Stories of Hope: Marina from Guatemala

We launched our Stories of Hope series last month to share the lives and faces behind immigration in the US. By highlighting one of our clients each month, we share their journeys and hope you take away something new about the American immigrant community. This month, we are excited to feature Marina from Guatemala.

Life in Guatemala

Marina was born in La Antigua, Guatemala. She describes her hometown as a “very old city with cobblestones and traditional colonial home-style housing.” She attended school in this city until the sixth grade, leading a calm life in this “wholesome environment.” Reminiscing, she describes how the city would have beautiful automobiles and they’d play a game of “Oh, how many cars can we see?”

One of Marina’s favorite memories of childhood is how the community would always come together, especially in times of need, such as when her father passed away, and spending time with her siblings and grandparents. One memory in particular was her mother’s Christmas decorations; “they were made out of glass and I used to make piñata for us, with little pieces of candy and then pretend that the doll or whatever was breaking the pinata for them too.” She’d also spend a lot of time with her grandmother, who would garden with her and teach her how to cook.

However, this calm lifestyle did not last forever. Eventually, the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, reached her hometown. The impact was visible and the lifestyle changed drastically. When returning to visit, the remnants of the war could still be felt and seen, even decades later.

Emigrating from Guatemala

Marina first came to the United States at the age of twelve to study, around the time when the Civil War began affecting her and her family.

Although extremely young at the time, Marina describes how she felt leaving her home country as excitement; “I felt excited, but then also sad because, I’m the youngest of four children, so I was very dependent on my oldest sister—my oldest two sisters who took care of me most of the time and also my nanny.” Leaving during a time before the internet, it was harder to stay in touch. Thinking back, Marina states how “you had to write letters and we had to wait a whole month before you got a reply. So it was a little difficult because I was going into a household where I was the only child.”

Now, she tries to visit once every one to two years, typically staying for about two weeks. Most of her family remains in Guatemala, but she has found a family here among relatives and friends. With the wonders of technology nowadays, it has gotten a lot easier for her to stay in touch with those she left behind all those years ago. WhatsApp has bridged the gap between the US and her home country of Guatemala, without having to wait months for a reply.

But friends and family weren’t all that was left in Guatemala. Thinking back, she reflects, “I left all my things basically. So it’s like just one suitcase. I think at that time I could only travel with 50 pounds. So a lot of things were for my aunt and uncle.” But there is one thing she does remember bringing with her: “ I did bring a traditional doll from Guatemala and a stuffed toy rhinoceros,” which was given the name Riney.

At the age of twelve, Marina settled down in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1978. She was brought to the US by her aunt and uncle, who raised her after her father’s death. Marina thinks back about first coming to the US, “There was something really wonderful about coming to the United States. We all had the same opportunity where one of us could come.” Although she was only twelve years old at the time, her family wanted to make sure she could continue her education without any gaps. “The idea was for me to come to finish, to graduate from high school, and then go back.” However, once she was in the US and she achieved these goals, she “started thinking more progressive from my Latin roots. And I was like, wait a minute. I could go to university here.” 

Deciding to stay longer than intended, she later moved down to Florida, where she lived with an old family friend. Lovingly dubbed her “American mom,” Marina lived with her to support her through cancer treatment while she attended the Florida State University in Tallahassee. “I ended up getting scholarships in order to finish my undergraduate degree.” Although she had the support system from her “American Mom,” she still had to find ways to support herself; “I actually worked ‘illegally’ at that time to clean houses. I did what I needed to do in order to survive, to provide for myself. My American mom would provide housing and other things, but certain things that I needed; I needed their car, car insurance, and health insurance.”

After graduation, she moved to Georgia through work and settled for a while.

Moving Abroad, Again, and Again

After several years in the US, she left in 2002. By then, Marina was in her late thirties, which made the transition to a new country and culture more difficult than when she came to the US as a child. Having moved to three different countries since she left Guatemala, Marina reflects on how “it was very difficult because I had some transition. First, my transition was from Guatemala to the United States, where everything was left, you know, left behind except one suitcase. Then from the United States to Morocco, two suitcases. And then from Morocco to China, one suitcase and my dog. So I cannot move without my luggage.”

