Jakelin Caal's grandmother said she jumped up and down with excitement to travel with her father to the U.S. She thought it would be a fun adventure for them. Jakelin was 7 years old when her father decided to take the 2,000 mile journey from northern Guatemala to the U.S. to protect his daughter, ensure her well-being, and give her a better chance of life.
Two days after the start of their journey, we read about her in The New York Times, Guardian, the Post, and many others. First, we read about how she was visibly ill at the U.S. Border Patrol Station, after being apprehended with 163 migrants who crossed the border "illegally." Then, a few hours after she arrived at the U.S. hospital, we read that she died of a simple, easily curable bacteria.
We do not read about who she was, or why she was on that journey? Why did her father feel urged to take her on this dangerous path?
Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin was among the 26 million displaced children of 370 million Indigenous people worldwide. She was from Maya Q'eqchi Nation in Guatemala; her people make up 19 percent of the extremely poorest of the world population.
Indigenous people are linked to their land. Thus, protecting and cultivating land is vital to their identity, way of life, culture, and religion.
Then, why the massive exodus?
Indigenous refugees flee conflicts, disasters, climate change, urbanizations, development projects, and land rights violations. The greatest displacement of indigenous people occurs in regions with rich natural resources like Guatemala, where Jakelin Caal was from.
The lands of her ancestors have been expropriated and controlled by transnational corporations, such as palm oil plantations that monopolize resources that once belonged to indigenous groups. As a result, her people were uprooted from their land, forced into extreme poverty, marginalized, and discriminated against. Her country's political unrest is not the only cause of the migration of indigenous people; they also flee organized crime, structural state and gang violence, gender norms, unlawful evictions, persecutions, economic instability, human rights violations, and monopolization of resources.
Big companies came to Guatemala, extracting resources while using armed forces to take over lands that the indigenous people cultivated, protected, and fought for over 500 years. Then, in 1960, civil war broke out. During 36 years of civil war, the U. S. Reagan administration pledged millions of dollars of aid to Guatemalan army units, training, advising, and arming troops. This aid helped the Guatemalan military implement a crucial part of its counterinsurgency campaign and was responsible for the genocide of 200,000 Indigenous people in the 80’s. The Guatemalan army was responsible for 93 percent of the human rights abuses during the civil war. Following the massacres, Indigenous people that survived were put into "model villages" or detention camps where food and other material were supplied by the U.S. Agency for International Development. As a result, between the 80’s and the 90’s, migration numbers to the United States tripled, and more than 1.5 million were forcibly displaced.
Did the U.S. pay a price for involvement in Guatemala?
The United States hosts more than 1.3 million people of Guatemalan origin. And numbers are increasing day by day. Many of them are the children and grandchildren of war that the United States largely funded. However, it is unknown how many are Indigenous; they are called Hispanic or Latino, which makes them invisible, a further process of erasing identities.
Including Mayas, indigenous people speak 4000 of the world’s 6700 languages. However, according to United Nations' indigenous forum, one indigenous language dies every two weeks.
When Mayas, like other indigenous people, step across the U.S. border, the language barrier prevents them from getting the help they need. In 2019 alone, 11,500 children were apprehended at the U.S. border, says Migration Policy Institute; like Jakelin's father, many of them do not speak English or Spanish. Thus, those children are less likely to receive medical care. When Gilberto Caal signed a form saying his child was healthy, he did not speak a word of English or Spanish. Jakelin Caal's death was not the only one; two weeks later, Felipe, an eight-year, then Juan, then Wilmer, a toddler, and many more died in U.S. custody.
The international Mayan league demanded that the United States apply humane immigration policies and investigate deaths at the U.S. border.
If nothing changes, there will be many more dead indigenous children in the custody of the U.S. border patrol.