For those in peril


A priest walks down the nave of the Catholic church in the village of Zunil, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, on Ash Wednesday. He carries notes for prayers for members of the community who have migrated – or are on the road – to the US.

Women in this part of Guatemala – over in the west, in villages snuggled among the forested crags of volcanoes – often dress in richly colored traditional clothes. And so, because they make up about four-fifths of the congregation, the packed church this Ash Wednesday is a kaleidoscope, a rainbow, a jewel box of color.


Women arrive early and pray before Mass in Zunil

But there are aching hearts here, separated families. Over the heads of devout villagers crowded in the doorway of the overfull church drift prayers for men working in the US, or still on the dangerous and illegal road there.

It’s common in this part of the country for the majority of men in a village to leave to find work in the US. To do so, people say, often means the difference between a man’s family living in a cane shack or a cinderblock house. Or whether his kids to go to school instead of working in fields. But, as Eduardo Jiménez, a deportee-turned-entrepreneur in a nearby village told me, no one goes willingly. For all the positives of those remittances, there are the negatives of children growing up without fathers, or wives living without husbands. And there are the dangers. From his village, Cajolá, seven men were killed by a criminal gang in Mexico as they tried to get to the US.

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans are deported from the US and from Mexico every year. But the exodus continues, and for as long as people can’t feed, clothe and educate their families here, no-one expects it to slow.


A woman in Zunil lights a candle in the Catholic church there.

– Alice Fordham