Recently, we heard the tragic tale of Jaken Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from rural Guatemala who died in U.S. custody after a desperate attempt by her father to take her to the U.S. She was one of 42,757 Guatemalans detained by U.S. border agents during 2018 alone. We didn’t hear the story of another young Guatemalan girl about the same age, Jaquelin Mauricio Velasquez, from a different rural town called Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn).
The girls’ names are pronounced the same and their towns have much in common as well. Both towns are located in the country’s north and have about 400 inhabitants. Both are also isolated, poor, and mostly indigenous. Yet the second girl, Jaquelin, is staying in Guatemala. Her family is not fleeing to the border and neither are the vast majority from her town.
Why is Nuevo Amanecer different from so many towns in the rest of the country? Why are almost all its people staying put? What lessons might Nuevo Amanecer offer us if we want fewer examples like Jakelin, the girl who died in U.S. custody in December?
Byron, Jaquelin’s father, is a construction worker in Nuevo Amanecer. He explained (translated from Spanish):
Yes, we heard about the other girl with a name like our daughter’s. It is very sad. She was about the same age as our daughter. We know many people from neighboring communities are fleeing for the border, despite the danger. They have no opportunities and little hope. But we won’t leave. We are united and we help each other out. We’re poor, but we decide things together, plus our kids can study and do a little better than we did. Our Jaquelin is in school and we know she’ll have a chance for a scholarship and job training later on. Her older brother, Dexter, just got awarded a scholarship, so he’ll be able to stay in school. We’ve seen lot of other kids from our town study hard, get jobs, and have a better life. We know our kids can too. We’ll stay in Nuevo Amanecer till we die.
Nuevo Amanecer Is a 20-Year Success Story Built on Democracy, Social Justice, and Solidarity
The community of Nuevo Amanecer, made up of 411 people, is located in the Department of San Marcos in Northwest Guatemala, about two hours from the Mexican border. It was founded in 1998 by Guatemalans who had fled their country to Mexico in the 1980s and early 1990s due to government violence against their communities. Many of Nuevo Amanecer’s founders saw almost the entire population of their towns killed as part of the pattern in which hundreds of Mayan villages were destroyed by Guatemala’s government during the country’s 36-year civil war (1960-1996).
Nuevo Amanecer’s founders were persecuted due to their efforts to secure a decent life for Guatemala’s poor majority. During their difficult 18-year exile, they held on to their dream of a more just, democratic Guatemala. After banding together in Mexican exile with other Guatemalans who shared the same aspirations, they returned in 1998 after the civil war was over and things were safer.
Once in Guatemala again, they founded a new community, which they named Nuevo Amanecer, or New Dawn. The founders of the new town vowed to base Nuevo Amanecer on the same principles of democracy and social justice for which they had been originally persecuted.
The young were not spared among the many who perished in the Guatemalan civil war.
In July 2018, Nuevo Amanecer’s people celebrated their 20th anniversary with music, traditional dancing, and stories of their community’s heroic history. Although residents remain economically poor and face many challenges--including human disease and crop blight linked to climate change, occasional shortages of clean water, and the lack of decent medical care--Nuevo Amanecer is a 20-year success story.
Residents have forged a sustainable community that has attracted much admiration from neighboring towns as well as outside observers. Their dedication to democracy, self-improvement, safety, and resource sharing has helped the town build positive connections with volunteers from Seattle who travel there every year to learn about projects identified and developed by the grass roots committees in the community--projects such as scholarships, job training, and clean water systems.
The volunteers from New Dawn Guatemala then raise funds for the projects. These funds help young people stay in school and get training for jobs with career pathways such as mechanics, chefs, and graphic designers. The amount of funds is modest, never more than about $20,000 per year, but when put to use by the town’s democratic structure and ethos of sharing and self-help, the money has made a huge difference.
The community celebrated 20 years of survival with ceremonies honoring both Christian and traditional Mayan faiths.
