Guatemalans Start Lives Over in Florida
Kanjobal Indians who've fled terror at home, confront poverty, neglect, and exploitation as 'bottom of the heap' US immigrants
INDIANTOWN, FLA. — TERESA Juan stopped picking vegetables for a living after her work permit was stolen several months ago. The document was later offered back to her for $400, but the 38-year-old Kanjobal Indian from Guatemala, unable to pay, had to opt for the even barer living she now ekes out by babysitting for the children of other farm workers.Wages are low, prices high, and crime a lurking presence for the Guatemalan Indians who are Florida's newest major immigrant group, say representatives of social service agencies and farm-worker advocacy groups. "They're at the bottom of the heap," says attorney Jonathan Fried, program director for the American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) Undocumented Workers Project in Miami. "In Florida, there's already an excess of farm workers. The Guatemalans are really desperate and perhaps they feel that it's dangerous to assert their rights." Their numbers, according to Mr. Fried and other observers, range upward of 25,000. Most are vegetable pickers, performing labor notorious for exploitation. Fresh from Guatemala's remote northwestern highlands, many understand neither Spanish nor English. Up to 5,000 live in Indiantown, a dusty crossroads 45 minutes northwest of Palm Beach's manicured lawns and mansions. On a Saturday, Teresa Juan minds young charges in the two-room apartment she shares with 13 family members. A bare light bulb swings from the cracked ceiling. In lieu of closets, lines sagging with clothes crisscross the rooms above concrete floors covered with mattresses. Teresa Juan's home is in Blue Camp, a squalid complex named for an ancient coat of peeling paint. Her family pays $125 a week in rent. In addition, an American who collects $110, "to avoid eviction," has just made his monthly visit. Other predators include gun-toting teenagers who know the Guatemalans always carry their savings with them. Still, few of the hundreds who make Blue Camp their first way station in the United States say they would voluntarily go home. In the biggest social upheaval since the 16th-century Spanish conquest, the Guatemalan army in 1981 launched a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at rooting out guerrilla activity. The offensive left scores of thousands dead, more than 400 villages destroyed, and countless Guatemalans homeless, according to Americas Watch and other human rights groups. Its principal victims were Indians. Fleeing northward, thousands of Kanjobal refugees joined labor supply routes illegally flowing across the United States border. By the mid-1980s, Indians from other ethnic groups were following the Kanjobal into Mexico and the US. Guatemalans have enjoyed little hope of obtaining permanent legal residence in the United States. Most arrived too recently to qualify under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act for amnesty granted to illegal aliens here before 1982. Some have qualified under exemptions allowed to certain farm workers. Only 1 percent of thousands of Guatemalan petitions for political asylum have been granted, notes Fried of the AFSC. But a lawsuit settled last December has blocked the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees until their cases are reopened. Legal or otherwise, immigrants have long used Indiantown - named for early Seminole sojourners - as a seasonal base on the southeastern harvest route. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and non-Indian Central American farm workers preceded the Guatemalans. Despite their unassertive, hard-working ways, these newer arrivals stand out. "What these people are suffering is the destruction of a whole ancient cosmology that survived despite the Spanish conquest," says the Rev. Frank O'Loughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who spent several years in Indiantown. Ten years ago, he started Indiantown's Hope Rural School. Nowadays, children who attend the Catholic school act as their elders' linguistic and cultural interpreters. Barely more than 4-feet tall, dark young mothers wrapped in huipils sling infants across their backs and bundles of laundry on their heads for the walk to a laundromat. But if they have discovered washing machines and electricity, says Fr. O'Loughlin, they have lost ancient bonds that sprang from communal activities such as grinding corn or washing clothes at the river. For men, drinking looms as a serious social threat. By 10 Saturday morning, a score of young Guatemalans, into their third or fourth beer of the day, are hanging around outside a store near Blue Camp. One man explains that, without a car, there is little else to do on his days off in Indiantown, which is at least 25 miles from larger cities. Recent Guatemalan arrivals are often young teenaged boys lured by economic prospects and eager to avoid conscription into civilian militias at home. "They're much harder to help than the older and more stable Guatemalans," O'Loughlin says. Places like Indiantown are themselves part of the problem, he thinks. "These people have intelligence and flair, but they need to get out of backwaters where alcohol steals their thunder." As director of migration and refugee services for the church's Palm Beach diocese and as rector of the Cathedral of Ignatius Loyola, O'Loughlin has himself moved on to serve growing enclaves of Guatemalans in urban coastal areas. Housing shortages in rural areas at first drove many into town. As they found day jobs in rough carpentry and lawn maintenance, others followed - perhaps as many as 2,000, though little reliable information exists on the Guatemalans. "They have been a very neglected population, and organizations are just beginning to offer services to them," says Clemencia Ortiz, executive director of the Latin American Information and Referral Office, which serves Palm Beach County. Last year, Virginia Vargas, a West Palm Beach seamstress, launched her nonprofit Migrant Workers Society after becoming aware of the dearth of social services available to the Indians. "Other Hispanic immigrants know where to go for help, but the Guatemalans are so far out of the mainstream, and nobody volunteers information for them." Originally from Puerto Rico, Ms. Vargas communicates with her clients in a mix of Spanish, sign language, and a few words of the Indian languages she has picked up. Those she helps thank her with tortillas and profusions of plants from the nurseries where some of them work. But for Vargas, who works in both Indiantown and West Palm Beach, the overall picture remains grim. Yet there are bright spots. Ten years ago, Dominga Xuncas fled her Kanjobal village with her family. As a teenager, she picked vegetables near Indiantown. "I learned English, starting with all the bad words, from the Mexicans I worked with," Ms. Xuncas recounts. As a 22-year-old, she started high school and earned her diploma. Now, she helps other Guatemalan Indians through her job at Indiantown's Holy Cross Service Center. She is also a student at Palm Beach Community College. "I want to be a teacher, or maybe go into business," she says in fluent English. "And I would move far away to do it." But not back to Guatemala, she adds. Three years ago, when several family members returned there for a visit, her sister was accused of being a guerrilla collaborator and imprisoned by military authorities. O'Loughlin, whose appeals to dozens of international agencies on the young woman's behalf helped win her release, notes: "When you consider the extent of the tragedy back home, the Guatemalans are doing well up here."