On Dec. 8, 2018, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from rural Guatemala, died in U.S. custody after her father’s desperate attempt to take her to the U.S.
Maquin’s tragic death was covered by journalists, heightening scrutiny of the Trump administration’s cruel immigrant detention policies.
Another girl about the same age, Jaquelin Mauricio Velasquez, is from a different town in rural Guatemala, called Nuevo Amanecer. You don’t know her name.
Both girls are from the country’s poor, impoverished, and largely Indigenous north.
Yet Jaquelin Velasquez is staying in Guatemala. Her family is not fleeing to the border and neither are most in her town.
Why is Nuevo Amanecer different? Why are its people staying? And is there a way for Seattleites to support towns like Nuevo Amanecer?
Jaquelin’s father, Byron, explained:
“We know thousands from neighboring communities are fleeing for the border. They lack opportunities and hope. But we won’t leave. We know our Jaquelin will have a chance for a scholarship, job training and a better life. We will stay in Nuevo Amanecer until we die.”
Located in northwest Guatemala, Nuevo Amanecer was founded in 1998 by Guatemalans who fled to Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s due to government violence. The town’s founders had witnessed the murders of their neighbors. Their Mayan village was one of hundreds destroyed by Guatemala’s government during the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996.
Nuevo Amanecer’s founders were persecuted due to their desire to secure a decent life for Guatemala’s majority. During their difficult 18-year exile, they held on to their dream of a more just, democratic Guatemala. After banding together in exile with other Guatemalans who shared their aspirations, they returned in 1998 when things were safer.
Once in Guatemala again, they founded a new community named Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn). The founders of the new town vowed to follow the same principles of democracy and social justice for which they were originally persecuted.
In 2018, Nuevo Amanecer celebrated its 20th anniversary. Although residents remain poor and face many challenges — including disease, water shortages, and inadequate medical care — Nuevo Amanecer is a success story spanning two decades.
Their dedication to democracy, self-improvement and safety has helped the town build connections with Seattle’s New Dawn Guatemala, which supports projects identified by the community such as scholarship programs, job training and clean water systems. New Dawn Guatemala’s volunteers raise funds for the projects, including about $20,000 last year. When utilized within the town’s democratic decision-making structure, the solidarity makes a huge difference.
The seeds of the civil war lay in part with the U.S.-assisted 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz, who legally challenged the power of the United Fruit Company. The company’s top stockholders were high-level U.S. officials who opposed Árbenz’s reforms and helped engineer his overthrow.
The civil war was in part caused by the great inequality in wealth and power upheld by U.S.-backed dictators. It killed over 200,000 civilians and exiled many more. The military forces who carried out the burning of villages and gruesome killings were often U.S.-trained and funded.
Failure to adequately deal with the damage caused by the civil war is one cause of Guatemala’s poverty and violence. Too many Guatemalan towns continue to suffer from conditions such as those in San Antonio Secortez, the hometown of Jakelin, who died in U.S. custody. The town lacks clean water, decent jobs and educational opportunities. Unless these conditions are addressed, we will see many more examples of desperate families fleeing across our border.
Part of the solution to our border tragedies lies in partnering with Guatemalans, such as those in Nuevo Amanecer and similar communities, who are seeking to democratize and rebuild their country. Their experience shows that investing in successes pioneered by people at the grassroots promotes security and hope within Guatemala, reducing people’s desire to flee.
Joe Szwaja is a local writer who works with New Dawn Guatemala.
Read the full March 6 - 12 issue.
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