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Why Guatamalans come to Mason County and what happens to them there

Mason County is a unique community, in that indigenous Guatemalan families have found a place in our forest and shellfish industries, have enrolled their children in our local schools and have become involved in our community. According to a survey by Columbia Legal Services, the indigenous worker population in Washington includes about 1,500 Guatemalans of Maya descent, approximately 1,200 of whom live in Shelton, Bremerton, Belfair, and Forks. (Geyman, 2011)

Along my journey this summer, I met Miguel who was born in the U.S., but whose father immigrated from Guatemala. He owns a landscaping company who employed other Guatemalan immigrants. Miguel told me he would never be able to own such a lucrative business in Guatemala, and he told me he was happy to be able to give other Guatemalans jobs as well. Miguel told me the men are the the first to come over, hoping to start their families here because they know their children will have a better chance than if in Guatemala.

We have children in our county who are scared of losing parents who have already risked everything to come here and start a family. Now, more than ever, we are seeing immigration- related detention of people in our county who lack legal support. Many face deportation as well as the fear of leaving behind their family.

Mason County citizens support immigrants

Immigration policy seems to be evolving by the second. Regionally across America, states are becoming divided in how they are reacting to the deportation of countless undocumented residents. In Mason County Washington a small group of citizens is addressing a complex set of challenges. They are operating as volunteers in hopes of supporting local migrant workers, hoping also to relieve new pressures due to reports of large scale deportations.

Through exposure to our local immigrant rights group, Elevate Mason County and especially their Immigrant Support Committee, I have been able to witness the beauty of seeing one neighbor helping another, and have felt the desperation resulting from the changes in immigration policy enforcement. This grassroots group of volunteers, meeting after work on a consistent basis, organized an immigrant rights march on April 30th in Shelton. They have shown me why immigration policy needs to be closely watched, and should be a priority to those of us who do not have to worry about being deported.

Who would want to leave such a beautiful country?

It was research on the streets of Shelton Washington that guided me specifically to our local Guatemalan population. I have learned a relatively unknown story of American involvement in Guatemala that helped me understand more about migration to Mason County. The intent of this work is to help explain how American interests have affected the indigenous people of Guatemala, and how American corporate interests and immigration policy today have kept the indigenous people of Guatemala disenfranchised for many years.

To visit Guatemala as someone who is simply there to enjoy the diverse variety of life as a tourist is a luxury compared to the lives of Guatemala’s indigenous people. To a tourist life seems brilliantly vibrant and colorful. Its natural beauty is presented by the country’s botanical wonders, such as the local fruit, Pitaya–a brilliant pink and purple vine fruit. One can find wonderful food thriving in the wild, such as avocado, papaya, pineapple. There are giant mahogany trees, and 288 endangered species still surviving harsh environmental changes felt throughout Guatemala.

The scenery in Guatemala is unmatched as the ocean waters shine crystal blue on pale white beaches. The country is bounded by the Caribbean Ocean to the north and the Pacific to the south. The average temperature on the beaches of Guatemala varies between 77 and 84 degrees. In Guatemala you will find world-class restaurants specializing in local poultry and beef, as well as European dishes. Another benefit for a tourist is the dollar-to-quetzl ratio at 1 to 7.3. Top-of-the-line hotels are under one hundred dollars per night.

Life might seem perfect in Guatemala—until you learn the stories belonging to the people who have decided to leave with nothing—leaving their lives behind for a chance at a better life somewhere else.

Building an economy on the backs of indigenous people

There are vast class disparities in Guatemala: according to a recent study by the Ministry of Agriculture, 4% of producers control 80% of the land. There is a stark difference between the lives of the struggling indigenous Mayan peoples of Guatemala, and those have come to own the land and businesses. Over 90% of the indigenous people of Guatemala live in extreme poverty. The majority of Guatemalan residents of Belfair and Shelton migrated from Todos Santos, a city high in the Cuchumatan Mountains, deep in the heart of Guatemala’s beautiful coffee country. It is difficult to understand what it is like to have to leave to escape oppression, only to find yourself at risk of deportation in your new homeland.

To understand the journey our neighbors have undertaken to get to this point we need to take a look at what happened to the indigenous people of Todos Santos, and those of Guatemala historically from before the Guatemalan Revolution until now.

The ideology of the Guatemalan government prior to the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution was to grow the economy on the backs of the indigenous people who descended from the Mayans. Rafael Carerra is responsible for passing Decree #170, the Day Laborors’ Regulations in the 1870’s. The countryside and land once held by indigenous communities were quickly turned into coffee and banana plantations; mostly owned by an American corporation, the United Fruit Company. Oppression toward indigenous people intensified as the government strengthened labor regulations while continuing to act in the interests of their political party donors—further weakening popular support of government.

