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  Number 226 | Mayo 2000
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Central America

How Dollar Remittances Are Changing a Village

How are the dollar remittances sent home by the region’s emigrants changing the face of rural Central America? We can begin to glean an answer by looking at a rural Honduran village, where modern colors now blend with the traditional rustic hues.

Ricardo Falla

US Embassy Uses Carrot On Corruption…

After very specific criticisms of the government’s laxity in dealing with corruption, US Ambassador Oliver Garza held a private breakfast meeting with President Alemán on April 13. No information was released about the contents of that meeting, but the following day, this time in a public meeting, the US government offered Nicaragua $750,000 to equip and train six state institutions in the fight against corruption. The six are the Supreme Court; the Economic Crimes Unit and the Inspector General’s Office, both of the National police; the Offices of Comptroller General and Attorney General; and the Civil Inspection Unit of the Ministry of Government. Other meetings followed, in which Garza continued urging the government to deal with the major corruption cases exposed in the media in recent months.

…And Stick On Property

Nearly 100 arbitrators and 50 surveyors assigned to the new Property Tribunals were sworn in on May 4 and will now begin to tackle the 6,979 pending confiscation cases. These courts were established in a property law passed several years ago following an agreement between FSLN negotiators and the new Alemán government, but are only now being set up, according to the government, due to budget problems. The government’s sudden announcement following expressions of frustration from the US embassy, however, suggests that the Alemán administration may have been lacking will rather than money. In mid-April, Ambassador Garza warned that his government’s patience "has limits" and conditioned further aid to Nicaragua on a solution—by June—to the 829 property claims by US citizens (most of them nationalized Nicaraguans) that have remained untouched since the property law has been on the books.

Somoza Family Properties

Clearly not by coincidence, the Sevilla Somoza family reactivated claims filed over seven years ago on over 300 properties confiscated by the revolutionary government in 1979. Among the claims is the nearly 30 acres of land on which Managua’s new Cathedral is located and that they have promised to donate to the Catholic Church once the claim is settled in their favor. While the Sevilla branch of the Somoza family will only be satisfied by the return of its properties or indemnification, another branch has publicly renounced all claims. The Office of Attorney General insists that the only confiscated properties in Nicaragua that will never be given back are those belonging to the direct family of the deposed dictator, but there is documentary proof that even some of those are silently being returned.

New Penal Code Close To Approval


On May 3, the National Assembly approved the general findings of a commission formed to study the new Penal Code. The former code has been in effect for 121 years, with some reforms in 1974. For the first time, the Code will establish crimes against the socioeconomic order, against nature and the environment and against national patrimony. It also defines previously unspecified crimes such as influence peddling, illicit enrichment, bribery and crimes involving computer science. Another novelty lies in the expanded selection of sentences available to a judge; the deprivation of certain rights and community work are now added to fines and imprisonment. The most hotly debated issues have been abortion and freedom of expression. An intense campaign by Catholic and Evangelist groups has urged penalization of any kind of abortion, including therapeutic abortion, which even the old code permitted. The findings on the new code did not annul therapeutic abortion, but did establish greater controls on its definition, and permitted no other legal grounds. With respect to freedom of expression, the new code establishes fines and prison sentences for journalists who violate individual privacy and use unauthorized information. In the current context, this could be used to silence the journalists in Nicaragua who are so successfully uncovering and denouncing corruption.

A Strategy To Unfetter The Regional Integration Process

Given the crisis affecting the Central American integration process due to old Honduras-Nicaragua border hostilities stirred up by Colombian expansionism in the Caribbean Sea, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua decided on a joint strategy to unfetter the process, or at least push ahead with it tri-nationally. The Presidents of the three countries—Francisco Flores, Alfonso Portillo and Arnoldo Alemán, respectively—met in Managua on May 2 then in San Salvador and Guatemala City to announce their strategy, which involves infrastructure works and economic, political and migratory agreements favoring integration. Costa Rica and Honduras were invited to join the initiative, but they did not attend. The three Presidents also announced that the doors will be permanently open to Panama and Belize should they decide to join the regional strategy.

