The Maya have many cool nicknames. The Greeks of the New World. Men of Maize. But you can add a more unfortunate moniker – the Children of Scorched Earth – to explain why they’re suddenly one of Florida’s fastest-growing immigrant communities.
The Maya are the largest indigenous group in the Americas, descendants of the glorious pre-Columbian civilization that occupied southern Mexico and northern Central America. Most live in Guatemala – where in recent decades they’ve faced one violent plague after another.
In the 1980s, Guatemala’s predominantly Maya highlands saw the worst “scorched earth” campaigns of the country’s civil war. That terror forced hundreds of thousands of Maya to flee, mostly to California.
Today, the region’s earth is scorched anew, not by civil war but by the drug war – by the bloodthirsty trafficking gangs that have overrun much of Central America. In Guatemalan provinces like Huehuetenango, los narcos have wrought “a total collapse of society,” says Father Frank O’Laughlin, director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth.
“Everything has been transformed by the narcotráfico,” says O’Laughlin, who has often traveled to Huehuetenango, where most of Florida’s Maya residents are from. “The entire fabric of life has been destroyed.”
As a result, a new generation of Maya is seeking refuge in the U.S. – and many this time are coming to Florida, which now has the country’s second-largest Guatemalan and Maya populations behind California.
Although exact figures aren’t available, experts estimate Florida’s Maya population could be more than 50,000. That’s perhaps a five-fold increase from a decade ago, when the narcotráfico began turning northern Central America into what the U.S. military calls the most dangerous zone in the world outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the Maya who bolted Guatemala for Florida is Natividad Sales – who says she was determined not to become one more gang victim. “The drug gangs were raping women in my town,” Sales says. “[Maya] women don’t drive there, they walk, and that makes you a target.”
Today Sales, fittingly, is a taxi driver in Lake Worth for residents who speak Mam (pronounced mawm), one of the many dialects of the Maya language.
At first glance, the Maya are like most immigrant cohorts in a state that’s full of them. Their labor is a benefit to industries like agriculture and construction in towns like Lake Worth, which has one of Florida’s largest Maya populations.
“They’re hard workers,” says Maria Mendez, an outreach worker at the Guatemalan-Maya Center who each weekend translates Roman Catholic masses into another Maya dialect, Q’anjob’al (kan-ho-BAL).
But Mendez, herself a Guatemalan-born Maya, concedes that integrating Maya newcomers can be a challenge as well. As indigenous people, for example, they’re not always accepted as part of mainstream Latino culture. And that points to another big obstacle.
“The thing they struggle with,” Mendez says, “is language.”
When they arrive, many if not most Maya aren’t proficient in Spanish, let alone English. Many pockets of Florida receiving Maya migrants and refugees aren’t well equipped to handle that influx, especially in schools.
In Lee County, on Florida’s Gulf coast, new Maya-speaking high-school students seem to arrive on a weekly basis. Local educators like Mercedes Pichard, an ESL teacher in Fort Myers, worry whether those kids can ever keep up.
“Many of them are low-literacy with limited formal education back in Guatemala,” says Pichard, who for a statewide conference this spring is preparing ideas on how to improve instructional approaches for Maya students. “I don’t see them able to pass any kind of state assessments.”
But some Maya experts say the sort of reforms educators like Pichard are pushing should be easier to attain these days because the Maya themselves are better organized than they were a generation ago.
“The confidence level of Guatemalan Maya people is higher now,” says Allan Burns, an emeritus anthropology professor at the University of Florida and author of "Maya in Exile: Guatemalans in Florida."
At the Maya center in Lake Worth, O’Laughlin and his staff have forged projects like Escuelita Maya (Little Maya School) in conjunction with local elementary schools. The after-school and summer program helps Maya children navigate their English-language work.
Burns says that's one more reason, given the nightmarish situation back in Guatemala and their growing self-assurance here, that Florida’s Maya population “is going to continue to rise very rapidly.”
O'Laughlin calls that a good thing, considering the Maya's proud past: “The word Maya carries something in the history of the world,” he says. “We all know that the Maya are a treasure.”
And, it seems, a bigger part of Florida’s future.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.