For some 800 Guatemalan refugees, Florida has become a home

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a migrant labor camp here, Gloria, a two-year-old Mayan Indian, plays with a pay phone. She smiles as she lifts the receiver off the hook and holds it to her ear. Back in the isolated mountain town of San Miguel, Guatemala, where her parents lived until 1982, there are only a few private phones. Most rural homes have no electricity or running water.

But it was not these conditions that impelled her parents, Inez and Andres, to leave the region their ancestors had occupied for some 3,000 years. It was war.

A long-simmering conflict between guerrillas and the military, fueled by harsh poverty and a record of authoritarian governments, reached a peak in the early 1980s. Guatemala's Indians -- a majority of that country's population -- were caught in the middle.

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Guerrillas, which included Indians, selectively killed Indians they accused of cooperating with the military. And the military carried out a well-documented string of massacres of Indians suspected of cooperating with the guerrillas.

In one such massacre, the military killed some 300 men, women, and children at Finca San Francisco in Huehuetenango Province on July 17, 1982. The province, on the Mexican border, is home to the Kanjobal Indians, one of many Indian groups in Guatemala.

That massacre alone sparked the flight to Mexico of more than 9,000 Indians from the province, says Guatemalan anthropolgist Ricardo Falla.

Gloria's parents were among them. ``They [soliders] wanted to kill us,'' Inez says in explaining her family's reason for fleeing Guatemala. Gloria was born in Mexico.

As much as half the population of Guatemala's Kanjobal Indians may have left the country, says Allan Burns, an associate professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Florida.

Some 150,000 Guatemalan refugees of all kinds, including the Kanjobals, eventually fled to Mexico, according to Americas Watch, a private human-rights organization. But the Guatemalan military raided some of the border refugee camps in Mexico. And conditions in the camps and elsewhere in Mexico were difficult for the Guatemalans, according to the Kanjobals interviewed.

An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Kanjobals, including Gloria's family, have come to the United States. Most live in Los Angeles. But at least 500 to 800 are in south Florida, according to Americans working on their behalf.

Now that the level of violence has fallen in Guatemala, the US government is trying to force the Kanjobals to go home. But when asked, all but one of the Kanjobals interviewed here said they are still afraid to return.

``We're afraid of the Army,'' said Inez. Americans helping Guatemalans in Florida solve legal and social problems are trying to make the case that it is dangerous for the Kanjobals to go home. They say killings continue throughout the country.

Bustling South Florida finds itself host to members of an ancient culture suddenly uprooted from a land of donkeys and dirt roads. Most of the Indians here speak Kanjobal, no English, and only a little Spanish.

Still, ``it's not like they stepped out of a time machine,'' says Mr. Burns. At home they had radios, he says. And the Kanjobals often send cassette tapes to relatives in the US instead of letters.

But these gentle and often shy people are sometimes amazed by what they see in the US.

Nancy Couch, a volunteer leader of her church's refugee committee in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., recalls the surprised look of a Kanjobal woman in a restaurant one day. The woman stared at the abundance of food displayed in a self-serve breakfast line.

``She told me, `Never before have I had a choice,' '' says Ms. Couch, of the refugee committee of the St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral here.

Peace is something Americans may take for granted, but not the Kanjobal in the US. ``It's peaceful, no one bothers you,'' says Ter'eza, a Kanjobal woman living in Indiantown, Fla.

``There's no problems,'' says her husband, Felix Juan, as the couple sit in a cramped kitchen of a two-bedroom apartment that five Kanjobal adults and four children rent for $320 a month. He works on a local farm as a laborer.

The Kanjobals in Florida are living ``on the lowest level of subsistence,'' says Geranimo, a Guatemalan Indian who speaks the Kanjobal language. (As with other Guatemalan Indians interviewed for this series, last names are not used to avoid what some Indians and others say could be reprisals by the Guatemalan government against their families still in Guatemala.)

Despite their poverty here, they are hardworking and eager to be self-sufficient, say Ms. Couch and others.

Life here is ``good,'' Inez says. In the one room assigned to her and three other adults and two children in her family, an electric fan whirred. A small black-and-white TV sat on one shelf near a radio. There are screens on the window and electric lights. ``It's better here than in Guatemala,'' she says with a smile. ``There's work, there's money, they pay well.'' Her husband earns $3.50 an hour as a migrant farm worker, when there is work. Inez's second child, born a few weeks ago, is a US citizen by virtue of being born in this country.

Next: Jos'e Luis's odyssey

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