The Volcano’s Northbound Path

Photo by Rodrigo Pardo / EFE

I am from the United States, but have lived in Guatemala for the past fourteen years. Several days ago, my home and my community were covered in ash and debris from the eruption of Volcán de Fuego that has generated so much attention and concern around the world. With great fortune, Antigua — the city where I live — received only the lightest, glancing blow in a tragedy of nearly unimaginable proportions. Several communities not far from my adoptive hometown have simply been eradicated. Others are just beginning the long process of digging out from land that will be unproductive for many, many years to come. Hundreds of people were killed outright. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, have been uprooted from their homes. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions will be affected in profound, life-altering ways in the years ahead. For those of us who survived by luck and geography, there will be a perpetual reminder on the horizon that we’re neither in command of this planet, nor our fortune upon it. So much depends on unseen fault lines below the surface and the direction of the wind.

The need in the area is overwhelming and before driving further with these thoughts, I would like to direct readers to two donations pages if they are moved to contribute to our recovery and relief efforts. One is called SERES, an NGO that supports the development of leadership capacities in Guatemalan youth. They have projects directly in the impact zone and are working to bring immediate relief to communities in need. The other is an ad hoc effort put together by my dearest friends to deliver medical supplies where they are needed most. If you choose to give, either will be trusted stewards of your contribution. I promise. And thank you.

With that accomplished, I’d like to try and draw out a few lessons from the disaster for my countrymen up north, particularly as the story of this human catastrophe will soon fade from the news. In short, I’d like my friends in the United States to understand that the eruption of Volcán de Fuego in June of 2018, will have a direct impact on the number of migrants who will head out on the long, desperate road toward hope in the coming months. It might mean an extra five-hundred human beings at the border. It might mean another five thousand. As they say down here, ¿Saber? Who knows? In a way, the number doesn’t matter. What does, however, is the possibility that these tragedies might reset the way migrants from Latin America are conceptualized by many citizens in my home country.

With particular vehemence in recent years, the image of Latinos coming to the United States — shaped by politicians and media interests seeking an advantage by mining centuries of xenophobia and fear of outsiders — is one of inherent criminality, laziness and parasitism. Migrants are portrayed as victimizers, ready to sell drugs, or to rape and murder citizens, or to live off a beleaguered, overly generous state. That is madness, of course, and perhaps in these days of human solidarity forged from tragedy, there is a chance to break through that bigoted lie.

People simply do not leave their homes, walk thousands of miles toward an unsure chance at marginalized opportunity on a whim or because they are lazy. Rapists don’t travel halfway around the world to find their victims. Human beings migrate because they must, and no more of them are criminals than in any other population. Human beings leave their homes and families, as they will in this case, because their cornfields are barren and their children face the threat of chronic, persistent hunger if they stay. They leave because the carrying capacity of their land has been crippled or the factories where they worked have been shuttered. The survivors of El Rodeo, Yepocapa, Alotenango will not want, in the coming weeks, to leave their broken families so that they might get a job picking strawberries in California or working the graveyard shift at a chicken-plucking plant in Iowa. But many of them will, despite the incredible pain it will cause them and those they leave behind. They will because life here in the Panchoy Valley, for them, has become untenable.

You know this in your bones when you see them staggering down ash-covered paths and carrying their few remaining possessions. My hope today is that my countrymen, even those who want to build a wall and have stricter enforcement of our immigration policies, will remember in the weeks ahead the empathy now in their souls. Soon, very soon, those same human beings you see on your television will leave their families on an uncertain journey north in search of an opportunity to get a job, any job, so that they might send some money back home to help their brothers, mothers, nephews, cousins and children to rebuild. Even if your politics say that these people — and those like them who are uprooted from their lives by the more prosaic horrors of violence, political upheaval, chronic poverty and all the other social ills that drive human beings to flee a world they know — must be stopped at the border, don’t forget that they are human and deserving of dignity and decency in treatment. And perhaps they deserve having you turn a blind eye once in a while and letting their entry into the country slide. Consider this a plea to sanity above and beyond the law: Our country is now at full employment. No one is trying to steal your job. Both things simply can’t be true at the same time.

So let it go. Just let it go.

You have that capacity to let the empathy win, even if it is only in your next conversation about immigrants at the bar, even if it is just in silent reflection the next time you read about an ICE raid at a high school or that the policy of this administration is to forcibly separate infants from their parents at border. You can choose to think of migrants as humans first.

If you feel for the people of Guatemala now, if you wish you could end their suffering now, I beg you to hold onto that humanity in the months ahead. Remember your empathy when they arrive at the border. Remind yourself, to the best of your ability, that it applies to all global migrants driven by poverty, violence, disaster or political instability. To do so doesn’t mean throwing open all borders. It means meditating on the fundamental dignity of your fellow human beings.

The second thought to share comes from a conversation I had with a Guatemalan friend in 2006, and it is a warning of sorts about where we in the United States are heading as a nation. My friend and I were reflecting on the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans a year before. He said, “You know, if Hurricane Katrina hit Guatemala, a lot fewer people would have died.”

The thought bothered me, and I pressed him for what that meant.

He said, “In Guatemala, no one would have waited around for the government to come save them.”

In that moment, the thought offended me but I couldn’t deny its logic. Moreover, with many years and many disasters in between then and now, I’ve come to see both more fully what he meant and where we, as a nation, might be heading.

Down here in Guatemala, faith in the government is utterly nonexistent. There is such deeply embedded corruption, such graft, inefficiency and lack of institutional capacity that when a disaster occurs, no one waits for a national response. They act as individuals and families and neighborhoods.

On the one hand, that is a beautiful thing. In the wake of this disaster my community has pulled together to raise money, distribute resources, deliver medical supplies, food, clothing and hope to where it is needed most. I’m proud to have been a small part of that effort, even from a distance.

