The Donation: A Guatemalan Story
This is the story of how a Guatemalan immigrant led an effort to support her people in the midst of tragedy in her native country.
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Immigration is a roundabout tale of those who stay and those who leave, a distance-proof human elastic band that millions of hands expand from one country to another, one continent to another, even bonding total strangers—if only for mere instants.
On June 3, 2018, the eruption of Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala, which left hundreds of people dead and missing with thousands rendered homeless, tapped into that link between men, women, and children who had never met face to face.
It happened in real time, with images going viral. Watching people run to save themselves—many to no avail—triggered something in other communities thousands of miles away. The reaction reached Guatemala in that roundabout dynamic between the immigrant and the migrant, in the form of donations: money, medication, food, clothes. It was the bond between those who left, but know what it means to stay, and those who stayed to attempt a life that wouldn’t force them to flee—even though the volcano had other plans for them.
The eruption began at 6 a.m. Nine hours later, it had turned deadly: avalanches of ash, sand and toxic gas descended at 25 miles per hour, covering three villages southwest of the volcano, blocking access to another six, 27 miles from the Guatemalan capital. It was not until then that authorities issued a mandatory evacuation, but it was too late. Many people never made it out of their homes, or an avalanche reached them as they ran downhill along their villages’ alleys, or alongside the main highway. They died burned and asphyxiated. Rescue workers estimate the death toll in the thousands, although the official data two months after the disaster claimed that 165 died and 260 disappeared.
It's the next day and there are almost 2,000 evacuees in several shelters in different locations southwest of the capital. Several thousand more are isolated in their villages with the access roads, destroyed by the Taniluyá River (which some call Asunción), overflowed by the eruption debris. The ones venturing out must sink their legs knee deep in the black and turbulent waters, which churn and swirl into giant rivulets, making their way among the seven-foot-high rocks that the avalanche dragged from the volcano to the river. Farmworkers still employed in nearby ranches, their rubber boots elevated above their heads in a firm grasp, wobble their way across to the other side. Others head out in search of food; some women, holding toddlers and small children in their arms, head out to a doctor’s appointment.
On the sandy and dry river beds, some men sit around on rocks to watch the turbulent current and wait. It’s the same story every year, they say, once it starts raining and the river overflows, their villages are cut off from the rest of the province. The volcano’s eruption only makes it worse. They say that the government retrieved a bulldozer that was clearing the way, to reopen a road in another county; that building a bridge would solve everything. They speak in a tired tone. That is how much they have repeated themselves: to the government, to reporters who arrive and interrupt their constant ruminating. These are communities in the San Pedro Yepocapa County, in the state of Chimaltenango, where the eruption damaged roofs and corn and bean crops for personal consumption.
It’s a déjà vu from the 1974 eruption, another reminder of why so many families have lived there for several generations: in this area, two centuries ago, the government provided credit for land purchase. It was already a high-risk zone due to the volcano, but later on it would deem dangerous for other reasons as well. In the early 1980s, residents were caught in the crossfire and vendettas between the guerrilla and the army, in the worst years of the armed conflict. Most of them stayed because they had nowhere else to go, just as they don’t now, almost 40 years later.
One week after the eruption, a donation navigated the winding road to Morelia, a village in Yepocapa. It made its way from New Rochelle, in Westchester County, New York, some 3,276 miles away. It was money collected, with the help from family and friends, by Margarita, a Guatemalan migrant who moved to New Rochelle to work and save enough money to help her parents build a home of their own in Guatemala. Five years later, Margarita has yet to return. Her parents’ home was built, but Margarita’s family in Guatemala still needs the financial support her U.S. income provides.
Margarita sent the donation to her relatives in Guatemala: her aunt Alicia and her husband, Roberto. The couple, joined by their son and nephews, bought a couple pickup truck-loads of food and clothing with the money Margarita sent to take to Morelia, an isolated community, along with their guide Victor Charuc.
Due to unconfirmed reports that the government was mishandling donations, Margarita insisted that any help sent should be directly delivered to the people who needed it, not to government officials.
