16 September 2017 - 03:15 PM
Chronicling the Diaspora: Mexico and Central America
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Since U.S. President Donald Trump entered the political arena, he has consistently taken aim at immigrants, especially those of Latin American descent. 

Central American immigrants ride north on top of a freight train near Juchitlan, Mexico.

Among those most persecuted are Mexicans and Central Americans, who together form the majority of Latinx people in the United States. 

This persecution was exemplified by the first U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Declined Detainer Outcome Report released by Trump’s administration in March 2017, when he promised to publicize a weekly account of alleged crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. Almost all of the alleged “criminals” were listed as being of Mexican or Central American origin, with a few minor exceptions.

The report immediately prompted hateful rhetoric directed at these groups from right-wing supporters across the country. 

This persecution was also exemplified by the way in which he referred to Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers,” “criminals” and “rapists” during his presidential announcement speech.

Adding fuel to the fire, Trump visited the Brentwood neighborhood on Long Island, New York in July 2017. The former reality TV star declared the area, home to a large Salvadoran and Honduran undocumented immigrant community, a “bloodstained killing field” in response to recent MS-13 gang violence. 

In typical Trump fashion, he generalized the crimes of a few gang members as the general characteristic of an entire community. He also depicted undocumented immigrants as “criminals” whose sole purpose is to travel to the United States in an effort to “destroy” the country, entirely decontextualizing reality. 

Trump’s singling out of Mexican and Central American immigrants has sparked a global conversation about when and why they left their home countries — considered to be some of the most dangerous in Latin America — and where they live now. 

teleSUR takes a look at the origins of the Mexican and Central American diaspora in an effort to answer these questions and dispel inaccurate depictions. 


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Belize, which borders Mexico and Guatemala, was a region of Honduras until 1862, when the British took over the area and declared it a “royal colony.” They subsequently renamed the area British Honduras.

For over a century, the United Kingdom exploited the labor of local Maya and Garifuna workers for the exportation of natural resources, like sugarcane and wood. British Honduras was essentially ransacked and burdened with millions of dollars of debt, which London imposed on the region in exchange for “building” the country’s infrastructure. 

By 1973, the area was renamed Belize — eight years later, it won independence from the United Kingdom, making it the empire’s last colonial possession in North America.

Belizeans largely began emigrating in the early 1980s, shortly after independence. Despite being spared the mass violence experienced in other Central American countries during this period, the economic stranglehold imposed on the country by foreign creditors sparked mass migration.

Most relocated to the United Kingdom and the United States, with a majority moving to the latter. Most of those who moved to the United States settled in or around Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York City, Chicago and Houston. 

There are over 54,900 Belizeans living in the United States today, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

Costa Rica

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Costa Rica is located between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. 

The country was a member of the Federal Republic of Central America, RFCA, which was formed in the aftermath of independence from Spanish colonialism. The regional union lasted from 1823 to 1841.

Following the dissolution of the RFCA, Costa Rica became a hotspot for U.S. and U.K. coffee companies, which began exporting the cash crop en masse to their homelands. For decades, the Central American country was run by compradors and military leaders who sold their country’s natural resources at low prices to foreign corporations, like the United Fruit Company.

In 1948, former President Jose Figueres Ferrer led a mass movement that toppled a right-wing military dictatorship and permanently removed the military in its entirety. This was a decisive moment in the country’s history, given that it largely avoided the forms of state-sponsored military killings that its northern neighbors experienced decades later. 

Costa Rica currently has the lowest rate of emigration in Central America and has one of the lowest in Latin America altogether, according to the Costa Rica Star. Although migration from the Central American country to the United States began to slightly increase during the mid-20th Century, it hasn’t picked up much since then.

Many attribute this to the country’s longstanding social programs and its comparably minimal state-sponsored violence. Notwithstanding, Costa Rica does experience racial and economic inequality along with rising police repression.

Today, there are close to 150,000 Costa Ricans living in the United States, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

El Salvador

Source: Wikimedia Commons

El Salvador, which borders Guatemala to the northwest and Honduras to the northeast, was also a member of the RFCA. 

