Living Across Borders: Guatemala Maya Immigrants in the US South

Emory University
Emory University
Published February 16, 2011
William Brown and Mary Odem, Children dancing at the Santa Eulalia feast day celebration, Cherokee County, Georgia, 2003.
William Brown and Mary Odem, Children dancing at the Santa Eulalia feast day celebration, Cherokee County, Georgia, 2003.

This multi-media essay explores Maya migration to the US South through the journeys of two families from Santa Eulalia, Guatemala, who became part of the Maya population of north Georgia. The narratives of Maria and Antonio and Alfredo and Juana reveal conditions that led to the mass migration of the Maya, their struggles to adapt to new locations of life and work, and the effects of their migration on families and communities back home. These migration stories situate the journeys within the political turmoil of late twentieth-century Guatemala and social and economic developments in the US South. As they struggled to provide a better future for themselves and their families, Maya migrants forged transnational social and economic ties that connected indigenous hometowns in Guatemala with their new places of settlement. Text by Mary Odem; video by William Brown and Mary Odem. Ensayo en Español

"Living Across Borders: Guatemala Maya Immigrants in the US South" was selected for the 2010 Southern Spaces series "Migration, Mobility, Exchange, and the US South," a collection of innovative, interdisciplinary scholarship about how the movements of individuals, populations, goods, and ideas shape dynamic spaces, cultures, and identities within or in circulation with the US South.

William Brown
Emory University
Mary Odem
Emory University


On a Saturday evening in February 2003, more than four hundred indigenous people from the Guatemala highlands gathered in the assembly hall of the Cherokee County middle school in north Georgia to celebrate the feast day of Santa Eulalia.1 Santa Eulalia is the patron saint of a town by the same name in the department of Huehuetenango where many of the Q’anjobal Maya immigrants living in north Georgia come from. In addition to Q’anjobales from Huehuetenango, the crowd included Maya from different regions of Guatemala who spoke Mam, Quiché, and Chuj, as well as Mexican immigrants and several Americans who were invited to the event. Marimba musicians played familiar songs on two marimbas that had been imported from Guatemala. Many of the women wore cortes and huipuils, the typical dress for women in highland villages, and in a special ceremony, a new Maya princess was crowned and greeted by the crowd.

La Fiesta de Santa Eulalia. Video by Wiliam Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

This Maya Catholic celebration was an unusual sight in Cherokee County, a predominantly white, Protestant locale about fifty miles north of the city of Atlanta. The Maya first began settling in north Georgia in the 1990s.They arrived along with Mexican and other Latin American immigrants to work in construction and poultry-processing, two thriving industries in the region seeking low-wage labor. Most of the early migrants were teenage and adult men who left crowded job markets in California. As word spread about job opportunities in Georgia, they were soon joined by Maya men arriving directly from Guatemala. And while men still make up the majority of Maya migrants, a growing number of women and children have joined husbands, fathers, and brothers in Georgia, resulting in a noticeable Maya presence in local neighborhoods, schools, and churches. The large celebration in honor of Santa Eulalia in 2003 reflected the shift from a temporary population of male workers to a more permanent Maya community in north Georgia.

This multi-media project explores the history of Maya migration to the US South by focusing on the journeys of two migrant families from Santa Eulalia who became part of the Maya community in north Georgia. Through the stories of Maria and Antonio, Alfredo and Juana, we explore the conditions that led to the mass migration of the Maya, their struggles to adapt to life and work in the modern US South, and the impact of their migration on families and communities back home. We situate their journeys within the political turmoil of late twentieth century Guatemala and the social and economic developments that shaped their lives in the contemporary US South.

The Maya in Guatemala. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

Antonio and Maria were among the initial wave of Maya migrants to the United States who left Guatemala in the late 1980s during the violent Civil War years.2 They arrived in north Georgia with their four children in 1999 after having lived for ten years in Los Angeles. Better job prospects and safer, less crowded neighborhoods drew them to Georgia. Both found work in poultry-processing factories and they enrolled their children in the local public schools. As they did in Los Angeles, the couple became part of a Maya Catholic group that met weekly and organized social and religious events, such as the Santa Eulalia celebration.3

Alfredo, Antonio’s nephew, headed for the United States a decade later; the violence had subsided in Guatemala, but the economic and social marginalization of the Maya in the country continued. His wife, Juana, remained in Santa Eulalia with their young daughter and her in-laws while Alfredo searched for work in the United States. Their struggle to maintain marital and familial ties across national borders reflects the predicament of many Maya migrants who either by choice or necessity leave spouses, children, parents, and siblings in Guatemala.

