On June 18, 1954, the CIA dropped leaflets across Guatemala demanding the resignation of the nation’s democratically-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, and then armed, organized, and trained a military opposition to successfully topple his presidency. Arbenz had supported an agrarian reform policy that was of concern to the United Fruit Company, the American company that owned 42% of the country’s arable land and for which CIA director Allen Dulles served on the board. The U.S.-backed coup initiated a period of political instability and civil war that would plague Guatemala for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed, and more than 1 million were displaced by the ongoing violence.
The new film Reparando begins with the tragic rehearsal of Guatemala’s recent history. While centered on Guatemala—not on the United States—it is also an insightful look at where it is that immigrants come from and goes a long way toward explaining why they come. The extreme poverty depicted in the film—with families living amidst and scavenging from the Guatemala City dump—is sadly a reality in many countries in the Global South. If I were living in a trash dump, sorting through human waste to find the means to support my children, I would absolutely consider migrating to a wealthier country like the United States, and since there would almost certainly be no lawful way for me, as a destitute, poorly educated Guatemalan, to enter under current US immigration laws, I would consider other options. I do not think that as Christians we should celebrate or affirm the breaking of US laws to enter our country, but we should understand the level of desperation that many undocumented immigrants faced in their country of origin that brought them to their choice.
Reparando challenges us to look a level deeper, though, than just the poverty, and to recognize our own nation’s role in Guatemala’s ongoing economic and security woes. Our government, under pressure from a corporation that was profiting enormously from Guatemalan land and labor, played an integral role in the country’s destabilization. When many Guatemalans showed up in the United States and pled asylum, though, their cases were routinely denied, even after presenting clear evidence that they met the legal standard of having a legitimate fear of persecution: to grant their asylum request would be to admit that the U.S. government was propping up a brutal regime that was oppressing its own people. (A lawsuit filed by the American Baptist Churches and several other religious groups eventually forced the Immigration and Naturalization Service to reconsider many of these cases).
Guatemala’s civil war is now over, but violence continues under the threat of powerful gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha. Even this problem, though, has ties back to the United States: these gangs were begun in California by Central Americans who had fled the violence in their home countries, but the gang activity was then exported to Guatemala, El Salvador, and other parts of Central America when gang members were deported back to their countries of origin. These gangs that began in the U.S.—mostly as a mechanism for immigrant youth, particularly those who were undocumented and thus less apt to integrate into the larger society, to defend themselves against other gangs—have turned into an organized crime nightmare for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras today, wreaking havoc on innocent Guatemalans—and motivating some of them to migrate to the U.S, perpetuating what one individual in Reparando calls “the Loop.”
Reparando is a well-made, compelling documentary that challenges Americans—and particularly American Christians—to think about where we might bear some responsibility for our neighbors’ struggles. If we are to love these neighbors, we need to be on guard against future foreign policies that benefit particular interests in the U.S. at the expense of human lives and wellbeing in another country. We also can support the good work of churches and Christian organizations seeking to rebuild; Reparando highlights the work of a few such organizations.
It is that good, gospel-driven work—led by Guatemalan believers like Shorty, a one-time undocumented gang member who met Christ in Burbank, California when someone was not afraid to reach out to him with God’s love, and who now pastors a church in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Guatemala City—that keep the overall tone of the film hopeful. Guatemala’s history is stained—a reality for which my country is at least partially responsible—but, as the film’s narrator says, “hope is rising.”
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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