A democratic revolution and land reform in the 1940s

At the height of oppression, a police state was instituted and maintained under Jorge Ubico—dictator from 1931 until a democratic group, led by university students and labor organizers forced him to resign in 1941. They called for an immediate open election. A popular professor of philosophy, Juan Jose Arevalo, won an overwhelming victory, and was the country’s first democratically elected president. He began historic land reform, and remained in power for seven years until losing an election to Jacob Arbenz who continued the much-needed land reform, and social reformation of Guatemala. President Arbenz’s reforms included the right for people to vote, and continued the “ten years of spring,” which further strengthened people’s freedom of speech. Under Arbenz, the government took unused prime land from the corporations and gave it back to over 500,000 poor agricultural laborers.The United Fruit Company was dramatically affected by the newly instituted land reform under Arbenz. His policy changes, which benefited displaced indigenous people, were taken as acts of war by the American-backed United Fruit Company.

The US subverts Guatemala’s democracy on behalf of the United Fruit Company

Pressured by United Fruit, the United States government decided to disrupt the growth of democracy that was happening in Guatemala. Denouncing Arbenz as a communist, the U.S. supported a guerrilla force led by Carlos Armas in 1960. The support from the U.S. was quite extensive, and included tactical training, and intelligence-related operations. This spark ignited a thirty-six year civil that resulted in over 200,000 dead among indigenous Guatemalans fighting for their freedom. According to a 1999 U.N. backed study titled “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” 83% of the people killed in the Guatemalan Civil War were Mayan.

In order to re-establish American influence and in order to retain interests in the profitable business of fruit propagation, Dwight D. Eisenhower began to use his military might to put power in Guatemala back into hands with American interests. Calling it a stronger stance against communism, and citing Communist influence among Arbenz’s advisors, operation PB Success was set in motion to take out the popular leader. The reality of the situation was that Arbenz was redistributing power to the poorest people. This bold change was seen as a threat to U.S. interests. The U.S. backed guerrilla force was instructed to topple the popular government and install a dictator who would return the ripe land of Guatemala to the United Fruit Company.

The people of Guatemala needed freedom and they knew they deserved better. 1960 was the starting point of a long and bloody civil war between the people and the government. For 36 years, from 1960 to 1996 Guatemala was ripped apart. There were an estimated 200,000 casualties, with the Guatemalan Government being responsible for over 90% of the civilian deaths. Since the Civil War began, economic impossibility, lack of civil freedom, violence, and a thriving crime rate have forced immigration from Guatemala to skyrocket.

The legacy of American intervention and our friendly dictators

Todos Santos Cuchumatan sits at over eight thousand feet in elevation, nearly as high as Mt. Baker. In the past, people from Todos Santos did seasonal work picking coffee and bananas, but as the population grew, the work available failed to grow with it, and people are now forced to look for supplemental income somewhere other than the coastal plantations that had supported them for so long. Although Guatemala sounds beautiful, Miguel, my landscaping friend, told me stories of how the indigenous people are living with no running water, dirt floors, and surviving off of beans and rice. The journey to America would not have been necessary if American interests in Guatemala had not interrupted President Arbenz and his much needed land reform.

My recent work has brought me closer than ever to people who are saying enough is enough. They are becoming people of action, trying to create a safe place for those who live and work in our community. Our policies specifically affect our Guatemalan friends and neighbors on a local level, and now an already disadvantaged population is having to live in utter panic and fear–not knowing when, or if their husband, wife, or child will ever come home. Life for undocumented workers in America was always hard. The men coming across are working jobs at the lowest possible wage and living in overcrowded homes, having a hard time surviving without the threat of ICE knocking at their door in the middle of the night.

Mason County will work to build bridges, not walls

Legal support for these families is one need among many—at the top of the list with everyone at Elevate Mason County. Another major issues we face is how best to support a family when the father/husband gets deported. Elevate has also stepped in to help with the process of obtaining passports for the children. Legal services were very much in need as people have so many questions. People have also mentioned a need for translators at this time.

The March for Immigrant Right Support in downtown Shelton was intended to send a message that there are many people in Mason County who would rather see a system that encouraged building bridges, not walls. Although we are a very rural county, our community is not as separated as it seems.

Now, after finally establishing a safe home in America, people from Guatemala are again facing fear—fear of being deported by our government. In our next piece, we will be looking at how immigration enforcement has changed—and how local communities are rallying to protect their immigrant members

People are not a partisan issue. There should be better solutions to help people who want to come here to work and become legal citizens. We can all benefit by supporting people who are as motivated to live out the American dream as our hard-working neighbors from Guatemala.

Loren Bailey is a father, son, student, veteran who is studying social work in order to help veterans at the V.A. He enjoys drum and bass music and being outdoors.



  1. Dawn MacN August 30, 2021

    I worked & lived in Guatemala in the early 1970’s. I worked with CARE, a non-profit development organization, where I worked to provide nutrition and health care to poor Guatemalans. During that time I fell in love with the people who were so very poor yet who are also noble, beautiful and hardworking individuals. Especially I focused on the women and children.
    I purchased many gorgeous huipiles from the women who weaved them for themselves. I now wish to return these garments to the people who they belong to but am not sure how best to do so. I’m searching for avenues to do this so when I saw your story I thought perhaps you might have some good ideas on this.

    My contact information is below. I would appreciate any thoughts you have for me.

    Thank you for the work you are doing.

    Dawn MacNab

  2. Kevin Case September 17, 2021

    Thank you for this very well researched paper. As a resident of Shelton I found it very enlightening regarding the Guatemalan folks I see around town. Just getting to know there story better helps me feel closer to them.

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