Pedro Solórzano: Can He Run For Mayor Or Not?

The Conservative Party officially submitted 180,000 signatures petitioning the registration of Pedro Solórzano, patron of the "Ben Hur" draft horse cart races, as its candidate for municipal mayor of Managua. For months now, all polls have shown this popular businessman in the lead, supported by up to 35% of the potential voters. President Alemán, enjoying the collaboration of the FSLN leadership and several state institutions, cut Solórzano out of the race by ensuring that Managua’s new municipal boundaries were gerrymandered to exclude his official residence. Solórzano toured the country for weeks on an image-building campaign to collect the signatures he hopes will force the President to lift this decision, and the Conservative Party has announced an international offensive to the same end.

An Historic Find

The tomb and remains of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the first Spanish conqueror to come to Nicaragua almost 500 years ago, were discovered in the ruins of Old León in early May. Hernández de Córdoba founded León, Nicaragua’s first capital, as well as Granada, Nicaragua’s other great colonial city. He was later publicly beheaded following a power struggle with Pedrarias Dávila over who would become Nicaragua’s first colonial governor.

US Embassy Uses Carrot On Corruption…

After very specific criticisms of the government’s laxity in dealing with corruption, US Ambassador Oliver Garza held a private breakfast meeting with President Alemán on April 13. No information was released about the contents of that meeting, but the following day, this time in a public meeting, the US government offered Nicaragua $750,000 to equip and train six state institutions in the fight against corruption. The six are the Supreme Court; the Economic Crimes Unit and the Inspector General’s Office, both of the National police; the Offices of Comptroller General and Attorney General; and the Civil Inspection Unit of the Ministry of Government. Other meetings followed, in which Garza continued urging the government to deal with the major corruption cases exposed in the media in recent months.

…And Stick On Property

Nearly 100 arbitrators and 50 surveyors assigned to the new Property Tribunals were sworn in on May 4 and will now begin to tackle the 6,979 pending confiscation cases. These courts were established in a property law passed several years ago following an agreement between FSLN negotiators and the new Alemán government, but are only now being set up, according to the government, due to budget problems. The government’s sudden announcement following expressions of frustration from the US embassy, however, suggests that the Alemán administration may have been lacking will rather than money. In mid-April, Ambassador Garza warned that his government’s patience "has limits" and conditioned further aid to Nicaragua on a solution—by June—to the 829 property claims by US citizens (most of them nationalized Nicaraguans) that have remained untouched since the property law has been on the books.

Somoza Family Properties

Clearly not by coincidence, the Sevilla Somoza family reactivated claims filed over seven years ago on over 300 properties confiscated by the revolutionary government in 1979. Among the claims is the nearly 30 acres of land on which Managua’s new Cathedral is located and that they have promised to donate to the Catholic Church once the claim is settled in their favor. While the Sevilla branch of the Somoza family will only be satisfied by the return of its properties or indemnification, another branch has publicly renounced all claims. The Office of Attorney General insists that the only confiscated properties in Nicaragua that will never be given back are those belonging to the direct family of the deposed dictator, but there is documentary proof that even some of those are silently being returned.

New Penal Code Close To Approval

On May 3, the National Assembly approved the general findings of a commission formed to study the new Penal Code. The former code has been in effect for 121 years, with some reforms in 1974. For the first time, the Code will establish crimes against the socioeconomic order, against nature and the environment and against national patrimony. It also defines previously unspecified crimes such as influence peddling, illicit enrichment, bribery and crimes involving computer science. Another novelty lies in the expanded selection of sentences available to a judge; the deprivation of certain rights and community work are now added to fines and imprisonment. The most hotly debated issues have been abortion and freedom of expression. An intense campaign by Catholic and Evangelist groups has urged penalization of any kind of abortion, including therapeutic abortion, which even the old code permitted. The findings on the new code did not annul therapeutic abortion, but did establish greater controls on its definition, and permitted no other legal grounds. With respect to freedom of expression, the new code establishes fines and prison sentences for journalists who violate individual privacy and use unauthorized information. In the current context, this could be used to silence the journalists in Nicaragua who are so successfully uncovering and denouncing corruption.

