Increasing numbers of Central Americans, primarily from El Salvador and Guatemala, began arriving in the United States in the early 1980s, fleeing brutal military repression and counterinsurgency efforts in their home countries (Hamilton and Chinchilla-Stoltz 1991, 1998; Julian 1994; Bens 1996; Burns 1988). The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) concludes that 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, and that state forces and related paramilitary groups onslaught, from 1981 to 1983, as many as 1.5 million people were displaced internally or had to fee the country, including about 150,000 who sought refuge in Mexico (CEH 1999, 30). The Guatemalan Peace Accords in 1996 signaled an end to overt hostilities but no to bitter social tensions, political violence, stark inequality, and severe economic hardship, all of which fuel emigration pressures.
Numerous scholars have documented the factor contributing to immigration, particularly the critical connections between economic and poltical motivations (Richmond 1986; Chávez 1998; Chinchilla, Hamilton, and Loucky 1993; Fagen 1988; Hagan 1994; Vlach 1992; Porters and Back 1985). Guatemalans, however, add a unique sociocultural dimension to migration flows. Unlike that of other Central American nations, more than half of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, from various Maya ethnolinguistic groups, adding complex issues of identity to the immigration experience.
In this study, we explore the stages of migration through an ethnographic study of Guatemalan migrants to the San Francisco Bay Area. Our study first examines the demanding preparatory phase either in Guatemala or the refugee camps of Mexico, then the perilous journey north, and finally the arduous process of settlement in the United States. Two themes intersect throughout the journey: the role of social networks and issues of identity. In our research, we found that social networks are pivotal through all stages of migration and, in turn, interests with fluid, changing conceptions of identity.