The border mechanisms that capture headlines—the roundups, the cages, and the deportations—deserve attention, but this human sorting isn’t confined to the moment or space of the frontier crossing. It is part of the food we buy, the clothes we wear, and the histories we believe about the world. The border is in our heads, built every day through habits that help us ignore the price others pay for our prosperity. Examining the history of Guatemalans in Champaign-Urbana illustrates the practices that enable Americans to live blithely among the wreckage they help create.
Genocide in our own Backyard
The majority of the 8–10,000 Guatemalans in the CU area are from communities near Santa Cruz Barillas in the mountains of Huehuetenango. Many speak Q’anjob’al, not Spanish, and identify as Maya, a catchall term for many different indigenous nations that remain in Guatemala despite 500 years of persecution and marginalization. In CU they are often lumped into the category of “Spanish speaker,” or “Latino”; centuries of struggle for cultural survival are swept away as a box is checked.
Barillenses began arriving in CU in the 1980s as refugees from the 1960–96 Guatemalan Civil War. The first were helped by activists from a network of church and humanitarian groups that aided those fleeing the violence. The Sanctuary Movement flouted migration law (which in practice labeled Guatemalans “economic migrants,” not refugees) to help individuals but also to expose the brutal consequences of American policy. Most Americans knew little of the US role in Guatemala and saw the refugees merely as recipients of American benevolence.
In reality the US entered the history of Barillas long before its residents entered US territory. In 1954 the CIA conspired with the United Fruit Company to overthrow the elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, who threatened the company’s monopoly. The military government the US installed enjoyed a blank check during the Cold War despite a worsening human rights record. By the 1980s the Guatemalan military, flush with American aid and influenced by Vietnam War techniques, was physically eradicating hundreds of villages. Civilians were massacred, tortured, and disappeared in the campaign to “annihilate the internal enemy.” Post-war investigations found the government responsible for almost all of the more than 200,000 deaths and 50,000 disappearances during the war years. 83 percent of victims were indigenous, like the people of Barillas.
Denial of that history continues today. Former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, but the decision was thrown out on a technicality. Court cases against military actors are still derailed by endless legal maneuvers or threats to witnesses and judges. In the US denial is more insidious. There are no court cases charging US policymakers with being accessories to genocide or initiating the coup that led to three decades of war. Few think about how different life in Barillas might have been without the US-engineered coup.
Dislocation and Delegitimization: The Modern Way to Disappear a People
Migration to Champaign increased in the 1990s as profits from the post-war boom enriched only the well connected. In communities like Barillas indigenous land claims were discounted and local producers pushed out by new ventures exporting beef or wood or palm oil to the American market. Barillenses became itinerant laborers, harvesting rice in El Salvador or working in the oil fields of Mexico. By the time they arrive in CU many have already spent years apart from their families, suffering emotional trauma unquantified in macroeconomic reports on increasing exports and foreign remittances.
In the new century changing global financial and technology practices spurred the proliferation of hydroelectric dams and mining projects in Guatemala, producing erosion and water contamination, and benefitting only distant investors. In 2007 a Spanish corporation began planning a series of dams on the Q’am Balam River in the Barillas region. The C’ambalam project was greenlighted by the Guatemalan government despite opposition from environmental groups and the community, which rejected it in multiple referendums. When a community activist was killed by dam security guards in 2012, the government declared martial law and dispatched 800 soldiers and police to protect dam property, not community activists. In 2013 a teacher organizing resistance was kidnapped and found dead with signs of torture. In 2015 a 17-year-old attending a meeting to organize resistance was shot and killed. Community leaders who traveled to the capital to lodge complaints against the dam were arrested or refused admittance to offices on the grounds that indigenous councils were illegitimate. Dismissal of community input wasn’t limited to local actors: in 2020 the ombudsman of the World Bank faulted the bank for failing to require local consultations before funding the C’ambalan project. This cavalier disregard for the lives upended by someone else’s megaproject is the Manifest Destiny mindset of the 21st century.
The C’ambalan project was abandoned in 2017 but the ten-year struggle scarred the community, leaving divisions even among CU residents today.
How to Not See the “Root Causes of Migration”
In June, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala to roll out President Joe Biden’s new plan to address the “root causes” of migration: crime (tackled through security enhancement) and poverty (through job creation and building food security). Critics quickly noted that strengthening security forces in a country where military actors enjoy impunity is a recipe for disaster. They also noted that the administration could fund efforts to fight land theft rather than just offer the dispossessed low-wage jobs and food aid.
Yet the Biden plan appeals to many because it limits its conception of the dynamics driving migration to conditions in Guatemala, not recognizing the role of our actions and lifestyle in the US. When Americans think of migrants fleeing violence, for example, they revert to racially tinged stereotypes of death squads or cartels. They seldom think of the international investors who discount the violence that dogs their projects. Across Guatemala, environmentalists, journalists, and indigenous leaders who challenge the conversion of their communities into hinterlands for the global economy are regularly harassed or killed. 2021 has been the most dangerous year for Guatemalan activists since 2000.
Americans also have naive notions of corruption. Many Barillenses can recount tales that match American stereotypes about shady foreign officials, but other experiences have less visible villains. Many Barillenses had relatives who died in childhood, unrecorded victims of the international pressure exerted on Guatemala to eliminate funding for medical clinics or water sanitation. Construction accidents and road collapses cause deaths which might have been avoided had industries not weakened safety regulations or evaded taxes that could have maintained infrastructure. These white-collar shakedowns have fatal consequences but are seldom labelled as corruption.
No amount of fiddling with visa numbers or asylum protocols is going to be enough to fix the migration “problem,” for the border is only the most visible edge of a set of practices that render many lives vulnerable for the benefit of a few. And we are complicit every step of the way, in the questions we don’t ask: about US policy, or the sources of our food or investment dividends, or even the labor conditions in the kitchens we frequent. This willful blindness that refuses to consider the impact our lives have on those we choose not to see is the border wall we build every day.
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