She first left the US for Morocco when her then-husband received a notice from immigration informing him that he needed to leave the country. Although they wanted to go to Guatemala, it was too unstable at the time. Instead, they decided to go to Morocco. However, after six months there, her then-husband only had an internship position and was eventually told his services were no longer needed. 

Presented with this issue, they looked for other opportunities. They decided on China, and he went ahead to determine if it would be a good fit before she joined him. During that time, Marina returned to Guatemala. Later, she picked up her dog in France, who was staying with a friend during her time in Guatemala and then joined her then-husband in China. Once she had settled down, she became a village teacher.

Thinking back on what she was able to take with her and what she had to leave behind, she focused on photographs. Moving “usually meant leaving everything behind—all the physical things. When I moved to Morocco, I took the pictures with me, my childhood pictures. But then when I moved from Morocco, I had to distribute all my belongings to his family. And then that package of pictures and things that I held very deep in my heart, I took it back to Guatemala at that point; I just left it with my family during my travels. I finally got those pictures back maybe two years ago.” 

But sometimes, important pieces get left behind. Remember the little stuffed rhino she brought with her to the US when she was twelve? He made it from Guatemala to the US, to Morocco, to China. However, “when I returned from China, I didn’t bring him back. Basically, I brought back two suitcases, which were just my personal belongings, my jewelry, my clothing, and my computer. You know, the greatest thing I brought back was my memories, with my friends.”

Reflecting on this journey, she states “I think the thing that I’m most proud of is the importance that I place on that adaptability…You must have a sense of feeling really secure about yourself and the relationships you established.”’

Calling America Home

Marina returned to the US after dating her current husband. This wasn’t the first time they met; they had known each other for twenty years before, throughout which they continued their friendship. Over the years, they married other people and led separate lives. Eventually, both found themselves divorced and then found each other again.

Being back was a bit of a culture shock for Marina, even though she’d lived here before. “When you stay away from a country for more than seven years, you kind of adapt the lifestyle, the culture of that country to be your own. So for me, I had a really hard time adapting to being back in the United States.” As opposed to living in the rush of the big city, “here it’s just a little bit more relaxed, which is fine.” After the thrill of being back and with her husband, there was a “honeymoon stage,” but then it became really difficult because finding a job, those types of things, have become a little bit more arduous than before.” Pondering if she is in the US to stay, she reflects on how “it’s not just about me. It’s also about my husband and does he feel he still belongs here.” Marina’s husband is German, so a mesh of identities, cultures, and a sense of belongingness all have to be considered. “Sometimes we say yes, sometimes I’m like no. Where shall we go? And you see all these things going around and it’s like, oh, sometimes it’s better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know.”

Although she may have lived in four different countries in her lifetime, she felt at home in the US at a very young age; it even “predates my moving here; for me it was always kind of like in the stories, narratives that I created in my mind from a very young age or now working here, I think it was kind of like the dream. That was what sold me, in a way.” But, even more so, “I felt more belonging in my first stay in the United States, to be honest. There was no discrimination, no biases, those types of things.” Once she’d returned after her time in Morocco, Guatemala, and China, with her now-husband, she says how he “always made me feel very welcome and still does.”

Community and Immigrants

The goal of this series is to bridge the divide between locals and newcomers, especially with the abundance of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media. Not only do we want to share the stories of our clients and immigrants in the community, but we want to share their message and thoughts. 

Marina urges people to consider the perspective of undocumented immigrants and their intentions when coming to the US. “They don’t come here to steal people’s jobs. 1) because those jobs people don’t want to do and 2) they are really hard workers.” The negative conceptions that people have of immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are often exacerbated by the media and can create false ideas about their journeys and status. “Even those with good intentions have bad reputations,” especially with the rhetoric in politics and media. There is the conception that “we are all drug dealers crossing the border, with drugs and/or intentions to cause harm.” Context and perspective are crucial when judging their character because although “some people may be bad, it’s for survival.”

Additionally, Marina emphasizes that one must consider why they are coming to the US in particular. Based on her own experience, “Growing up in Guatemala, we had a lot of big companies that came from the United States. Then, they all left, [and now they] point fingers at those coming here illegally.” The US accuses them, “saying ‘you are coming into our country’, but we need to consider how they created that dependency.” Marina states “It’s really important for us to evaluate. I think that’s the thing that we need to remember when we start thinking about policies and the impact we make across the world.”

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