An elegy in Mayan echoes for Guatamalan migrants in Arizona

El Independiente reporter Emily Ellis began investigating this story over the summer while studying Mayan K’iche in Nahuala, Guatemala. She continued interviewing Mayan migrants in Tucson after returning to Arizona. 


Arizona Sonora News 

Every Sunday the residents of Nahuala, Guatemala, walk quietly through the pale dawn mist to the white church that stands in the center of their small town. The women go to the pews on the right. Their heads are draped with colorful hand-woven shawls. Some have yawning babies strapped to their backs by sturdy cloth bands. The men go to the left, where the pews are far more empty.

The priest always begins the service the same way. He reads a list of names in Mayan K’iche – a language that, while spoken only in a small section of a country the size of Tennessee, has nonetheless become the 17th most spoken language in US immigration courts. The women kneel, eyes closed, while their children squirm in the hard pews and tug at their stiff church clothes.

“Let us pray for our sons and brothers who are crossing into the United States. God bless and preserve Roberto Ixma. God bless and preserve Daniel Tobar. God bless and preserve . . .”

This week, he lists sixteen men.  Some will vanish into the Sonora Desert. Some will survive the brutal journey across all 2,500 miles of Mexico and will sidle past la migra patrolling the Arizona border. They will board Greyhound buses bound for New York and Los Angeles and disappear into the U.S.’s largest cities, returning to Guatemala years later, once they have paid off the thousands of dollars they owe their coyotes and have earned enough to support their families. And some will be detained at the border and sent back, only to try again another year.

“The worst thing [about migration] is that it tears families apart,” says Manuel Tahay, mayor of Nahuala. After the service ends, he pauses to watch the congregation file out into the growing sunlight and linger around the church steps to buy steaming glass mugs of arroz con leche. “I think if people in the States knew how much it hurts our community, they might change the laws, make it easier to work. If they just knew that we don’t want to stay there forever. We’d rather stay here. But there are no jobs. People feel they have no choice.”

A woman sells her weaving on the street in Nahuala, Guatemala on August 2, 2016. Selling weavings in one of the few ways that indigenous woman can make a living.
A woman sells her weaving on the street in Nahuala, Guatemala on August 2, 2016. Selling weavings in one of the few ways that indigenous woman can make a living.

Body and Heart

Guatemalans make up a significant part of the Latin American migrant population in the United States. An estimated 100,000 Guatemalans attempt to cross into the United States each year, and more than half are indigenous people from rural areas, according to a report from the Universidad de San Carlos. In a country still economically crippled from a 36-year civil war, the average Mayan person in Guatemala makes less than $1.50 an hour working in service or agricultural jobs. Many see migration as the only way they can escape poverty and provide adequate education, shelter and healthcare for their families.

Yet for a person from a closely-knit indigenous community, attempting to honor distinctive cultural believes in a hostile new land is an emotionally daunting task.

Manuel Ortiz, a K’iche-speaking Mayan who regularly volunteers to help indigenous Guatemalans who cross into Arizona, knows what it is like to live with your body and heart in two different worlds.

“This is where we are now,” he says simply, gesturing around his small, shadowy living room on Tucson’s north side. Ortiz migrated from his community in Totonicapán, a half hour south of Nahuala, in 1993, seeking asylum during the Guatemalan civil war. He has remained in Arizona ever since.  

“But it isn’t home,” he says. His wife, Catarina, nods in agreement.

“I think about my community every day,” Manuel continues. “The food, my language, the mountains. For an indigenous person, that is the only real home.”

El Exterior

Sebastian Quinac shoots a hand into the air. At Tucson’s Historic Y, a psychologist is giving a talk about the abuses committed against Mayan Ixil women during the Guatemalan civil war. Quinac, outreach coordinator at the Guatemalan consulate, helped organize the event. There was a question from the audience about the indigenous definition of justice. 

“If I may,” Quinac begins. “To Mayan people, justice is paying back for a crime or a sin that exists. Until there is retribution, this evil never goes away.  Justice is paying what they owe us, for what they did.”

