My name is Mariana Calvo and I’m a senior at Duke University. I am from Mexico City by way of Rye, New York. I am majoring in Public Policy and History. This website is a compilation of stories and images that I collected in Guatemala during the summer of 2015. I never expected to spend a summer traveling around the Guatemalan highlands looking for stories on migration and on armed conflict, but everything changed after I volunteered on the US-Mexico border during the immigration crisis of 2014.

If I am being frank, immigration was never a topic that interested me, nor was it a topic that I felt a deep connection to. While I was born in the United States to Mexican parents, I spent most of my formative years in Mexico, and I never identified as the child of immigrants. I simply identified as a Mexican who happened to have an American passport. The privilege of having an American passport never crossed my mind until the summer that I spent working on the border.

From May to July of 2014, I lived in Tucson, Arizona through the DukeEngage program, a program at Duke that fully funds a summer of service. I ended up in Arizona out of pure chance, I had initially applied to a program in Peru, but I didn’t get it. As a backup plan, I applied to a DukeEngage program in Tucson because I felt like I had a good chance of being accepted, and I was interested in visiting the US-Mexico border–a place I had never been to. My interest in visiting the border was sparked after I got a job translating for a social worker in Durham. Throughout my first year, I visited Latino homes in East Durham and began to hear stories about the desert and the border wall. I wanted to learn more, and when I heard about the opportunity to travel to the border region I applied for a program in that location. I was ultimately accepted to the DukeEngage program in Tucson, but I never imagined the profound effect that those two months that I spent in Arizona would have on me.

I arrived in Tucson just as a major immigration crisis was unfolding. In 2014 there was the largest influx of asylum seekers on US soil since the 1980 Mariel boatlift out of Cuba[i]. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America along with tens of thousands of children accompanied by their mothers were caught by US Border Patrol. This led to the oversaturation of Border Patrol facilities and President Obama dubbed this phenomenon “a humanitarian crisis”.

The vast majority of the migrants came from three countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. These three countries are some of the most impoverished countries in the western hemisphere, but what makes them particularly unique is that they are the three most violent countries outside of warzones.[ii] This has led to the plight and flights of thousands of people, and in 2014 that number reached record highs.

Because of a law passed by President George W. Bush called the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, Central American children have to see an immigration judge before being deported to their home countries. Border Patrol was thus under the obligation to release the Central American accompanied and unaccompanied minors from short term detention centers. As result, Border Patrol began to drop off thousands of women who had traveled to the United States with their children at Greyhound Stations across the south-western part of the United States. They were being released to these bus stations to be reunited with family member across the United States, so they could begin deportation proceedings once they reached their final destinations.

Border Patrol began to drop off hundreds of Central American women and children at the local bus station in Tucson. Because I was fluent in both English and Spanish, I volunteered as a translator for a local nonprofit. My job was to contact their families and have them wire us money so we could purchase their bus tickets. I also worked with other volunteers to coordinate food, water, and clothing donations for the migrants. As time went by, my coworkers began to realize that US Border Patrol was housing the migrants in less than ideal conditions. We began to interview some of the women who were passing through the station, and what we found was appalling.

Border Patrol was housing 50 migrants in cells the size of dorm rooms. Migrants were forced to take off their warm clothing and sit in air conditioned cells for days. Many of them were fed expired burritos, or no food at all. Many migrants were given little to no water after having walked in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert for extended periods of time. Too many of them had the misfortune of encountering racist Border Patrol agents who called them “thieves and illegals”. In spite of all of that, I was amazed at how grateful and hopeful they were to be given a chance at a better life in the United States. It was my job to tell them that their time in the United States was most likely limited and that there was a high chance that they would eventually be deported. That was the hardest thing. 

The thought of them being deported haunted me. It still does. During those two months, I heard countless stories about violence and poverty in Central America. I met people who were forced to flee their homes after one of their loved ones was murdered by la mara Salvatrucha. I met countless women who could no longer take the endless blows from their abusive husbands. I met young children coming to the United States coming to meet their fathers for the first time. I met a woman coming to the United States to pay for her mother’s cancer treatment. While each story that I heard was different, I found that every person who passed through that bus station carried powerful stories of hope and of survival. They were the stories of people striving to work and to improve their lives. They were the stories of people who had risked everything for a chance­–not a guarantee–at a better life.

