A Trip to Guatemala: Challenges Affecting Youth in Patzún, Guatemala

A Trip to Guatemala: Challenges Affecting Youth in Patzún, Guatemala

By: Johanna Roman, Program Manager for Latin America, Conflict and Development Foundation & Regional Lead for Latin America, Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University

December 16, 2014


During my recent trip to Guatemala to work on projects for the Conflict and Development Foundation (CDF) and the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University, I had the opportunity of engaging in conversations with people from Patzun in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Patzun was devastated by the political violence of the civil war which peaked in the early 1980s. The civil war left lasting physical, psycho-social and economic effects on their people.

Patzun is an indigenous city located in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. The vast majority of the population is Kaqchikel Mayan and only a very small percentage is ladino. Problems include widespread poverty and malnutrition; inadequate education; lack of job opportunities, and violence. Petty theft is common. Since the end of the war in 1996 armed robbery has become a problem.

While interviewing a youth program coordinator in Patzun and her assistant, I learned that youth --and particularly young girls in these communities-- face many challenges. Some young people are hardworking, ambitious and independent. However, they have very few opportunities to succeed.  Some of the main problems associated with youth are poverty, lack of education, and lack of job opportunities. The quality of education that those that have been able to attend school is deficient. Many young people want to leave in search for job opportunities in urban cities, the capital city, or other countries.

Men work in fields of blackberries, broccoli, snow peas, and other vegetables in the mountains surrounding the towns. The land is fertile, but agricultural wages are very low and work is hard. Many farmers own a small plot of land, or lease it for farming activities. Fields are tilled by hand and many families practice subsistence agriculture, growing corn, beans and squash for their family to consume. Women and girls wear traditional clothes (“huipil”) manufactured by elder women who weave them. Men and boys wear Western clothing, usually purchased at resale shops that sell used clothing shipped in from the US. Some women work in these resale shops.

There are very limited options for youth to pursue a degree in higher education. There is only a branch of San Carlos University (public university) in the municipal capital city of the Department of Chimaltenango. The cost of private universities is prohibited for them. The main problem for youth in these communities is unemployment. A common expression is “I need money.” They often express that they want to go live elsewhere because they “need cash”. Their parents also live in poverty, so many can only help their kids with basic needs: shelter and food. Young people see ads showcasing youth wearing nice clothes and shoes, and they want to leave home because they cannot afford them. For example, young males see ads for brand tennis shoes and they immediately think they need to go to the US to work to be able to obtain them. Many migrate, and many are deported. When they return to their communities, they do no longer like living there. They don’t like the fact that they have to live in modest adobe houses with a dirt floor, without running water or electricity, and with different bathrooms.

Regarding extra-curricular activities for youth, a few local churches help organize soccer or swimming matches for boys, but girls really do not have an opportunity to participate in sports. During weekends, you see youth hanging out at the central plaza or participating in church activities. Not too many gang members are seen hanging out in the streets. Young people are influenced by music, but that is not always a good thing. Recently, a local rock band from the nearby city of Comalapa had an influence in suicide rates among young people. There are many cases in which young men get their girlfriends pregnant and they see their dreams of leaving truncated. 

In other municipalities, the government has an office for youth programs. In these communities, there is a great need to offer opportunities for youth to engage in sports or extra-curricular activities. Many elders think youth are lazy because they are seen hanging out on the streets talking in groups, but the reality is that they do not have an opportunity to do something productive. Some young men work in the family plot, but young women do not work the fields. Girls are asked to prepare, deliver, and serve food for them, or they have to stay home to help take care of their siblings and help cook family meals. Some tend to their small family gardens or help raise chickens.  

Violence and abuse against women is a big problem. Many girls as young as 13 are “married” to older men that are twice their age. They start having babies at a young age and they have to stay home to care for them. Those that have babies but do not get married receive little support from their parents. Some women are able to find jobs in small grocery stores, and some sell fruits and vegetables during market day.

The streets are deserted during the evenings, not only because it is dangerous but also because there is nothing to do. People stay at home and the streets are silent as of 6 pm. Recently, locals have noted that foreigners have been moving to these communities. They look different and have a different accent. They are not Mayan. People believe they are engaged in extortions, but nobody wants to report them to the police. When major incidents happen, the community gets together and they take matters into their own hands (Mayan punishment). Some community members have organized a crime watch, especially to report thefts. The main businesses in town such as small hotels or bank branches have resorted to purchasing rifles for protection. Theft is a big problem in these communities. Cell phone theft is very common. Residents have noted that dead dogs are a warning sign that a robbery will occur in that house.  Some women carry knives for protection, especially when traveling by bus. Thieves hang out at the main bus stops, ready to rob people. Women are more vulnerable.

Despite all these problems, organizations like Renacimiento Association are working with youth to provide them with opportunities for a better future. Renacimiento Association has a youth program that promotes youth leadership and entrepreneurship. They provide training on how to create a life plan and offer business and marketing courses so that teens can engage in entrepreneurship activities such as raising chickens and selling eggs, manufacturing shampoo with natural products, preparing water-based ice-cream, and others. Renacimiento Association also operates a small vegetable packing center and offers job opportunities for youth. In 2015, the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University will be implementing a project in this vegetable packing center entitled  Enhancing Livelihood and Incomes of Rural Women through Postharvest Technology. 

The Center on Conflict and Development believes that large youth populations present opportunities and challenges for countries in transition, like Guatemala. Whether youth become a source of prosperity or a driver for local and regional instability depends upon strategies that link youth to productive livelihoods and inclusive engagement. ConDev seeks to support initiatives that empower youth populations as agents of positive economic, social, and political change in fragile and conflict-affected environments. Most importantly, our approach concentrates on building workforce skills that link youth populations to meaningful jobs.

The Conflict & Development Foundation is promoting focused research on drivers of conflict and the nexus between conflict and food security in Guatemala and El Salvador. In collaboration with the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University, CDF is supporting researcher efforts in those countries to collect data on conflict affected communities to better understand the conflict dynamics in an attempt to identify conflict hotspots and make recommendations for development efforts aimed to reduce tensions that might lead to conflict. In addition, CDF seeks to identify innovative development initiatives that have worked in promoting peace and stability across Latin America, with particular focus on agricultural development and issues of food security.