Today's guest post is by Deborah T. Levenson, Professor of History at Boston College, author of Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death and co-editor of The Guatemala Reader. She calls for us to listen to the stories of the undocumented Central American children appearing on the U.S. border.
That tens of thousands of children cross the border from Mexico to the United States without documents presents immediate challenges to all of us. They are coming primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries in which not only is unemployment high, and employment very poorly paid, but mere survival—much less a life beyond mere survival—is at stake. In the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, 70% of the population under age 5 is so malnourished as to stunt growth, and in all these countries violence from gangs and adult mafias is lethal, everyday.
Many of us might agree that nations should take care of "their own"—let’s not hold our breath—and that US bears much of the responsibility for crisis. Its policies have undermined local peasant agriculture and national industry, contributed to the sharp decrease in social programs, and supported military regimes that have modeled the behavior prevalent in gangs. These are vital questions.
However, given the sharp polemics over what to do with these children right now, I want instead to give some face to who “they” are. I have spent years of researching and writing about youth in Guatemala, and with reference to Central American youth in general, and I want to suggest how the young fit into this schema of high levels of poverty and violence that generates flight, a noun that fails to capture children’s motives and identities.
For generations, poor people of Central America—as in other places—have depended on the pooling of incomes of family members to guarantee one pot large enough for all. Central American children have long been part of this familial wage. They have worked in peasant agriculture and as seasonal harvesters. The worse the economic crisis gets, and the less subsistence that is available in their regions, and the farther they go: from the countryside to the city; from country to country; from Central America to Mexico to the USA. For the most part, the Central American youth I have met in Massachusetts are here to remain vital to that traditional family wage economy and to retain a place that gives them esteem and meaning. A 14 year old from Honduras lives in a crowded apartment in Chelsea and shovels snow in the winter and cleans yards in the spring to send money home for his mother’s expensive heart medicine. A teenager delivers newspapers in Salem to provide for her siblings in Guatemala. Many youth—of course not all—leave home to protect home. This is one of the oldest immigrant stories, in US history, a heroic and true one. Befriend a Central American youth and you might hear one.
You might hear another true story, one about gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Most reports indicate that the current increase in immigration of unaccompanied minors is a reaction to the growth of gang violence. Yes, youth are running from gang violence, and, it need be underscored that by leaving, they are also resisting forced conversion into being violent themselves. MS-13 operates in a simple and seemingly airtight manner in which extreme violence plays a pivot role. You join the gangs and get shoved into a life that relies on hurting other people to earn money and prestige; one acquires points for murdering and thus moves up in the ranks. If you are rebuff the gang, you face punishment by death or, if that not, an impossible dilemma. At 13 years of age, a Guatemalan named Edgar Chocoy refused to join MS-13, which “transmuted” his death sentence into the payment of “tax” so exorbitant that he would have had to resort to serious crime to pay. He refused to do that as well, and he left the country, fast. He made it to Los Angeles where he was picked up and deported back to Guatemala after a judge denied his plea that MS-13 would kill him on his return. Edgar’s stance against the gangs was essentially a moral one and he paid a high price for it. Two weeks after he was deported, MS-13 murdered him.
Policy toward unaccompanied children, many of whom have challenged the fatal dynamics of gang control, as Edgar did, or who have “resolved” (personally and successfully responded to) their home nation’s health care crisis in their small way by buying medicines that otherwise would not be supplied, need be based on respecting these youth, who stand for life and against despondency.