Guatemalans in Delaware hope to see improvement back home as they find success in the U.S.

Guatemalans make up 30% of the state’s population of Hispanic or Latino descent. They want to see better education, less crime in their home country.

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Sara Ovalle and Marco Morales pose for a photo, smiling, at a table advertising their business.

Sara Ovalle and her husband, Marco Morales, during a business exhibition for their contract company, Morales Builders LLC. (Courtesy of Sara Ovalle)

Sara Ovalle has lived in Georgetown, Delaware for the past 20 years. Like many others from Guatemala who now live in southern Delaware, she left her home in Guatemala City in search of a better quality of life and chance at economic success.

“No fue tanto por las maras, sino que fue por la economía”, dijo Sara Ovalle. “Viendo que era el mes que había que pagar renta, había que pagar comida, no había dinero”.

“It wasn’t so much because of the gangs, but because of the economy,” said Sara Ovalle. “Seeing that it was the month that rent had to be paid, food had to be paid, there was not enough money.”

Even after completing high school, getting her elementary education certification, teaching elementary school, and continuing on with her studies at a university in the Central American nation, it was still not enough.

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“Ni porque uno vaya a la escuela, ni porque uno se prepare. No está ese apoyo del gobierno”, añadió Ovalle. “Por más que uno tenga un trabajo, por más que uno estudie, allá no se puede salir adelante”.

“Not because one goes to school, not because one prepares. There is no support from the government,” said Ovalle. “No matter if you have a job, no matter how hard you study, you can’t get ahead.”

There are many like Ovalle who’ve come to southern Delaware looking for better opportunities. Residents from Guatemala account for 30% of the state’s population of Hispanic or Latino descent. That’s the second largest nationality group among Hispanic or Latino residents, with residents from Mexico coming in at number one.

Like many Guatemalans, Ovalle’s parents left their homes in Jalapa and San Marcos, Guatemala, hoping to find better opportunities in Guatemala City. Not only did they not find work they needed, Ovalle said they discovered the city was one of the most dangerous places to live because of gang violence, making Guatemala City part of the “zona roja,” or red zone list of dangerous areas.

“Pues el vivir en la capital no es como decir que porque uno está en la capital uno tiene mejor vida, al contrario, siento que es más difícil porque pues no hay donde vivir. Las oportunidades de trabajo también son difíciles de encontrar”, dijo Ovalle. “En la capital, pues hay lugares que son del lugar de donde yo vengo, son lugares muy peligrosos, donde la mayoría de personas se dedican a robar, a ser mareros”.

“Well, living in the capital is not like saying that because you are in the capital you have a better life. On the contrary, I feel like it is more difficult because there is nowhere to live. Job opportunities are also difficult to find,” said Ovalle. “In the capital, there are places that are from the place where I come from, they are very dangerous places, where most people dedicate themselves to stealing, being gang members.”

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper has made multiple trips to see what’s happening in Guatemala and the neighboring countries of Honduras and El Salvador, especially as more migrants from those countries have arrived at the U.S. border.

“I’ve been going to Central America and leading congressional delegations for the better part of a decade,” said Carper after visiting the northern parts of Central America in a six-day trip this February as part of a U.S. Congressional delegation.

During his visit, Carper met with the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, with “a real focus on how do we reduce the flow of illegal immigration” from Central America to the southern Mexican border, which then impacts the southern U.S. border.

The number of migrants lacking permanent legal status crossing the southern border continues to climb, with 2.37 million crossing in the 2022 fiscal year according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. That exceeds the previous annual record by more than one million people.

For the current fiscal year, the southern border has seen more than a million migrants —that is, 1.02 million people leaving their home countries due to poverty, gang violence, government corruption, a lack of education, and hopes for a better opportunity in the U.S.

“The reason why folks from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, a bunch of other countries down there, come to our country illegally is because they leave, in many cases, lives of misery, a lot of crimes, a lack of education, a lack of opportunity and in some cases, just the climate change drought, which is really killing the ability to be successful farmers, including raising coffee,” Carper said.

