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  • Black Americans and the State in Turn-of-the-Century Guatemala *
  • Frederick Douglass Opie (bio)

In May 2006, foreign-born workers, largely from Latin America, mobilized across the United States in response to calls from anti-immigrant groups for tougher federal policies against illegal immigrants. About 400,000 protested in Chicago, 300,000 in Los Angeles, and 75,000 in Denver. In fifty cities between Los Angeles and New York, workers organized walkouts, demonstrations, and rallies in an effort to show just how important they were to the smooth operation of the U.S. economy. 1

In interviews following the protests, Guatemalan-born protesters complained they had suffered abuses at the hands of both government officials and employers. A twenty-six-year-old Guatemalan named Luis who has been in the United States for fourteen years complained that the U.S. government does not acknowledge the contributions of immigrant workers to the U.S. economy. "The way we treat immigrants at the moment isn't just," said Luis, a doctor's assistant. 2 In Newport, Rhode Island, a Guatemalan national named Jose Salazar was confronted at the door of his home by six armed law enforcement officers searching for another Guatemalan; both Jose and the other man are undocumented workers. The law enforcement agents showed no identification or search warrant. They proceeded to interrogate Salazar at the door of the house until his U.S.-born roommate ordered them to leave the premises. After the incident, Salazar feared that the armed officials would return "and put [him] in a trunk" for not cooperating with their investigation. Other Guatemalan nationals in Rhode Island complained of being harassed in their homes and mistreated on the streets by local police officers. Some claimed angrily that they had been arrested and jailed without being charged with a crime or read their rights. 3 Thirty-nine-year-old Guatemalan-born [End Page 583] Aramida Gramajo expressed similar anger about her relationship with her employers. When Gramajo worked as a housekeeper at a run-down motel in South Central Los Angeles, she and her colleagues, all illegal immigrants, were promised $7.75 per hour, but she often did not receive that rate of pay, and because she spoke only Spanish, she also experienced communication problems with her English-speaking employer. "We don't know how they pay us," she complained. Gramajo went on to say of her employers and supervisors: "They humiliate us. They accuse us of everything." 4

The words of Gramajo and other Guatemalans are reminiscent of the complaints of black U.S. nationals who lived and worked as wage laborers in Guatemala at the turn of the century. In some respects, early-twentieth-century African Americans in Guatemala had advantages over contemporary Guatemalans in the United States—namely, that they were in Guatemala legally, and they could appeal to their influential home government for aid. But both groups of workers have had to wage similar battles against anti-immigrant sentiments, the exploitation of their labor, and police brutality in a foreign country.

Many scholars have overlooked African American migrant workers in their studies of the history of laborers in Guatemala, focusing predominantly instead on the more numerous highland coffee plantation workers, most of whom were Mayan natives of Guatemala. 5 Unfortunately, this scholarly tendency creates the impression that the history of people of African descent in the region began and ended with slavery. Until recently, we knew far less about the experiences of blacks in Guatemala during the national period—experiences that are important both because of what they tell us about one of the earliest labor forces for the industrialists who built and operated railroads and modern ports at the turn of the century from Brazil to Mexico and because of how these workers shaped the history of Caribbean Guatemala. 6 [End Page 584]

Black U.S. nationals most often departed the United States for Guatemala from the docks of New Orleans, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; and Galveston, Texas. Southern blacks tended to view wage labor in Guatemala's railroad industry as an attractive alternative to working in the South, where Jim Crow laws restricted opportunities and racist violence escalated in the last...


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