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First person: Fleeing the Guatemalan Civil War for America


This is an interview with a Guatemalan resident of Lynn, Massachusetts. For safety reasons, his name has been changed to Sebastian Martinez. This interview recounts Sebastian’s experiences growing up during the Guatemalan Civil War and his life now in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Where are you from?

I am from Guatemala, I am from Tejutla, San Marcos. It is a small town, it’s in the west, it is 14 kilometers away from San Marcos. There are 25,000 people there, I think it has grown more over the years. It’s a beautiful town. I was just there a month ago. After 17 years, it has changed a lot. It is still really beautiful, there is a lot of commerce. Before there used to be one market a week, now there is a market five times a week. It is a beautiful town.

What did people do there?

Most people worked in the fields, there were a lot of shoemakers, carpenters, some mechanics, but there were very few back then. A lot of corn was planted, beans, lima beans, potatoes, wheat, zucchini, all types of things. It’s a town that has a lot of fruits: apples and peaches, you name it.

Were the majority of the people there ladino or indigenous?

When I was there, 90% was ladino, now 40% are indigenous and 60% are ladino. I am a ladino.

Were there indigenous people?

There were few, but there weren’t that money. In my family we were taught to treat them well. I would say a good relationship always existed.

In what year were you born?


How many siblings do you have?

It’s a big family. We were 11, but today 7 of us live. My brothers have gone on to a better life. When I was almost two years old, my father passed away. My youngest brother was eight months old. My mother was our mother and father, she worked really hard.

What did your mother do?

She was a cook. She made all types of food to sell, but she didn’t have her own business, but she was really sought out. We used to help her, we were like the chefs. I still know how to cook, but only Guatemalan food. I love to cook.

Did you help out in the fields?

Yes, we worked in the fields, but the harvest was seasonal, so we would change activities. We would leave the kitchen to go harvest. But it wasn’t that much, we would get paid more working in the kitchen then in the fields. My grandfather was always very present, he was like my father. It was a huge family. We had reunion recently, and there were 62 of us! It was crazy!

What did your father die of?

He had cancer, we didn’t have the means to take him to the hospital, we didn’t have money and we didn’t have medical assistance either.

So you lived in Tejutla until you were 18?

When I turned 18 I decided to leave. I left out of necessity and the desire to prosper and see something different. My mom couldn’t sustain us all, it was impossible to maintain the house, feed us, and dress us. We needed to help her, and the kitchen wasn’t enough, there were too many needs. We needed to progress, to do something, and it was impossible in Guatemala. We could study, but it was going to be slow and complicated, so I decided to travel and come to the US. I was the fifth in my family to leave. Five of my siblings came here. My oldest brother came here. I am the tenth out of my siblings. There are five men right now, and two women.

How did you come to the US?

I came with a coyote. With the coyote we started the journey. The journey wasn’t that bad, crossing Mexico wasn’t that bad, we paid for the guide and he took us. We took a bus all the way to Mexico City, and from there we took a plane to Tijuana, and in Tijuana we crossed the border. The trip was only two weeks.

Did you cross the desert?

We didn’t cross the desert. We went to San Diego, and all we had to do was cross a border wall. It was 1994. There weren’t any issues.

How was the coyote?

He was grumpy, but he was nice. He treated us all well. He didn’t treat us poorly.

Was Lynn always your destination?

Lynn was my destination because my brothers were here. They received me here. My brother was offered a job here. He was in Los Angeles for a while, and he was offered a better job here, and he described the place, and told us that it was better than Los Angeles, so we all wanted to come here. I then came here, and I wanted to work and do different things.

What was your first job?

I first worked in a car wash. I also cleaned apartments for two years. From there I worked in a factory, and I worked there for two years. The factory made tape, but I ultimately changed my job, and I worked in painting. I worked for a painting company for thirteen years, I really liked the job. I got tired of it, like everything, and I decided to do something. I now work alone, and I paint and do carpentry, and some construction. That’s what I do.

How are Americans with you?

It’s incredible. I have met a lot of really nice people. My job isn’t a big thing, but I am always occupied. I think I have been blessed by God. Working in the factory was different, and that’s why I decided to do something. It was always the same, and the bosses were really tough. I felt exploited and I decided to leave.

Were the Americans racist?

The head of the factory was racist, and the few times I encountered him there was always an argument. That was the only time, that I felt indifference, I wouldn’t call it racism, I would call it indifference. But that was the only bad experience I had. Now that I work alone, I haven’t had a bad experience. I have been blessed by God, and I have been able to do many new things because of it. I don’t have advertising or anything, and people just recommend me, and that’s how I do my job.