Frustratingly, I left on a trip to see family in the United States the day before the volcano blew so I am safely (and maddeningly) sitting in the living room of my family home in Upstate New York while my partner and best friend is in our apartment leading one of the hundreds of self-directed relief efforts that have sprung up in the wake of the pyroclastic catastrophe. While I’m here offering love, support and a bit of money, she is busy coordinating donations from around the country and overseas, purchasing medical supplies and arranging delivery to the affected communities.

All of that is right and proper. It is also entirely human. But viewed in another light, it is deeply tragic in that it manifests our complete and total lack of confidence in the government of Guatemala. It is well known across the nation that the state is broken and self-serving. We all know that if donations make it anywhere near the Congress, they will be sucked up by greedy and feckless politicians or resold at a profit by local elected leaders. It is gallingly sad, but also true.

As such, we are left on our own to help our neighbors. No one here is stupid enough, as my friend noted about Katrina, to wait around for the government to save them — but that is not because the notion of governance is bad. Having lost a functioning government, we all would give practically anything to have it back. We ALL would prefer to live in a world where a state agency could lead these efforts, and we are ALL aware that our best efforts are tragically inefficient when compared to a well-managed crisis response organized by a professional, state-regulated, state-managed entity like FEMA.

And yet, in the United States, what is happening? Are we striving for greater efficiency and national capacity for collectivized response to crisis, or are we sliding ever closer to the collapse of nations like Guatemala? The answers to that question are apparent in the everyday degradation of our infrastructure, our schools, our public facilities — but they are undeniable when put under the stress-test of catastrophe.

If we recall the images from New Orleans after the levees broke, the tens of thousands of our fellow citizens stuck on roofs for days or sleeping in the corridors of the Superdome for weeks, we can both feel shame at that tragedy AND reflect on how far our capacities as a developed nation had fallen under years of neglect. Remember Heckofajob Brownie? Someone had to make the choice to put him into office, and they did so because of a philosophy that government is either inherently useless or so simple to run that any idiot can do it.

Good god, it is neither — and if you live without one for a while, you’ll sure come to know that in your blood. Such short-sightedness cost the lives of over a thousand Americans after Katrina, and yet what has happened since then? Back in 2005, those images — and that reality — rightly came with a steep political cost for President George W. Bush. It was his shame. But where are we now?

Last year the United States suffered two roughly equal natural crises in Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria. Harvey was a Category IV and Maria a Category V, which might explain some of the disparity in results, but clearly something far deeper went wrong with our nation’s response to a natural disaster in the territory of Puerto Rico. Our collective effort was beyond shameful; it was criminal. Our media’s attention was also short-lived and despicable. Our response, to put it bluntly, was saturated with disregard for our fellow citizens and we can’t ignore the obvious reality that the vast majority of those who suffered in Maria were Latino. That is institutionalized racism pulled straight from the dictionary of social wrong. There is very little room to doubt that our government, while it certainly had the capacity to mass our efforts and the public’s attention in response to the multiple catastrophes on the island, simply chose to look the other way — and we did so because the victims were poor, brown and unable to vote in national elections.

What the hell does that say about us? Even if you are a conservative voter, what the hell does that say about our collective soul?

For centuries, our national identity — beneath the surface of partisanship and divide — derives from an aspiration to be better, morally better, than other nations. John Winthrop quoted the Gospel of Matthew in his 1630 sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, while still aboard the Arbella that brought his Puritans to our shared hemisphere for the very first time. He entreated his fellow Pilgrims to remember that they are “the light of the world,” and that they must build a “shining city upon a hill” that cannot be hidden.

There’s long been a divide in our nation about the meaning and impact of those words. There are those who take it as a revealed truth — that we are, by dint of our origins, an exceptional nation.

I tend to think of it more as an aspiration than a revealed truth.

When I was a boy, President Ronald Reagan echoed those words both on the eve of his election in 1980 and in his farewell address to the nation in 1989 and while in all my life, I rarely have had occasion to agree with Reagan on anything, I did feel a flutter when he spoke those words.

I did so not because I agreed with his politics, but because aspiring toward something better: A safer harbor, a more perfect community of neighbors — is the essence of human decency.

That aspiration toward being better is what I see now as my neighbors in Guatemala scramble and strive to try and save their neighbors. It’s what will drive hundreds or thousands of those neighbors to head north on foot in the days ahead, hoping that jobs as undocumented line cooks and bar backs in New York City or Chicago might provide the resources to put a roof over the heads of the families they leave behind. They will be striving to achieve a dream, but not one forged in desire for personal wealth or fame or historical note. Their aspirations will be to help other people — and to do so, they will need your help, either actively by advocating for their full and legal participation in our society, or passively by just letting it all go and not calling the police on an immigrant, or voting for someone who claims Christian values while barring the manger door.

Either way, you’ll be helping my neighbors, and for that, you have my thanks.

For me, the question that rings in these last moments before I call home to see how I can help my partner and our friends more, is simple: What kind of a nation do we want to be? Do we want to be equal to Winthrop’s dream? Do we want to serve as a land of hope and dreams for people fleeing the unseen fault lines of history and the hard luck of fortune’s wind?

Winthrop, too, was once an immigrant just reaching American shores. He, too, had fled a land of persecution in the hopes of building a better world. He, too, had run out of choices back home.

God, I hope that’s who we are. For now though, it’s time to get back to work.

Michael Tallon is an independent writer from Upstate New York who lives in Antigua, Guatemala. He is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing his experiences with a rare genetic disorder than nearly cost him his life in 2015. Follow him

  • The man in the photograph originally posted with this story passed away yesterday. I apologize for any additional trauma the use of his image may have caused to his family and loved ones.

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