Maya migration to the United States is not a simple story of leaving one country for good and settling in another. As Maya migrants like Antonio, Maria, and Alfredo formed new households, work, and social arrangements in the United States, they also maintained important links with family and community members back in Guatemala. They communicated with parents, wives, children, and siblings through phone and audio- and video-taped messages and sent wages earned in southern workplaces to support families, construct homes, and finance community projects in their hometowns in Guatemala. As they struggled to provide a better future for themselves and their families, Maya migrants forged transnational social and economic ties that connected indigenous hometowns in Guatemala with their new places of settlement in the US South. The text and video that follow explore the hopes and dreams they carried and the challenges, hardships, and accomplishments they experienced in their migration journeys.

Maya Migration to the United States

Linguistic map of Guatemala, 2011.
Linguistic map of Guatemala, 2011.

The Maya of north Georgia are part of the large and diverse wave of immigration from Latin America that has transformed the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the US South since the late 1980s. Mexicans make up approximately 60 percent of the Latino population in the South; Central Americans comprise the next largest group, followed by South Americans from Peru, Venezuela, and Columbia.4 The Maya occupy a distinct position within the population of Latin American immigrants. With over four million people in Guatemala and Mexico, they form one of the largest indigenous groups in the Americas. Although exact figures are not known, it is estimated that as many as 500,000 Maya have migrated to the United States. Most come from poor rural towns and villages in the western highlands of Guatemala where they speak one of more than twenty different Maya languages, and families support themselves as small farmers, rural laborers, or market vendors. Meager farm incomes are often supplemented with wages earned as laborers on coffee plantations. The Maya population in the United States also includes a smaller number of high school and college-educated immigrants who worked as teachers, journalists, and in other professional fields in Guatemala.5

Santa Eulalia, Guatemala. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

The Maya make up approximately 60 percent of the Guatemala population of fourteen million. Centuries of discrimination and exploitation of their land and labor, first by Spanish colonizers and later the Ladino elite, have left indigenous people impoverished and marginalized within their countries (those of mixed European and indigenous ancestry are called Ladinos). Pronouncements of Indian inferiority and backwardness by dominant groups have justified and reinforced the subordination of the Maya in Guatemala from the Spanish conquest to the present day.6

From the colonial era through most of the twentieth century, much of the Maya population lived in the Guatemala highlands where they formed close-knit communities organized in municipios or townships. The inhabitants of a municipio shared a common language and a distinct form of dress, customs, and religious practices. By the 1970s and 80s, however, numerous forces threatened the social bases of indigenous communities—overpopulation and land shortages, plantation demands for labor, the incursions of Catholic and evangelical missionaries, and political violence and repression by Ladino rulers of the country.7

The civil war between military-dominated governments and left-wing guerilla groups was especially destructive to indigenous communities. In 1954, a violent coup supported by the Central Intelligence Agency and right-wing politicians overthrew the democratically elected government in Guatemala. The ensuing political unrest resulted in a military uprising in 1960 that marked the beginning of a thirty six-year civil war. The armed conflict grew especially violent in the 1980s as it spread deeper into rural, indigenous areas. Right-wing governments carried out campaigns of violent repression against labor unions, peasants, activist organizations, and indigenous communities; guerilla groups responded with acts of economic sabotage and strikes against the military.

With the support of US military aid and training, the Guatemala armed forces carried out assassinations of suspected militants and large-scale massacres in regions thought to support guerrilla forces. The political violence eventually resulted in the deaths of two hundred thousand mostly unarmed indigenous people and the destruction of more than four hundred Maya villages. Under General Rios Montt, military dictator in the early 1980s, the government established civilian defense patrols in indigenous areas that required the participation of adult men. Montt was quoted in a New York Times article, as telling an indigenous audience, “If you are with us, we will feed you; if not, we will kill you.” According to the investigations of two human rights commissions, the vast majority of human rights abuses—torture, assassinations, and forced disappearances—were carried out by the Guatemala military and the armed groups they controlled.8

Civil War. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

The initial migration to the United States began during this period of armed conflict. At the height of the war, tens of thousands of Maya left villages in the highlands, some headed for Mexico and others for the United States. Even though they were fleeing political violence, most Guatemalans were not accorded refugee status by the US government, but instead were treated as economic migrants. Decisions regarding the status of Central American migrants during the 1980s were influenced more by US foreign policy and Cold War concerns than by the actual conditions Central Americans faced in their origin countries. Migrants from countries whose governments the Reagan administration opposed, such as the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, were far more likely to be considered refugees than those fleeing governments supported by the United States, such as the right-wing military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador. In 1991, the settlement from a national class-action suit charging bias in the asylum decision process paved the way for 250,000 Guatemalans and Salvadorans to reapply for asylum and many were able to legalize their status.9 This first wave of migrants from war-torn Guatemala initially settled in Los Angeles, Houston, and southern Florida, areas with long-standing Latin American populations.10 Antonio and Maria were among the thousands of Maya who left Guatemala during the political unrest and violence of the 1980s.

