Some of Nebaj’s first wage pilgrims to go north were very successful. Most of the migrants are males between the ages of fifteen and thirty, along with some older men and a small minority of women. From fragmentary remittance data, I estimate that something like 4,000 Nebajenses were in the United States in late 2007 and early 2008. That would be 5.7% of the Nebaj population and 20-25% of the male workforce over the age of 15. In the peak year of 2007 I further estimate that Nebajenses sent back $22 million, which would be $300 for every man, woman and child in the municipio. Since $300 is roughly the annual per capita income, the remittances were a tremendous multiplier of the money in circulation. And yet this tidal wave of prosperity was a shock wave for every household that did not have a wage earner in the United States. The price of houses, building lots and agricultural land shot sky-high. Nebaj experienced a bubble economy because the inflow of donations, credits and remittances led to enormous price hikes for assets that are in fixed supply. Hyperinflation meant that anyone who wanted to buy land would have to undertake all the risks of seeking work in the United States.
With inflation like this, every household in Nebaj is under pressure to send someone north. Not every household has done so, and not every household will, but every household has thought about it. Thus the prosperity of some Nebajenses has meant deep anxiety for others. Remaining faithful to the routines of peasant subsistence means being left behind. For those who are too poor or too old to head north, the most obvious beacon of hope is a pyramid scheme. This is what snared Doña Alfonsa and her husband. In Guatemala get-rich-quick schemes combine the language of non-governmental organizations and development projects with the ritual supplications of folk Catholicism. But the crux of many a scheme is human smuggling into the U.S. labor market. All told, the Nebajenses have sunk millions of dollars from loans, land sales and remittances into the $5,000 per head smuggling fees.
It is not just migrants who are lunging for the fabled riches of wage labor in El Norte. A less demanding way to partake of El Dorado is to stay at home and become a moneylender. I know five market women who have borrowed money from multiple credit institutions, typically at 2% interest per month, in order to lend it to migrants at 10% per month. They live off the difference until the migrants fail to repay. The chains of debt between migrants, moneylenders and other peasant investors extend deep into families because the collateral securing a loan belongs to a spouse, parent, or sibling. The “immigrant bargain” is how scholars refer to these transactions — a quid pro quo in which a family takes on debt to establish members in a more remunerative labor market. The financial stakes are so high that intimate kin relationships are monetized and the family takes on the attributes of an export business.
Once a kin network is in debt, the only way it can keep up with payments is by maintaining wage earners in the United States. If we widen the concept of debt to deficits real or perceived, including the relative deprivation that human beings feel when their peers outstrip them in consumption and status, remittances from the United States are an engine for multiplying needs that can be met only by sending members of each household north. Nothing on the local economic horizon can pay for these aspirations. Yet in the United States, Nebaj’s wage pilgrims have been failing to find enough work since 2006. Even before our current economic recession, they were saturating the ethnic niches for their labor. When they can’t find enough work to pay back their debts, migration has the paradoxical effect of swallowing their assets back home.
Since 2008 remittances have plunged. Judging from remarks at various agencies, remittances are roughly half what they were at the peak. Default rates have climbed into double digits and dozens of foreclosures clog the docket at the local courthouse. Nebajenses are still going north, but in smaller numbers. The price of real estate has collapsed, making it impossible for creditors to recover their capital. And so the bubble has turned into Nebaj’s own version of the global credit crisis. In an uncanny anticipation of the U.S. derivatives’ bubble and how it burst, Ixil speculators borrowed other people’s money to multiply their gains, but only by incurring risks that are now bankrupting them and their creditors.
Microcredit, we have been assured, enables the poor to make headway against poverty. But debt has long functioned as a way to encourage poor people to “capitalize” their activities and, when they fail, separate them from their property. We also would do well to question whether there is enough employment in the United States for all the people who want to travel there. Whether or not it is a good idea for Guatemalans to go north depends on whether the U.S. economy can provide them with stable jobs. Without stable jobs, they will be unable to recoup the cost of getting there and living there, endangering whatever property they have used as collateral. We should stop assuming that traveling to the United States is a benefit for Guatemalans and their families.