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Palm Beach Guatemalans quietly settle in Lake Worth

August 15, 2009; South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Palm Beach Guatemalans quietly settle in Lake Worth; by Alexia Campbell and Carey Wagner.

LAKE WORTH - For more than 30 years, a vibrant community has quietly grown through word of mouth in the heart of Palm Beach County.

They come from the Guatemalan highland and, even after decades here, most don't speak much English or Spanish. They speak Mam, or Q'anjob'al, or any one of 21 other ancient Mayan languages.

They arrived fleeing civil war and poverty. The first got to Lake Worth in the early 1980s. Word then spread back to Guatemala about an abundance of jobs in the South Florida beach town, in agriculture and construction.

First came the Q'anjob'al Mayans from San Miguel Acat¦n, then the Mames, Jacaltecos and others from the state of Huehuetenango.

Recent immigration crackdowns and the shrinking job market have set off small waves of return migration to Guatemala. But an estimated 36,000 still live here in South Florida, often in the shadows, where they cling to their culture.

MARIA MENDEZ Wrapped in her traditional huipil, Maria Mendez translates the sermon at a Spanish Mass into the ancient Mayan language Q'anjob'al. She does it every Sunday at 1 p.m. It's a special service for parishioners like Maria, who moved to Lake Worth from Huehuetenango.

Hers was one of the first Mayan families to arrive in Lake Worth when civil war broke out in Guatemala in 1980. Guerrilla fighters took over her village of San Miguel and threatened to kill her father-in-law. He fled in the night and moved to Lake Worth, where his nephew worked as a roofer. Maria and her husband followed in 1981 and were soon granted political asylum in the United States.

"We told people to come and they told other people to come," said Mendez, 49, who has two U.S.-born children.

Her husband is a truck driver. She is a community organizer and housewife known for her chicken tamales. Mendez wraps the tamales in banana leaves picked from her backyard. She also grows medicinal plants common in Guatemala: Rue to calm scared children. Linden to induce sleep. Peppermint to ease cramps.

Mendez's pride in her Q'anjob'al culture has deepened since moving to South Florida. So it drives her crazy when people label her as Hispanic.

"I'm not Hispanic, I'm Mayan. We're another race," Mendez said. "I tell my daughter never to identify herself as Hispanic."?

MARIA

Maria never got used to wearing pants. The 54-year-old woman still wears her woven corte skirts from Guatemala, even when she worked at a nearby plant nursery.

She lived with three generations of her family in a three-bedroom duplex to cut costs. Maria, whose full name is not being used because she arrived illegally, came here with her husband in 1995. Then her children arrived. Now they have five American grandchildren.

Lake Worth seemed like a different world, Maria said. At first they paid someone to buy their groceries because she and her husband don't speak English or Spanish and didn't have a car.

"You feel like you don't know where to go, like you could easily get lost," said Maria in Q'anjob'al, through an interpreter, in April.

Maria never learned Spanish in Guatemala. Over there, she lived in a mountain village without electricity and made pottery for a living. But she and her husband, who cleaned corn for a living, struggled to feed their family.

A cousin living in Lake Worth at the time paid a smuggler $6,000 to bring them through the Arizona desert. Although Maria said she never felt discrimination in her new town, she lived in perpetual fear that immigration officials would arrest her at work and deport her, separating her forever from her American grandchildren.

But after 14 years here, lack of work led Maria and her husband to head back home, according to a family member living at their former duplex. They packed up and boarded a flight at the end of April.

BARTOLO

Money earned in South Florida flowed back to Guatemala. When Bartolo saw his neighbors in Jacaltenango build fancy homes with money sent from relatives, he got curious.

"You look and can't help but start thinking 'maybe I should go and maybe I can have that one day, too," said Bartolo, 34. He asked that his last name not be used because he came here illegally.

Bartolo's father got here first. He made enough money to pay a smuggler $3,000 to bring Bartolo in 2002. Bartolo repaid him doing construction for $14 an hour.

Being apart from his wife and kids was unbearable, he said. By 2005, Bartolo had saved up enough money to bring his wife from Jacaltenango to live with him. Both speak Popti' Jacaltec, a branch of the Q'anjob'al language. Bartolo also speaks Spanish, which he learned while working in Mexico.

They had to leave behind their three children behind with his mother in Guatemala, he said, but it comforts him to know that he could send enough money for them to go to school, wear nice clothes and eat red meat.

"You fight in life for your children, for their well being, because poverty is [ rough ]," said Bartolo. "Before, when I was little, there were times where we didn't have shoes, because there was no money."

Sometimes Lake Worth does feel like his home town, he said. Many of his neighbors speak his language, and the Q'anjob'al community always invites him to their parties. It would be completely different if he had moved somewhere else in the United States where he didn't know anyone, he said.

"Who would I be able to talk to? No one," he said. "Maybe I could make a friend, but it's not the same to speak to someone in Spanish as it is to in your own language, because Spanish is also a bit difficult for us."

Copyright © 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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