuries before, and carry their harvest on their backs. They go out into ‘food jungles,’ not monoculture fields, to harvest their crops. Fruits, roots, and vegetables from their surroundings make up almost 90 percent of their diet. For many crops, there are multiple growing seasons because of the lush, nutrient rich soil and frequent rains.

To get to the village, there is one rocky cliff-hugging road that weaves its way up and through the tropical mountains. The closest town is nearly two hours away, but most La Florida inhabitants do not own cars. Asking them if they sold their wide variety of crops in the market, my lunch and dinner host family were a bit confused. Almost all their crops were for their community, not for quetzales (Guatemalan currency). In 2010, they began growing and processing organic coffee beans (Right now in Guatemala it is easier and cheaper for Guatemalans to buy instant coffee than organic Guatemalan coffee. Capitalism is to blame). Each a week a truck comes to the village selling sugar, wheat, and other staples. From my understanding, the same truck carries the La Florida’s coffee beans back into the nearby city where it is shipped elsewhere and sold at a fair price. The proceeds from the coffee went towards improving village infrastructure, the school, and to buy staples.


La Florida had problems though. Many of the older community members could neither read nor write, and only spoke Mayan. Over time the literacy rate has improved, but those challenges make it difficult to educate and to organize La Florida collectively. Moreover, when we visited, La Florida’s coffee production was struggling due to a rust plague (See Notes following the post). And finally, there were a few community members who immigrated to the United States, but it seemed like an uncommon practice. La Florida highlighted, DESGUA supported economics that lessen the need for immigration, and promote sustainable farming practices that have existed for generations.

Aside from building better economic systems for Guatemalans, efforts to maintain, and support cultural identity, and the sharing of historical memory with younger generations was epitomized in the 22 family village of Efraín Bamaca, located just outside Xela. Many community members were ex-combatants who fought for the URNG (Currently a political party, but initially started in 1982 as the party of the indigenous guerrillas resisting the Guatemalan government while fighting for land rights and autonomy during the long civil war). Although the fighting is over, the village leaders teach the youth about the war and what it meant. To commemorate the war, the community painted a mural as reminder. They also included images of their Mayan heritage, the coming of the conquistadors, the Ten Years of Spring (1944-1954, when the indigenous and small farmers benefited from pro-small farmer democratic period with land reform, transparent politics, and free speech), community heroes, and images of building community connections and working for a better future. These images unified and celebrated their cultural identity. Efraín Bamaca does not ignore or distort the past to serve. They keep all of the bad parts because historical ignorance could lead to the community’s destruction. If the youth are not connected to their past and are not given a chance to participate in meetings and community development, the leaders fear that the youth will leave when they come of age. The community painted a children’s mural to connect the youth to the community’s history. As the leaders said, “The youth are studying to build a new society.” Unfortunately right now, the community depends on pesticides and GMO seeds, but have no other choice if they want to feed their families and to support themselves in a monetary economy. Seemingly the environment dictates a lot on how Guatemalans participate in the capitalist economy. La Florida is deep in the jungles and is not reliant on food production to pay bills, to feed themselves, and to retain control of their land.


After entering all these unique spaces, it is difficult to conceptualize how they interacted to create a bigger picture of Guatemala. Generally speaking, one could treat each place as its own microcosm, acting and reacting to its own set of conditions. As a student of history, to design artificial ties between each place and to assign practical roles to each, misrepresents and neglects too much. Historians cannot be objective. DESGUA and Café R.E.D. exposed us to these places and people while showing us alternative economies, and to: the Guatemalan dream (of living sustainably and outside of the exploitive capitalist economy), to the dichotomy of the ‘good life’ versus ‘living well’, and of looking at time from the Mayan cyclical concept of time as opposed to a linear time progression (The Mayan civilization observed various natural cycles tied to death and birth, the astrological, agriculture, and nature); we were exposed to examples of viewing life in terms of “we” as opposed to “I,” and of seeking a harmonious balance between nature and technology.

DSC03564 La Florida. 

DSC03551 Some awesome compost made from discarded coffee bean shells and other great stuff.

One of the major topics of group discussion throughout Guatemala was planning how we would share stories and experiences with friends and family back home. How might we educate others and instigate change without systematically signing up everyone to next year’s fall and spring Border Studies Program sessions? We would need a couple of more vans? Clearly something needs to happen to insure our time studying the roots and reasons for immigration is not wasted.

