Placelessness: The Underlying Cause of Central American Youth Migration

03/03/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Much has been written during the past year regarding the "phenomenon" of Central American youth migrating to the United States. Various essays, analysis, and opinion articles stem from all sides of the political spectrum, but tend to agree on some vague, overarching causes of this migration. Poverty, violence, lack of employment and the allure of the "American Dream" are four recurring causes that are often cited as factors driving Central American youth away from their home communities in search of a better life in North America. Political commentators may disagree on what causes this violence or poverty or lack of employment, but it would be difficult to argue against the centrality of these four, predominant, and almost universally accepted causes of migration.

These four causes are so widely accepted that the U.S. government is willing to commit a billion dollars to the "Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity." This plan which will work with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras arose from the dramatic increase in child migration from Central America during last year and is to be focused on four main components: boosting the productive sector in order to create economic opportunities, developing opportunities for human capital, improving public safety, and creating access to justice. Despite the fact that many critics see this plan as simply another excuse for U.S. interference in the affairs of Central America and riddled with clauses pushing for the opening of the economy to improve business conditions for foreign investment, it is revealing that the plan is justified in the light of the four "causes" of migration listed above.

In December of 2014, Mennonite Central Committee, an organization working with Central American youth in the areas of development and peace building, brought together 30 youth from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to discuss why so many young people from their countries were deciding to migrate. After three days of intense discussions, the issues of inner-city violence, poverty, lack of employment and the allure of the American Dream were mentioned by youth participating in the debates as the reasons that so many of the youth in their communities were leaving.

But underneath these persistently repeated "causes" of migration, there seemed to be something deeper being touched upon by the youth. These explanations for migration were not, perhaps, causes in themselves, but rather symptoms of an underlying and more elemental and fundamental source.

During one of the debates, Feliciana Herrera, a young woman from Nebaj, Guatemala, mentioned that "so many of the youth from my village are choosing to migrate because they feel alienated and estranged from the life of the community." Alienation and estrangement are two explicit indicators of a society that has become dis-placed, and this sentiment of "placelessness" was continually referenced during the three days of debates.

To move beyond the almost simplistic definition of the four main, agreed-upon "causes" of migration, we will try to analyze these "causes" as symptoms of a more rooted cause; that of an increasingly "place-less" society that young people must find ways to survive in.

It was intriguing to witness how so many of the young people in the debate mentioned family issues as a major reason that so many youth migrated. Too often, it is easy to simply consider the structural causes of migration while overlooking the very real fact that many youth choose to migrate due to personal issues within the family.

Gender-based violence, male chauvinism and broken families were three concerns brought up during the debate, while very few of the youth explicitly mentioned poverty as a direct cause affecting migration. According to Salvador Hernandez, a young woman from Morazán, El Salvador, "Of course, poverty is a problem that leads to migration, especially when there is a father who spends all of the family´s money on alcohol and mistreats his wife and children." Marisela Lopez, from Nebaj, Guatemala added that, "many young women in my community are forced to migrate because after having a relationship with some guy, they´re considered to be ´used´ and no longer worth creating a family with."

These testimonies illustrate how family life which ideally would be a place of intimate belonging has failed to live up to that ideal. This disintegration of family life is further fueled by members who migrate due to unhealthy family situations thus leaving the family unit even further fragmented giving rise to even more migration. A young Central American teenager might have his mother living in California, his father in New York, an older brother in Miami while living with his grandmother who is growing increasingly incapable of caring for her grandchildren. In situations such as this, it is easy to see how Central American youth can feel estranged, disconnected and dis-placed from the intimacy of family.

The inner city violence of Central America is well documented as many agree that the "Northern Triangle" of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is the most dangerous and crime-ridden region of the world. Though there are many facets to this violence, juvenile gangs are an undeniable contributor.

The vast majority of crimes committed by juvenile gangs are against small, family-run businesses within the territory where the gangs operate. Extortion is a common practice and those who don't pay the gangs are often killed or forced to flee their homes. This type of violence exposes the breakdown of any sort of community life in urban neighborhoods. These communities cease to be places characterized by trust and neighborliness and instead become places of hostility and fear where people rush home from work to lock themselves behind razor wire fences and barred windows.