A Strategy To Unfetter The Regional Integration Process

Given the crisis affecting the Central American integration process due to old Honduras-Nicaragua border hostilities stirred up by Colombian expansionism in the Caribbean Sea, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua decided on a joint strategy to unfetter the process, or at least push ahead with it tri-nationally. The Presidents of the three countries—Francisco Flores, Alfonso Portillo and Arnoldo Alemán, respectively—met in Managua on May 2 then in San Salvador and Guatemala City to announce their strategy, which involves infrastructure works and economic, political and migratory agreements favoring integration. Costa Rica and Honduras were invited to join the initiative, but they did not attend. The three Presidents also announced that the doors will be permanently open to Panama and Belize should they decide to join the regional strategy.

Pedro Solórzano: Can He Run For Mayor Or Not?

The Conservative Party officially submitted 180,000 signatures petitioning the registration of Pedro Solórzano, patron of the "Ben Hur" draft horse cart races, as its candidate for municipal mayor of Managua. For months now, all polls have shown this popular businessman in the lead, supported by up to 35% of the potential voters. President Alemán, enjoying the collaboration of the FSLN leadership and several state institutions, cut Solórzano out of the race by ensuring that Managua’s new municipal boundaries were gerrymandered to exclude his official residence. Solórzano toured the country for weeks on an image-building campaign to collect the signatures he hopes will force the President to lift this decision, and the Conservative Party has announced an international offensive to the same end.

An Historic Find

The tomb and remains of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the first Spanish conqueror to come to Nicaragua almost 500 years ago, were discovered in the ruins of Old León in early May. Hernández de Córdoba founded León, Nicaragua’s first capital, as well as Granada, Nicaragua’s other great colonial city. He was later publicly beheaded following a power struggle with Pedrarias Dávila over who would become Nicaragua’s first colonial governor.

US Embassy Uses Carrot On Corruption…

After very specific criticisms of the government’s laxity in dealing with corruption, US Ambassador Oliver Garza held a private breakfast meeting with President Alemán on April 13. No information was released about the contents of that meeting, but the following day, this time in a public meeting, the US government offered Nicaragua $750,000 to equip and train six state institutions in the fight against corruption. The six are the Supreme Court; the Economic Crimes Unit and the Inspector General’s Office, both of the National police; the Offices of Comptroller General and Attorney General; and the Civil Inspection Unit of the Ministry of Government. Other meetings followed, in which Garza continued urging the government to deal with the major corruption cases exposed in the media in recent months.

…And Stick On Property

Nearly 100 arbitrators and 50 surveyors assigned to the new Property Tribunals were sworn in on May 4 and will now begin to tackle the 6,979 pending confiscation cases. These courts were established in a property law passed several years ago following an agreement between FSLN negotiators and the new Alemán government, but are only now being set up, according to the government, due to budget problems. The government’s sudden announcement following expressions of frustration from the US embassy, however, suggests that the Alemán administration may have been lacking will rather than money. In mid-April, Ambassador Garza warned that his government’s patience "has limits" and conditioned further aid to Nicaragua on a solution—by June—to the 829 property claims by US citizens (most of them nationalized Nicaraguans) that have remained untouched since the property law has been on the books.

Somoza Family Properties

Clearly not by coincidence, the Sevilla Somoza family reactivated claims filed over seven years ago on over 300 properties confiscated by the revolutionary government in 1979. Among the claims is the nearly 30 acres of land on which Managua’s new Cathedral is located and that they have promised to donate to the Catholic Church once the claim is settled in their favor. While the Sevilla branch of the Somoza family will only be satisfied by the return of its properties or indemnification, another branch has publicly renounced all claims. The Office of Attorney General insists that the only confiscated properties in Nicaragua that will never be given back are those belonging to the direct family of the deposed dictator, but there is documentary proof that even some of those are silently being returned.

