GHRC Delegation–DESGUA & Cafe R.E.D.

On Wednesday morning, our delegation met with three members of the organization DESGUA, “Desarrollo Sostenible para Guatemala” (Sustainable Development for Guatemala). As we sat in a circle in our hotel, we listened to Co-founder and Director Willy Barreno, and co-workers Jhonathan and Jenny “Juanita” explain DESGUA’s vision.


From Left to Right: Jenny/Juanita, Jhonathan and Willy tell our delegation about the vision and history of DESGUA. Delegate Courtney Parker sits to Jenny’s left.


DESGUA is a grassroots organization that connects community groups in Guatemala and the United States with the central vision of promoting sustainable development in Guatemala. Essential to this mission are education, economic, and leadership development programs that give Guatemalans tools to pursue the “Guatemalan dream” rather than migrating to America.

Willy, who was a guerrilla during the Armed Conflict, migrated to the United States. When he self-deported and returned to Guatemala, he began learning about the Mayan cosmo-vision, which he applied to DESGUA’s programs. For example, DESGUA’s co-director Carlos has taught workshops to Guatemalans about interpreting the Mayan Cosmo-vision as a lens for understanding themselves and the world around them. DESUGA’s actions to promote a positive Guatemalan identity are also embedded in the organizational structure itself. For example, On DESGUA’s Facebook Page, DESGUA’s birthday is listed as October 20, 1944, Guatemala’s Independence Day.

Following this conversation, Willy, Jhonathan, and Jenny accompanied our delegation to our meeting with the Association of Midwives, which I will describe at my next post.  Afterwards, we traveled to Cafe R.E.D. for lunch. Cafe R.E.D. is a cultural space and a restaurant that has an eclectic menu of international foods made with local, organic ingredients, reflecting the staff who have worked all over the United States. Cafe R.E.D. also has a shop that sells fair trade handcrafts made by local Guatemalans.

Jhonathan shared that 25% of Cafe R.E.D’s customers are local, and the cafe is also a popular hang out for foreigners. When I returned to Xela in December, I discovered the truth of this statement, and enjoyed many meals at Cafe R.E.D. with my fellow students from Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ). Cafe R.E.D. is also a space that convenes Guatemalans and foreigners of many generations and cultural backgrounds for yoga classes, cooking workshops, and film screenings. As is shown in the photograph below, DESGUA also invites marginalized youth to create graffiti on the cafe walls.


One of DESGUA’s many vibrant graffiti walls painted by youth

After our delicious lunch, Jenny and Jhonathan continued their explanation of DESGUA’s programs, which focus on building a positive Guatemalan identity and preventing male youth from immigrating to the United States. Jenny explained how Guatemalan communities are affected by the “push/pull” of the migration cycle. She began by citing how people who come to the United States as undocumented immigrants owe a debt to a “coyote” for helping them cross the border, and that even people who are deported owe coyotes a debt.

This debt influences how Guatemalans perceive employment opportunities. Jenny compared this debt as “a boot on families’ throats.” She added that deportation perpetuates migration because the debt accrues interest, once the debt exceeds a certain price, people must immigrate because the debt is greater than what they could earn in Guatemala. As a result of these factors, a generation of men is missing–in some communities 90% of men are gone. A cultural rupture has occurred because no traditions are being passed down to younger generations. This rupture in the community fabric has contributed to rising alcoholism and domestic violence among those living in Guatemala.

DESGUA recognizes these forces, and provides support to re-integrate returned migrants in ways that acknowledge their dignity. Jhonathan shared his own experience as a Guatemalan child who immigrated to the United States who felt aware of himself existing in two worlds. Addressing how many youth who are deported or have self-deported may not only undergo this sense of straddling two worlds, but also feel ashamed, isolated, and be traumatized due to their experience crossing this border, DESGUA’s Social Reintegration/Una Vida Digna program connects youth to opportunities to create a life with dignity through employment opportunities.

Learn more about DESGUA 

1. “DESGUA: Desarrollo Sostenible para Guatemala.” February 16, 2013. This link is to the official website for DESGUA, and also describes their initiatives: (1) Cafe Red; (2) Social Reintegration / Una Vida Digna; (3) Bi-National Network Building; and (4) School of Leaders.

Learn more about the effects of immigration on Guatemalans, with a focus on Guatemalan men

1. Tobar, Hector. The Tattooed Soldier. 2000. The Tattooed Soldier, a gripping novel recommended by my fellow delegate Maria Vargas, explores the effect of immigration to Los Angles on two Guatemalan men, one whose wife and child were killed by a death squad, as well as the man who killed them.

2. Foxen, Patricia. In Search of Providence: Transnational Mayan Identities. 2008. Anthropologist Patrica Foxen has written an interesting ethnographic study of Guatemalans from the indigenous group Mayan K’iche who have immigrated to Providence, Rhode Island.


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