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.
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 (www.desgua.org) 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.