Born and raised in rural villages in Santa Eulalia, a municipio nestled high in the Cuchumatanes Mountains in the state of Huehuetenango, Antonio and Maria were a young married couple with an infant daughter when they made the difficult decision that he should leave the country. It was a time when Maya men in the highlands were being forced to serve on civilian defense patrols and threatened with violence or death if they refused to participate. Antonio left Santa Eulalia in 1988 and headed for Los Angeles, where his brother-in-law and a number of other townspeople already lived. His brother-in-law helped him find work in a garment factory and within the next one and one-half years, he had saved enough money to bring Maria and their daughter to the United States. Antonio and Maria spent the next eleven years working at various low wage jobs and caring for their growing family, which came to include three more children, two girls and a boy.11

When the economy worsened in California in the 1990s and the competition for jobs increased, the couple decided to leave Los Angeles and seek better prospects elsewhere. They traveled to north Georgia where they had heard about job opportunities for immigrant workers. They joined many other Central American and Mexican immigrants who were leaving traditional destinations in California and Texas for new destinations in the United States. The Southeast became a strong magnet for Latino immigrants during this decade because of plentiful jobs for low-wage workers in the construction, food-processing, agriculture, and service industries. Immigrants were also attracted by the lower cost of housing and safer neighborhoods that the South seemed to offer.12

A Second Wave of Migration

The 1996 Peace Accords ended the armed conflict between the Guatemala army and guerilla forces. However, economic devastation caused by the war and continued inequality in the aftermath of the war contributed to a second wave of Maya immigration to the United States. The Peace Accords brought about some important changes—demilitarization, creation of a civilian police force, and establishment of a human rights commission. A key part of the peace agreement addressed the rights of indigenous peoples, and reflected the influence of Maya activists and a growing pan-Maya movement in Guatemala. The movement has mounted a serious challenge to the centuries-long denigration of indigenous people and their culture in the country. Maya activists reject the plan of cultural assimilation implicit in the development strategy of the Guatemalan state as well as the left’s tendency to subsume ethnic and indigenous concerns within a rigid class analysis. Instead, they envision a radical transformation of the Guatemalan state into a multicultural nation that supports indigenous rights to self-determination and recognizes indigenous cultures and languages.13

Moving to Guatemala City. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

While progress has been made in indigenous cultural rights, the Peace Accords and post-war governments did not tackle the pressing issue of land reform, and have ultimately done little to relieve the poverty and marginalization that most Maya experience in Guatemala. Economic globalization and neo-liberal policies have further threatened the livelihood of many small farmers and workers in Guatemala, and have contributed to large-scale migration to the United States. Working-age men and youth make up the vast majority of this migration, but the number of women and children migrants has increased steadily since 1990.14

In the late 1990s, twenty-three year old Alfredo, the nephew of Antonio, joined the second wave of migration to the United States while his wife Juana remained in Guatemala with their young daughter. A generation younger than Maria and Antonio, Juana and Alfredo grew up in Santa Eulalia and were children during the most violent years of the Civil War. When they finished grammar school, they experienced both the benefits and hardships of the post-war period.

William Brown and Mary Odem, Alfredo and Juana on their wedding, Guatemala.
William Brown and Mary Odem, Alfredo and Juana on their wedding, Guatemala.

The oldest son in a rural farm family of seven children, Alfredo decided as a young teenager that he could not make a living farming the family’s small plot of land as his father had done. The only hope for climbing out of poverty (for himself and his family), he believed, was to further his education, which meant leaving Santa Eulalia for Guatemala City. Educational opportunities were very limited for indigenous people in Guatemala, especially in rural areas. At the time, most Maya towns still had no schools beyond the elementary level. Migration to urban areas held the only possibility for secondary education for indigenous youth. With the aim of furthering his education, Alfredo left his home and family at fourteen years of age and headed for sprawling Guatemala City. With no financial help available from his family, Alfredo worked to support himself while pursuing his studies. After five years of a grueling schedule of work and study, he completed high school.15

While living in the capitol city, Alfredo met and fell in love with Juana, another Maya youth from Santa Eulalia who migrated to Guatemala City for more schooling. Her father, a teacher and leader of the Maya cultural movement, directed the Maya language institute in Santa Eulalia. As a result of the 1996 Peace Accords, similar language institutes were established in indigenous towns throughout the highlands. Juana was attending secretarial school in Guatemala City when she and Alfredo began dating and decided to marry. They married in Santa Eulalia in the presence of their parents and relatives, then returned to Guatemala City where Alfredo found a job and enrolled in a university course in computers. A year later Juana gave birth to their first child.16

Leaving Guatemala. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

The birth of their daughter caused Alfredo to carefully examine the prospects for both his new family and his parents and siblings in Santa Eulalia. As the oldest son, he was expected to provide for his parents in their old age and to help support his younger siblings. Even though he had a job, the economic prospects in Guatemala were gloomy, especially for indigenous people. With the low salaries, high unemployment, and rising inflation that existed in Guatemala, Alfredo realized he could not provide a home for his wife and daughter and contribute to the education of his siblings with his current wages. Once again, he contemplated migration, this time to the United States. Alfredo and Juana faced a painful dilemma: to secure a better future for their family, they had to endure years of separation. When Alfredo left for the United States, Juana moved back to Santa Eulalia with her daughter where they lived with Alfredo’s parents, as was the custom for the wives of departing migrants.17

