In the middle of a roundabout outside downtown Salcajá, a town of fifteen thousand in western Guatemala, there’s a ceramic statue, twenty feet high, of a man walking north. He wears ragged clothes and a tattered hat. At his feet a large sign reads, “Homage to the Salcajeno Migrant.”
“Man,” Robinson Mendoza said to me, “if you want to understand this place, just look at that thing.”
We were circling the statue at low speed in Robinson’s truck, a Ford F-150. Robinson was dividing his attention evenly between the road and his truck’s aftermarket stereo, which was blasting 50 Cent. Robinson is 26 years old, a tattoo artist and gang member who spent seven years working in Chicago before being arrested for selling drugs. He did two years in prison. As soon as he got out on parole he hopped the border and came back to Salcajá. He married a local girl, had a daughter, and now makes a living by a combination of freelance tattoo art and what he will describe only as “hustling.”
Deportees bring American tastes home with them
In the U.S. we’re obsessed with the impact immigration is having in this country. But the transformation of central American towns where the immigrants come from is just as profound. As the U.S. toughens security at the border and increases deportations—2011 saw a record 396,906 deportations—more and more folks are returning home and bringing American culture back with them.
Robinson’s time on the streets of Chicago taught him an accented, slangy, but basically fluent English that he insisted on speaking. It taught him other things too. Robinson is part of a large cadre of salcajenos who, coming back from the United States, found they could make a living in Guatemala catering to the Americanized tastes of their fellow immigrants. Some had been cooks in restaurants serving formerly exotic foods like cheesesteak and pizza. They had worked in suburban cul-de-sacs constructing American-style McMansions. They brought these skills home to a place full of people with American dollars to spend and American-fostered tastes to satisfy. The products and services they provide range from houses and hamburgers to tattoos and—courtesy of Salcajá’s hundreds of deported gang members—high-grade marijuana.
Robinson looked up from the stereo and pointed at a twenty-something man crossing the street. “See that dude? We grew up together. He used to work in America. Trenton, I think. Him,” he pointed to another one, “Houston. That one, too. Man, everyone in this town has worked in America.”
U.S. Dollars build a city
Robinson’s family is split evenly between those who work as weavers in Salcajá and those who are in America or have recently returned. His aunt and uncle, Maynor and Cristina Barrios DeLeon, spent more than 25 years in Trenton, New Jersey, before being deported. They live on the outskirts of town, in a pink adobe ranch style house with a white horse tied out front. Their house, like the brightly painted, multistory houses around it, was built with money they sent back from the United States.
It was Sunday evening when we walked in, and Maynor was watching an NFL game on his plasma screen TV. “I love American football,” he told me when I asked him about it. “I used to watch it with my friends when I was working in el norte. Every year, a bunch of us have a Super Bowl party. We have chicken wings, pizza.”
Maynor left Guatemala in 1982, when he was 20. He and Cristina were already married, facing a life in a war-torn country with no jobs. In those days, he said, there were few concrete buildings in Salcajá. There were no paved roads. People lived in adobe shacks. “Here, where we’re standing?” he said. “No one lived here but coyotes.”
When he and Cristina returned in 2007, Salcajá had changed. U.S. dollars had been spent clearing the land and paving roads. Dollars also sent local children through high school and college. It made people in Salcajá rich enough to open their own businesses. Now more and more people are choosing to stay. “When I was a boy there would be twenty people leaving every week with coyotes,” he said. “Now it’s only a few.”
NY Pizza in Salcaja
For dinner Robinson, his wife and I went to Lorenzo’s NY Pizza, a pizza place downtown. Outside, Mayan women in brightly patterned traje, or traditional clothing, walk down the streets with bundles of cloth or vegetables balanced delicately on their heads. Inside, it was like being transported to a pizza joint in the States. The lights were florescent. The floors were white tile. It even sold calzones. A family from nearby Quetzaltenango was discussing a recent trip to Disney World.
Lorenzo Gomez, the owner, spent 13 years in the kitchen of NY Pizza, a Houston, Texas pizza chain. He was deported in 2007. “I didn’t like America much,” he said. “Besides, it’s more dangerous now to go north than it used to be—I’ve had friends die crossing through Mexico. I can live a good life here now.”
The lure of El Norte
But you can’t make American dollars in Salcajá. While we munch on our pizza, Maynor and Cristina admit they’re worried. The savings won’t last forever. “Things are expensive here,” Maynor said. “Eggs, sugar—these cost almost the same as in the United States. ”
They’d like to make one more trip to the United States, work for a few years, and come back with enough money to live comfortably. But at 49 he feels too old to cross with a coyote through treacherous terrain. This time, he said, he and Cristina are going to try and do it legally. “I love my country,” Maynor said. “I want to die here. But we’ll be old soon. One more trip and life will be a lot easier when we can’t work anymore.”
For his part, Robinson stays in Salcajá only because he’s stuck there. There’s a warrant out for his arrest in Illinois. So he drives around town in his American car, listens to American music, eats American food, and dreams of America.
“This town is okay, man,” he said. “My family’s here. We can live good. But it’s a hustle. There . . . ”
He stared out at the road.
“There, man, you can make it big.”