I never saw the people that I met at that bus station again, but I also never forgot what I saw and what I heard. In the months after coming back from the border, I began to reflect on my experiences, and I knew that I wanted to learn more. I was especially intrigued by Guatemala because the vast majority of the people that I worked with were from there. Many of them were indigenous and they spoke a variety of Mayan languages like Mam and K’iche’. While working on the border I wrote down the villages of the people who I’d met. I later began to do research, and I found that they came from the areas that were most affected by the Guatemalan Civil War.



Photo Credit: Sid Gopinath 

Photo Credit: Sid Gopinath 

The Guatemalan Civil War

The Guatemalan Civil War was an armed conflict between the Guatemalan government and left-guerrilla groups. The war started in 1960 and ended in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords. The war was the result of the unraveling of the Guatemalan political system after the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, was removed from power by a CIA backed coup led by Carlos Castillo Armas. This coup ended a short lived democratic era in Guatemala that had begun in 1944, and it ushered in an era of right wing dictatorships.

Jacobo Arbenz was controversial because of the Agrarian Reform Law that he passed in 1952. This law expropriated uncultivated land for poor farmers, who were largely indigenous Mayans. The United Fruit Company, the largest multinational company at the time, held a large portion of the land in Guatemala, and they successfully lobbied the United States government to overthrow him. Arbenz was subsequently labeled a “communist”, and he was forced to leave his country in his underwear. All of the progress that had been made by the Democratic Revolution was over, and the divisions and unrest that the coup provoked resulted in the Guatemalan Civil War.

The war ultimately resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people, 83% of whom were indigenous Mayans[i].  A number that is astounding considering that the population of Guatemala was 10 million by the time the Peace Accords were signed. While there is considerable debate as to whether or not the Guatemalan Civil War was a genocide against the Mayan people, it is clear that they were the most affected by the war. After the war was declared, the guerrilla fled into the highlands, an area that was largely inhabited by indigenous people. As a result, these areas became the battle ground for the war between the guerrilla and the military.  

This is important to contextualize under Guatemala’s long standing social hierarchy based on ideas of racial superiority. Today the richest families in Guatemala are of European descent or of partial European descent, and for centuries the vast majority of land was owned by people of European descent, particularly Germans and Spaniards. Under this system, indigenous people were placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy and many of them lost their lands after the Spanish conquest in 1524. After the conquest, the Spaniards forced the indigenous Mayans to relocate to the most remote and infertile parts of the country. This displacement was made even worse after coffee was introduced to the country in the latter half of the 19th century.

In the racial hierarchy there was a group of people that was ranked in between the Europeans and the indigenous people–the ladinos. Ladinos are people of mixed European and indigenous descent. In spite of their mixed heritage, they wear Western clothing instead of the Mayan traditional garb. Ladinos historically held most of the land in Guatemala. They also held most of the important positions in the government and in the military. As a result, many of them were behind the massacres and violent campaigns that took place during the Guatemalan Civil War. Geography and social standing thus allowed the ladinos to shield themselves from the most brutal aspects of the war. But the most important long lasting effect of this racial hierarchy has been the economic disparity it has caused.

This history of racial hierarchy continues to affect Guatemala. Today over three quarters of the indigenous population in Guatemala lives in poverty, and the poorest areas in the country are predominantly indigenous areas[ii]. As a result, it comes as no surprise that many of the migrants that are coming to the United States today come from indigenous backgrounds.



Photo: Larry Towell

Photo: Larry Towell

The Journey to Guatemala

Once I learned more about the history of Guatemala, I decided that I wanted to conduct an independent research project in Guatemala to try and understand the roots of migration. I believed looking at the causes and effects of the Guatemalan Civil War would inform my understanding of immigration to the United States, so I decided to design an oral history project on armed conflict and migration. Throughout my sophomore year, I applied to grants from Duke and by June 8, 2015, I found myself on a plane from Mexico City to Guatemala City. I lived in Guatemala for two months. I used Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango, as my home base and I traveled to towns around the Guatemalan highlands to find stories about displacement and the civil war.