New Penal Code Close To Approval

On May 3, the National Assembly approved the general findings of a commission formed to study the new Penal Code. The former code has been in effect for 121 years, with some reforms in 1974. For the first time, the Code will establish crimes against the socioeconomic order, against nature and the environment and against national patrimony. It also defines previously unspecified crimes such as influence peddling, illicit enrichment, bribery and crimes involving computer science. Another novelty lies in the expanded selection of sentences available to a judge; the deprivation of certain rights and community work are now added to fines and imprisonment. The most hotly debated issues have been abortion and freedom of expression. An intense campaign by Catholic and Evangelist groups has urged penalization of any kind of abortion, including therapeutic abortion, which even the old code permitted. The findings on the new code did not annul therapeutic abortion, but did establish greater controls on its definition, and permitted no other legal grounds. With respect to freedom of expression, the new code establishes fines and prison sentences for journalists who violate individual privacy and use unauthorized information. In the current context, this could be used to silence the journalists in Nicaragua who are so successfully uncovering and denouncing corruption.

A Strategy To Unfetter The Regional Integration Process

Given the crisis affecting the Central American integration process due to old Honduras-Nicaragua border hostilities stirred up by Colombian expansionism in the Caribbean Sea, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua decided on a joint strategy to unfetter the process, or at least push ahead with it tri-nationally. The Presidents of the three countries—Francisco Flores, Alfonso Portillo and Arnoldo Alemán, respectively—met in Managua on May 2 then in San Salvador and Guatemala City to announce their strategy, which involves infrastructure works and economic, political and migratory agreements favoring integration. Costa Rica and Honduras were invited to join the initiative, but they did not attend. The three Presidents also announced that the doors will be permanently open to Panama and Belize should they decide to join the regional strategy.

Pedro Solórzano: Can He Run For Mayor Or Not?

The Conservative Party officially submitted 180,000 signatures petitioning the registration of Pedro Solórzano, patron of the "Ben Hur" draft horse cart races, as its candidate for municipal mayor of Managua. For months now, all polls have shown this popular businessman in the lead, supported by up to 35% of the potential voters. President Alemán, enjoying the collaboration of the FSLN leadership and several state institutions, cut Solórzano out of the race by ensuring that Managua’s new municipal boundaries were gerrymandered to exclude his official residence. Solórzano toured the country for weeks on an image-building campaign to collect the signatures he hopes will force the President to lift this decision, and the Conservative Party has announced an international offensive to the same end.

An Historic Find

The tomb and remains of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the first Spanish conqueror to come to Nicaragua almost 500 years ago, were discovered in the ruins of Old León in early May. Hernández de Córdoba founded León, Nicaragua’s first capital, as well as Granada, Nicaragua’s other great colonial city. He was later publicly beheaded following a power struggle with Pedrarias Dávila over who would become Nicaragua’s first colonial governor.



The priorities for remittances

What are the main areas in which families invest remittances sent back by relatives who emigrated to the United States? Every month or two, a husband might send a check for $100-200, and normally, the wife decides how to spend it. The first priority is buying food, medicine and clothes, which increases the standard of living of the households involved. Malnutrition disappears and infant mortality is reduced or almost eliminated. The family also uses a little money on trips to Tocoa and visits to the doctor, and during the community’s religious festivals its members are noticeably better dressed, particularly the young girls.

Second, the wife is likely to invest in building a new house out of concrete block. This is considered a basic investment and a condition for investing in production. The house provides the family with psychological security and social prestige and symbolizes the future awaiting the family’s children. It is also a sign of the ties that emigrants want to maintain with their place of origin. If they send money to build a house and supervise its construction from so far away it’s because they are thinking of coming back to live there some day. This gives an emigrant’s wife a certain security, even if she doubts he will return because she knows he’s living with someone else in the United States.