Do you like living here?

I do now. I have been here for 21 years, and I like it a lot.

Do you miss Guatemala?

I miss it a lot, in every sense of the word. All of my childhood was over there, and if God lets me, I want to retire over there. I want to go home. I have a very good memory of my life over there. I am very happy with my family, but the happiest I have ever been has been in Guatemala. The time, the food, the liberty with which I lived. There is freedom here, but it’s nothing compared to the freedom I experienced in Guatemala. Here I work 8 hours, and I feel like the day is over. Over there I worked 10 or 11 hours, and I still had time to play. Here it is completely different. It’s just work over here. The environment was different we didn’t have computers, we had no electronics, there was a television, but we didn’t even watch it, because we were always occupied doing something. I have to admit that I wasn’t a good student, but I was always occupied. Here, especially in the winter, you watch TV all the time. I don’t watch that much TV, but after work that is what you do. In Guatemala, it was different, we would go on long walks, we would play, and we would eat fruits from the trees that were there. That doesn’t compare to life here. We would eat all types of fruit. It was wonderful. I miss that the most. I still miss it. My kids have been there, and they always come back with a knot in their throat. It’s beautiful. Living here is different. There are goals. There are intentions as to why we are here, it’s the desire to work, and to give my kids an education. My oldest wants to go to college. In Guatemala it is very difficult to get an education, the possibilities are very remote, because they don’t have the resources that universities have here. They want to be professionals, and they want to go back to Guatemala some day [chuckles]. I don’t know, we will see what happens. I want to work hard, to eventually go back.

Are all your siblings here?

I have one sibling who was here for twenty years, and he moved back to Guatemala. They have a small business in Guatemala, but he is very happy over there. He was very stressed out here, and he got tired, and he decided to go back. He took his entire family over there. It was a radical change, but they are very happy. The food over there is amazing, the food is fresh and organic. It’s delicious. There are festivals all the time.

What is the Tejutla’s saint?

Santiago. The kids were over there for a festival once, and they were so happy. It was marvelous. Obviously, when we come to the US, we want to do something. My intention was always to go back to Guatemala, but the circumstances have changed. I never thought I would have a family here, and I have the responsibility to provide for them. My wife is Guatemalan too, and she is from a village close to Tejutla. We are all Guatemalan.

Can you feel the Guatemalan community here?

Oh yes, especially when we go to church. They often do festivals on September 15, and on Saints days. It’s pretty incredible. Our biggest day of the year is on the day of Saint Joseph. We all get together, it’s really beautiful. I have a lot of fun.

Are there people who left your town because of the war?

Yes, part of the reason my older brothers left was because of the war. They felt like they were being threatened. They didn’t know who was threatening them. It was unclear if it was the army or the guerrilla, my brothers had trucks that they used to sell different products, but they felt really threatened. They felt so threatened, that they decided to leave. They would leave our town, but they didn’t know if they were going to come back, so they decided to leave.

What do you remember from the war?

I remember that on many occasions, the guerrilla would come, and they would make us come outside. They would knock on our doors and say that there was a “meeting”. Everyone would have to go outside, and go to the main park. Once the army came, we would all hide again. You couldn’t tell who was who. When we would travel to San Marcos, you would see a lot of conflict between the army and the guerrilla. Sometimes you would be on the bus, and they would stop everyone on the bus. Tejutla is in the mountains, and sometimes the army would come to our town. They would go up to a village that was high up in the mountains, where there was a cemetery, and you would start to hear gun shots. You didn’t know where to hide. And in every part of the town you would hear gunshots. We also didn’t know whether or not to side with the guerrilla. They said they were good, but they would often do bad things. For example, they would rob from stores, they would steal people’s sheep, which gave off a really bad vibe. Then the army would give off a really bad vibe. We didn’t know how to side with, it wasn’t black and white. That was a part of my childhood.

Was your mother afraid?

She was very afraid, and we were all very young. We didn’t have a father too, so what we would often do was turn of the lights and wait. When we heard noises, we would all throw ourselves on the ground.

What was it like growing up during that time?

Even though I had a wonderful childhood, and I would never change it, the good memories I had were from the daytime. Once night set in, our anxiety would set in. All of the things that we had to do outside of our home was during the day, and at night we would spend time at home. There wasn’t an official curfew, but it basically existed. There wasn’t a written rule, but everyone knew it was time to go inside when night set in. That was the only bad part of my childhood.

Did people disappear?

Yes, a lot of people disappeared. A lot of neighbors and a lot of close friends disappeared.

