Manuel Portillo, the director of community engagement at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News
Manuel Portillo, the director of community engagement at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

“I was very angry at the United States”

Manuel Portillo, the director of community engagement at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, is a survivor of the brutality that Guatemala suffered in…


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The people’s blood has been the ink with which the vast majority of countries on the other side of the border have written the darkest episodes of Latin America’s history, as the intellectual authors of such tragedies have often lived out the rest of their lives without ever spending a single day in jail.

Guatemala has its own chapter of violence. One of its protagonists was former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who died last Sunday at the age of 91 without having been held accountable for the crimes against humanity committed by the Guatemalan army during one of the most atrocious periods of the country’s armed conflict.

It was between March of 1982 and August of 1983 when the Central American country suffered the most massacres in 34-year span of its civil war (1962-1996).

According to Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH, in Spanish) –as cited by El País– nearly 10,000 people were killed (most belonging to the Mayan Ixil indigenous community), 448 villages were destroyed, and the number of refugees skyrocketed to 100,000 people during Ríos Montt’s 17 months in power.

Trailing only Colombia, which has 82,998 registered cases, Guatemala has the second highest number of people who were forcibly “disappeared” of any country in Latin America, if to the 6,159 victims of this crime against humanity are added the 23,671 Guatemalans that were arbitrarily executed or were murdered in extrajudicial killings.

According to the CEH’s report “Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio” (Guatemala’s Memory of the Silence), “by combining data and other studies about the political violence in Guatemala, the CEH considers that the balance of deaths and disappearances reached over 200,000 people” by the end of the conflict.

Today, 22 years after the war ended, the victims have a long list of unanswered questions, and are still seeking justice — a search that continues not just in Guatemala but also here, in Philadelphia.

A social repairer

Manuel Portillo, the director of community engagement at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, is a survivor of the brutality that Guatemala suffered in the armed conflict, due in large part to the U.S. government’s involvement. Today, he is a weaver of life in Philly.

Manuel came in to the U.S. in the mid-80's displaced by a war that took the lives of several members of his family. “I made the decision to come to the U.S. because I was angry at the United States. I wanted to tell American people what was going on and what happened to us and, generally, give them information about the presence and the impact their country was having,” he said.

In other words, Manuel wanted to point out those responsible for the crimes that tore apart his life and his country. He wanted to tell American society that a good portion of the human rights violations committed in Guatemala were only possible because of U.S. aid to the dictatorship.

The blatant indifference of the vast majority of Americans to the bloodshed in his homeland deeply pained him.

As reported in 1999 by The Washington Post, declassified U.S. intelligence documents showed that “the United States was intimately involved in equipping and training Guatemalan security forces (...) and that the CIA retained close ties to the Guatemalan army in the 1980’s.” The CEH established that 97 percent of the crimes against humanity that occurred during the conflict were committed by Guatemalan security forces.

With time, though, Manuel’s anger morphed into something else. He knew that the only way to cure his wounds consisted in carrying on the legacy of his parents: promoting and defending others’ rights and working together for the common good.

Since then, he has been committed to the empowerment of thousands of immigrants based in Philadelphia, helping them navigate a strange culture and all of the difficulties that come with starting over in a new country so that they can build their lives here.

For his work in the community and his personal journey as a Guatemalan immigrant and an American citizen, Manuel is one of the finalists for AL DÍA  and Cabrini University’s I Am An American Immigrant campaign.

What is it like, being an American immigrant?

I can certainly say that I am an American immigrant. That means to me that I feel very American, I admire this country, I love this country, I love this city, I love my neighbors, that makes me an American. Having a piece of paper that says that I am an American is not what makes me feel I am American.

I don’t think that citizenship is the best way to describe who is an American and who is not. I think it has  to do with how you assume, defend and promote your rights, but also with how you assume your responsibilities and deliver your civic responsibilities to and with others.

When was the first time you felt like home here in the U.S.?

I felt Philadelphia was my home when people welcomed me in the neighborhoods. I was kinda surprised.

I started working as a community organizer [and] at some point people were very friendly in the neighborhoods that I worked. I still have a heavy accent and in those years I’m sure it was worse. I don’t even know if people were understanding me clearly but somehow they welcomed me and it was the sense of working together with them [that] made me feel at home.

I realized that people didn’t have any hatred because I was an immigrant, people didn’t mind — they actually welcomed me and we worked together and we addressed issues that affected all of us.

What are the contributions that immigrants do for this society?

We offer a lot of leadership to the city. We are also people that don’t fool around, we are here  with a purpose. We are hard workers, we focus on our goals, we are family-oriented and having a job and a useful social role is very important for us.

A lot of times, success stories are viewed more in terms of the person who claims -she or he- went up the ladder and became a millionaire. I [define] success in listening to people and understanding that every person has his right to define his or her own success.

So stories abound. For example, a guy from Colombia who came as an engineer and came to Philadelphia not speaking English… in a matter of three months, he took classes and after learning the language very quickly, [he] received training and began to acculturate –meaning learning the culture of the city and the culture of engineering in the city. hen in a matter of few months [he] found a job and became a junior engineer in a company. From there he began to help other people to connect to similar opportunities that he had. And that story repeats over and over.

"Every person has his right to define his or her own success."

To give you another example, in Philadelphia the vast majority of new businesses are being created by immigrants. That’s a fact that not a lot of people know, there have been a couple of studies recently that say that over 80 percent of new businesses in Philadelphia are being opened by immigrants.

Is there any special reason that explains that?

The entrepreneur experience is very strong among immigrant communities and I believe that is primarily the main reason.

Immigrants are entrepreneurs. We don’t say that immigrants are looking for a job; immigrants are looking for opportunity and the opportunity can come in many different ways.

It’s also interesting that people open businesses a lot of times based on their own resources, which also implies that immigrants invest in the city. Sometime it’s family networks that come out with the money to invest in a new business, or some of them are able to get a loan from somewhere.

The second reason I would say that Philadelphia is a city that has been making a lot of progress welcoming immigrants and acknowledging the contributions that [we] make: We have a mayor that is very committed to supporting immigrants. And having a friendly and welcoming environment of course is a major factor in why immigrants are so open to opening up businesses in this city and being successful at it.

Without that support I think we would see a different picture.

If Donald Trump were in front of you, what would you say to him?

I look at him as a human being, I really do. I think he is mistaken. Underneath everything that he says and does is his humanity, and I look at him like that.

I don’t believe in vengeance, I don’t believe in “payback time.” I believe in justice and my only hope is that the young people, the new generation will not [be] hateful in response, but [that] there will be a new generation that will not forget ever all the damage that Mr. Trump is causing them.

Because we [don’t] see damage now, but wait for a few years and you will see the impact that his policies will have on the new generation. It would be devastating.

I just hope that people will not forget that and that they will take action to make sure that that horrible experience – [of] having a national leader who instead of recognizing the contributions, does hate, insult, and mistreat people – will never repeat.



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