There are problems in this world that give you a headache before you even start discussing them. Immigration is one of those problems, especially when it’s linked to environmental destruction. Which is why we were particularly curious to visit DESGUA while we were in Quetzaltenango Guatemala, an association working with Guatemalan immigrants in both the United States and Guatemala.

And it didn’t take us long to realize that DESGUA’s work is an especially intelligent response to such complicated questions.

In searching to “Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful,” to “eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative, and to “Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity […] with special attention to the rights of indigenous people and minorities,” DESGUA fits perfectly in the framework of the Earth Charter.

As Will Barreno, the co-founder of DESGUA put it, their goal is to avoid the immigration of thousands of Guatemalans who leave each year to search better economic conditions in the United States. To do this, DESGUA is organized on both sides of the Rio Grande. One one side, the association works with immigrants deported from the United States who come back to Guatemala with nothing, many of whom have lived almost their whole lives in a culture that, until they were deported, had become their own. On the other side, the idea is to help Guatemalans living in the United States who are having trouble finding dignified work and who may lose touch with their cultural roots.

Keeping in mind that immigration is a complex process, DESGUA works in Guatemala on two fronts: economy and education, the two pillars of a sustainable and independent country. On the economic front, they work to develop alternative economic systems based on solidarity rather than competition. The idea is to help build a self-sufficient country using fair-trade commerce that strengthens relations between cities and the countryside.

On the education front, DESGUA organizes courses using ex-immigrants as teachers to share the skills they learned in the United States with their compatriots. Cooking classes, carpentry, poetry, hip-hop, and much more help to share with the whole of Guatemala what DESGUA calls the “Guatemalan Dream.”

While we were in Quetzaltenango to meet Willy and his team, we witnessed a small part of DESGUA’s work, notably in the form of Cafe R.E.D., a small restaurant that serves fresh-cooked food made from ingredients purchased directly from rural communities of the region, and prepared by Willy, who worked as a chef as a young migrant in the United States, and his local students. The cafe is also a cultural center that plays home to concerts, film projections and art exhibitions, always focusing on local talents. It is also a space for meetings where local people can come together to discuss their dreams and projects. Behind the restaurant, there is a small shop selling local, fair trade goods. Willy’s dream is that one day soon these quality, local products will find a market among other Guatemalans, with no need to export or rely on tourism.

There are numerous other initiatives taken by DESGUA, and their website ( is a great place to find out more. The diversity of responses offered by the association shows just how well Willy and his team understand immigration and seek to respond directly to the needs of both migrants and ex-migrants – not to mention those who are thinking of migrating.

Far from the paternalistic (and often hypocritical) discourses that surround immigration, DESGUA speaks a language of inclusion, inviting the whole world to participate, always taking into account the environmental realities – guaranteeing a working model that could be replicated elsewhere in the world. And in fact, it’s happening – numerous countries have already sent delegations to Quetzaltenango to learn from DESGUA’s model. Soon, who knows, maybe that headache will be a thing of the past.

2 Responses to Desgua

  1. Terri Gallen Edersheim says:

    How fantastic! I wish this could work for the women I see. They are never happy immigrating, it is a last resort move, and only the better choice of bad ones. This country is not the shining light, for these women, there is no great American dream, just a very bad deal.
    I think the big difference between the immigrants looking for asylum that I see and this immigration issue is the basic reason which for African women is their place in a culture of violence towards women, versus simply (which is not simple at all) an economic motivation. I have really not seen many South or Central American women in the same trouble despite a predominantly male culture as well. Do you think? It is also true that this decade and the last have been times of more violence on the whole…wars and regime changes in Africa than in SA or CA. I think it is a great program which I wish could be done for the women I see, but a bigger cultural change is needed there first.
    This may be the exception to the intact culture rule we discussed
    Congrats on the video, it was great!
    Love Terri.

  2. Immigration is definitely a last result for many people, no one does it unless they have to. Most recent immigrants from SA and CA are for economic reasons, we would agree with that too. At the same time though, the folks in the video migrated during the period of violence in Guatemala and El Salvador. One was an ex-guerrilla, another brought over by his parents fleeing the violence. So many people are still in the US from those times, and it’s nice to see that people like the folks at DESGUA are now reaching out to them and trying to make sure they have dignified work, that they don’t lose their roots, and that they can come home if they want to. As Willy says, “It’s the world’s largest study abroad program” – what a great bit of positive thinking, no? And from people who have suffered so much – one of those moments we sit down and think… well… what’s our excuse? why don’t we do more when we have so much!

    Thanks for your comment, glad you liked the video!

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