Honduras and Guatemala

"Lord, the people are crying..."

A recent MCC learning tour in Honduras and Guatemala encountered the struggle and strength of migrants

Buenos dias! I’m Lars Akerson (pictured right), the Connecting Peoples Coordinator for MCC in Honduras. Together with Michael Darby and Erica VanEssendelft—my counterparts in Guatemala and Mexico—we recently led a 10-day seminar on migration in Honduras and Guatemala. Hopefully this photo essay will allow you to join us on a virtual learning tour! Ready to get going?

We started by visiting an Evangelical Mennonite church in Chamelecon, a suburb of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. We hear a lot about the border wall in the news, but over plates of pollo chuko and as we walked along the levy, we were told how this neighbourhood is crossed by invisible borders, patrolled by gangs. People who cross them might be threatened and told to get out of town, or even killed. While it’s quieter there now than it was several years ago, whole blocks remain empty because so many people left. The church was recently able to reopen its bilingual neighbourhood school that had been closed for several years due to safety concerns.

Next we visited ERIC, a Jesuit ministry in El Progreso, about an hour east of San Pedro Sula. They do many things, including running the primary radio station for independent news in Honduras. While we were there, Wendy Vado, Connecting Peoples Coordinator for Nicaragua and Costa Rica, got to check out the equipment in the recording studio. ERIC also provides accompaniment for indigenous and community organizations across the country. During our visit, we had the privilege of hearing from social movement leaders in exile from their home communities (names and places withheld for security reasons) because of their protests against government collusion with business interests whose mining exploration has poisoned drinking water and now gives their children rashes.

As we traveled, we received updates from a Honduran acquaintance who was travelling with the migrant caravan that left from the San Pedro Sula bus terminal on Oct 12, 2018. Since then, several more groups have set out the same way. Between the routine experience of daily violence, a lack of jobs that pay a decent wage and a government that doesn’t protect them in life or grieve them in death, Hondurans are overcoming their fear of the migrant trail in search of a life marked by less loss.

We heard from migrants who have returned to Honduras and are trying to make a new life here. Some of them were abused and deported by the Mexican or US governments; others returned on their own. Now, like Johan Alexander Aguilar, Nestor Adonay Baiza and Henry Daniel Barahona Beltran (pictured left to right), they all spend their weekends at vocational training classes organized by CASM (Mennonite Social Action Commission) in San Pedro Sula.

A huge ceiba (silk cotton) tree gives shade to the Loyola Technical Center where CASM holds some of its classes. The ceiba is a sacred tree in the Mayan cosmovision and this one is probably more than 200 years old.

We spent a lot of time in the bus travelling between partners, so we broke up the trip to Guatemala with a stop at the ruins of Copan. The structures that remain are awe-inspiring. Just imagine what was here but has decomposed in the last 1,200 years. We learned that Copan’s downfall in AD 738 was a result of economic inequality: a vassal state from whom they extracted resources for the fine monuments and luxury living in central Copan rose up, capturing and executing ruler Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil.

When we arrived in Guatemala City, we visited the Catholic Scalabrinian Missionaries, who run Casas del Migrante in several cities along the Central American migrant routes. They provide food, lodging and support services for migrants in transit. They normally receive 60-80 people per day, but recently have had as many as 3,000 due to the Central American exodus. Here you see art left behind by children and a poster from a public information campaign that reminds us that “Migrating isn’t a crime, it’s just dreaming of a better life.”

You can’t beat fresh, handmade tortillas! The traditional art of making tortillas is becoming rarer for a variety of related reasons. Mass-produced commercial corn flour is cheaper and more readily available, people grow less of their own corn and ladino identity continues to dilute and assimilate indigenous identities.

We learned about the Guatemalan armed conflict, set in motion by a US-backed coup d’etat in 1954. Though the civil war officially ended in 1996, violent crime and state-sponsored violence towards indigenous peoples and political activists continues into the 21st century. Because of the imbalanced nature of the violence and how it disproportionately affected rural, indigenous communities that held onto their ancestral identities and cultural autonomy, the conflict is widely considered to have been a genocide. Escaping this violence led many Guatemalans to seek refuge in the US. More recently, lack of land has also pushed young, indigenous people northward and fueled their hopes of education and work opportunities in a place marked by less loss. Despite generations of trauma, the resilience of the Guatemalan people and land is remarkable. Organizations like DESGUA (Sustainable Development for Guatemala) are helping migrants who return from the US and Mexico to find work and community again in Guatemala.

Deep in the western Guatemalan highlands, we were met by the community of Toj Choc Grande, who work with Pastoral de la Tierra, the ecological ministry of the Catholic Diocese of San Marcos. Together, they’re caring for the land, preserving cultural autonomy and attempting to offer their young people a future in their community. When we arrived, we were greeted at the community ecological school and demonstration plot with song and words of welcome. “Lord, the people are crying, the people are suffering because of all the inequality,” Santos Velasquez Ramirez sang. “Lord, for this I sing, this is what I ask: I want to be free.” Serape Guierrez Ramírez showed us his farm, where among many other things they raise rabbits and use the rabbits’ droppings as a fertilizer. They work on a generational scale: Serape’s father began terracing their plot 25 years ago, and Serape’s daughter is the president of the Toj Choc Grande youth agricultural cooperative. Millard Graber got a hold of some of the organic produce the Gutierrez family produces. I wish you could smell the community dehydrating shed, where they dry herbs and medicinal plants for use in teas, tinctures and cooking. Ingrid Gutierrez, Serape’s daughter, even let us sample the honey from their bee’s hives!

Thanks for coming along on this virtual learning tour with us! If this piqued your interest, consider joining us next time. We’ll be offering this seminar again in November 2019. For now, as we each head our different ways, consider how you might learn from migrating people in your community and how you can advocate for policies that are more hospitable to vulnerable people among us. Until next time, Lars. (Right to left: Erica VanEssendelft, Lars Akerson, Michael Darby and Wendy Vado.)