Immigrant Workers in Metro Atlanta. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

In a process of chain migration, Alfredo headed to one of the places in the United States where relatives and acquaintances from Santa Eulalia had settled. He tried his luck first in Nebraska, where many Eulalenses worked in the meat-packing industry. Difficulty finding a job there led Alfredo to north Georgia, where he joined his uncle and aunt, Antonio and Maria. Alfredo moved into the home they shared with their children and two other young men from Santa Eulalia. With the help of his uncle, Alfredo found work first in the landscaping business mowing lawns, and then in construction where he learned to install electrical wiring in new suburban homes.18

Finding Work. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

The labor of immigrant workers, like Alfredo and his uncle and aunt, has contributed to the economic growth and competitiveness of southern industries. The reliance on foreign-born workers not only boosted corporate profits, but also lowered the cost of housing, food, and other goods for southern consumers. Latin American immigrants no doubt have benefited from the availability of jobs, but they, along with US-born workers, have faced exploitative conditions in southern workplaces. In the highly competitive global economy, US corporations (in the South and elsewhere) have cut labor costs by creating a more “flexible” workforce through strategies of part-time work, outsourcing, subcontracting, and the recruitment of foreign-born workers. For workers in the United States, “flexibility” has meant the erosion of benefits, job security, safe working conditions, and collective bargaining rights. To achieve labor market flexibility and control, the meat- and poultry-processing industries have increasingly relied on recruiting immigrant workers and using labor contractors to hire large portions of their workforce. Poultry corporations began large-scale hiring of immigrant workers during a period of rapid expansion between 1980 and 2000, when United States consumption of chicken doubled. Native-born and foreign-born workers alike have suffered from the harsh conditions in meat and poultry plants, including production speed-ups, disregard for health and safety standards, and pervasive violation of minimum wage laws.19

The construction trades in the South also relied heavily on recruitment of immigrants from Central America and Mexico to meet the rising labor demand caused by the building boom of the 1990s. Working as dry wall installers, carpenters, plasterers, and bricklayers, immigrant workers helped to build roads, shopping centers, office buildings, and tens of thousands of new homes in metro Atlanta and north Georgia. Their contributions were essential for the completion of the numerous building projects for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Eager to hire immigrant workers, southern employers have not been so eager to pay them fair wages or provide safe working conditions. Numerous employers have flagrantly violated immigrant workers’ rights by cheating them out of wages and denying them compensation and medical care for accidents on the job.20

Families and Communities Left Behind

Back in Santa Eulalia. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

Maya immigrants such as Alfredo have endured harsh working conditions in the United States in order to use their wages to provide a better life for their spouses, children, parents, and siblings in Guatemala. The millions of US dollars sent back to families in Guatemala every year have meant improved housing, access to basic health care, and education beyond the sixth grade for many Maya youth. With the wages he earned in construction and landscaping jobs, Alfredo supported his wife and daughter and also contributed significantly to the support of his siblings. His earnings have enabled his two younger brothers to move to Guatemala City to continue their schooling. Additionally he has helped support his older sister and her two children; she was abandoned by her husband several years after he migrated to California. Alfredo and Juana have also begun construction on a new house in the center of town with the money he has earned. New homes and housing construction, seen throughout Santa Eulalia, are the most visible sign of the impact of migrant dollars on this indigenous town.

The Women Left Behind. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

Typically Maya immigrants support not only their individual families, but also make financial contributions to community projects, earning them respect and appreciation from their fellow townspeople. Money from migrants has been used to construct new roads and schools and bring potable water to highland towns. One of the major contributions of migrants from Santa Eulalia was the construction of a medical clinic and small hospital so that people would not have to travel four hours to Huehuetenango for treatment. Antonio and Maria took part in the community effort of Eulalenses in Los Angeles to organize fund-raising drives for the clinic in their hometown.21

The economic benefits of migration, however, have come at a high cost to Maya families and communities. In many highland towns, the majority of working-age men are living and working abroad, which means that children often grow up without their fathers and wives struggle to manage households on their own, while community institutions try to function with limited involvement of adult men. The separation early in her marriage to Alfredo took its toll on Juana. Like many migrant wives, she experienced loneliness and great anxiety about when and whether her husband would return.22 While most male migrants remain committed to their families in Guatemala, a number have abandoned wives and children, causing them great economic and emotional hardship. In Maya towns, the wives of migrants are watched closely by in-laws and community members to make sure they do not behave in a way that would dishonor their husbands.

