QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala — Brightly painted murals on high walls look down on the foreign tourists, NGO volunteers and Guatemalan nationals seated around heavy wooden outdoor tables at the Café Red Kat in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city. On the face of it, Red Kat is just one more restaurant in the historic center of this growing metropolis. But in reality, this establishment — a restaurant and cultural center — is a social experiment in sustainable economic development created by Guatemalan migrants returned from the United States.
The idea for this unique café originated eight years ago when a group of homesick Guatemalan immigrants living in the United States got together in a park in Central Park to talk about coming home, and to dream about not having to leave.
“We have the right to dream,” says one of these immigrants, Willie Barreno, who had left Guatemala as a former guerrilla fighter, and who co-founded the organization that began Café Red Kat. “Everyone wants to go up to the U.S.A., thinking they can find an American Dream,” he says. “We were there. And now we’re back. We want to tell the people here, especially the young people — stay. Stay and realize your Guatemalan Dream. Our Guatemalan Dream.”
Part of the dream involves giving returning migrants and other young people options so they won’t feel forced to migrate to the United States, and so they’ll be able to make choices aside from joining gangs or one of the more than fifty drug-trafficking operations that are estimated to operate in Guatemala.The Café Red Kat, therefore, works to support and promote the local economy and organic farming.
“I don’t have any problems selling hamburgers,” says Barreno. “But the ingredients we use here come from this area: the meat, the cheese, the bacon … We don’t sell potato chips, we sell plantain chips, made by a local 83-year old woman at her home.”
Barreno is aware of the growing encroachment of corporate fast food in Quetzaltenango and throughout Guatemala. He insists his establishment is not advocating against hamburgers and pizza: “But it has to be made with products that are here, because if we are consuming what is ours, we will be preventing people from migrating to other countries.”
Café Red Kat and the organization that started it, DESGUA, which stands for “Sustainable Economic Development for Guatemala,” also provides jobs to returning migrants and services to ease the difficulty of re-integration.
Ubaldo Ramirez, now 32, first traveled north when he was 14, seeking opportunity not available in his small town of Canjola, not far from Quetzaltenango. His family couldn’t afford to send him to school; sometimes there wasn’t anything to eat. Leaving seemed the only option. He lived in the United States for nine years.
“At first it was really hard,” he recalls. “I didn’t know the language, or anyone.”
Eventually, he earned his G.E.D. and tried to enter college: studying medicine was his dream. But because he was undocumented, “the dream ended there,” he says. He returned to Guatemala to try to open a business, but that did not go well, so he traveled north again. On that trip, the coyote he’d paid to help him cross the border abandoned him in the Arizona desert. He walked for twelve days, until he was finally picked up by immigration and deported back to Guatemala. The trip had been so hard, he vowed never to go north again. But what was he to do?
More than the difficulty of re-integrating into Guatemalan society was the need to find work. He learned about Café Red Kat from a family member. They gave him a job. “
You can have sustainability in your family,” he says. “But you have to have food on the table… and then you can help people and show them you can do it because look at me…” Today, Ramirez is the administrator at Café Red, working to help other returned migrants to put food on the table and have the dignity and self-respect that steady work brings.
These deportees and other returned migrants are using skills they learned in the U.S. to build their “Guatemalan Dream.” Willie Barreno, for instance, worked for Whole Foods for a number of years and is a trained chef.
To address the issue of young people leaving the community, DESGUA has begun an immigration-prevention program called “Cocinando Para el Sueño Guatemalteco,” (“Cooking for the Guatemalan Dream”) which is training 15 young people from rural areas to be chefs.
There is also a plan to open mini “Café Red Kats” in the rural areas where the young people are from, much like the restaurant and cultural center now operated by returning migrants in the provincial capital of Quetzaltenango.
“These will be places where not only people can eat healthy from local products,” says Barreno, “but where they can talk about and begin to establish a culture of peace in Guatemala.”
According to a report from The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, every 17 hours a child or teen dies from gun violence in Guatemala. The Guatemalan government often is unable to offer its citizens protection from violence — especially those most vulnerable, such as youth and children. So in spite of tightening immigration policies in the U.S., and news of increasing deportations that headline Guatemalan newspapers, poverty, violence and the lack of opportunity in countries like Guatemala mean many young Central Americans will probably continue to see immigration north as as a viable alternative.
Meanwhile, more than 50,000 Guatemalans have been deported back to their country from the United States in each of the last two years, and as the Trump administration tightens up immigration regulations, many in Guatemala expect many more deportations. The migrants at Café Red Kat say their project and those like them need more resources to meet the growing need for re-integrating those being returned to Central America.
“Guatemalans are good workers, “ says Ubaldo Ramirez, “but we need to be "consistente para seguir adelante" — we need steady support to keep moving forward.”