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He had been living in the U.S. for 9 years. Then he started thinking: Why not move back home?

Uvaldo Ramirez had been living in New Jersey for nine years when he started to think about it: Why not move back to Guatemala?

All photos by Anna-Cat Brigida.


He crossed the border into the United States at age 13, moving in with relatives and taking a job as a dishwasher in New Jersey to earn money for his family back home.

But life in the States wasn't easy. Not only did he have to learn English, he also had to learn Spanish. He grew up in Cajolá, an indigenous community in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where residents speak Mam, a Mayan language.

Communication was only one obstacle. The bigger issue was that he never had legal immigration status, which meant he could be deported if anyone ever found out. Eventually, life in the U.S. just seemed too hard.

“I got tired of it and I felt lonely, so I returned to Guatemala," he said.

The return home wasn't without its challenges, though. He needed a job.

Luckily, he got a call from Willy Barreno, a friend and fellow Guatemalan who had been living in New York until 2007 but had also returned home. Willy offered him a position at Cafe RED, a cute little restaurant that was also an offshoot of his nonprofit organization, Sustainable Development for Guatemala (DesGua in Spanish). The cafe was in Quetzaltenango, the country's second-largest city and not far from Uvaldo's hometown.

A relaxed vibe on a Friday afternoon.

The position was on a volunteer basis, but it came with other benefits. Uvaldo could get business and management experience, a support system of other returning migrants, and a smooth reintegration into Guatemalan society. His wife's salary as a teacher was able to support them both for the time being, which made the arrangement possible.

Now working at the cafe, Uvaldo extols what he calls “the Guatemalan dream."

What is the Guatemalan dream? According to Uvaldo, it's the right to find a decent job and live a quality life without migrating to the U.S.

In the 2015 fiscal year, more than 13,500 Guatemalan minors — like Uvaldo was when he came to the U.S. — were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol while trying to cross the border. Another 15,000 were caught coming from El Salvador and Honduras. Many of those people are looking for jobs, hoping to escape violence, or trying to reconnect with relatives.

A person's new life in America can be rewarding — a chance to earn more, live in a safe place, or be with family — but it also means sacrifices.

Uvaldo at Cafe RED, also called La Red KAT (Cafe, Academics, and Store Network).

Cafe RED aims to help more Guatemalans succeed without having to start their life over somewhere else.

Willy Barreno had lived in the U.S. working at restaurants for 14 years, but he always felt his roots were in Guatemala.

Barreno on the job.

He decided to return in 2007 and use his knowledge of migration and restaurant work to launch Cafe RED. The mission: provide job opportunities and training to returning and potential migrants so they have the chance to stay in Guatemala.

In Spanish, “red" means network — and the name doesn't just signify that the place has Wi-Fi (although they have that, too). The cafe is a support system, a network of returning migrants and youth considering the journey north.

For six years, Uvaldo has been an administrator at the nonprofit, which really means he does a little bit of everything.

Since returning home, Uvaldo has not considered migrating again.

Hands-on experience.

He is closer to his family and culture, and he believes his work has a positive impact in Guatemala.

Willy has big hopes for Cafe RED. He started one cafe, but why can't it become a movement?

He has limited funding to open more cafes, but he hopes other Guatemalan business owners will follow his example and provide jobs to youth — giving them the option to stay.

So much of the immigration debate focuses on the impact of newcomers in the U.S.

But if we can understand what drives people to leave their home countries — and what they might need in order to stay — we might come up with ways to offer people more choices.

Some people, according to Barreno, would definitely prefer that. In his words:

“When we know our roots, we can be happy with ourselves."

A message in the cafe reads, "More love, please." Let's add jobs to that, too.

All illustrations are provided by Soosh and used with permission.

I have plenty of space.

This article originally appeared on 04.09.16


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