A Death in the Family. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

Maya migrants in the United States suffered as well from the years of separation from their loved ones. Alfredo deeply missed his wife and young daughter and worried about his mother and father and their ability to manage the farm. He sent audiotapes to Juana and his parents, and talked with them on the phone as often as his finances would allow. He was devastated when he learned during one of these phone calls that his father had died unexpectedly from appendicitis. His father was fifty-two years old. The poor access to health care and doctors in rural Guatemala made deaths from such minor illnesses all too common. Alfredo’s sorrow intensified when he and his family decided that he should not go back to Santa Eulalia for the funeral because of the great cost and the difficulty he would encounter in trying to return to the United States. With the death of his father, Alfredo suddenly became the male head of the family. His responsibility for the care of his mother and siblings increased and made his wage-earning in the United States all the more important.23

Anti-Immigrant Backlash

The Backlash. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

In the early twenty-first century, Maya and other Latin American immigrants in Georgia encountered an increasingly hostile political environment. When mass immigration from Latin America began in the late 1980s and 1990s, the media, lawmakers, and political organizations paid only limited attention, more often than not depicting immigrants as hard workers who helped the local economy in various ways. During the first years of the twenty-first century, however, anti-immigrant rhetoric and exclusionary policies rose sharply in Georgia and other new immigrant destinations due to declining economic conditions and the heightened national preoccupation with terrorism and “illegal immigration” following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Public outcry about “illegals” stealing jobs, burdening taxpayers, and increasing crime rates led state and local officials across the Southeast to pass laws and ordinances targeting unauthorized immigrants. These measures sought to block undocumented immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses, housing, employment, social services, and higher education.24

William Brown and Mary Odem, People protest immigration policy, northern Georgia.
William Brown and Mary Odem, People protest immigration policy, northern Georgia.

Much of the legislation targeting unauthorized immigrants has been passed by state and local governments since 2006, in the wake of rancorous discussions in the US Congress and the national news media over the problem of illegal immigration. The failure to enact immigration reform at the federal level strengthened the efforts of state and local lawmakers to take action against unauthorized immigrants, and a record number of immigration bills came before state legislatures in 2006.

The state of Georgia took the most sweeping action of any state at the time to control illegal immigration with passage of the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act (SB 529) in 2006. The bill was introduced by Republican legislator Chip Rogers from Cherokee County, the same county where Antonia, Maria, Alfredo and numerous other Maya immigrants have settled. Rogers’ bill denies tax-supported benefits, including health care, to immigrants who cannot prove their legal residency; penalizes employers who hire undocumented immigrants; and enlists state and local police in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. The introduction of Senate Bill 529 in Georgia followed in the wake of the punitive legislation (HR 4437) proposed by Republican lawmakers in the US House of Representatives to speed up deportations, criminalize undocumented immigrants, and authorize the construction of a wall at the Mexico–US border. Although the federal legislation failed to pass, SB 529 was passed by the Republican-controlled senate and house and signed into law by Republican Governor Sonny Perdue on April 17, 2006.25

William Brown and Mary Odem, A laborer working in masonry, northern Georgia.
William Brown and Mary Odem, A laborer working in masonry, northern Georgia.

The law reflects a compromise between politicians seeking aggressive action to end illegal immigration and business groups seeking to maintain an available pool of low-wage immigrant labor. After consulting with business lobbyists, Republican sponsor Chip Rogers crafted the bill so that companies would not be held responsible if an employee used false documents or if a subcontractor hired illegal workers without the knowledge of the employer.

The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act has created a climate of uncertainty and fear among the Maya and other Latino immigrants in the state. Realtors, car dealers, and retailers in immigrant neighborhoods have reported a noticeable decline in Latino customers, which they attribute to the sense of economic and social vulnerability that immigrants now feel. The parks and shopping plazas that had been social and recreational gathering places for Latinos in north Georgia have been noticeably less populated since the legislation went into effect. With the involvement of local authorities in the enforcement of immigration law, the arrest, confinement, and deportation of unauthorized immigrants has climbed dramatically in Georgia. As a result, many families have been separated and immigrants have become more hesitant to notify law enforcement when they are victims of or witnesses to crime. A number of Maya immigrants in North Georgia have been deported and others have been targets of anti-immigrant hostility and harassment.

Pan-Maya Organizing

Creating Community. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

Although poor in material resources, Maya immigrants have brought with them a tradition of communal organization that has sustained them in face of the discrimination and hardships they have encountered in the United States. Drawing on this tradition, Maya in Georgia and other settlement areas have formed ethnic religious associations that have helped to unify immigrants and strengthen their collective resources. In the initial Maya settlements established in the 1980s in Los Angeles, Houston, and Indiantown, Florida, immigrants formed associations on the basis of hometown origin; members shared a common language, dress, and local customs linked to their particular municipio or town.26

As Maya immigrants increased in number and dispersed to new locations in the country, they began to organize on a pan-Maya basis. In north Georgia a group of Maya that included Antonio and Maria formed a Maya Catholic organization in 1999. It began as a small prayer group that met in the homes of different migrants. By the second year the group had grown from ten to approximately one hundred members and included Maya of diverse language groups (Mam, Quiché, Q’anjobal, Chuj) and regions (Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Quiché, Chimaltenango, and Quezaltenango). When Alfredo joined his aunt and uncle in north Georgia, he became an active member of the organization.