What do you recall from that time?

Close from my house, about five houses from my house, there was a man who get “lost”. We don’t know what happened to him, or if it was the guerrilla or the military, but he later appeared. His car was destroyed, and he was like the car, completely destroyed. They abused him, they killed him brutally. They did a lot of things to him. And another couple was also taken. They were lost for like two months, and they were found in similar conditions. That was more impactful, because the son appeared in parts, and the woman appeared in parts too. At my age, it was really impactful. It was impossible not to see that, it was something you lived, you couldn’t avoid it. I was twelve years old when that happened. I could see what was happening. A lot of important people from the town were also targeted. I remember that our ex-mayor, who was really good, was targeted one day at three in the afternoon. There was an empty field a block away from my house, and we were playing, and I remember hearing gun shots, and we all knew that something bad was happening. We hid behind the trees, and moments later we saw that the ex-mayor had been killed. The men who killed him were in masks, so we couldn’t tell if it was the guerrilla or the military. The cars they were using didn’t have license plates either. They knew what they were doing. It was always a big problem, one of my uncles was the town’s commissioner, and he was in charge of putting order in the town, particularly with criminals. The army wanted to give us guns to supposedly defend the town from the guerrilla, they called it patrolling, and he was in charge of the patrol groups. So he was taken from his home various times by the guerrilla. I remember there were various times, when we were called into our home because the guerrilla had arrived. The guerrilla would come find us, so they could force my uncle to meet with them. They would ask us where he was, and they would tell us that they were going to kill our uncle. It was really scary. My uncle was luckily never killed, but he was tortured. They were looking for guns all of the time, but he never told them where they were.

Was your mother ever threatened?

She was never threatened because she never left the town. The people who did leave the town were threatened. Also when the guerrilleros came to town, everyone would close their businesses. You could tell that the guerrilla was in town because they were whistling. I never saw people I knew in the guerrilla because their faces were always covered, you could never tell. You could try to see who they were, but you couldn’t. I was never afraid of them.

What were they fighting for?

People used to say that they fought for poor people and that they were fighting liberalism, and trying to give liberty to everyone. But in reality they only caused more problems, I can’t remember a single good thing they brought. They only brought conflict and death. I never understood what good they brought, in their meetings they used to say that everything they did was for poor people, for us. But I don’t get it. The guerrilla was also really well armed, but what distinguished the military from the guerrilla was that they all had the same weapons. The guerrilleros all had different types of armament. My brothers were forced to work in the patrol, and we knew that if the guerrilla came, they had to hide their guns, so the guerrilla wouldn’t take them. Part of the reason, I left at 18 was so I didn’t have to patrol. At 18, you had to work for the military, it wasn’t an option. I had a lot of friends who joined and they had to leave because they were taken by the military to serve. A lot of them came back dead, for being involved in the war. My mom used to say that she preferred us to be far away, but alive.

Did you see a lot of dead bodies?

I saw a lot of dead bodies, it was very normal, but it was really scary at the same time. I remember feeling complete panic because it was very violent. You have to look at event as independent from the crime, what would possess someone to kill someone like that? They would abuse them and torture them in such terrible ways, especially with women. They would torture women, they would cut of their boobs, they would cut off their arms. I saw that. It was impactful. They would throw them on the outskirts of town. I remember we would be playing and we would run into a dead body. It was really scary, it was to terrorize us. I remember my mom, would always blame us for bumping into the dead bodies.

Did faith help you?

Faith was really important. We couldn’t play or anything, so we would sit down and pray, and that was a really important medium for us. It kept us united and it helped us grow in our faith. God is never away from us.

Did the army target you for being Catholic?

No, not precisely. It was never a war against Catholics or a religion. It was just a war against the people. It was a national problem.

Lots of disappeared people?

There were so many people disappeared people. From my town I can remember some 40, 50 people. I remember always hearing that someone had disappeared.

Was there ever a big massacre?

There was never a direct one. That story about the couple was the most impactful, because they also took one other person with them too. And when they appeared, all three of them had been tortured. The woman who was found, had been raped, you could tell she had been abused. The back of her neck had been cut off, her arms had been cut off, and her genitals were mutilated and they had had put an object up her vagina. They committed atrocities.

What was the explanation they gave you?

That was the difficult part. We didn’t know who had committed the crime. We were all very young and we didn’t understand. The adults knew what was going on, but they didn’t tell us, so they wouldn’t get in trouble. All we could understand was what we see. As young people we would take about it, but the adults would never talk about. My older siblings would get mad at me for going to the crime scenes.

Did the church say anything?

