The World Got Smaller

“The future needs to be small.” That’s what community activist Willy Barreno said to me in February this year, speaking down a scratchy WhatsApp line from his home in Quetzaltenango to mine in Paris.

After a long stint working in the United States, Barreno returned to Guatemala in 2010. When he got back home, he wanted to create the kind of community bonds that would encourage people to stay in Quetzaltenango, to encourage people to live in a smaller world – one where they could earn the money they needed and make a decent life at home, without needing to travel to the US.

Using his training as a chef – he worked for a spell in a Whole Foods kitchen – Barreno started La Red Kat, a catering business in Quetzaltenango that trains and employs both people who have been deported from the US and those who might otherwise take the journey there.

It hasn’t been easy. La Red Kat was originally a café, but Barreno had to close his doors to the public last year due to gang extortion – one of the many factors driving people to leave their homes in Central America in search of a better life elsewhere. But he is undeterred.

Now he says he wants to start an autonomous university, staffed by migrants, to pass on the skills they learned abroad to young people in Guatemala’s rural areas.

“We will give them alternatives to going to the US,” Barreno said.

Catesby Holmes and I had planned to go to Quetzaltenango, to see Barreno’s philosophy in action. But we never got to Guatemala, to see how he is trying to make the future smaller and his community stronger. That’s because, on March 12 2020, the world got very small indeed.

Flying out of Mexico, March 2020.

When the World Health Organization announced that the coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic, Guatemala began the process of closing its borders, initially announcing that it would deny entry to Europeans, and later expanding that order to cover all foreign travelers. It was far from the only country worldwide to do so.

We were in Mexico that morning, reporting from Tapachula and getting ready to travel to Quetzaltenango in the coming days. But instead of driving across the border, we were flown out of Tapachula, back to our home countries and forced into self-isolation by a virus that doesn’t respect international boundaries.

A global lockdown in response to a pandemic was not what Barreno meant when he said the future needed to be small. But as flights are grounded and borders snap shut around the world, and more of us turn to our local communities for support, I think often of that phrase, spoken in February, when the future felt very different indeed.

– Megan Clement, Adelante Reporting Initiative Fellow 2020