Facing this community context, many youth feel increasingly divorced from any sense of belonging to their home communities. Luis Reyes, a young man from Metapan, El Salvador, shared that "if I were to be extorted by a gang, there is no doubt that I would leave my community the first chance I had." The precariousness of life in urban communities of Central America is increasingly dis-placed as young people are forced into mobility as a survival response to insecurity and violence.

The Central American business elite love to extol their prowess for creating jobs for young people. Advertisements and propaganda continually reference the supposed thousands of jobs created by the private sector in Central America. The problem, indubitably, is that most of these jobs are badly paid, unstable, and devoid of any sense of ownership or active participation for the working youth. A sense of ownership and participation in the productive work that one engages in is indispensable in order to feel a sense of belonging and affinity for that work.

A young Central American girl who works at a department store, a bank, or a maquila rarely has any opportunity to influence the direction of her work. This sense of powerlessness coupled with abusive managers and bad pay is often a catalyst for migration. According to Abner Godinez, a young man from Guatemala City, "for many youth, if the only (work) option is to be a laborer for some boss, then it makes more sense to do so in a place that pays a little better."

Lastly, we come to the issue of the allure of the American Dream. It would be limiting to suppose that Central American youth migrants venture to the United States solely because they were enamored with the unbridled possibilities of the American lifestyle. The enchantment with this apparent abundance and limitlessness is also the result of cultural colonization.

The globalization of western culture has entailed the incursion of a mentality and a paradigm that dis-places "placed" communities. These communities, oftentimes indigenous and peasant, are painted as backwards, folkloric and ever more obsolete. Young people are encouraged to adapt to the times and enter into the demands of modern society. Westernized education institutions are often at the forefront of this dismantling of placed indigenous and peasant cultures.

Gaspar Corio, of Mayan Ixil heritage from Nebaj, Guatemala, shares that "at school we´re taught that as young people we need to do all we can to rise above our parents who are small farmers. Farming is indignant according to this system of thinking and education is the path to leave behind that lifestyle."

Cultural colonization through westernized education, mass media, and other sources is partly responsible for the exodus of Central American youth from rural communities. These youth, separated from a placed community and tradition, are forced to survive in the impersonal and competitive monetary economy. This economy is the epitome of "placelessness" as it demands worker mobility, disengages consumers from the physical sources of their consumption and broadens the gap between producers and consumers as well. Faced with the demands of this economy, many youth consider migration to be their best opportunity to succeed.

After having analyzed the four accepted "causes" of migration from the perspective of a "placeless" society, the assumed differences between North American and Central American societies begin to grow indistinct. Though poverty in North America may be less cruel than in Central America, the issue of unhealthy familiar relationships plagues youth equally in both places. On a community level, the issues of juvenile gangs and extortion may be less severe in North America, but communities are increasingly anonymous, un-neighborly areas that don't inspire any sense of devotion or loyalty to place.

In regards to the job market, the only real difference has to do with the pay. Young people entering the workforce in North America are encouraged to be itinerant and open to "moving to where the jobs are" just as with Central American youth. Finally, the mentality that encourages young people to abandon the old in favor of the new is unswervingly nailed into the heads of North American youth as well. A recent NASDAQ advertisement welcomes youth into the "smarter, brighter, greener, more connected, more responsible, more inspiring, tech-driven, everything-is-knowable, anything-is-possible, no-problem-is-too-big century." Given that gushing and effusive description of the new century, who wouldn´t be charmed into believing full-heartedly in the marvels of modernity?

Perhaps the causes of the migration phenomenon aren´t exclusive to Central American reality, but rather are simply manifestations of how our global society is structured. In our common "placelessness," youth from both North and Central America are forced to stand up against a civilization that delimits a very narrow path to supposed success while abolishing alternatives.

It is time to move beyond the superficial analysis of the conventional and endorsed "causes" of migration (poverty, violence, lack of employment, and the allure of the American dream) in order to embark on the hard work of confronting the "placelessness" that equally affects us all. Juan Carlos Terraza, another young man from Nebaj, Guatemala, sums it up: "The best way to confront migration is to create communities that work for young people." We all need to learn to create communities that grow roots in place and inspire us to stay and live well in that place.