Asylum Seekers in Corvallis: Local Mam Community

An Inside Look at our Local Mam Community

  Many Mayan-Mam speaking people from rural departments (similar to states) of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala have come to Corvallis throughout the years, seeking asylum, or a better life.

According to a 2016 report by the Pan-American Organization of Health, Guatemala has one of the largest indigenous populations in North America. Of the 11.2 million inhabitants, 4.5 million identify as indigenous, totaling 41 percent of the population. Indigenous Guatemalans face major inequalities, including but not limited to: malnutrition, health inequities, violence, climate change, and a lack of education.

According to a Corvallis healthcare professional, who wishes to remain anonymous, “Reasons that we see people seeking asylum from Guatemala in our community usually has to do with poverty, inaccessibility of education, domestic violence, and state-sanctioned violence.”

The PAOH report identified food insecurity as another primary driver of migration from Guatemala, partly because climate change has been making it more difficult for small-scale farmers to feed their families.

According to the UN Refugee agency, an asylum seeker “is a general designation for someone who is seeking international protection…. In some countries it is a legal term referring to a person who has applied for refugee status and has not yet received a final decision on his or her claim. Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee. However, an asylum-seeker should not be sent back to his or her country of origin until the asylum claim has been examined in a fair procedure.”

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, those rights are being infringed upon in the United States.

Since aide was cut off to Guatemala by the Trump administration last spring, many U.S.-funded programs have ended, even those that promote sustainable agriculture in Huehuetenango.

Mam Culture
Mam is the language of the Mayan people. Mam speakers live in very close-knit communities. Many children learn to weave and make traditional garments called huipils. These garments are brightly colored and complexly woven.

Grupo Cajola, a group of Guatemalan immigrants and friends of immigrants that helps rebuild Guatemala so families do not have to immigrate, states that Mam speakers “are good people, eager to do favors for others, not selfish, and willing to share their wealth with the community. They are known as travelers and migrants. They make good Maya priests, showing the path to other people, guiding them and petitioning for their needs.”

Sons in Guatemala begin working in the fields alongside their fathers as soon as they are able, while young girls assist their mothers at an even earlier age. Due to many barriers within Guatemala such as lack of money, reliable transportation, and needs for help at home, many young girls do not attend school, whereas boys often do until the sixth grade.

Working Hard to Send Money Back Home
“Most of these [local Mam] families are seeking work to not only support themselves here, but family members in Guatemala as well,” said the anonymous healthcare source.

Guatemalan communities rely greatly on remesas, money sent back to Guatemala. In 2018, the amount of money that came from these remesas to Guatemala was $9 billion according to Guatemalan magazine Nomada. A survey done by the International Organization of Immigration reported in 2016 that the three departments that received the most money were Guatemala, San Marcos, and Huehuetenango.

There are typically more Mam men with children traveling to the United States seeking asylum, with 78 percent of those sending money identified as men. Teacher and coffee grower Obden Méndez told Nomada that in the past year, he estimates that two people have left his community searching for a better life. In the school where Méndez works, he noted a major exodus of students. A class of 40 children decreased by 10 percent between the months of January and May, the children leaving to go north with their fathers.

The PAOH shows illiterate adult rates at 61 percent in the departments Quiché, Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Totonicapán, Baja Verapaz, and Sololá. This percentage elevates to 87.5 percent in the case of women within this demographic.

Barriers to Life in Corvallis 
Since many Mam parents are single fathers, giving up work hours and money to accompany their child to an appointment can be especially challenging, given the cultural value placed on work above all else.

“The parents’ work hours prevent them taking their kids to appointments,” the anonymous healthcare source said. “If parents are unable to take time off work to take kids to the doctor or dentist, it can really be detrimental to the medical and dental health issues of Mam children.”

There are also very few interpreters who speak Mam. Since many Mam speakers do not speak Spanish, interpretation has been proven to be difficult, especially in medical care settings.

Many Mam people do not have cars or even know how to drive. Some take buses, but others are left to walk.

“Another thing we have seen is that childcare options can be limited since so many people are working in the fields. Usually there is one or two people caring for many children,” our source continued.

Resources in Corvallis
“I love working with this community. I am aware of the privilege I hold as an American, and I feel that it is a responsibility of people to help people who have less,” said the anonymous healthcare source.

Mam speakers going through the process of political asylum do not qualify for programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for needy Families (TANF), so it is important to note that there are other community supports that immigrants and others in need can qualify for.

Marianne Tambot said of Community Outreach, Inc, “Our services are open to anyone. Anyone in the community can receive housing, food boxes, dental, and counseling through COI.”

Corvallis has multiple food pantries that all people in the community qualify for – St. Vincent de Paul, Linn Benton Food Share, and the South Corvallis Food Bank, to name a few.

To help cut down on health inequity, there are clinics with sliding scale fees for which anyone can qualify.

English classes, which many people within this community are interested in, are offered through the Multicultural Literacy Center and Acorn Outreach. Both locations are currently offering evening classes after work hours to help accommodate the needs of these communities.

How to Help
One way to help Mam speakers is to become a trained volunteer with any local organizations that offer services. People can also write letters to elected leaders in Congress to support asylum seekers.

“Mam-Maya Guatemalans are currently caught in a perfect storm,” commented Dr. Emily Yates-Doerr, Anthropologist at Oregon State University, “with humanitarian aid to Guatemala gutted at the precise moment that changing US asylum proceedings prevent the safe passage of those in desperate need. This is an important time to write letters and make phone calls to our elected officials, asking them to comply with international asylum laws and to reinstate humanitarian aid to Guatemala so that people are not forced to flee.”

By Mariah Price