Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Plaza Pública, a publication based in Guatemala City. You can find the original Spanish version here.
CITY OF GUATEMALA — If Juan Wilmer Tulul Tepaz hadn’t traveled to the United States, he would have celebrated his 15th birthday on Friday. But once he had the idea of going north, no one could convince him to stay, not even his mother, Magdalena Tepaz, or his father, Manuel Tulul.
“We told him he was too young, that he had to wait. But he had already made up his mind,” Tepaz said just hours before Juan Wilmer, the third of his four children, was laid to rest.
Juan Wilmer, called “Apú” by all who knew him, dreamed of building a house for his family, especially his mother. In the village of Tzucubal, in the municipality of Nahualá, which is about 96 miles west of the capital of Guatemala and mainly inhabited by indigenous K’iche’ Maya inhabitants, many dream of building a large and beautiful house . Juan Wilmer lived on little more than the bare necessities of life, in a two-bedroom cinderblock house with a tin roof. All of her belongings fit easily into two bags.
Juan Wilmer wanted more from life. He was ready to take a chance and cross the border, as his older brother had done before him a year earlier.
He was one of 53 migrants who died in San Antonio on June 27 after traveling in a burning tractor-trailer – the highest death toll in such smuggling incidents to date. Authorities in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras confirmed that citizens of their countries were among the victims.
According to a 2020 report from the Office of the President of Guatemala, 84% of the people of Nahualá live in poverty and 13% live in conditions of extreme poverty.
Most families do not live in overcrowded conditions and 99.37% of dwellings are single-family homes, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics.
Although the Tulul Tepaz family had their own home, they had to make sacrifices to make ends meet. Juan Wilmer left school after sixth grade to work in the fields with his father. Farm workers in Nahualá earn around $3-5 a day, or even more. Feeding a family of six on that salary was a never-ending battle.
That’s why Juan Wilmer’s older brother, Nicolás, left a year ago to look for work in the United States and send money to his family. He hasn’t been able to send much since still repaying his debt to the smuggler who helped him get to the United States. Border of Mexico.
Juan Wilmer had a similar deal with his smuggler: he would start paying off the debt when he arrived in the United States. His family was willing to mortgage their home to help settle the debt. Since Wilmer never arrived at his destination, the deal was called off.
With a blurred look and a sorry face, Tepaz has been wearing the traditional sign of mourning – a red scarf over her head – since June 27, the day she learned of her son’s death. She knew something was wrong when Juan Wilmer stopped communicating with the family.
The last time Juan Wilmer’s family heard from him was when he sent a voice recording that he was about to board the tractor-trailer. He also sent a photo to his family and asked them to pray for him. The audio recording and photo now only exist in Tepaz’s memory – she couldn’t bear the pain of hearing her son’s voice over and over again, and she deleted them.
“It made her so sad,” said Cristina Tulul, Wilmer’s cousin, who translated from Magdalena’s native language, K’iche’.
Juan Wilmer’s father, Manuel, couldn’t hide his pain either. A stoic man of few words, he did his best to keep his cool. But there were times when he broke down, like when he had to travel to Guatemala City to identify his son’s body; and when the body of Juan Wilmer was brought home; and when he clung to his son’s coffin, as if he couldn’t bear to let go, before starting the long walk to the cemetery.
Juan Wilmer’s last goal
Juan Wilmer’s body was brought back to Tzucubal on the night of July 16. His body was the second to be repatriated of the 21 Guatemalans who died in the San Antonio tragedy. During Juan Wilmer’s vigil, five minutes away in Tzucubal, Ixtahuacán, another group of mourners mourned 17-year-old Johny Tiquin, who also died in Texas.
In the department of Sololá there are two Tzucubal villages due to a long-standing territorial dispute between the municipalities of Nahualá and Ixtahuacán. The village was eventually divided, in the manner of King Solomon, into two parts: Tzucubal, Ixtahuacán and Tzucubal, Nahualá. Locals blame this perpetual conflict, coupled with the lack of job opportunities, for the migration of their children and youth to the United States.
Juan Wilmer lived in the village on the Nahualá side, but locals say misfortune rained down on both Tzucubal villages. A day earlier, neighbors on the Ixtahuacán side received the body of 13-year-old resident Melvin Guachiac, who also died in the San Antonio trailer.
His body was the first to be repatriated after the tragedy. Melvin was memorialized in his home and was buried in the village, a few yards from the space reserved for Juan Wilmer.
Juan Wilmer, Johny and Melvin were together when they boarded the trailer.
Friends and family adorned Juan Wilmer’s casket with his football uniforms and two brand new footballs. Everyone remembers him as a scorer for the Tzucubal team when they played matches in other municipalities in Guatemala.
Juan Wilmer scored his last goal in the final of a tournament organized for the inauguration of a sewage system in the Xola district of Tzucubal.
The tradition of the village is to bury the deceased with their belongings. Two bags were more than enough to hold all of Juan Wilmer’s belongings, including his football uniforms, cleats, sneakers and clothes.
On the morning of July 18, among a chorus of groans and cries of pain, Juan Wilmer’s family and about 300 neighbors marched in a procession to the local cemetery to say goodbye. An orchestra played funeral marches as the villagers marched. One of the musical pieces told the story of a man who crossed the border and regretted having left his father to work alone in the fields.
Music, food, funeral and other expenses were covered by the family, with help from neighbors and significant contributions from other Guatemalans living in Houston, Dallas and New York.
Tepaz said the only way she can bear her pain is to hold on to God, just like her son did when he boarded the truck and asked her to pray for him.
Transfer houses: wealth from elsewhere
In the two villages of Tzucubal, the difference between the houses blessed with remittances from the United States and the houses financed solely by local labor is extraordinary.
In less than a decade, residents say, the villages have made great strides in development; however, the progress has nothing to do with the economic development programs of local or national governments. Progress came through the men, youth and children who went without childhood and crossed the border into the “American Union”, as they refer to the United States in Tzucubal.
“Everything you see around you is not from here, it is from there,” said teacher Maria Tepaz, 30.
Two blocks from the Tulul Tepaz house where Juan Wilmer grew up with dreams of emigration, stands a two-story white house, with showy architecture, tinted windows, arches and gilded ornaments. This same style is reproduced in half of the houses of Tzucubal.
One of the neighbors explains: “The thing is that it’s the families who have someone on the other side. [in the U.S.]. Those who live off the land, it’s another story for us.
According to the International Organization for Migration, Nahualá is known for its high rate of emigration. Many Guatemalans who are expelled from other countries every year are from this municipality.
There was no migration campaign or policy that could persuade people not to risk their lives crossing the border. No message can extinguish the desire to seek a better life.
Juan Wilmer’s cousin, Cristina, said that despite the intense grief and mourning surrounding them in Nahualá, another group of local young people began their own journey north last week.
Cristina is certain of one thing. Neither the tragic deaths of Juan Wilmer, Johny and Melvin, nor the recent drowning of Griselda and Carla Tambriz, two young sisters also from Nahualá who died trying to cross the US border, can stop the flow of people heading for the United States.
Despite the devastating deaths, Cristina predicts that children, teenagers and young adults will continue to dream of a better future away from their village.
Juan Wilmer’s parents are now fearful for their youngest child, who is only 10, and have told them that when he turns 15 he plans to follow the same path as his brothers.
This story was translated by June Griffin Garcia.
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