William Brown and Mary Odem, Men at meeting of Pastoral Maya, northern Georgia.
William Brown and Mary Odem, Men at meeting of Pastoral Maya, northern Georgia.

The group first called itself El Ministerio de Evangelización a la Virgen de Asunción (the Virgen de Asunción is the patron saint of Guatemala) and later changed its name to Proyecto Pastoral Maya (Maya Pastoral Project) when it joined a national network of Maya Catholic groups, supported by the US Catholic Church. Pastoral Maya seeks to provide spiritual, social, and material support to the Maya migrants struggling to make a living in North Georgia. To build bonds of solidarity among the group, leaders organize a range of programs and activities that include a weekly Saturday evening meeting of prayer, singing, and socializing; the formation of two choirs; Spanish Mass on Sunday evenings in the parish church; regular house visits to Maya immigrants in need; religious services and cultural celebrations for Christmas, Holy Week, Mother’s Day, and Santa Eulalia’s feast day. One of the organization’s first fund-raising projects was to collect $3,000 to purchase a van to provide transportation for the numerous migrants who do not have cars so that they can attend the Saturday meeting, Sunday Mass, and other activities.27

The largest religious and cultural event organized by the Maya Catholic group is the annual celebration in honor of Santa Eulalia. The event requires months of planning and preparation and the labor and contributions of many immigrants. The feast day celebration has attracted the participation of hundreds of Maya immigrants from north Georgia and the surrounding area and has increased in size each year. Approximately two hundred people from Maya settlements in Canton and Ellijay in north Georgia took part in 2002; the following year more than four hundred Maya migrants attended, including groups from Greenville, South Carolina, and two Alabama towns. By 2004, the number of participants rose to more than six hundred.28

William Brown and Mary Odem, A person participating in the annual celebration of Santa Eulalia, Cherokee County, Georgia, 2003.
William Brown and Mary Odem, A person participating in the annual celebration of Santa Eulalia, Cherokee County, Georgia, 2003.

The celebration combines Catholic and traditional Maya spiritual practices. It begins with a Catholic Mass led by Father Joseph Fahy of the Atlanta Archdiocese and Father David López, a Maya Catholic priest from Guatemala who visits the community annually to take part in the feast day celebration. Following the Mass is a re-enactment of a traditional Maya religious ceremony that is performed by rezadores (prayer leaders) in Santa Eulalia to pray for harmony and safety during the celebration. In the north Georgia celebration, a young man performs the role of a rezador and recites a prayer to the four directions of the earth.

Central to the Santa Eulalia celebration in Guatemala and in the United States is the marimba and its music. In Guatemala, the marimba is a key symbol of indigenous identity and it continues to play an important role in community life for the Maya who have emigrated to the United States. Soon after their arrival, numerous Maya immigrant groups (in Georgia, Florida, Los Angeles, Arizona, Colorado, and South Carolina) have raised money to purchase and import a marimba from a workshop in the Guatemala highlands.

William Brown and Mary Odem, A person participating in the annual celebration of Santa Eulalia, Cherokee County, Georgia, 2003.
William Brown and Mary Odem, Princesa Maya Jolom Konob, Cherokee County, Georgia, 2003.

Another major part of the fiesta is the coronation of the new princesa “Maya Jolom Konob,” who will represent the Maya community in the upcoming year. Dressed in the distinctive corte and huipuil of the township, the princess performs a Maya ideal of femininity: she demonstrates her knowledge of indigenous culture by performing a traditional dance to the music of the marimba; she demonstrates her education and learning by delivering a speech before the crowd, first in her indigenous language of Q’anjobal and then in Spanish. A new element in the celebration in Georgia is that the princess addresses the crowd in three languages instead of two: Q’anjobal, Spanish, and English.

The work of the Maya association in north Georgia has extended beyond the religious and cultural realm. Leaders have provided assistance when Maya immigrants encountered problems such as inability to pay rent, arrest by local police, and need for housing or work. The Maya organization strengthened its presence and influence through the alliance it formed with a group of interested faculty and students at nearby Kennesaw State University who collaborated on a number of projects, such as student-led English classes and tutoring for the Maya, health seminars, and a traffic safety program for immigrants funded by university and state grants. The projects created learning opportunities and internships for students and gave the Maya access to knowledge, skills, and social contacts that enhanced their community-building efforts. On an individual level, university faculty and students also assisted Maya immigrants in navigating the US legal system and local government bureaucracies.

In the mid-1990s, the Maya association in Georgia became part of a national network of Maya Catholic organizations, a grassroots effort initiated by immigrant leaders Sister Nancy Wellmeir and Father David López in 1994 that has received financial support and recognition by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Known as the Proyecto Pastoral Maya, the network is made up of over forty local Maya Catholic groups in states throughout the country including California, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nebraska, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina.29

William Brown and Mary Odem, New building in a Guatemalan community.
William Brown and Mary Odem, New building in a Guatemalan community.