For production and luxuries

Third, dollar remittances are invested in production, much as a loan would be. If a father receives remittances from his bachelor son, he considers that he has the right to use them. He will employ the money to pay farmhands to fence off and clean up the pastureland, for example.

Fourth, the money is invested in extending the means of agricultural production by buying a bit more land and cattle. As the community has a land shortage and nobody wants to sell, those who can make this kind of investment have to look beyond the community for either land or an established farm. The father not the emigrant is responsible for such an operation, combining remittances sent by single or married sons with profits from his own agricultural and livestock production. The best-heeled people in the community can even make the leap to commerce and transport. They may turn to buying and selling cattle, which requires moving away from the community and having a truck, or they may set up a warehousing operation for soft drinks or liquor in a more trafficked area, such as the semi-urban community along the highway at the base of the hill.

Fifth, the emigrants themselves might invest in cars, electricity generators, televisions and other domestic appliances and bring them down by road from the North. Nobody has a cellular phone in Cercos de Piedra yet, but judging by the situation in other villages, they will not be long in coming. Cell phones have the advantage of providing direct communication with the United States without having to get to Tocoa at a pre-set hour.

Generating some kind of development

All of these investments generate some sort of development. The building of houses has encouraged inhabitants to organize to pressure the government to grade the dirt road or, failing that, to put up their own money to get it done. It is, after all, impossible to build concrete houses in a place inaccessible to trucks. They are also pressuring the authorities to provide electricity, which is essential now that electrical appliances have arrived in the community. Some houses have generators "made in the USA" but in others the television sets gather dust as they wait for the village to be connected to the national grid.

The need for communication promotes development. There is a felt need for telephones in these communities, particularly to receive calls paid for at the other end. AT&T knows this and is doing demand studies.

In addition, remittances provide the local poor with some work. They come to the community’s upper classes then trickle down through the work provided to firewood gatherers, masons’ assistants, truckers and small-scale concrete block manufacturers. Some of the money sent back by cattle ranchers’ sons who left for the States goes to laborers hired precisely to replace them. Although the ranchers initially treat these young workers almost like sons, there is a big difference: they are neither heirs nor co-investors. There is also a bit of migration to Cercos de Piedra because of the money circulating there, though the community’s investment in production is quite small.

The nearby city of Tocoa offers all the services necessary for receiving, processing and spending remittances. Banks are proliferating, as are shops selling household appliances, express mail agencies and even special radio programs that provide notices from these agencies about arriving correspondence and packages. All this is development, albeit unequal development erected on top of a traditionally unequal social structure being further reinforced by the emigration and remittances.

Increased machismo

Emigration obviously affects the rural family structure. Wealthier fathers can usually maintain certain control over their sons, whom they "send"—which essentially means coming up with the money to pay the coyote—to the United States in shifts, keeping a few back to help with the work. The father then uses the remittances instead of applying for bank loans. The role of such fathers is further strengthened when their family businesses begin to prosper.

Generally speaking, emigration tends to bolster machismo in the countryside. For a start, the emigration is mainly masculine, and because of the relatively impressive amounts of money these sons and husbands have sent, they swagger back into the community with a puffed-up ego, bringing money, liquor, perhaps a pistol and almost inevitably a keenly developed sense of their power over the local women
Most of the married young men abandon the wives they left behind, in a process generally passing through three stages. During the first, the husband sends her checks and communicates with her. During the second, he sends the checks, but no longer makes any serious attempt to maintain communication. She senses that he has another woman up there, which is normally confirmed by the gossip running through the telephone lines or brought back by other travelers. Despite this, he still waits for him and answers his calls—largely for the check.

The third stage is when he stops sending checks and starts living openly with the other woman in the United States. This is not an easy step for him to take, because the money he was sending was not only to be spent but also to be deposited in the bank, and if he breaks up with her, she could end up with all of it. That is why even married men prefer to send the money to their fathers; it is their way to ensure that the tables won’t be turned on them. There have in fact been a few women who broke up with their husband during this stage and went off to the United States with the money he had sent back; these exceptional cases have acquired disproportionate fame in the community.