Quinac knows something about justice. In the early 1980s, after right-wing Gen. Rios Montt seized control of the Guatemalan government in a bloody coup d’état, many Mayan people were accused of anti-government sentiment and counterinsurgency. Quinac, a Kachiquel-speaker from Chimaltenango, was one of them. He fled to Arizona in 1983 after receiving several death threats. He now travels throughout the state translating at detention centers and immigration courts, as well as organizing cultural events for the consulate.

“It is a great trauma for a Mayan person to come to el exterior,” he says. “In many cases, they’re coming from a small community with a very distinctive culture and a profound relationship with nature. It’s a great change for a Mayan person to leave these customs, this way of being a human being.” 

Indigenous Guatemalans have a long history of migrating to the United States. When Quinac and Manuel Ortiz fled their war-torn country in the ’80s and ’90s, they were considered political refugees by the U.S. government. In the 2000s, however, strict immigration policies prevent economically driven migrants from receiving temporary work visas. Despite this, the percent of Guatemalan migrants in the United States has risen by 497 percent since 1990, according to a Migration Policy report.

“The risk, the expense – it doesn’t seem worth it,” sighs Ila Abernathy. She runs St. Michael’s and All Angel’s Guatemala Project, a Tucson-based organization that sends humanitarian missions to rural Guatemalan communities. Although the organization focuses on health care, Abernathy has often found herself trying to dissuade Guatemalan men from migrating to the United States.

“I tell them, ‘I live by the border, I see the memorials for the dead along the wall,’” she says.  “But they believe that if you go the states and work hard, you can provide shelter and education for your families.”

This belief drives thousands of migrants across the US-Mexican border every year. There are several programs in Tucson that have risen up to support them, including Alitas, where Sebastian Quinac and the Ortizes volunteer their translation services. A part of Catholic Community Services, Alitas was founded in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central American in 2014. Today, the program helps Central American women and children – many of whom are from Guatemala – connect with husbands and fathers in other parts of the country.

“It’s a huge comfort for these people that we have volunteers who can speak their languages,” says Sydney Tuller, volunteer coordinator for Alitas. “They come to us with such fear, and it’s invaluable to have people here in Tucson that know what they’ve been through.”

Although Quinac knows what it’s like to be afraid, he believes that it’s important for Mayans to have pride in their culture, no matter where they are.

“For many Mayans, it’s an embarrassment to speak their language or wear traditional clothes [in the United States.],” he says. “But it’s important to have pride in our identity. We must remember who we are, or risk losing ourselves.”

Mayor Manuel Tahay speaks with women weaving in Nahuala, Guatemala on July 24, 2016. Emigration to the U.S. has left few men in the town. (Photo by Emily Ellis)
Mayor Manuel Tahay speaks with women weaving in Nahuala, Guatemala on July 24, 2016. Emigration to the U.S. has left few men in the town. (Photo by Emily Ellis)


Even after 30 years, the Ortizes are not fully at home in Arizona. Most of their family lives outside the state or in Guatemala. Manuel is semi-retired from his landscaping business and many days, he says, he and his wife don’t even leave the house.

“No one talks about it, but I’ve known people who have died not crossing from the desert, but of el estres of living here,” he says quietly. “For a Mayan person, being so far from your family, for so long – it’s easy to start drinking, to get depressed.”

To combat homesickness, the Ortizes make an effort to connect with other Guatemalans living in Tucson by regularly organizing dinners and soccer games. 

“It’s just a small group of us here, but I love the parties,” Catarina laughs. “Then I get to wear my huipil ! It always feels so wonderful to put it on.”

There is a long pause, and Manuel looks up from fiddling with his iphone. “I’m trying to find the Nahuala Estacion,” he explains shyly.

Nahuala Estacion, he says, is the only K’iche-language radio station in Guatemala. “We try to listen to it everyday, but sometimes it doesn’t come in,” Catarina adds.

“Here it is!” Manuel says, setting his phone triumphantly onto the coffee table. The sounds of a singing choir, softened by static, emits from the speakers: Manuel explains that they are broadcasting a church service from Nahuala.

Catarina and Manuel sit in silence as the distant voices fill their living room, gazing at a point far beyond its shadowy walls: a white church, fog-shrouded mountains, home.


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