Since 1999, Pastoral Maya has organized national meetings (Encuentros Nacionales) on an annual basis. The 2003 Encuentro Nacional, which took place in Georgia at Kennesaw State University, brought together fifty-six Maya community leaders from across the country. Most of the participants were men, but as many as a dozen Maya women had a noticeable presence at the meeting. Support and funding for the Conference came from money raised by local immigrant groups, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Huehuetenango, and the faculty-student group at Kennesaw State University.

Even as the Maya organization established connections with US citizens and institutions, it also fostered transnational ties to indigenous communities back home. Maya immigrants sustained connections to their hometowns in various ways—by collecting money from migrants to finance improvements, such as the building of a medical clinic or school; by raising funds when a community member dies in the United States to return the body to Guatemala for burial in the hometown cemetery; and by sponsoring the visits of priests from hometown parishes in Guatemala to meet with and provide spiritual and social guidance to their parishioners in the United States. Through the range of transnational and local activities, participants in Pastoral Maya express a sense of belonging on both sides of the border—in new settlements in the United States and in communities of origin in Guatemala.


Transnational migration has provided needed economic resources for the Guatemala Maya, while placing great strain on families. The burden of living across borders has fallen most heavily on the women and children left behind in Guatemala. For Juana, when the years of separation and uncertainty about her husband’s return led to anxiety and depression so grave that her family feared for her well-being, Alfredo went back to Guatemala to be with her. He left with the intention of returning to the United States because he still had not earned enough money to complete the home they were building, but he ended up staying in Santa Eulalia. The needs of his family, not only of his wife and daughter, but also of his mother and siblings, held him in Guatemala. They had suffered in his absence, especially Juana, and he had sorely missed them.

Alfredo's Return. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

Within a year of his return, Juana gave birth to their second child, another daughter, and this time Alfredo would be around to see her learn to walk and talk.

Alfredo’s homecoming eased the emotional hardship for the family, but presented real economic hardship. With the loss of his wages from the United States, he had to work at several jobs to cover living expenses. He eventually started a small business in Santa Eulalia that provides computer, accounting, and other services. His two youngest siblings assist him with running the business. Making enough to get by is a constant struggle. A year after Alfredo returned to Guatemala, his next-oldest brother, who had recently finished high school in Guatemala City, began to make plans to migrate to the United States. Following in the footsteps of Alfredo, he wanted to build a home for his wife, who was pregnant with their first child, and to contribute to the support of his mother and siblings. The family would continue to rely on transnational migration as an important economic strategy.

Antonio and Maria Stay in the United States. Video by William Brown and Mary Odem, 2011.

Antonio and Maria, meanwhile, remained in Georgia. After years of working at low wage jobs in factories and on construction sites, they managed to save enough to open a small store where they sold products from Guatemala and inexpensive clothing and shoes, mostly to other immigrants from Central America and Mexico. They remained active in Pastoral Maya, and Antonio served for several years as the national leader of the organization, which took him to different parts of the country to meet with local chapters.

Although Maria and Antonio have talked about returning to Guatemala and have remained in close contact with Maria’s parents and siblings there, the pull of their children has kept them in the United States. Their oldest daughter graduated from the local high school, a source of great pride for her parents, and the three younger children have continued with their studies in junior high and elementary school. All of the children, even the two born in Guatemala, have been raised in the United States and know of Santa Eulalia only through the stories of their parents.

The stable, relatively prosperous life Antonio and Maria had built in Georgia came to end with the economic crisis of 2007 that ravaged many families and businesses in the United States. The business in their store dropped sharply as Latino immigrants in the area, their main customers, lost jobs and income. Soon, the couple was no longer able to pay rent and had to close the store. Then, after months of struggling to keep up with mortgage payments, they lost the house they had lived in since 2000. With the limited economic prospects they faced in Georgia, Antonio and Maria decided to return to southern California where they could live with Maria’s brother until they got back on their feet.

After three decades of Maya migration to the United States, there are Maya communities in cities and towns throughout the country, from California on the west coast to Georgia on the east. A web of familial and organizational ties link Maya settlements in the United States to one another and stretches across national borders to connect to Maya families, hometowns, and institutions in Guatemala. As the stories of Maria and Antonio, Juana and Alfredo make clear, this web of connections has provided a crucial source of support for the Maya to survive periods of war and ethnic violence, economic vulnerability, and social marginalization. They have not overcome these threats, neither in Guatemala, nor in the United States, but they have managed to lessen their impact and to provide more opportunities and security for their children and families.

Video Credits

Writer/Producer - Mary Odem
Director/Photographer/Editor - William A. Brown
Additional Editing - Brian Cox

Special thanks to Teodoro Maus, Gayla Jamison, George King, Father Joseph Fahy, Juanatano Cano, Jamie Escamilla, David Moscowitz, Alan Lebaron, David Donato Vivres, Mael Vizcarra, Norberto Sanchez of the Norsan Group, and Dutch Knotts.

