Guest Opinions

In the highlands of Guatemala, finding hope and the impact of the U.S.

With the talk about migrants from Central America traveling to reach the U.S., we’d like to share our experiences there.

We recently returned from our fourth volunteer trip to Guatemala. We were there to help build a school in a Mayan village. Working with villagers, we mixed cement by hand, carried buckets of cement and poured floors. The school will benefit 43 students, three teachers and 397 families.

Guatemala needs thousands of schools. Why? In 1996 Guatemala emerged from a 36-year civil war made worse by U.S. intervention. It occurred mainly in Mayan rural areas, leaving the countryside with uneducated, unskilled subsistence farmers and few school buildings. Work is scarce, and people are paid poorly ($2-$7 per day). Education is problematic. Poverty and corruption leave people living with dirt floors, bad water, and no plumbing, health care or electricity.

Other Central American countries share similar histories. With little hope or prospects the pull to the U.S. is strong. Every community where we have worked has family members who have worked or are working in America.

On each volunteer trip a community member speaks to us. This year Don Oscar recounted his journey to the U.S.: crammed into an empty gasoline tanker full of people, they drove through Mexico for 72 hours. He walked across the desert. Some died. He paid back $7,000 to the smuggler once he found work. After eight years in California he saved money, returned, opened a small business and started a new life. For many, the dream is to work hard for a few years, send money home, and return to help their families by buying a little land and a house.

Our trips are organized by Hug It Forward, a nonprofit that uses Guatemalans to run the projects. HIF has built 120 schools with donations and volunteer labor. “Ecobricks” (plastic bottles villagers stuff hard with trash) are used instead of cinder block, inside a structurally sound conventional frame. This method is eco-friendly and economical, and relies on community labor.

Why build schools there? Schoolchildren need buildings. Educated children will have the skills to find jobs in their own country. They will no longer be forced to migrate north, reducing the need to come here.

At the end of each trip we ask locals to speak to us. An elderly grandmother with long braids and a hand-embroidered blouse answered in Quiche: “Please tell the Americans that we are good people with the same dreams for our families as everyone else. We are poor and do what we must to live.”

We recount our experiences in Guatemala for several reasons: to show that America was complicit in this immigration, to explain the conditions that underlie it, and to argue that as a nation and as individuals, we have a responsibility not just to stop immigrants looking to enter illegally at the border, but to reduce the conditions that attract people here.

Tom and Pam Rybus are longtime Boise residents. Tom is a retired geography teacher and Pam a retired teacher librarian. They taught in Boise, Meridian, Japan, Berlin and the Netherlands.