In total I was able to interview thirty-three people. Because of the nature of the material that I was working with, all of the interviews were kept anonymous. However, I was amazed by how willing people were to talk about their experiences, and I am forever grateful to them for all of the information they entrusted with me. Some of them risked their lives to give it to me.

It would be a lie for me not to say that some of the material from those interviews hasn’t kept me up at night. The subject matter is dense and it is emotionally taxing. Many of the interviews that I conducted dealt with issues pertaining to poverty, sexual violence, and gang violence. There were moments where I felt completely hopeless and disillusioned with humanity, but they were only moments. Whenever I felt that way, I would look around, and I would be in awe of the people and places around me. The beauty of Guatemala and the Guatemalan people gave me hope and fueled my optimism.

Few places in my life have captivated me as much as Guatemala has. I have had the fortune of traveling to many place in my life, but no place has caught my attention as much as Guatemala has. The endless pine trees and volcanoes, the traditional Mayan garb and the colorful buses, the artesanías and the fruit markets, made my jaw drop.  

I had the fortune of connecting with a group of Guatemalans who were eager to show me their country, and I went to some places where I was the only person not wearing traditional Mayan garb.  I was so amazed by how beautiful everything that I saw was that I began to take pictures on my cell phone. I had never taken a photography class, but I began to walk around different markets and festivals taking pictures of everything that I could[i]. I was amazed by the color and liveliness of the places I visited. I needed to document them.

[i] While many of the people that I interviewed were men, most of the pictures that I took were of women. There is a reason for that. Because of migration patterns, many Guatemalan men have left the country to work in the United States. As a result, in many villages the majority of the population are women, which explains why I have so many images of women.

The Project

I had initially taken the pictures for myself, but when I went home I showed them to my family, and my grandfather encouraged me to do something with the photos. I let that thought sit with me because soon after I got back from Guatemala, I went abroad to Istanbul, Turkey. While in Turkey, I also began to think about what I was going to do with all of the interviews that I had recorded, and I gradually began to transcribe some of them.

By the time I got back to Duke in January of 2016, I had eight interviews transcribed. For the entire course of the semester, I wondered what I was going to do with the interviews. I took an independent study and I wrote a long form narrative based on one of the interviews, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with the them. I then signed up to write a senior thesis on the Guatemalan Civil War, but I wanted to release some of the interviews so other people could become acquainted with the themes and stories I have been engaging with for the past two and a half years. I also believe these stories are not solely about Guatemala, there’s a universality to them that I believe everyone can learn from.

Over the summer, I began to draft ideas, and I decided to make a website that combined the photographs that I took along with the interviews that I had. During the summer, I translated some of my interviews from Spanish to English, so I could begin crafting their narratives. My interviewees told their stories with details that I wish I could articulate, and when I was deciding how I would present their stories I attempted to stay as true to their words as possible. Many of the people I interviewed belong to vulnerable populations in Guatemalan society, and I believed it was especially important for them to tell their stories, rather than for me to impose my own framework and opinions. I hope that these stories touch those who choose to read them, as much as they touched me[i].

For this website I made seven narratives using seven interviews as a base to give new insight on the Guatemalan Civil War and on migration.  I embedded those interviews with some of the photographs I took to give people a more personal and realistic perspective on the people that they represent. While none of the people that I interviewed were photographed I believe that their stories can be anyone’s story. I believe combining the photographs and the narratives creates a greater sense of empathy and understanding, because they show that the narratives about rape, poverty, and violence that are featured on this website, are not just stories, there are people behind them. Anyone in those pictures could have a similar story. It’s just a question of listening.

The narratives featured on this website range from a human smuggler to a guerrillero. They recount stories of intense emotional and psychological trauma. As a result, I do not recommend these narratives for people dealing with serious traumatic events. The title of this website is “Glimpses of Guatemala” because it does not reflect all of the perspectives and diversity of Guatemala. The goal of this website is solely to showcase the beauty of Guatemala, alongside the stories and complexities that shape Guatemala today. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into the lives of the extraordinary people who make Guatemala such a compelling and special place.  

[i] None of the content expressed in the narratives reflect any of my personal or political beliefs.