Rejuvenated grandmothers and bored mothers

Grandmothers become mothers again when households disintegrate and their single or married daughters go off to the States to seek their fortune, leaving their children behind. Given the young age at which they had their own children, many of these grandmothers are still only in their forties, but with husbands dead or gone and their own children grown up, they feel useless. Being given this new responsibility, plus the remittances their daughters send them to deal with it, fills these women with satisfaction, joy and a new sense of power. The pass-through porches of their new houses built with remittances become racetracks for the infinity of grandchildren gathered together under their roofs.

The fertility rate in Cercos de Piedra is dropping, not so much because of artificial birth control methods, since this is a traditional religious community, but because so many husbands are gone. This demographic reduction is reflected in the drop in baptisms. Since the unspoken social control on women’s behavior is strong, many young "widows" remain alone, consoled by their religion, awaiting their husband’s return. The fact that they do not live with another man and thus have no other children in the meantime actually has positive effects on both their own health and the attention and care they provide to the children they do have. But as the money orders they receive from abroad also mean they don’t have to work, they grow bored, lonely, sad and unfulfilled, in stark contrast to the rejuvenated grandmothers.

Economic and political subjects

Emigration has forged a new solidarity between family members and friends in the village and those living in the United States. An emigrant might encourage a brother to join him in the North, for example, by paying half of the coyote fee. He has a place where the brother can stay, can fix him up with a job and guides him like a blind man in a new and hostile environment. This support by those who already "know the ropes" in the States is the basis for migrant streams to the same general locale and the re-creation of "community" up there. Meanwhile, if some disaster hits the village, relatives in the States will go out of their way to support those in trouble, as clearly demonstrated in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. This solidarity is based on a communications network that links the two communities by telephone and travelers.

When the emigrant population grows, it becomes an actor in development that benefits the rural community. It also becomes a political actor: municipal mayors travel to the United States to visit their absentee "constituency" and seek financing from it for their political campaigns.

Social structure buttressed with bucks

Emigration reinforces the structure of rural communities. The poor cannot emigrate to the United States because the coyotes charge between $1,000 and 2,000. Those who do go either have profits saved from their agricultural and cattle-ranching activities or already have relatives there. It is quite different from the migration among Central American countries. Nicaraguans who go to Costa Rica, for example, are jobless and find their own way to somewhere relatively close to home.

Those who are getting richer off of parlaying the remittances do not consider going to the United States themselves because they have their own sources of wealth and already belong to a class that transcends the community. The richest members of this class tend to become involved with politicians and the military to protect their social climb. Some get mixed up in drug trafficking, cattle rustling and the liquor trade. Thus, not only is the social structure reinforced but the community as a whole also becomes more firmly woven into the national structure both socially and politically.

The American Dream

The wonders of the United States get exaggerated. Those who have gone are eager to show that they made a success of it, and often do it with photos: sitting on an ostentatious sound system as though restraining it, standing next to a big car… They also do it with the presents they send, often designed to demonstrate abundance such as the useless television sets, or frivolous oddities that are out of place in a rural setting: musical stuffed animals for children, expensive toys… Above all they do it with the remittances themselves, which best reproduce in the South the vision of a country in the North whose streets are "paved with gold."

The emigrants are drawn by this siren song of the American dream but they are also pushed by the wives, fathers and other relatives who will be left behind and are looking forward to savoring some of the honey from that paradise. The journey to the North is becoming part of the collective imagination. Those who make it are resolute heroes who nobly put themselves on the line and lived to tell the tale. And as the emigrants turn into brave and dedicated heroes, the land they conquered takes on more and more value. Entering the North is outwitting it to become part of it. While that may seem like just a play on words, it is perhaps the greatest, most profound contradiction the emigrant experiences. By outwitting the authorities and controls of the most powerful country in the world, those who emigrate become heroes, but by becoming part of that country and buying into its dreams they stop being heroes and become just one more number.

