Working and going to school have become optional in this highland Guatemalan town, thanks to a flood of U.S. dollars sent home by migrants living in the United States.
The family-run mills that produce brightly colored, hand-woven traditional fabrics have fallen quiet as their potential work force—mostly young men—hang out at the town’s pool halls or video game salons, living off remittances and waiting to make their own journeys north.
“Kids have easy money, and the only thing they know how to do is spend it on video games,” complained Salcaja Mayor Miguel Ovalle. “In this town, school attendance has fallen in part because many go to the U.S., and also because those who stay don’t want to go to school.”
Last year, Guatemalans in the U.S. sent home more than $3.6 billion, of which $300 million went to some 300,000 people in the province of Quetzaltenango, home to Salcaja. That’s a substantial cash flow in a $35 billion economy with an industrial output of just $6.7 billion last year as measured by gross domestic product.
Similar challenges are evident in other parts of Latin America, where remittances have made low-wage labor increasingly undesirable. In some places, local employers are being forced to raise salaries. In others, traditional industries are simply being abandoned.
In many Mexican communities, small businesses like auto and tire repair shops and plumbing services are disappearing. “For many people, it’s much easier to spend the money they receive than go look for it, and when this happens, productivity is reduced, affecting their local economy,” Diaz said.
During the 1980s and part of the 90s, almost every household in Salcaja had at least one loom, and weaving the fabric used for traditional Mayan skirts was the first way young men earned their own money.
Now, some mill owners have moved their looms to remote, rural villages with little or no migration, where people will work for a salary of 900 quetzales, or about $120 a month.
“The thing is that this work is really hard, and you earn very little,” said Secundino Taracena, the owner of one mill. “It’s easier for a young person to sit back and receive money” from the United States.
But for many, like Franklin Robles, 32, who lived in Chicago and Trenton, N.J., for 10 years, wages will always be too low in Guatemala.
“None of the young guys are going to work for the 1,400 quetzales ($200) that you earn in a month,” said Robles, currently unemployed. “And why would they study when someone who goes to school doesn’t earn any more than that?”
Many simply bide their time until they can head north themselves, paying smugglers as much as $7,000 to guide them into the United States. Most migrants from Salcaja end up in Trenton or Chicago. Some are lucky enough to have parents who can bring them in legally.