Academic journal article Human Organization

Guatemala's Ladino and Maya Migra Landscapes: The Tangible and Intangible Outcomes of Migration

Academic journal article Human Organization

Guatemala's Ladino and Maya Migra Landscapes: The Tangible and Intangible Outcomes of Migration

Article excerpt

International migration reorganizes livelihoods in the developing world. As globalization and transnational processes increase, these phenomena penetrate and affect peoples' lives and places in myriad forms. Using ethnographic material, this cross-cultural and cross-regional study examines the impact of social and economic remittances in Guatemalan sending communities. The article reveals the divergent ways-tangible and intangible-in which migra landscapes (the landscapes of migration) unfold in Ladino and Maya townships in Guatemala's Oriente (East) and Occidente (West).

Key words: transnational migration, development, social and economic remittances, Guatemala


As globalization and transnational processes intensify, these broader forces touch peoples' lives and localities in myriad ways. This article examines an increasingly vital policy and research concern-the impact of international migration on sending communities. It does this by looking at two ethnically, regionally, and historically distinct migrant communities of origin in Guatemala. International migration is the single most important social, cultural, and economic phenomenon affecting Guatemala. Over the last three decades, this human flow has grown dramatically, cutting across gender, generational, class, and ethnic boundaries. Today, nearly 15 percent of Guatemala's 12 million population migrates to the United States, and increasingly others as far afield as Canada. That figure will surely increase given the tattered economic conditions and hugely unequal distribution of income, land, and wealth in the country.

Departing from the overcrowded capital city of Guatemala, one leaves behind the mayhem and cacophony of buses, trucks, and cars. As one reaches the hinterland along the Atlantic Highway en route to the Oriente (East) or the Pan-American Highway in the opposite direction to the Occidente (West), striking changes appear in the physical landscape. Dozens of large billboards dot this terrain. Like those of Bannirai and Western Union, billboards announce in bright gold letters the now better, quicker, and most certain way Guatemalans can get their money from the United States "sin salir del pueblo" (without leaving home). These ubiquitous features, in addition to rampant construction built with migrants' earnings sent home from their backbreaking jobs in the North1, leave palpably visible traces in Guatemala's rural countryside. They mark the landscape as glaring reminders of the transnational connections Guatemalans maintain between their homeland and the United States and speak to the central role migrants play in sustaining the national economy.

Cash remittances currently comprise the largest source of foreign currency tunneled into Guatemala; for example, in 2007 Guatemalans living and working in the United States sent back home about $4.1 billion (Banco de Guatemala 2007). At a more localized level and according to my interviews, folks in migrant households receive on average each month $200 to $300. Because of the massive flows of cash remittances that enter migrant-sending countries like Guatemala, the relationship between international migration and development looms as a significant matter-an issue that emerges as a "hot" topic in many scholarly arenas. Hence the key question becomes: do economic remittances that migrants bring or send back home promote local development?2 My argument here is that cash remittances help stimulate local development at the individual level rather than in projects that spawn vast effects at the community level. And, as a whole, consumption rather than investment takes precedence.

Although many studies address the economic consequences of migration and economic reasons for doing so, this article examines the concomitant economic and social effects of remittances in sending communities. Social remittances consider a variety of things that flow from migrants' places of arrival to the homeland, including ideas, behavior, and identities (Levitt 1999). …

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