NUEVO QUEJA, Guatemala — The day before Victor Cal left for the United States, he went from relative to relative, collecting money for food during the journey north.
His mother was disconsolate.
“I begged him not to go, that we could live here,” she says. “But the decision had already been made.”
Cal hitched a ride to a place miles away to find electricity so he could charge his phone “to receive calls so the coyote can tell me where and when we will finally meet.”
The makeshift town where he lived offers only hunger and death. To Cal, 26, the United States seemed the only way out.
American authorities have stopped more than 150,000 Guatemalans at the border this year, four times the number in 2020.
Many were like Victor Cal, famished and impoverished. An indigenous Mayan who speaks Pocomchi, he didn’t find work in Guatemala City after serving in the army. When the pandemic hit, he joined thousands fleeing to their agricultural hometowns in the mountains.
He thought at least he’d have food by staying on his father’s land in Queja, with coffee, cardamon, corn and beans.
Then came Hurricane Eta’s rains that brought down a mountain and destroyed everything — house, land, town. He and his parents were left destitute, relying on relief from international organizations in a shabby settlement people dubbed Nuevo Queja.
Now, hours away from leaving it behind, he packed what fit in his yellow backpack: a shirt, a sweater, jeans and extra shoes. He’d lost pretty much everything else when a landslide buried his house.
It had been raining for 25 days. The people of Queja had been cooped up for 10 days, roads cut off by flooding.
Without electricity, phones were dead. The rain the previous 24 hours was five times the average monthly amount, but no one told the villagers that or that they were at risk and should leave.
At lunchtime Nov. 5, the first trees fell. The hillside began to melt.
“Those of us who had time to flee could only carry our children on our backs” says 28-year-old Esma Cal — many in Queja share the last name Cal, though it isn’t always clear how they might be related.
Within seconds, 58 people disappeared. Most of their bodies will never be recovered. Forty homes were buried under tons of mud. Dozens more were left inaccessible.
Crossing torrents of water on ropes, survivors walked to the nearest town, where people shared their remaining food and put them up in schools and at the market. When helicopters finally arrived, “Some of us had been without food for almost two days,” Esma Cal says.
Queja was founded 100 years ago, says Erwin Cal, 39, when families got access to a coffee plantation.
“My grandfather was a slave,” he says. “They had to harvest without pay before they were allowed to build their shacks and use some plots of land for their own fields.”
There were corn and beans to eat, then coffee and cardamom for market.
In time, they made enough to buy the land.
In the 1980s, some joined the Guatemalan army. At the turn of the century, with violence plaguing the country, they hired on as private guards and, with some money now, shacks turned into cement houses with tiles, big windows, refrigerators.
“I had a laptop, a sound system and cable TV,” Erwin Cal says, all now gone.
By January, Esma Cal, Erwin Cal, their childhood friend Gregorio Ti and others organized a development council. By February, they’d founded a temporary settlement near their buried homes, though it had just one-third the amunt of agricultural land.
Thus was born Nuevo Queja. This would be home, for the moment anyway, to about 1,000 survivors.
“We know how to work,” says Ti, 36, who lost his pregnant wife, their 2- and 6-year-old sons and his mother in the mudslide.
His surviving daughters, 11 and 14, cling to him.
All day, everyone cuts and transports wood and clears land with machetes.
The shacks are zinc sheets donated by a priest and wooden planks from pine trees villagers cut down. Rain pours in through the roofs.
Esma Cal’s 37-year-old uncle German Cal — who returned to Queja after 20 years in Guatemala City to breed chickens, only to lose everything — is trying to bring electricity to Nuevo Queja.
But Guatemala’s government has declared the new settlement uninhabitable. Therefore, since Nuevo Queja doesn’t exist, at least not officially, it isn’t eligible for the electric poles it needs or road repairs or an improved water supply.
The townspeople have gotten help from non-governmental organizations, One provided wheelbarrows, picks and shovels and brought psychologists to play with the kids, reminding them how to clean their teeth. Another visited to ensure donations of water and sanitation kits were used correctly.
UNICEF donated a new school. But it has been closed for five months because no one could find the key to get inside. UNICEF had given it to a teacher who resigned and left with it.
So school was held in a shack next door. But it leaks. So the floor is often flooded and muddy. The furniture rots.
The school serves 250 children. Of 12 teachers from before the storms, just four remain. And their materials are in Spanish, but the students speak only Pomachi, a teacher says.
“None of them will go to high school,” the teacher says. “School failure is total.”
At least once a month, nurse Cesar Chiquin, 39, visits Nuevo Queja. Mothers bring their children.
“Malnutrition has doubled,” Chiquin says. “One in three are stunted. Virtually all are at risk.”
The people of Nuevo Queja can’t raise the food they need. Having lost last year’s crops to the hurricanes, “We arrived in Nuevo Queja too late for planting properly,” Esma Cal says.
They have a third of the land they had before the storms. And rains washed away the topsoil.
“We harvested two times a year,” Esma Cal says. “Now, we have only one, much smaller harvest.”
The local council figures the villagers need 75 acres more. But they have no money.
The government has a land trust. Some day, it could provide the land they need — but it could be elsewhere, in another region. Since most of the villagers don’t speak Spanish, only their indigenous language, a move would obliterate their culture.
“This place is not fit to live in,” Esma Cal says. “And, for the moment, we have no way out.”
There seem to be only two ways out of Nuevo Queja. One is death. The other is emigrating to the United States. Most people in the village say the only thing keeping them from emigrating is that they can’t afford it.
But Victor Cal, calculating that, by staying, a person might make just $4 for a full day’s work, found a way. He contacted a distant cousin, who’s been in Miami for years, who agreed to advance the $13,000 to buy a coyote package — a deal that offers him two tries to successfully enter the United States, coming in via the Arizona desert.
Cal has a plan in mind once he succeeds.
“My objective is to be able to send money so my parents have a real house again and some land,” he says. “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go. I will be back as soon as possible.”
He says goodbye.
And he leaves without looking back at Nuevo Queja.