Tag Archives: Guatemala

Mayas and Chapinxs at Sundance


By William Ramírez (CLACS ’15)

*Watch upcoming screenings of 500 Years at NYU on April 21st and April 23rd , 2018.

It had only been about two months since I started my position as Visual Arts Engagement Coordinator at MACLA (Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana) in San José, California when I received the news from Pamela Yates in December of 2016: 500 Years had been accepted into the 2017 Sundance Film Festival!

An acclaimed documentary filmmaker, this was not the first time Yates, her work, and the team at Skylight Pictures have accomplished such a great feat. In fact, the two documentaries about Guatemala preceding 500 Years, When the Mountains Tremble (1984) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011) also premiered at the festival in their respective years.

During my time as a student at CLACS at NYU, I had the great privilege of interning as a Research Assistant at Skylight Pictures. Part of my work involved researching and collecting digital, visual, and scholastic material on past and current human and environmental rights violations in Guatemala that could be used in the documentary. While not directly in line with the research for my master’s thesis on the cultural production (specifically, literature) of the Guatemalan diaspora and its connection with cultural and artistic movements in the isthmus, this work still allowed me to delve deep into the social and political contexts that have shaped and are still influencing not only the country and its people, but also its artistic production today.

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Time Goes by So Slowly

Posted by Katie Schlechter – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU


A man from Honduras helps prep nopales for the kitchen at La Casa del Migrante Saltillo. (Photo: Katie Schlechter)

At this point in my research/reporting trip, I’ve visited five different migrant shelters in four different states. I’ve spent time in shelters just a few hours drive from the US-Mexico border and I’ve been in casas 45 minutes from Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. One thing I’ve found at every single shelter is boredom, and the occasional wave of desperation that comes with being stuck in one place for a long period of time.

The boredom hits different people for different reasons. In the Casa del Migrante in Saltillo, for example, migrants are not allowed to leave the shelter during the day except for work. This is for security reasons, as the northern region of the country is full of Zeta operatives and scammers who specialize in tricking migrants into letting them be their “guide.” The rule is supposed to limit the daily traffic of people in and out of the casa.

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Security, Red Tape, and Human Rights on the Mexico-Guatemala border

By Laura Weiss, NYU CLACS student

Instituto Migratorio

My research this summer has to do with social movement responses to human rights abuses that have arisen or worsened as a result of U.S.-Mexico policy. One of my case examples for my thesis will be to explore the buildup and consequences of the Southern Border Plan – and the responses by NGOs and activist groups in Mexico and the United States.

Recently, I had the opportunity to join a delegation with the American Friends Service Committee on human rights, migration and militarization in Mexico, for a portion of their two-week trip, to the city of Tapachula in Chiapas, and its outskirts, on the Mexico-Guatemala border. It was a great opportunity to see firsthand a lot of what I’ve studied on the Southern Border and connect with a group of inspiring activists, researchers, journalists and filmmakers interested in similar topics. Going to Tapachula, meeting with human rights groups, and seeing the border zones deepened and complicated my understanding of the migration situation in Southern Mexico today.

Contextualizing the Southern Border Plan

Before coming to Mexico, I’d read a lot about the Southern Border Plan, or Plan Frontera Sur. The program, with the stated intention of improving border and human security on the 541 mile border between Mexico and Guatemala, was announced shortly after the “child migrant crisis” of 2014. In the summer of 2014, 70,000 Central American children arrived at the US-Mexico border, seeking refuge from the life-threatening conditions they faced in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The program aimed to stop migrants and asylum-seekers in Mexico, before they reached the United States, and allotted funding for more migration officers, as well as new detection technologies and detention centers, with support from the United States. The plan also included methods to dissuade migrants and asylum-seekers from boarding the infamous Bestia cargo train that many traveling through Mexico have used as transportation northward – by speeding it up and inserting posts along the trail to make it more difficult to board.

