Guatemala Dreaming

QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala—In a place where all too many young people head north in search of opportunity, Willy Barreno is promoting a radical idea: It’s time to “resurrect the Guatemalan dream.”

Born in Quetzaltenango of Ki’Che’ and Mam ancestry, Barreno used to be married to a U.S. citizen, and he spent 12 years in the United States, much of that time in Santa Fe. Although life abroad had its difficulties—even for a legal immigrant like Barreno—he came to respect the sense of national “vision” he saw in the United States. “In Guatemala, young people have not been given a vision,” he said.

 Willy Barreno wants to help young people in Quetzaltenango develop a stronger appreciation for their own culture and give them practical tools that might keep them from heading north.

Willy Barreno wants to help young people in Quetzaltenango develop a stronger appreciation for their own culture and give them practical tools that might keep them from heading north.

For the past several years, Barreno has been trying to change that. Through an organization he co-founded, called DESGUA (the acronym in Spanish stands for Sustainable Development for Guatemala), he works with young people who have been deported from the United States and others who might be tempted to go there. The goal is to increase their appreciation for their own culture—both to overcome the dark legacy of colonialism and to envision an alternative to U.S. consumerism—and give them some practical tools to help them build their lives at home.

A café in this city serves as the hub of operations—not just a restaurant but a cultural and educational center that puts the area’s rich Maya heritage front and center. Through one project, called “Cooking for the Guatemalan Dream,” the organization trained 15 young people in culinary skills, hoping some of them could eventually start businesses in their own communities.

Barreno has no illusions about easy solutions to the complex problems that drive so many people to emigrate, particularly in Guatemala’s impoverished Western Highlands. “I can’t force anybody not to go to the United States,” he said.

One graduate of the culinary program, 24-year-old Kevin Jiménez, had been planning to leave last year—cousins in Arizona and Las Vegas had even gathered the money to finance his trip—but the chance to pursue his lifelong interest in cooking held him back. He has been able to get a job at a local restaurant and is hoping he can stay put.

But the pressures against that are strong. His large family belongs to a farming collective called Nueva Alianza, which is trying to hang on to its land but still has two years of payments left and fears losing everything to the bank. If he heads north to try his luck, Jiménez said, it will not be by choice: “Those are not my dreams. It’s because of needs.”