No they didn’t. They just told us to stay out of trouble. And the guerrilla would only come to town during the week. We always had to go to their meetings, when we heard a knock on our door, we knew we had to go to a meeting.

In spite of all of this you have good memories of your time in Guatemala?

The feelings are mixed. It’s a mix of light and darkness, but I still think growing up there was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. That contact we had with nature was so special, at night it was a different story. During the day it was incredible. Among my friends, we would first go to school. I made it to sixth grade. School started at 7:30, before going to class we had to feed the animals, shower, and have breakfast. We would get home at 1, we would have lunch, we would do our chores, and after that we had time to play. I remember playing with all of my friends. We used to play soccer all of the time. There was a group of 10 or 15 of us. It was amazing. We would then go and grab peaches and apples. We had our own plot of land that was thirty or forty minutes away, and we would steal apples and peaches for ourselves. If we lost in soccer, we had to go pick fruits. It was so fun. It was beautiful.

How does that compare to your children’s childhood?

It’s different, they don’t have the freedom I did. They are always inside. Someone always has to be with them, over there it was different. We could go anywhere by ourselves, and everyone knew each other. Here, people don’t know each other. It’s so different.

Are people friendly in Lynn?

No, not everyone. It’s different here. People here don’t say hi to each other. Guatemala and the United States are two different worlds. They are rich in different ways. In my country, there isn’t a lot of material wealth, but everyone in Guatemala has something in common, and everyone says hi to one another, even if they don’t know each other. Things here are different. You are lucky if someone you know says hi to you, and if you say hi to someone you don’t know you might get in trouble. I remember when I was in Guatemala, my mom used to tell us that we had to say hi to everyone, we would say hi to my grandparents basically on our knees [chuckles]. The US and Guatemala are wealthy in completely different ways. Here it is material, we can dress well, we can drive cars that are better than the cars we have in Guatemala, but you also live other things, things like solitude. I have family that lives close to me, but we only see each other once a week, because of work. But in Guatemala it’s different. Here you feel lonelier, even with family here.

Why do you think that it is?

I think it’s because of the type of life that we lead here. Here you leave your house early in the morning, and you come back at six in the afternoon, and the time that you have to be with family is really short. You basically only spend time with family for two hours. It’s very different.

Is it worth it to be in Lynn?

Yes, it is. We can do a lot of different things here, we can help my mom for example. We have sent money to my mom, now she lives in a nicer home. Our home used to be made out of tile, but now it’s made out of cement. When we were growing up, I only had two pairs of shoes. One was exclusively for going to church, the other pair was for going to school. I also had an old pair that I used for work. Each year we had a right to one pair of shoes. The old pair I would use for work. We only had two outfits, and one school uniform. But we had very little clothing. Here it is different, here you have everything. In school, we only had one eraser, one pencil, and one notebook. Here my kids have everything. When they go to Guatemala, they realize how lucky they are.

What do you think is worth more, being in Lynn or in Guatemala?

I think it’s better to be here, but if the opportunity presents itself to go home, I will go home. I never had a goal to stay here, but now I have a family here, but I ultimately want to go home. I am not very involved with the Guatemalan community here, but I am involved in the Catholic Church. The community has grown tremendously. When I first got here there weren’t that many Guatemalans, but the community has grown tremendously. There are so many new Spanish speakers now. There are a lot indigenous people here, my respects to them. They are very dedicated workers. I didn’t study much, I only made it to 6th grade, and I think they have the same level of education as I do, but they are very hardworking. I don’t like when people take advantage of them, even among ourselves people take advantage of them. There are people from Brazil, Italy, and Greece who use us as laborers, but from what I can tell they don’t treat them well, and they take advantage of them.

Have you suffered racism here?

I haven’t directly, but I have friends who have faced racism. Some of my work colleagues, said they have faced racism with their bosses. That makes me uncomfortable. Now with Trump, it’s more complicated. He may be rich, but he is shallow, he doesn’t know where he is going or what he actually wants. I just think he is a talker. I don’t think Clinton is a guarantee, but I think she is the only person who can do something. Bush left this country in bankruptcy, at least Obama has done something.

Have people changed in your town in Guatemala?

It’s different now. A lot of people have come, who aren’t from the town originally. I see a lot of strangers now, a lot of new people have migrated there. There are a lot of indigenous people now. Indigenous people used to be much poorer, but now they are richer because of remittances from the United States. I think they have better homes than we do. They used to be really poor, but now they are doing so well! It’s different. I think the remittances make the difference. My town has changed so much because of immigration.

This interview originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission. 

Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Creative Commons