The disbursement of funding has been extremely opaque, and denial hasn’t helped make it any clearer. When I was in Puebla, Mexico, in January for a course on social welfare and child migrants through NYU’s School of Social Work, both the National Migration Institute  (INM) delegate in Puebla and US Embassy representatives in Mexico City denied any financial pressure or support from the US government for the plan. But the law begs to differ. The congressional appropriations for 2015 clearly show that at least $75 million was appropriated to Mexico to secure its southern borders, that in addition to the yearly budget for the US-Mexico bilateral security initiative, Plan Mérida, which has included over $2.6 billion in U.S. funding since 2008.

Meanwhile, measures to help improve services for Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries have come much more slowly than those securitizing the southern border. The US and Mexico have both defied international law that state that a person cannot be sent back to a country where they face threats to their life and person. As I wrote in an article, “Secure Borders Now, Protect People Later,” for NACLA in February, it wasn’t until January 2016 that the US government announced any sort of specific refugee program to allow Central American child migrants to remain in the country. By national security measures, however, Plan Frontera Sur seemed to work—at least in the short term. Detention and deportation rates from Mexico to Northern triangle countries increased by 40% in the year followed the passage of Plan Frontera Sur, according to the Migration Policy Institute. However, more recent estimates show that the number arriving at the US-Mexico border is once again rising.

With all of this information in mind, I set off to Tapachula.

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Sharing Tears With Maya Chinchilla

Posted by William Ramirez – MA Candidate at CLACS

This summer I traveled to Guatemala with the intention of learning more about current trends and developments in Guatemalan literary, poetic, and artistic production. In recent years, there has been a surge in not only scholarly, but also literary and artistic production of the “Central American” (including Guatemala) in the United States (See Arturo Arias, Ana Patricia Rodriguez, Kency Cornejo, Claudia Milian). For example, in 2014, Guatemalan-American poet, Maya Chinchilla (Maya Chapina), published her first book, The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poética (Kórima Press), marking the first time a Guatemalan-American publishes a book of poetry with themes concerning the Guatemalan/Central American-American experience within the United States. However, her work would perhaps be lesser known within Guatemala. A question arises: what relevance would her poetry have with current Guatemalan literary and artistic trends and, moreover, with Guatemalans, in general, who perhaps have never set foot outside of the country? I came to look for what type of relation might, or might not, exist between literary, artistic, and poetic productions between Guatemalan-Americans and those within the country.


Cover of ‘The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poética’ by Maya Chinchilla. Artists – Yolanda Lopez, Rio Yañez

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Segregated Communities, Segregated Litter

Posted by William Ramirez – MA Candidate at CLACS

This past winter break I visited Guatemala for the second time in a year. Prior to that, it had been 10 years since I travelled to the country my parents migrated from in the early 1980’s. This last trip, as the one a year before, proved tremendously fascinating as I was able to directly experience and relate everything I learned about the country and its diaspora throughout my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis, and currently within the wider context of Latin America and the Caribbean as a graduate student at NYU. As an undergraduate, I embarked on an honors thesis project regarding Guatemalan literature, identity, and globalization in the 21st century. However, despite this devoted research, I came to realize that there are things that can only be experienced first-hand that cannot be necessarily captured on paper.

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Avoiding Narcotourism

Everyone loves to travel. In 2008, 924 million people traveled abroad. That is a lot of people contributing an enormous amount of money to foreign economies. For obvious reasons many people think of tourism as having a positive impact to the economy of any area that utilizes it to create jobs, preserve natural resources, and increase the overall quality of life for the people living and working within the tourist economy. But does tourism always leave positive impacts? My research delves into the tourist economy of a specific area in Guatemala where the Tzutjujil Mayan people struggle to decide how tourism should be used to bolster their economy and maximize the benefits tourism can bring while minimizing its negative impacts.