This video could not have been made without the support of people and community leaders of Santa Eulalia, Guatemala, as well as the Maya immigrant community in North Georgia. This program is dedicated to Antonio, Maria, Alfredo, Juana, and all the Maya who participated in the making of this program.

Supported with travel grants and research grants from Emory University. Civil War footage courtesy of the National Archives. Maya Footage Copyright William A. Brown. Edited at ATLANTA VIDEO.

We carried out research, location shooting, and interviewing for this project from 1999 to 2004 in northeast Georgia and in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, in the town of Santa Eulalia. The research included interviews, participant observation, and archival research in both Georgia and Guatemala.

Ensayo en Español

  • 1. We carried out research, location shooting, and interviewing for this project from 1999 to 2004 in northeast Georgia and in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, in the town of Santa Eulalia. The research included interviews, participant observation, and archival research in both Georgia and Guatemala.
  • 2. In the essay and video we have used only the first names of immigrants and their family members.
  • 3. Interviews with Antonio (2001, 2002, 2003) and Maria (2003).
  • 4. Mary E. Odem and Elaine Lacy, Latino Immigration and the Transformation of the U.S. South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009): ix-xxvii.
  • 5. Allan F. Burns, Maya in Exile: Guatemalans in Florida (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Leon Fink, The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Jacqueline Hagan, Deciding to be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); James Loucky and Marily M. Moors, The Maya Diaspora: Guatemalan Roots, New American Lives (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000); Cecilia Menjivar, "Liminal Legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan Immigrants' Lives in the United States," American Journal of Sociology, 111(2006): 999-1037.
  • 6. Nancy M. Farriss, Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Marilyn M. Moors, ed., Guatemala Indians and the State, 1540 to 1988 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).
  • 7. Douglas E. Britnall, Revolt Against the Dead: The Modernization of a Mayan Community in the Highlands of Guatemala (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1979); Carol Smith, “Class Position and Class Consciousness in an Indian Community” in Moors, Guatmala Indians and the State, 205-229; John M. Watanabe, Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World (Austin: Univesity of Texas Press, 1992).
  • 8. Beatriz Manz, Refugees of a Hidden War: The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala (Albany: State University of NY Press); Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala, Guatemala Never Again! (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999); “Guatemala Peace Accords,” NACLA on the Americas (May/June 1997)
  • 9. Susan Gzesh, “Central Americans and Asylum Policy during the Reagan Era,” Migration Policy Institute, Migration Information Source (April 2006); Menjivar, “Liminal Legality”; James Smith,“Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees” Migration Policy Institute, Migration Information Source (April 2006)
  • 10. Burns, Maya in Exile; Hagan, Deciding to be Legal; Loucky and Moors, The Maya Diaspora; Nancy Wellmeir, Ritual, Identity, and the Mayan Diaspora (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).
  • 11. Interviews with Antonio (2001, 2002) and Maria (2003).
  • 12. Mary Odem, “Global Lives, Local Struggles: Latin American Immigration to Atlanta,” Southern Spaces, May 19, 2006,; Odem and Lacy, Latino Immigration and the Transformation of the U.S. South.
  • 13. “Guatemala Peace Accords.”
  • 14. Smith, “Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees.”
  • 15. Interviews with Alfredo (2001, 2002).
  • 16. Interviews with Alfredo (2001) and Juana (2001).
  • 17. Interviews with Alfredo (2001, 2002) and Juana (2001).
  • 18. Interviews with Alfredo (2001, 2002).
  • 19. Angela Stuesse, “Race, Migration and Labor Control: Neoliberal Challenges to Organizing Mississippi’s Poultry Workers,” Latino Immigration, ed. Odem and Lacy, 91-111; Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001); Steve Striffler, Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  • 20. Mary E. Odem, “Unsettled in the Suburbs: Latino Immigration and Ethnic Diversity in Metro Atlanta." in Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America, ed. Audrey Singer, et al. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008).
  • 21. Interviews with Father David López (2002, 2004) and Antonio (2001).
  • 22. Interviews with Juana (2001, 2003).
  • 23. Interviews with Alfredo (2001) and Juana (2001).
  • 24. Odem, “Unsettled in the Suburbs.”
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Hagan, Deciding to be Legal; Wellmeier, Ritual, Identity, and the Mayan Diaspora; Eric Popkin "Guatemalan Mayan Migration to Los Angeles: Constructing Transnational Linkages in the context of the Settlement Process." Ethnic and Racial Studies 22 (1999): 238-266.
  • 27. Interviews with Antonio (2002, 2003), Pablo (2003) and Efrain (2003).
  • 28. Interviews with Antonio (2003) and Pablo (2003).
  • 29. Interviews with Father David López (2002, 2004) and Father Joseph Fahy.

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