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Lifeline to a Devastated Guatemala

(Steve Hendrix - Twp)

Guatemalans working abroad, both legally and illegally, send more than $2 billion back to their families each year, according to the Guatemalan government. The amount is now the second-largest source of national revenue after tourism, having surpassed traditional exports of coffee, sugar and bananas. In the days after the hurricane, long lines formed at banks in Santiago, as wire transfers poured in.

"After the catastrophe, the amount of money coming in went up very fast," said Betty Esquevina, the manager of a bank branch in Santiago, where cash arrives regularly from Western Union agencies in Virginia, Texas and California. "Before, we would pay four or five Western Union checks a day. Now I'm paying 10 to 15 a day."

For the Mogollon family, as for many Central Americans, the lifeline to the United States was attached 15 years ago, amid the turmoil of civil war. Guatemala was then ruled by a military government, and its forces were waging a brutal campaign in the country's highlands against a tenacious revolutionary guerrilla movement. Several hundred thousand people were killed before peace was declared in 1996.

For years, the Santiago Atitlan area -- a beautiful region of lakes and volcanoes popular with American tourists and bohemian expatriates -- as well as dozens of impoverished villages inhabited by indigenous Mayans were spared from violence. The army occupied much of the immediate area surrounding Santiago Atitlan, about 45 miles west over twisting mountain roads from the capital, Guatemala City, and soldiers even married local women, the Mogollon family recounted.

But by 1990, the war had arrived here. There were clashes between students and paramilitary groups, and 13 Mayan villagers were killed in an army massacre in Panabaj. The Mogollons lived only a few blocks from the site of the killings. Luis, then 22 and a student, said he ran into problems with the army and decided to flee the country.

He crossed Mexico and entered the United States illegally, as thousands of other Central Americans were doing. But unlike most, he said, he was able to obtain political asylum and become a legal resident. After taking a series of low-wage jobs, he saved enough money to start a flooring business -- and start sending money home.

Now Luis employs 10 men to lay linoleum in school cafeterias and other public buildings. His two sisters, who followed him to Virginia, share his suburban split-level house, which was decorated this week with an elaborate Halloween display of pumpkins, ghosts and witches.

"I went back to see my old village in 1998," Luis said, shaking his head at the memory. "A lot of the old customs have changed. Most people don't wear tipica any more, they wear pants and dresses," he said, referring to traditional indigenous costumes. "They used to farm corn and beans, but they are going into business and growing avocadoes for export. They used to speak only Tzutujil, but now they are even learning foreign languages."

Luis' parents said they were frightened and sad when he left Panabaj. For an entire week, they worried while he traveled north with a coyote, or smuggling guide, to lead him across the U.S. border. They knew how dangerous the journey was, they recounted, because others had disappeared along the way.

But this week, as they sat in the parlor of the sturdy cinderblock house built with money sent by Luis and his siblings, the couple beamed with pride. The room, rarely used except when relatives visit from abroad, was decorated with plush furniture and cedar woodwork that gave off a pleasant scent.

The walls were hung with framed certificates, showing that their seven children had all graduated from high school. Antonieta, a retired cook, said she had pushed them to finish their educations, even though they often had to work after class, sewing tipica to sell to tourists. The front door was open, and a shaft of sunlight stretched across the shiny tile floor. Outside, the streets were caked with hardened mud and people were lined up for free tetanus shots.

"They say it will be three or four months before we can return to our own house. We are lucky we are able to live here until then," said Jose, who worked as a janitor in the local hospital for most of his adult life and is more comfortable speaking Tzutujil than Spanish. His monthly pension is $40, but Luis sends them $100 a month and his brothers add to that sum.

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