Guatemala's Remittance Economy

CAJOLÁ, Guatemala – Israel Vail Lopez walks from room to room, treading across construction dust that powders the hardwood floor in this new home. Although construction is almost complete, no one will live here any time soon.
This is a so-called “remittance home,” built with money sent back to Guatemala by one of his sons who works as a landscaper in New Jersey. Mr. Vail Lopez calls the home a safety net: If his son is deported, he will have an asset and a place to land.
Remittances sent to Guatemala from the US – totaling roughly $10.5 billion in 2019 – fund infrastructure projects, put siblings and children through school, and ensure there’s enough food to eat. But the colorful remittance homes with grand balconies and chiseled pillars are transforming towns like this one, where rolling green farm land has been erased by sprawling – and often empty – homes.
They may encapsulate the American Dream, but there are consequences.
“It can create [these] sort of social differentiated communities that draw more people into the ‘migration economy’ as a means of keeping up,” Richard Johnson, a Guatemala expert at the University of Arizona. Here, big homes divide the small town into successful migrants and those who don't have the economic cushion of remittances. Rising cases of coronavirus may shrink remittances and slow the rapid rise of homes like these, but migration and deportation continue despite the pandemic.
Marina Diaz, a former migrant, fears these homes do more harm than good: even if someone is deported or chooses to return, they aren’t likely to stay in a subsistence-farming town like this one for long, she says. A big house doesn’t change the fact that Guatemala lacks economic and educational opportunities.

But for Vail Lopez, building a home with remittances changed his life.

“My dream was to build a place to live,” he says. “And, I did it.”

Women walk by a half-finished "Casa de Remesa", or "Remittance House", in Cajolá, Guatemala on March 12, 2020. For years, Guatemalan migrants in the United States have sent back money so their families can build intricate homes.   ···  
Virginia Vail Lopez, the wife Israel shovels concrete in front of their home in Cajola, Guatemala on March 12, 2020 as the family builds their "Remittance House."   ···  
Kids walk out of a "Casa de Envios,"  a shop where you can send and receive money from the United States, in Cajolá, Guatemala on March 12, 2020.   ···  
Rows of intricate "Remittance Houses" line a dirt street that winds up into the hills of Cajolá, Guatemala on March 12, 2020. Many of those houses sit empty, waiting for their owners to return back from the U.S.   ···  
Jose Vail, 24, hand sands a wooden plank in a carpentry workshop in Cajolá, Guatemala. The door is being built for a "Remittance House." Industries like carpentry and construction have boomed in Cajolá coinciding with the surge in building of remittance h   ···  
Israel Vail Lopez examines the home he is building in Cajolá, Guatemala for his two sons living in the U.S. on March 12, 2020. The 21- and 25-year-old migrant send money home to Vail Lopez so he can construct the home for them to live in if they get depor   ···  
A giant remittance house under construction sits vacant in Cajolá, Guatemala. Many of the houses are styled after houses in New Jersey and Georgia, where most of the migrants from the town work.   ···  
Lucia Arecely Vail sews traditional Guatemalan clothes as her daughter runs into their small home in Cajola, Guatemala on November 29, 2021.   ···  
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