The Value of Remittances 

Translated by Katrina Hassan

He never knew about salmon until he saw it being cooked on big trays in the New York City delis. It is twelve dollars for half a pound. Twelve dollars. He asks himself what he could buy back home in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala with that money. He could feed his family for three days, without a doubt.

Back in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Clementino worked in a cementery since he was a teenager. First he was a helper to his uncle. There he learned to do a little of everything. Some days he buried the dead, other days building or fixing things, and some days as a painter, either with a large brush and other times a small. 

He learned the US flag by memory after the bodies of migrants began to come back home. These migrants had adopted the United States as their second homeland. They were so thankful for the sustenance they received there that they asked for the US flag to be painted alongside the Guatemalan on their tombstones. They also asked for United States city landmarks to be painted along with the mountain landscapes of Todos Santos Cuchumatán.

Dollars started to come in from The North to build large cemeteries for entire families. Clementino was impressed by those who left the homeland with only the shirts on their backs and came back with luxuries. Surely, he thought, they made a ton of money in order to waste it in such frivolous ways.

A great majority of his town had migrated North by the time Clementino had turned 18. Where adobe houses once stood, there were now three story cinderblock houses with plenty of space to park the used cars people brought back from the United States. The young people got very excited at the sight of such fortunes. The emigrated en masse. Clementino left with one of those waves of commotion. He promised his family weekly remittance so they could build their own cinderblock house with parking space for the future cars he’d send.

This is how he found himself in New York City. He saw whole villages from back home and thought he’d see them living in opulence, as the remittances had previously demonstrated. To Clementino’s surprise he found most of his people lived in the poorest neighbourhoods. At times three or four families lived in a one bedroom apartment. He found whole construction crews living in basements rented out by other Guatemalans trying to do them a favor.

The majority of people travel by train because they don’t own a car. They also ask themselves, just as Clementino does, “What could I get in Guatemala with these 12 dollars I am spending on for half a pound of New York City deli salmon?”

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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado

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