The people of Yalambojoch have been migrating for decades, escaping violence and poverty, to help their families back home.
Felipe Gomez left Yalambojoch, a remote and marginalized village in Guatemala, hoping to reach the United States, find a better life and help his family back home. Being only seven years old, his dreams were big.
The migrant child died on Christmas in U.S. custody after being detained by immigration authorities along with his father. The cause of death is yet to be determined.
Yalambojoch, Felipe's hometown, is a small village in the Nenton municipality, Huehuetenango department, about 400 kilometers from the capital of Guatemala. Its nearly 1,000 inhabitants speak mostly Chuj and Popti, two Mayan languages, and some know Spanish.
Its political organization adheres to the customs of the local Indigenous people and, being far away from the capital and urban settlements, it is largely self-reliant.
“We have not received any aid from the municipality of the government or anything,” Lucas Perez, community mayor of Yalambojoch, told teleSUR. “We’re organized as a community and we help our people ourselves.”
Unwilling to wait for the government’s leftovers, the people of Yalambojoch have been helping the Gomez family.
“We gathered some firewood and money for the family,” said Perez. “He [Felipe] left in search of a better life and now we get this news. It’s been a tragedy for the people of Yalambojoch.”
The people of Yalambojoch choose their traditional authority every November in an assembly, following centuries of experience, in which the proposed candidates with the most votes get the position for a year. It’s a form of direct democracy based on their own customs. Perez was chosen in November 2017 and prepared for two months to become mayor.
According to Perez, the Gomez family has been relying on social media and other media outlets to find out what’s happening. They hope to recover Felipe's body by mid-January, but have no idea what’s going to happen with Agustin, the child’s father.
The community’s teacher, Felipe Gomez, says only the community has helped the family, while the government remains absent.
“The community is mourning,” Gomez told teleSUR. “It’s trusting its own organization and neighbours are the ones helping the family emotionally and economically, since no other organization or the government has said anything. Only media has arrived.”
The village is just 9 kilometers away from Mexico and members of the community are used to migrating seasonally in search of employment as they struggle to find opportunities at home.
Many left in 1982 when the army entered the village, fearing the kind of massacre associated with the most difficult moments of the armed conflict and military dictatorships in Guatemala.
Perez thinks about 200 people from Yalambojoch are currently in the United States. Migrating has been historically common, but he has seen an increase in the last few months.
Felipe wanted to reach the United States to study, find a job and help his family in Guatemala.
Speaking at her home in Yalambojoch, Catarina Alonzo, Felipe’s mother, said neighbors had told the family that taking a child to the United States would provide her husband with a way in.
"Lots of them have gone with children and managed to cross, even if they're held for a month or two. But they always manage to get across easily," she told Reuters in an interview.
Alonzo, a native speaker of Chuj, communicated through a translator. The boy's father has two brothers in the United States he hoped to meet, she said.
In a tweet on Saturday, President Donald Trump blamed “the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies” for the death of such children, arguing they wouldn’t even try to enter the United States illegally if there was a border wall.
Detained on the U.S. border, Felipe Gomez Alonzo died late on Christmas Eve in a New Mexico hospital a few weeks after setting off with his father, becoming the second Guatemalan child to die this month while in U.S. custody and the third in 2018. He will likely not be the last.