In the aftermath of its exit from the regional union, the country became a major exporter of coffee and home to an entrenched military dictatorship, like Costa Rica. The revolving door of military leaders who ruled the country remained largely unchallenged until 1932. This was the year that Salvadoran peasants, led by communist leader Farabundo Marti, rose up against the right-wing government and wealthy, U.S.-backed landowners.

The 1932 uprising set the stage for political turmoil in El Salvador that would drastically affect its future emigration.

After several unsuccessful attempts at overthrowing incumbent right-wing governments, the Salvadoran left began presenting a serious threat to the country’s ruling class by 1979, the start of the country’s civil war. The war, which lasted until 1992 and was fought between the conservative government and leftist rebels, displaced millions of Salvadorans, forcing them to migrate north to the United States. 

Almost all of the refugees, who were estimated to include between 700,000 to one million people, relocated to the United States, with the rest moving to Canada, Mexico and Honduras.

The largest concentrations of Salvadoran migrants in the United States were established in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C. and Long Island, a region of New York.

There are over 2.1 million Salvadorans living in the United States, according to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. Salvadorans represent the largest group of Central American immigrants in the United States and the fourth-largest Latin American-descendant immigrant group in the country.

In Canada, another popular destination, there are currently over 43,000 Salvadorans, according to the country’s 2011 National Household Survey.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guatemala is located between Mexico to the northwest, El Salvador to the southeast, Honduras to the east and Belize to the northeast. 

Home to the first capital city of the RFCA, the heavily-Indigenous Central American country is also known as the cradle of Maya civilization. 

Since Spanish colonization, the establishment of the RFCA and subsequent independence, Indigenous Mayans in Guatemala have been continually persecuted by the country’s ruling elites. Forming the majority of the working class and peasantry, Indigenous people there have been at the forefront of resistance to right-wing regimes but have also bore the brunt of state-sponsored violence and forced displacement.  

Similar to El Salvador, Guatemala’s ruling business and military elite remained unchallenged until the 1930s, when the worker and peasant movement began gaining traction. By the early 1950s, the movement helped usher in former left-leaning President Jacobo Arbenz, who was forcibly removed in a U.S.-led 1954 coup.

The coup and its decades-long crackdowns on workers and peasants ignited mass emigration, peaking during the early 1980s with the ascension of former President Efrain Rios Montt. Hundreds of thousands of predominantly Indigenous people were murdered or disappeared under his orders. 

Guatemalan emigres, who almost always headed to the United States, primarily settled in the Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Miami and Houston metropolitan areas. 

Today, there are over one million Guatemalans living in the United States, making them the second-largest Central American immigrant group in the country.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Honduras, which borders Guatemala to the west, El Salvador to the southwest and Nicaragua to the southeast, went through similar trials and tribulations experienced by its Northern Triangle neighbors (Guatemala and El Salvador).

Home to the founder of the RFCA, Francisco Morazan, the Central American country became a long-standing neo-colony of the United States following independence. Companies like United Fruit and Standard Fruit had free reign to extract the country’s primary cash crop (bananas) and construct private infrastructure projects, built by Black and Indigenous slaves. 

The country’s working and peasant class didn’t lead a mass uprising until 1954, when they organized a nationwide wildcat strike against United Fruit Company and its railroad subsidiaries. Concerned about drawing inspiration from neighboring Guatemala, which had just elected its first leftist leader (Arbenz), U.S.-backed comprador elites persecuted the Communist Party and labor unions for decades. 

Crackdowns following the 1954 uprising led to the beginning of Honduran emigration to the United States, which picked up in the 1980s. Also concerned about the rise of successful communist guerrilla movements in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua, right-wing politicians intensified repression against leftist activists and civilians who were thought to be associated with the left. 

Most Hondurans settled in New York City (particularly The Bronx), Miami, New Orleans, North Carolina and Washington D.C., with a few settling in Los Angeles.

Honduran emigration also intensified following the 2009 U.S.-backed coup that ousted former leftist President Manuel Zelaya, creating what was known as the “child migrant crisis” in 2014.