Therefore, the way in which I am going to share my experiences and the stories that I have heard is through discussing the circumstances and the overarching systems that seem to encapsulate these stories. Considering my approach, a few trends have consistently appeared. Most of all the Guatemalan farmers, indigenous peoples, and returned immigrants we spoke to, wanted to own the land they worked on, to live autonomously and sustainably, to have dignity, to have rights, to be healthy, to have access to a better future, to maintain culture and customs, and to feel secure. However, in every village and group of Guatemalans we met with, desperation-driven immigration to the United States existed.

For desperate Guatemalans, immigration seems to be the only way to make their home in Guatemala a permanent and secure place via remittance money. It seems counterintuitive to leave home in order to ‘get home.’ However, for those who are driven into debt buying pesticides, GMO seeds, and farm equipment to support their families in a capitalist economy, and for those who are directly affected by foreign-owned megaprojects that chemically contaminate the soil and water, and deplete their local natural resources, immigration is a ‘release valve.’

DSC03710 A common sight in many rural areas (Picture taken in Chiapas).

There are two things that I believe summarizes our experience in Guatemala, first the ‘Guatemalan dream,’ and second, the concept of cyclical time versus linear time. The ‘Guatemalan dream’ has a cousin named the ‘American dream’ where the objective is to work hard towards an idealized image of success. Success in the ‘American dream’ seems to be a high-paying, white-collar job, a McMansion in the suburbs, several cars, and yearly visits to Disneyland. Moreover, the ‘American dream’ belief is that anyone can attain this regardless of race or socioeconomic status, akin to Horatio Alger, Jr.’s (1832-1899) literary classics of “rags to riches.”

The ‘American dream,’ in this form, relies on a consumer culture to survive. To maintain cheap goods, corporations take over countries’ resources, like Guatemala, to keep banana prices Walmart-low, to extract gasoline to power our cars, and to mine minerals to manufacture toaster ovens and wall-tile. Taking control, keeps the ‘good life’ dream alive for United States citizens who care to believe it.

DSC03560 DSC03569 Different farming techniques and coffee plant preparation.

The ‘Guatemalan dream’ is all about ‘living well’ as opposed to achieving some ordained ideal life. To the Guatemalans we met and to DESGUA, living well meant autonomy, land ownership, security, pride, finding solutions in Guatemala, and dignity, all without needing foreign aid. The dream goes further than oneself; it connects others and works to uplifts everyone sustainably. The people we met in Nuevo Amanecer, La Florida, Efraín Bamaca, and Cajolá all wanted this kind of life.

Looking at time from a cyclical perspective, as opposed to a linear timeline, supports the ‘Guatemalan dream’ because there is no destination or ‘good life’ Promised Land. Furthermore, the time perspective can be viewed in terms of growth versus progress. First off, growth and progress are not the same. Progress in United States tends to mean westernization, modernization, and achieving monetary goals. Growth can be interpreted as meaning the same things.

Examining the terms through a cyclical time lens, the meanings change. As time passes, growth is simply the harmonization of new experiences and knowledge with tradition and customs. In cyclical time, things change and people evolve, but nothing ever dies. To clarify, labeling something as either old or new, and then saying one is better than the other, is a linear perspective. Cyclically, things are timeless.

The term Progress is almost obsolete in cyclical time. As defined in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “Progress” means “the process of improving or developing something over a period of time.” Developing or improving towards something suggests that whatever one had in past is inferior to the present. In cyclical time, it is all about adding to the collective human knowledge, with respect to the past.

One student in our group asked how technology related to the ‘Guatemalan dream,’ if technology is all about making things better, faster, and smarter than in the past. Willy, a member of DESGUA and the head Chef at Café R.E.D., explained that cyclical time and the ‘Guatemalan dream’ incorporates computers, phones, and other technologies not to take the place of anything, but to help their mission and to preserve the past.

The ‘Guatemalan dream’ is not available to all Guatemalans yet, as many still choose to immigrate. Instant coffee is still cheaper and more accessible than organic Guatemalan grown coffee in Guatemalan cities. Efraín Bamaca and countless other villages still rely on pesticides to grow their crops and to feed their families, and yet the capitalist linear perspective appears to be breaking as indigenous villages like La Florida and Cajolá find ways to live outside of the capitalist economy and to preserve their cultural identities.

So how do we help? I certainly do not have the answer, but I do have a couple of suggestions. To start, reconsider your life goals, and ask yourself if they harmonize the past with the present? Second, support local farmers, reject pesticides, GMOs, farm labor exploitation, and use less gasoline. I think change starts with what one eats and how one treats.


Taken while crossing the bridge from Guate to México.

Additional Information and useful links:

Café R.E.D:

Coffee Rust Plague:



New Jersey, Morristown:

Ten Years of spring:


Village projects:

“Progress.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (accessed March 30th, 2014).


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