A while back I was invited to give a talk to students at a high school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, where many recently arrived young Guatemalans attended.
The first classroom I visited had 40 students. When I asked them how many were from Guatemala, one of the students said: “Casi todos.” Soon, almost all of them raised their hands, with a smaller group saying they were from Honduras and El Salvador. I then asked how many spoke an indigenous language, and most of the students raised again their hands as some said they spoke Mam, others K’iche’. In comparison, in the second classroom there were only seven students and empty tables and chairs sur...
The first classroom I visited had 40 students. When I asked them how many were from Guatemala, one of the students said: “Casi todos.” Soon, almost all of them raised their hands, with a smaller group saying they were from Honduras and El Salvador. I then asked how many spoke an indigenous language, and most of the students raised again their hands as some said they spoke Mam, others K’iche’. In comparison, in the second classroom there were only seven students and empty tables and chairs surrounding them. A group of teachers would later tell me that many students had to drop out in order to go to work, since the purpose of their migration was not education, but to work and pay off their debt. Some of them came with a relative who was deported and found themselves alone, and still others feared being detained themselves. There were stories of how students had gotten injured working in construction. Each of these students had their own story of why they migrated and how they got to Ohio, their own struggle, their own sacrifices, and their own goals for the future. At the same time, they were also in a collective daily struggle of living and surviving in the US. My visit to this high school was a reminder of how many young and unaccompanied minors form part of Central American migration, and the considerable challenges, state-sponsored violence, hate crimes and discrimination they face.
These young migrants are forced to cross multiple borders to reach the US, which has proven dangerous and deadly. Even when young migrants get into US territory, they continue to face considerable challenges to succeed and live a peaceful life, from long hours in harsh working conditions, dealing with gangs, being criminalized by the government and media, and facing anti-immigrant violence, to fearing deportation, among others. An example of everyday violence young migrants face is Onésimo Marcelino López-Ramos, who was 18 when he was killed in a hate crime in Jupiter, Florida, on April 18, 2015. Onésimo was hanging out in the front of his house with his brother and a friend when they were attacked by three men who were out “Guate hunting” or “Guate Bashing”, terms describing the specific targeting, beating and stealing inflicted against Guatemalans. Like some of the students in Ohio, Onésimo had been in the US for two years and eventually dropped out of high school to work at a restaurant to support his family.
The last classroom I visited at the high school in Ohio was much like the first one, as it had over 30 students, and many were Maya from Guatemala. After my talk, during discussion, there was a proposal from students to start a Mam language group at their high school. Other students asked questions, and some joked around and laughed. In the three classrooms the students were engaged, asked good questions, and had their own analytical perspectives during discussion. I left the school with mixed feelings. I thought of friends and people who were in a similar situation when they arrived in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, who had defied the odds and were able to create a better life for their families. I thought of others who weren’t as lucky. It was a humble reminder of the challenges that young migrants face in the US and of the added pressures and violence they confront. Sometimes it’s difficult to write these accounts without sounding like one is romanticizing or being fatalistic. I hope one day they will be able to tell their own experiences and stories in their own words.
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