There are close to a million Hondurans living in the United States today, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data. They constitute the third-largest Central American group in the country and one of the most rapidly-growing Latin American-descendant demographic groups.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mexico is located between the United States to the north and Guatemala and Belize to the southeast. 

Following its call for independence from Spain in 1810 and subsequent victory in 1821, it transitioned from being a short-lived empire (1821-1823), which colonized almost all of Central America prior to forming the RFCA, to becoming a federal republic.

During the mid-1800s, another vast area of Mexico’s territory was lost, as the United States invaded and settled in what it now refers to as its Southwest — this includes Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of other nearby states. 

Many of those Mexicans who remained in the U.S. Southwest were treated as foreigners and immigrants on their own land, despite them living there for generations. Hence, the popular Chicano expression: “I didn’t cross the border. The border crossed me.”

Following the 1910 Mexican Revolution, which eventually led to the defeat of leftist forces, Mexicans began migrating to diverse regions of the United States, including the Northeast and the Midwest. For decades, Mexicans remained the primary representatives of working-class Latin American immigrants in the United States, until the arrival of Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Salvadorans.

Mexican emigration continued to increase after 1994, with the imposition of the North American Free Trade Agreement, also known as NAFTA. Neoliberal economic measures that lowered wages, balkanized labor and privatized the lands of poor peasants paved the way for more Mexicans to leave the country and head north.

Today, Mexicans represent the largest Latin American-descendant group in the United States, comprising 63.2 percent. The same holds true in Canada, where Mexicans represent 18.6 percent of the total Latin American-descendant population, according to Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey.

There are currently over 36 million Mexicans living in the United States, according to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau survey. In Canada, there are over 70,000 Mexicans. 


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicaragua, which borders Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, is the largest country in Central America by area. 

Like other former RFCA countries following independence, Nicaragua was subject to exploitation and repression by wealthy compradors loyal to Washington and Wall Street. The country’s rich natural resources and strategic geographic location attracted foreign neo-colonizers, like U.S. mercenary William Walker, who sought to enslave and take over the country in the 1850s.

Walker and other foreign forces, including the U.S. government, continued to invade the country throughout most of the 19th and 20th Century in an attempt to quash nationalist and socialist movements. By the 1930s, the entrenched ruling elite faced growing challenges from figures like Augusto Sandino, who led a guerrilla struggle against the conservative government and U.S. marines.

Political tensions reached a boiling point during the dictatorship of the right-wing Somoza dynasty, which ruled the country until 1979, the year that the leftist Sandinista rebels took over the country.

It’s important to note here the class nature of those who emigrated from Nicaragua following the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution. Those who relocated to the United States, according to the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau report, were primarily white, highly-educated and middle-class workers. 

There are currently over 405,000 Nicaraguans living in the United States. Most of them live in the Miami and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. Nicaragua has one of the lowest emigration rates in Central America. 


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Panama, which borders Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east, was a region of the latter country until 1903. This was the year that the United States lobbied right-wing forces in the country to secede in order to construct the Panama Canal. 

Prior to 1903, Panama was primarily ruled by Colombia’s domestic ruling class, which included coastal merchants and interior large landowners. 

Following its “independence” from Colombia, the Central American country, like its regional neighbors, became a neo-colony of the United States. The only difference, however, was that it was primarily used as a trade and transit port rather than as a breadbasket for the Global North. 

Free trade policies transformed the country into one of the most unequal in the region, sparking waves of migration to the United States. Some leftist leaders, like former President Omar Torrijos, attempted to seek a more equitable distribution of wealth. However, they were largely prevented from doing so by the country’s ruling elite. 

Although Panamanians have consistently migrated to North America since 1903, the waves of emigres have been considerably small compared to other countries. 

A large group of Panamanians fled the country after 1989, when the U.S. government invaded and removed military dictator Manuel Noriega from power. 

Today, there are over 183,000 Panamanians living in the United States, with most of them residing in Brooklyn, New York and South Florida.

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