In the western highlands of Guatemala, the question is no longer whether someone will leave but when.
By Jonathan Blitzer Photography by Mauricio Lima April 3, 2019
This is the first piece in a series on the forces driving migration from Guatemala. You can read the other installments here and here.
In the center of Climentoro, in the western highlands of Guatemala, a dozen large white houses rise above the village’s traditional wooden huts like giant monuments. The structures are made of concrete and fashioned with archways, colonnaded porches, and elaborate moldings. “Most of them are empty,” Feliciano Pérez, a local farmer, told me. Their owners, who live in the U.S., had sent money home to build American-inspired houses for when they returned, but they never did. Pérez gestured to a three-story house topped with a faux-brick chimney. “No one lives there,” he said. The family of twelve had migrated a few years ago, leaving the vacant construction behind. “Vecinos fantasmas,” Pérez called them—ghost neighbors.
Pérez, who is thirty-five, is short and lean, with dark, weathered skin and metal caps on his front teeth. He wore a baseball cap mottled in camouflage and emblazoned with the words “Proud Marine Dad.” “It was about six years ago that things started to change,” he said. Climentoro had always been poor. Residents depended on the few crops that could survive at an elevation of more than nine thousand feet, harvesting maize to feed their families and selling potatoes for a small profit. But, Pérez said, the changing climate was wiping out the region’s crops. “In the higher part of town, there have been more frosts than there used to be, and they kill an entire harvest in one fell swoop,” he said. “In the lower part of Climentoro, there’s been much less rain and new sorts of pests.” He added, “Farmers have been abandoning their land.”