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Some Guatemalans respond to gang violence and criminality by saying that while what gang members do is immoral, they do not blame them since “sometimes it’s so difficult to find a job,” according to Ovalle.

“Está bien arraigado. Ese es el problema en Guatemala de las maras. Es muy delicado. Lastimosamente por la pobreza, por la falta de educación, la falta de oportunidades, pues la necesidad es lo que más les lleva a ellos a tomar ese camino”, dijo Persy Perez, en acuerdo con Ovalle.

“It is well established. That is the problem in Guatemala with the gangs. It is very delicate. Unfortunately, due to poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunities, I really think necessity is what most leads them to take that path,” says Persy Perez, in agreement with Ovalle.

For security and safety reasons, Persy Perez, who is originally from the San Marcos area of Guatemala but moved to Guatemala City, has been traveling back and forth to Georgetown since 2011.

“Yo estoy aquí no por lo económico, más que todo es por la seguridad y por las amenazas de las maras”, dijo Perez, añadiendo que en esa mañana recibió una llamada con amenazas. “Yo tengo mucha experiencia de eso,  ósea he recibido muchas amenazas. He recibido muchas cartas, muchas llamadas, muchos mensajes, pidiéndome extorsión”.

“I’m not here because of the economy, more than anything it’s for security and because of the threats from the gangs,” said Perez, adding that just that morning he received a threatening call. “I’ve experienced that a lot, I have received many threats. I have received many letters, many calls, many messages, asking me for extortion.”

A view of a building with a sign that reads "Clínica Médica"
Clinic of Persy Perez in Guatemala. (Courtesy of Persy Perez)

While currently living in Georgetown, Perez still consults patients only from Guatemala, which is what allows him to be financially stable in the U.S. Though after comparing the economy from the U.S to Guatemala, he points out the economic instability.

“Haciendo una comparación, digamos, en los sueldos de un médico allá, un médico general, normalmente viene ganando y haciéndolo en dólares. Aquí el sueldo promedio es como de $1.300 o $1.400”, añadió.

“Making a comparison, let’s say, in the salaries of a doctor there, a general practitioner, normally he’s earning and doing it in dollars. Here the average salary is about $1,300 or $1,400,” he said.

Carper said one factor in many of Guatemala’s crime and economic troubles is that laws are not being enforced at all levels.

“One of the biggest problems they have in that part of the world is rule of law, we need to help them with respect to the rule of law,” Carper said. “That is a huge factor. It is probably as important, maybe more important than even improving the outcomes of the elementary schools and middle schools and those countries.”

Guatemalans in Delaware say the quality of education is not at the level it should be in comparison with the U.S. Schools there struggled to reopen after COVID-19 shutdowns. There is no law in Guatemala that mandates children to be in school for a set age or grade level — something that many parents are demanding.

Ovalle, que es una madre de dos, dice que en Guatemala “la educación hoy es muy malísima…, eso es lo triste y no existe una ley que diga tus hijos tienen que estar por ley en las escuelas”.

“Education today is very bad,” said Ovalle, who is a mother of two. “That’s the sad thing, and there’s no law that says your children have to be in school, by law.”

The U.S. is investing in the northern parts of Central America, with Vice President Kamala Harris’ Call to Action for Northern Central America adding $950 million in new private sector commitments in February, bringing the total to $4.2 billion since May 2021.

Other changes are also already on the way, Carper said, pointing to Mexico’s plans to build a railway and motorways to convey freight and trade from east to west. There’s also plans to provide subsidies for wind farms and solar farms to grow renewable energy.

“Those projects are underway. We have the technology. We’re trying to make sure that we provide a helping hand to Mexico and give them the ability to create these energy projects to reduce the cost of energy, which is really a major need if they’re going to have a strong economy in that part of the world,” Carper said.

Carper said if Central American countries can reestablish the rule of law, that will “encourage economic development and make sure that the monies that we do send down there are used for good purpose, including creating a nurturing environment for job creation, job preservation.”

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