ALDEA SAN ANTONIO, CABRICÁN, Guatemala — The white, two-story villa that dominates the entrance to this hamlet on a volcanic hillside in theMayan highlands could have been plucked from any prosperous suburb in the southern United States.
Under the terra cotta-tile roof, classical columns support the house’s porch and frame its many paneled windows and spacious rooms. Doors sport curving polished handles and inlaid glass. The two-car garage has an automated door with embossed panels.
Four feet away in the same dirt yard encircled by a concrete-block wall, however, is a dark, single-room adobe shack covered by corrugated metal where the owner of both houses lives, with barely enough to feed six of his kids.
Money sent from his other three children — ages 16, 22 and 25 — who are working near Atlanta paid for the mansion. What’s left covers the meager diet.
“We eat more or less, one can’t say well. Frijoles, tortillas, this way we survive,” Alejandro Rojas said. He was waiting for an evangelical pastor to start Sunday services in the outsized and empty house that Rojas rents out while hoping his older children will one day return to live in it.
“They went because of necessity, but I want them to come back,” he said. “They have no papers.”
There are many homes like this throughout Mexico and Central America, but they are most visible in smaller villages like aldea (or township) San Antonio, where so many young men have left for work in the U.S.
Many are deserted for a variety of reasons — the construction was never finished, the owners never returned or they’re so different from the homes people here are used to that they’re simply uncomfortable living in them.
The transnational dreams of Guatemalan migrants are especially evident in the clash between these McMansions — often decorated in red, white and blue — and the below-subsistence everyday life in largely indigenous areas like Cabricán.
“In the United States, the indigenous (migrants) go to the bottom of the ladder, but then coming back it’s the opposite, they’re at the top of the village,” said Ruth Piedrasanta Herrera, an anthropologist at Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University, a private, Jesuit school.
“Here, they are the successful ones, and the social marker is the home,” added Piedrasanta, who has studied the growing trend.
HUNGER AND REMITTANCES
Suffering is something that the people of the municipality of Cabricán, most of them Mam Mayans, know well. They routinely try to alleviate it by joining thousands of others traveling north to the U.S.
Around 80% of about 25,000 Cabricanecos — nearly three quarters of them younger than 30 — live in poverty, according to a study by David Hernández Gamboni of the Rafael Landívar University.
The level of chronic malnutrition is so high that nearly 70% of the population suffers from growth stunting, according to the government.
Two out of every 10 people in the municipality have gone to the United States, said the mayor of the main town, also called Cabricán, leaving virtually no family untouched, including his.
“What I have no ability to react to is the lack of employment. Teachers, nurses, professionals even await opportunities, let alone the peasants,” Mayor Vitelio Enrique Pérez said. “All remain stagnating, and it’s these people who have to leave.”
Since the 1990s, young men in particular have left to seek work and get ahead financially. More than 1.5 million Guatemalan immigrants live in the U.S. — legally and illegally — according to various estimates.
The remittances they send have increased nearly sevenfold since 2001, according to the International Organization for Migration. The money is projected to reach a record $5.9 billion this year, according to the Bank of Guatemala — more than 10% of the country’s GDP.
“With remittances they think of building houses, of doing something for their families,” Mayor Pérez said. As a result, he said, hamlets like aldea San Antonio are unrecognizable after the influx of big homes, cars, paved roads and tiny stores.
But the cash flow has hardly made a dent in massive structural issues such as chronic malnutrition, illiteracy and the lack of basic health and education services, Hernández’s research found.
Worse, many experts argue that big houses — unattainable with quetzales, the Guatemalan currency — are risky investments for remittance dollars, especially since most migrants used what little assets they have — land and their existing homes — as collateral for the large loans necessary to pay smugglers’ fees for their family members to get to the U.S.
A home like the one built from the money sent by Rojas children’s costs around 500,000 quetzales ($64,000) to build here.
In Guatemala, workers with only elementary education, like the Rojas, earn on average 1,904 quetzales a month, according to the nation’s Chamber of Industry. That means they would have to invest every cent of their salary for more than 21 years to build such a house. The automated garage door alone would cost a little more than two months’ wages.
But remittances can dry up if migrants lose their U.S. jobs, get deported, or simply start new families across the border and disappear.
Then the new homes are swallowed up by creditors or become a bulking waste, built without permits in often unstable terrain with no urban planning and far from commercial centers where they could be turned to business use.
On the main mountain roads outside the regional capital of Quetzaltenango, one house decorated with Nike swooshes was deserted. Another was being built in a desolate clearing by the road — no water or electricity connections were visible, but a five-foot eagle sculpture painted in red, white and blue perched proudly on the rooftop penthouse.
Such mixed architectural and design motifs are a sign of the hybrid lives of many migrants. Their new U.S. tastes, showed off as marks of success, are grafted onto their desire to feel a grounded connection to the ancestral lands where most never permanently return.
“They thought they were building castles — beginning to construct a dream,” Piedrasanta said.
THE AMERICAN INFLUENCE
The decorations often speak to the American dream — bands of white-on-blue stars around balconies, friezes of U.S. flags, even an entire facade bookended by the fresco of two spread eagles resting on waving U.S. flags above a stars-and-striped “USA.”
Aldea San Antonio sits 8,200 feet above sea level, but exuberantly colorful tiles with swirling floral and geometric patterns are what Andrés López likes best in his vivid green, two-story house, a hundred yards up the main paved street from the Rojas compound.
López got the design idea from homes he saw on a trip to Houston during the 12 years he spent in the United States, most working in marble and granite.
As he sent money to his wife to replace their adobe house with this large, terraced home, the masons added their own touches, like carvings of the national long-tailed bird, the quetzal, among the facade arches.
López came back to Guatemala because he felt lonely away from his family, he said, as he peeled potatoes into a plastic bucket in his dirt front yard while his daughter helped him and as his wife washed laundry in a concrete sink.
“I preferred to be here, happy,” he said. “It’s enough that I achieved my little home.”
He also bought the truck he uses to transport concrete blocks for the 15 new homes that remittances are helping to erect here this spring.
He’s building one a couple of feet behind his own for his son, who went to the United States when he was 14 to work in the granite business and now has a wife, newborn baby and legal status.
“He will come back to visit, maybe two or three months,” López said hopefully as he showed off the unfinished house’s elaborately green-tiled floors. “So now he can stay here.”
Contributing: Francisco Rodríguez de León.
This story was written for Round Earth Media, a non-profit organization that mentors young, international journalists. Its content was produced separately of USA TODAY