That contradiction also has another facet: does the emigrant belong to the North or to the South (my country, my village, my family)? It is a strong contradiction indeed, because it is about personal identity, which is a new concept for rural villagers who have never been face to face with the me-them dilemma before. If they go up there, it is usually to make money so they can build a house down here and return someday. Nonetheless, the majority ends up staying.

Having the right papers is one step to definitively belonging "there," but at the same time it opens the way to come "here" freely, to "visit" the family back home. Their identity begins to shift from their roots here to their roots there, where they imagine their children growing up, although in the community of Cercos de Piedra the children are not yet being sent up.

The rapid growth but slow assimilation of the Hispanic community in the United States means that the North has effectively made the South an enclave within it. The contradiction lies at the heart of the North, but it mitigates the contradiction between the migrant population in the United States and the Central American homelands.

The names now being given children are variants on Northern names: Deisi, Doris, Enma, Eslin, Fany, Gessy, Gladys, Glenda, Iris, Keily, Lilian, Marilu, Maritza, Nelly, Rosibel, Seidi and Yésica for girls and Alex, Danis, Edin, Edit, Elder, Eliud, Elmer, Elvin, Erlin, Fredy, Marvin, Melvin, Nelson, Wilfredo and Wilmer for boys. All of these names speak to the fact that parents are assimilating their children into the sound and rhythm of the American dream. They are dumping the traditional names their grandparents used although, in line with the contradiction, they often fuse the old and new. Angela Maribel, Glenda María, Yésica Yolanda represent just a small and resonant example of the hybrid culture being born.

Religion: A sign of identity

In Cercos de Piedra, the class made up of small-scale cattle ranchers is the most actively Catholic. These families offer hospitality to the priest, have their children baptized, choose godparents from other communities and celebrate their children’s first communion. The women are pillars of the local church, together with certain older men or perhaps the occasional Delegate of the Word related through marriage to some of the families.

These families have upheld the Catholic faith for centuries as a sign of their Spanish origins. They came to Cercos de Piedra from the department of Lempira and its capital Gracias, which was the site of the first colonial high court of justice in Central America, an honor later passed over to Guatemala. They are light-skinned, many have blue eyes and they have kept their blood "pure" and unmixed for 500 years.

This continued religiosity in the rural environs contrasts with what is happening in the semi-urbanized villages, increasingly a magnet for the richest cattle ranchers’ relations and businesses. In them, religion fuses tradition with exoticism and faith with social ostentation. Tradition demands a church wedding, but in the semi-urban setting that ritual becomes a showcase of real or make-believe economic success: the bride in a wedding dress, veil and train that cost several hundred dollars accompanied by pages and bridesmaids, the rings on a heart-shaped cushion... In Cercos de Piedra, everyone cares about and looks after the priest, including those occasional emigrants who appear and have to immerse themselves in the village’s prevailing religious life. In the semi-urban villages, by contrast, the priest is just a social bureaucrat, and while the grandmother may still treat him affectionately, most guests just hope he’ll leave the party as soon as possible so the music can be turned up and the alcohol can begin to flow.

Photographers hired to travel up to the villages for such events and take blinding flash shots of the wedding party and guests are an essential part of the modern ritual. In the semi-urban villages relatives also bring along their video cameras, sent from the North. The emigrants send photos home, but they also want to receive them; it is a way of returning to the North the dream come symbolically true in the South.

The devil’s punishment

Certain beliefs underlie this great contradictory jumble. They include the genie of the place, an invisible buried stone that multiplies money and good luck, and witchcraft—though its practitioners do not call it that—with its dubious symbols, such as colored candles secretly lit in the home as an offering to Saint Judas. In once-peaceful villages removed from modernity and globalization but now inundated by threats and risks, such beliefs serve as a way to petition for the local success of the American dream.

Another underlying belief in the villages is the pact with the devil. When violence suddenly erupts and blood flows in the community, sparing not even the wealthiest, it seems as though the devil is charging for the money he has provided. Unlike God, the devil gives nothing for free and sooner or later will demand payment in human blood for his gifts. Those who explain local misfortunes as the "devil’s punishment" are the same ones who maintain ideals of generosity and equality. Although they do not openly say as much, they believe that those who have grown richest and have ties abroad are being punished for having obtained their excessive wealth in questionable ways.