Bowker - Guatemala - San JuanThe town of San Pedro La Laguna on the side of Lake Atitlan Guatemala has blossomed into a thriving community over the past twenty years. Much of the success the town has had in the tourism sector is due to Narco-tourism. The various illegal narcotics that can be purchased around the town has made San Pedro a popular stop for many backpackers while traveling through Central America. Marijuana, cocaine, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, MDMA (pure ecstasy), and prescription drugs are all available to buy at discount prices given you can make contact with the right local. The local dealers are both Guatemalans and foreigners who call San Pedro home. The sale and availability of illegal drugs has had a significant impact on the lives of this Mayan community, especially the impressionable youth. But this is just one of the problems that tourism can bring if it is not regulated.
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Inevitable Change: Tourism’s Impact on Indigenous Communities in Guatemala

Bowker - Guatemala - TourismI have returned to Guatemala to do field research for the NYU CLACS masters program after having served in this country as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008-2010. Even though I am now in a different location of the country from when I served as a volunteer, many elements of the towns San Pedro La Laguna and San Juan La Laguna are familiar and ubiquitously Guatemalan. The major difference about these communities in comparison to other parts of the country is their ability to use tourism as a development strategy and how this has changed the people’s everyday lives and culture.

My research interest lies with the cultural elements that are unique to these two towns because of their high connection with the outside world. The town’s geography gives them both their own feel and how they have used tourism differently has had significant impacts on everyday life. Situated alongside the beautiful Lake Atitlan surrounded by volcanoes at an altitude of over five thousand feet, both San Pedro and San Juan have something to offer the bold tourist who craves a unique cultural experience. Over the past twenty years these communities have developed with the aid of tourism, but poverty still grips the lives of the majority of the town’s inhabitants. Trying to understand this situation will take time and patience. After being here a week, I have identified many people who have unique perspectives that will benefit my research.   Continue reading

Focus on Faculty: Liliana Goldín

Liliana Goldín in the Central Highlands of Guatemala

Liliana Goldín in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, photo courtesy Flickr/McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research

Anthropologist Liliana Goldín is a CLACS affiliated professor in the Silver School of Social Work, and a faculty research associate at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. Her research focuses on the intersections of economy and culture in Guatemala, and the ways in which primarily Mayan populations of the Central and Western Highlands negotiate the impacts of globalization in relation to migration, labor, and consumption. 

Global Maya: Work and Ideology in Rural Guatemala In 2009, Goldín published Global Maya: Work and Ideology in Rural Guatemala, which was based on more than 10 years of field research in Guatemala.  The book uses an interdisciplinary approach, relying on both ethnographic research with rural Mayan communities and surveys, to document cultural and economic changes in the region.

Goldín says her aim was to show that ideas about making a living are constructed in the process of practice. “In a non-linear way, we are the result and the motivation of what we do and how we do it.  This empirical study of the workings of ideology and practice shows the ongoing transformations that are taking place in rural Guatemala in the context of global processes and local initiatives and responses,” she says.
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Motorbike Musings in Guatemala

Toner - Research in Guatemala - CLACS at NYUEveryday I ruffle plastic overalls over my jeans when whisperings of rain saturate our senses and afternoon water darkens the clouds. Our rides can be long, bumpy and wonderfully gritty; occasionally I daydream I’ve made it to the final tryout for an international development/microfinance biker gang. Granted, I’m not actually driving, I wear the cheapest and therefore least-macho rain suit available, and internally complain when my lower half goes numb after 30 minutes, but John Fogerty seems to continually rasp me into bigger and bigger ideas as I realize coach has essentially put me in and I’m ready to play.

Beyond trying to savor every cloud drift, every volcano in the distance, every pastoral postcard that is my life, the long hours I’ve spent on the bike allow for what one rarely has in New York: time to problem solve through contemplation. And so, as I seek to validate my happiness and make use of my privilege, I give in to the puritanical rejection of pleasure and muse.

Last Thursday, for example, I completed my only client interview of the day around noon, but still accompanied the loan officer, Fernando, on five individual visits in sporadic small towns all the way back to Totonicapán about an hour and half a way. Unlike communal banks of 15-20 people, individual loans are “easier” since you don’t have to wait for latecomers or deal with on-the-spot crises when someone doesn’t bring their payment.

That day, as with others recently, I continued to develop ideas. One topic I’ve been considering is incentives both for loan officers and clients. Many organizations have incentives for opening new accounts or for when a certain percentage of their clients remain solvent.