June 3 was Corpus Christi Day. It was also the anniversary of Saint Gabriel’s Church, our parish, my husband’s and mine, and for the first time in its history (of 115 years) it organized a procession in New Rochelle, to walk the streets praying the rosary and chanting. We had returned home at six in the evening, when my boss texted me: “Margarita is your family OK?” I felt my heart jumping out of my chest, and a sudden and sharp headache. I quickly replied, “Why are you asking me if my family is OK?” She answered back, “because of the volcano eruption in Guatemala.” I didn’t know what was going on.
We immediately turned on the TV, and what we saw was horrible: Images of the lava and an enormous black cloud reaching a bridge, while people tried to run away. There was a woman with a little boy who couldn’t run, and she was dragging him, while she carried a toddler on her back, covered up with a large shawl—a rebozo—that was tied across her chest. She ran and ran, but the cloud covered them, until you couldn’t make out their silhouettes. I feel my chest tighten up every time I remember the images of people running desperately, looking over their shoulder, only to discover that no one else was running behind them anymore.
I don’t know how to explain what I felt. My God! My parents were safe because they live far away from the volcano, so I called my aunt Alicia and my aunt Reyna, who live in Antigua, Guatemala (11.6 miles away from the volcano). I was relieved to know they were safe. That night, my husband and I barely got any sleep. We could not peel ourselves from the ongoing news.
Helping those who help: Alicia’s story
On Sunday night, my son Edwin, 27, and I were watching TV. There was nothing else on the news but the tragedy caused by the volcano. I was wondering what we could do to help as I watched how the firefighters, policemen and other rescue workers looked for survivors, walking on improvised pathways: wooden boards propped up on cinder blocks and rocks, because the ground was still hot—hot enough to melt a rubber shoe sole. We didn’t have much money, so the only idea I came up with was to prepare bean sandwiches and coffee to hand out to those rescuing survivors.
Edwin telephoned my nephew Randy and we all went to buy supplies. Along with Edwin and his girlfriend Daniela, we prepared 75 sandwiches, and coffee, in a cooking pot big enough to hold one hundred cups. We loaded up Edwin’s pickup truck and headed to a shelter in Alotenango, Sacatepéquez (on the western side of the volcano). When we arrived, they didn’t let us in because there were too many people there already, between evacuees and rescue workers. They didn’t even thank us. One police officer stopped the car and ordered us out of there, so Edwin backed up and parked in the street, right outside the compound fence.
As we stood there, we formed a line in front of the pot of coffee, styrofoam cups, and the plastic basin with the sandwiches wrapped in napkins, readying ourselves to hand them out as the rescue workers returned from the buried villages. Every single one of the rescuers was soaked and covered in soot and dirt. It had rained heavily—rain blackened by ash and sand that the volcano had spat straight into the sky.
The rescue workers didn’t expect to be greeted with hot coffee and sandwiches. They happily accepted them! They cracked a smile when it was obvious they didn’t even feel like talking. Some of them had had to carry the little bodies of dead babies and children. That’s when Margarita called. She could hear a lot of background noise and asked where we were. After I told her, she and her husband offered to send some money ($450), so we could return the rest of the week to the shelter with more food. The next day, there were so many rescue workers there that we ran out of coffee before we could hand each one a cup, so the money that Margarita sent allowed us to make some atol, more coffee, and larger sandwiches. It made the rescue workers happy, at least for a few minutes.
Nostalgia, that phantom pain: Margarita’s story continued
I don’t know if you have noticed, but my aunt Alicia is a walking heart. I have called her every single day since the tragedy, but a voice message that she sent me telling me that they had ran out of coffee for everyone broke my heart. That’s why my husband and I decided to help. You see, I haven’t returned to Guatemala in five years because I can’t. It makes me very homesick because I am very patriotic. In our home in New Rochelle, I have the Guatemalan flag displayed on a table in the living room because I love my people! Given the chance, I would have joined the rescue workers in a heartbeat, in the buried villages, especially when survivors told them, “my mom is here; my whole family is here, because this is where my house used to be.”