Those who fail

Many would-be emigrants are captured and deported by the Mexican immigration service even before they reach the North. They suffer greatly, and some even disappear, leaving their mothers not knowing whether they are dead or alive. The media tend to emphasize these cases, such as the one of ten Central Americans, three of them Honduran, who died asphyxiated in a train near Palenque, Mexico, on April 12.

Some are put off by such stories, but others are emboldened by the idea of embarking on a heroic adventure. The most determined are those reckless and ignorant young people who are not risking their own capital, because their fathers are paying the coyotes. Villagers are always on the lookout for which coyote is best in terms of price, reliability, speed and responsibility; it is one of the most common topics of conversation.

The ancient matrix of violence

The traditional custom of sorting out conflicts using force and arms, which existed even prior to the recent Central American wars, has further increased due to the heavy weapons those wars left behind. Such weapons have even entered Cercos de Piedra.

The community is increasing experiencing frayed nerves, impatience, anger and violence. A number of factors help explain this chain reaction of emotions: competition among the community’s economic leaders; the profound and invisible dislocations and frustrations produced by globalization in which anger at others gets turned against oneself; defaulted debts that infuriate the money lenders—invariably the community’s rich—and make them feel scoffed at; and being tricked by a coyote, which leaves a bitter taste of failure and lowers the victims’ social esteem in the community. The latter two are particularly galling for the most macho inhabitants.

A wedding can be a powerful trigger of violence, not only because alcohol is involved and pistols are out on show, but also because emotions are that much closer to the surface. The symbolic nature of the event brings back memories of both pleasant times and past humiliations. In this particular village, one wedding turned into a bloodbath when a rich guest with sons living in the North, who had been outwitted by a coyote who also took advantage of his daughter, turned all of his bitterness on those happily celebrating the marriage.

Social acceptance of revenge is the ancient matrix feeding the new escalation of violence. "If I don’t kill the person who killed my son," it is felt, "the community will not see that I loved him. And if I do kill him, it’ll give me a sense of personal satisfaction." Such acts of vengeance are endorsed by close friends, who agree that "yes, that’s how it must be." Some families are forced to flee the community to save their lives.

Those families who receive remittances and have prospered economically use their money and connections to get their sons out of jail in homicide cases. Sometimes the son flees to the mountains before being caught, only coming down to the semi-urban villages at night to fire off a few rounds into the air where people are gathered as a warning to the victim’s family to drop the case. In other cases the killers disappear to some other part of the country or leave for the United States. Impunity reigns and violence flows like an unchecked river. Violence is related to certain objects that symbolize power, such as a pistol, an AK semiautomatic rifle or a car. Like a spirited horse was before it, a car is a symbol of power and freedom. It is a statement that "I do what I want, go wherever I want, take who I want with me and everyone sees me." This power, added to drink, lavish spending, weapons and high speed also generates a lot of violence: such drivers kill themselves or pedestrians unused to living next to paved highways.

Necessary illegality

Emigration to the North is based in part on the needs of the United States for illegality, because undocumented workers will do work no one else will do at wages no one else will accept and, lacking any legal rights, are not much of a drain on public services. It is also based on Central America’s need for free, unfettered emigration flows, which alleviate some of the pressure from the large number of jobless or underemployed and through remittances reduce the demands on the state to provide even a minimum standard of living for its citizens. Those two sets of needs in turn breed the coyotes, who are bound by no legal fetters or limitations. Neoliberalism generates illegality by not allowing a free flow of workers from the South to the North, and impunity reinforces this illegality.

We have looked at some of the ways in which rural Central America is being changed by remittances via this run through a small traditional village and its environs. As for the true extent to which Central America as a whole is being changed, only time will tell.

Ricardo Falla, sj, is director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits of Honduras.

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