From conversations with those who have worked for more than one organization, the monthly salary of some loans officers in micro finance can reach up to 5,000 Quetzal (about $625 USD). This might be the case, for example, if the organization has an incentive program for opening new accounts, clients remains solvent, and the organization provides officers with a stipend for gas and motorbike repairs. At the same time it might be as low as $375 USD if those elements are not in place. These figures are still significant, considering most families of 4 or more in rural areas survive on 100-200 Quetzals a week. What if officers were given incentives to strategically link clients to social services or if clients were given opportunities to grow their loan amounts if they or their children pursue education opportunities?

Some organizations like Pro Mujer in other countries provide comprehensive services beyond credit that including health and educational programs. Some governments such as Brazil offer conditional cash transfers to poor populations. A family, for example, that can show their children are enrolled in and attending school might receive up to $7 USD a month for up to three children. Other transfers include women’s health and cooking gas credits.

It is not, however, common practice for many micro-credit organizations to provide these extra services. One loan officer told me there are as many as 30 to 40 micro credit groups just in Sololá, a department with only about 423,000 inhabitants. I now am researching how to better coordinate between existing social and health support groups, governmental and non governmental, to provide these services. Micro credit organizations would benefit as clients further their education and can grow businesses, lower costs through preventative health visits, and can link to savings groups.

Anyone involved in development would highlight the need for these comprehensive services in order for communities to thrive and become self-sustaining. Any urban planner or USAID director would highlight that broad consensus and piggyback services are essential. Yet, how does one create such agreement? Perhaps more importantly, how can we facilitate competition and empowerment for rural clients to choose?

Essentially, given a weak government with limited resources, I’ve been considering how might one “privatize” economic and social development at the scale and rate of success of Brazil. I’m well aware of the baggage the word carries, particularly in Latin America after the oft-criticized shock therapy and neoliberal reforms. Yet, I’m a realist. Micro-loans did not originate from governments nor should we always turn to government for development.

Microcredit groups might or might not be responsible and interest rates might or might not be competitive. Why is it that people in the developing world can log onto the internet and receive 4 to 5 quotes for car insurance, health insurance, and even educational loans, yet the poorest of the poor rely upon sporadic outside help? I am developing strategy ideas for putting the demand for micro-credit and relevant educational and health services into the hands of those who need it. Just as Brazil’s bolsa familia began at the local level so too might we proceed with coordinating social and economic development. How can we better link communities to competitive services then?

One way is to use mapping and qualitative studies, much like my research here. Imagine you go online and see a map of Guatemala and then can see concentrations of poverty, even topic specific poverty such as areas where there is no water coverage, poor health care, or a certain income threshold. Then you, as a globally aware citizen or ED of a business development non profit, could locate, say, microcredit groups who need business training for their clients and present the group with an offer. Ideally, it would also facilitate competition and small groups/communities would have options themselves, not having to rely on the micro-credit middleman.

It might also keep a profile of groups and coverage in the area. That is, lets say an area or community has a lot of microfinance and business training groups, but lacks basic education and potable water. On the map, you’d be able to see if an area has a “complete link” of minimum coverage so communities are given the full range of comprehensive development, not just piecemeal.
So government entities, NGOs, even individuals could target where the need is in a very specific way – you could even use the database for relief efforts, as one could incorporate interactive elements to see where landslides or flooding occurred.

Some of the technology is available, but not being used to these ends. I’m just working out how to make it overtly profitable and to sift through the ridiculous amount of consensus needed to implement it/ the clear drawbacks such as intrusion of international and agenda-based groups into culturally sensitive or vulnerable areas. Also, one might argue it could either detract from the strength of the state or enhance it, depending on how the consensus comes along.

I have plenty of time, of course, to think about these issues while buzzing along mountain roads. More importantly, I’m making a mental list of who to contact when I get back to make it happen. If you or anyone you know are involved in similar projects or ideas, please let me know.

John Toner is an MS Candidate in Global Affairs at NYU