The Town’s First Medical Student Embodies Nuevo Amanecer’s Hope for the Future
María Jimenez López , 24, describes the hope that inspires people to stay (translated from Spanish):
Young people here have hope for the future because we have seen others get scholarships, graduate from high school, attend the local community college, and often get decent paying jobs with chances for advancement. My brother, Juan Francisco, saw his Aunt Gloria become one of our community’s first nurses by studying hard and receiving a solidarity scholarship. Then, he saw me get another scholarship, apply myself, and become our community’s second nurse. He’s been inspired by our examples to enter medical school, starting in January. Juan Francisco’s dream is to become our village’s first doctor and use his knowledge to improve health care for our people. My brother and I are definitely going to stay here in New Dawn; almost all of our young people will as well. Social justice, democracy, plus solidarity from our friends in Seattle is a combination that works very well for the people of our village.
The U.S. Helped to Create the Conditions That Caused So Many to Flee
Regrettably, Nuevo Amanecer is a small hillock of hope alongside a mountain range of corruption, poverty, and desperation in much of the rest of Guatemala. To help encourage more towns where the people plan to stay, we need to examine the roots of the despair that causes so many to flee.
The seeds of the Civil War lay in part with the U.S.-assisted overthrow of the democratically elected government of President Jacob Arbenz in 1954. Arbenz benefited landless peasants and challenged the power of the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company by legally compensating United Fruit for uncultivated land according to its declared taxable value. The company’s top stockholders were high-level U.S. officials who falsely claimed Arbenz was a Communist and helped engineer his overthrow. Decades of corrupt dictators and the violent repression of virtually any dissent ensued.
Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which began in 1960, was in part a response to the great inequality in wealth and power, which the U.S.-backed dictators upheld. It destroyed families, killing over 200,000 civilians and exiling many more. Much of the weaponry used to kill civilians, such as the families of Nuevo Amanecer’s founders, was provided by the U.S. The military forces who carried out the burning of villages and gruesome killing were often U.S.-trained as well.
The 1996 Peace Accords called for reintegrating combatants and refugees via education, job training and land, but little of this reintegration was carried out. Guatemala’s current plight of poverty, violence and unemployment stems in part from failure to adequately deal with the tremendous damage caused by the civil war.
Too many Guatemalan towns continue to suffer from conditions such as those in San Antonio Secortez, the home of the Jakelin who died in U.S. custody. It is a community that lacks clean water, decent jobs, and educational opportunities. If these widespread terrible conditions are not addressed, we are likely to see many more examples of desperate families fleeing for our border.
How Can We Create More Towns Like Nuevo Amanecer? Support What Works.
The U.S. can play a role in repairing the damage it contributed to and reducing the number of Jakelins fleeing in despair. A positive path out of the border mess lies in partnering with Guatemalans seeking to democratize and rebuild their country. The U.S. can reinvest a fraction of what we are spending on border barriers and militarization to target training, job creation, and basic health care.
Guatemalan civil society groups such as Entre Mundos, Guatemalan Village Health, Wuqu' Kawoq (The Mayan Health Alliance), and The Otto René Castillo Institute for Sustainable Education have shown solid success. They have strengthened communities via job training and empowered residents to provide basic services such health care and clean water.
Another exemplary effort includes the work of The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), which works to build ties between communities in the U.S. and Guatemala as part of a global movement for social and environmental justice. NISGUA’s Guatemala Accompaniment Project also trains observers to accompany communities and organizations as a security measure to dissuade attacks and create a safer space for them to carry out their human rights and social justice work. Their experience, as well as the remarkable success of Nuevo Amanecer, shows that investing in success stories pioneered by Guatemalans at the grass roots promotes security within the country, thus reducing people's desire to flee.
Americans can make a difference on a volunteer basis as well. Let’s encourage more towns where the Jakelins, Jaquelins, and their families feel safe enough to stay. U.S. citizens should tell our elected officials to stop militarizing our border and to start investing in the positive grass roots groups listed here, and we should invest on our own. Together, we can help repair at least part of what our government and corporations have torn asunder south of our border.
From war and destruction to peace and progress. Help us help them to reach for a better tomorrow.
For more information on how to support girls like Jaquelin to stay and thrive where they live, visit www.newdawnguatemala.org or contact Joe Szwaja at (206) 523-3656.