One day after the volcano erupted, around ten in the morning, I texted my friends to let them know what was happening in Guatemala, including a WhatsApp group of about 30 people I belong to, “The Communion Ministers.” Whenever anyone needs help, that is the go-to place to ask for it. I asked if anyone wanted to help, but by four o’clock no one had answered. I was bawling when the phone rang. It was a fellow minister calling. “My three kids and I raised some funds for you; stop by to pick them up so you can send them to Guatemala,” she said. They had $115 dollars waiting for me. Later on, other friends chipped in. “Here’s $50 dollars; here is another $100 dollars, here is $5 dollars,” they said. It just started pouring in. Even kids were helping out. It was all a blessing, you see?
I have a Salvadoran friend who works at a fish market on New Rochelle’s Main Street, Mayra. I told her, “If you want to help, so my aunt can continue to help (in Guatemala), any donation we send will reach those in need directly.” She replied immediately, “Yes, Margarita, of course,” and turned to her cousin and coworkers for help: Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and people from other countries I don’t remember, who in turn also began to collect donations.
When I stopped by to pick up the money, they handed me a roll of bills and, before I left, my friend asked me. “Are you sure it will reach those who need it the most?” I reassured her. “Yes, it will reach those in need directly,” I said. Then, a woman who was at the fish market, who seemed to have overheard our exchange, asked me, “Are you sending money to Guatemala?” I was about to reply when she said, “Here, here is my contribution.” She took a ten dollar bill out of her pocket and handed it over. I was going to tell her about the whole procedure, when she cut me short. “Ma’am, you don’t have to explain,” she said. She turned around and left.
We first sent $2,000 dollars. Then, three days after the volcano eruption, another $1,000. My aunt Alicia bought adult and children’s clothes, sacks of beans, sugar, and corn.
I insisted on making sure that the donation would directly reach the neediest because I watched on Telemundo how journalists who went to Guatemala to cover the story said that some donations were getting lost. In Facebook, I read about a doctor from Quetzaltenango (Western Guatemala) who went to a shelter to treat the injured and carried a large donation of medical supplies with him, only to be given back a handful of aspirins, IV bags, and gauzes. Everything else was stored away. One government employee said that she had orders to store away everything. The doctor pleaded with everyone not to deliver any help to the authorities because it wasn’t reaching those in need. He was very upset.
On Sunday June 10, one week after the eruption, my aunt Alicia, her husband and my cousins drove to Morelia to deliver the donation. That day we were outside the church in New Rochelle, in the parking lot, collecting more donations from mostly Hispanic parishioners, when my aunt’s messages began pouring in: texts, pictures, videos and voice mail, recording an ordeal. As I saw them, I felt I was going to die.
It had taken them four hours to reach Morelia, although it is only some 37 miles away from Antigua—that is how bad the road is. But also, a mob had held them for at least an hour. They were desperate residents from another isolated village. Some of the men had covered their mouth and nose with t-shirts, and wielded machetes. They took Daniela hostage, and demanded that they hand over some of the food and clothes to let them through. In the meantime, there we were standing next to the church in New Rochelle, with mouthfuls of oh-my-Gods.
Two days later after the trip, Alicia still laughed a nervous cackle. She recalled her son Edwin teasing her about a picture of her floating around in Facebook, holding woman’s underpants in her hand. She guessed it must have been taken by a villager when she was handing them out to a frantic crowd in Morelia. As the crowd began closing her in, she instinctively hurled the package of underwear to what turned into a mob, and ran to a clearing nearby—hands empty, to avoid being surrounded again. If that wasn’t the face of desperation she didn’t know what was.
Alicia later documented the ordeal’s aftermath in a group photograph, at a small shop on their way back to Antigua, where they stopped to sweat off the fright. Their faces white as paper. Hardly 48 hours later, Alicia had already plotted a second trip, this time in a large truck to better navigate the craters along the road, and to carry more food and clothes for more families.
In the meantime, Margarita continued collecting donations in New Rochelle. “There are still too many people needing help,” she said. “Those who were able to flee only with their lives intact lost everything else.” And so the roundabout tale of migrants and immigrants remains a work in progress; some writing it here, and others, over there.