They Left Guatemala for Opportunities in the United States. Now They Want to Help Others Stay

Ciara Nugent writes in TIME about the challenges and rewards of utilising remittances that are sent back from the United States. New initiatives are suggesting alternative visions for families and for economic and social empowerment of communities through remittance co-ops and financial education.

Letty Barán has an uneasy feeling when she gazes at the hills of Quetzaltenango. All around this southwestern highland region of Guatemala, which is the starting point for many of the more than 1,000 Guatemalans who leave the country every day for the U.S., elaborate houses are popping up. Three-story homes with neoclassical facades and French windows tower over their cinder-block neighbors. Dubbed “remittance architecture,” the structures are built with money sent home by migrants. And to Barán, who left the town of El Palmar in Quetzaltenango for the U.S. in 1990 and regularly returns to visit, the houses are a symbol of the trap in which Guatemala is caught.

“When I look at them, I think, first, how great that someone has been able to build their dream house. But then, how sad,” says Barán.

The houses that look so much like investments actually eat cash. Built by remittances, many sit on uneven ground in areas at risk of landslides, or in places disconnected from sewers and roads. Often, the grand homes remain empty, as migrants opt to stay in the U.S. and their families prefer the comfort of their neighborhoods.


In a country that is losing tens of thousands of its citizens to migration every year, 9 in 10 residents leave because of a lack of economic opportunity. Every year, the estimated 3 million Guatemalans in the U.S. send vast amounts of money home to try to improve life for their families. In 2021, buoyed by the Biden Administration’s stimulus package, remittances to Guatemala reached a record $15.3 billion—making up 17.8% of the nation’s entire economy (compared with 9.2% in 2011). But every year, the remittances, along with tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid, fail to improve the situation at home. And the flow of people northward gets stronger.

The swell of migrants has stirred endless noisy debate in the U.S. But their money moves silently, largely ignored in policy and rhetoric alike.


Discussing the importance of migration and remittances to the Guatemalan economy puts the national government in an awkward position. President Alejandro Giammattei has vowed to crack down on people smugglers and reduce the exodus, in line with U.S. goals. But at the same time, as the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre has noted, remittances are a crucial “escape valve” for millions in a country where more than half of families live in poverty. Much of Guatemala’s rapid economic growth over the past decade is due to more citizens going to the U.S. and sending money home.

You can read the full article, with links and photos, here, They Left Guatemala for Opportunities in the United States. Now They Want to Help Others Stay.

Categories: Corruption, Culture, Guatemala, Human Rights, Land, Poverty

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