EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Conventional wisdom has it that Guatemalan families are fleeing gang violence and that the Biden administration should invest in the region’s security to prevent further migration to the United States.

But some who’ve studied that Central American country point to other causes of migration and warn against funding security forces often been associated with repression, particularly in Maya Indian lands.

“One of the things the U.S. government is trying to do is increase military aid to Central American governments in the name of combating drug traffickers. That’s a huge error,” says Giovanni Batz. “When we see the use of armed forces in Guatemala it’s usually to oppress Indigenous communities that are protesting the arrival of extractivist industries like mining and hydroelectrical plants.”

He says such activities and the expansion of export-crop farming is displacing Quiches, Ixils and other Mayan ethnic groups from their lands, prompting them to migrate. Racism and the lack of political autonomy also factor into the exodus. So does the devastation caused by two hurricanes late last year, which remains largely unmitigated.

“A lot of those communities are still confronting the devastation and the long-term effects […] People lost their crops, the crops they rely on for the year,” he said. “The U.S. should support these communities by rebuilding roads, any infrastructure that was damaged. If we send money, that money shouldn’t be sent to the armed forces at all, and that’s to save lives, basically.”

Batz is an affiliate faculty member at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California-Davis. The 2017 University of Texas at Austin social anthropology graduate also happens to be a Quiche Maya Indian who’s been studying migration patterns from Guatemala to the U.S. and their causes for the past decade.

“Who am I?”

Los Angeles-born Batz likes to joke about his “European sounding” name.   

“When I was growing up in L.A. I asked myself, ‘why don’t I have a typical Hispanic surname like Hernandez, Gonzalez, etc.’ Growing up in L.A., which was extremely anti-immigrant at that time under Gov. Pete Wilson, I had a lot of questions as to why I was in the U.S., why did my parents immigrate,” he said.

The questions led to the realization that he’s Mayan and that his last name is Quiche for a Maya day name which means Howling Monkey. Batz has the symbol tattooed on his right shoulder.

NMSU affiliate faculty member Giovanni Batz shows off a tattoo of a Mayan symbol from which his family’s last name is derived. (Border Report photo)

He also learned that Guatemala is a racist country, and that’s one of the push factors prompting Mayans to leave. According to that country’s 2018 census, 43.56% of the population is native American, with Mayans accounting for almost 90% of that.

His research shows indigenous communities have been displaced by land grabs and enslaved by non-Indians for centuries. This continued through the 20th century with social and political exclusion and labor laws he said practically forced them to work for free at coffee and other plantations.

“They use the term ‘indio’ as a very racist term to dehumanize a human being just for having Indigenous features. […] ‘Indian face’ means you’re ugly. ‘Don’t be an Indian’ means don’t be stupid,” Batz said. The verbal violence is used not only to demean but to justify violence or ignore entire communities.

The Mayans experience a similar rejection and insolence as they make their way north through Mexico and arrive at the border.

He says the Border Patrol and other federal agencies don’t have an adequate number of interpreters for the diversity of Mayan languages many of the migrants from the Western highlands of Guatemala speak.

“Sometimes, people don’t speak Spanish at all. They are chastised for speaking Quiche. They avoid it to avoid being criticized,” Batz said. “Not speaking Spanish also prevents them from standing up for their rights at the border. We have this ignorant attitude in the United States that if you’re from Latin America you speak Spanish. … when you don’t, you don’t have access to the judicial system” and other benefits.

He also described a “statistical genocide” that makes it impossible to know exactly how many Mayans have come across the border. Those who are apprehended by Border Patrol are usually classified by nationality, but no more, he said.

Graphic courtesy CBP

Still, many Mayans have come to stay and are clustering in urban centers like Los Angeles, Houston and the East Coast and seen working in farms from Ohio to Alabama, he said.

History repeating itself

The oppression eventually led to uprisings and civil war pushed back through military action and massacres. A former president, Efrain Rios Mont, was convicted of genocide on the testimony of survivors of such massacres.

The war led to the first large wave of migration to the United States in the early 1980s. Now, the land grabs continue in the name of progress, as Guatemala hands out new mining and exploration licenses and builds energy generating plans in Mayan lands.

“History is repeating itself. Journalists, land activists, ecologists and human rights defenders are being persecuted by the military, police and drug traffickers, all of which are often in collusion with each other,” Batz said, citing recent murders not only in Guatemala but also in Honduras, where migration to the United States has also picked up in the last three years.

If Biden wants to address the root causes of migration from Central America, he must make sure nations like Guatemala address serious social injustice and democracy issues, as well as land reform, Batz said.

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