Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

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Do migrants have an influence in changing their countries of origin? Yes they do. And how!

A group of Central American photographers, architects and anthropologists made an investigation on how remittances influence the architecture of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Two hundred thirty photos were taken to houses in the towns of San Mateo de Ixtatán and Cojolá in Guatemala, Intipucá and Ilobasco in El Salvador and Triunfo de la Cruz in Honduras.

The bigger and pompous the house, the bigger the success of the family, achieved by one or more members that traveled and lived mostly in the United States for many years, sending money to their families. These amounts of money, known as “remesas” or remittances have been key for the survival of many, especially in rural areas.

Homes have been built by migrant workers, according to houses seen during their stay in the USA. Some have been built by memory, some drew a model or took a photograph, others mixed one or more details from several houses. The result is almost always the same: big two of more story houses with attics, terraces columns and other details not known or used before in Central American towns.

The houses, almost always also painted in bright colors, stand as a sign of success. Behind each one is a story of sacrifice, effort and struggle with a happy ending. Most owners are so proud of their homes that, when asked by journalists, they will be taken inside and shown around. Photos are of course allowed.

The houses are easy to be found. They stand out in contrast with the typical one story homes, made of wood, mud or bricks, with tile roofs, a central patio and corridors. The smaller and poorer houses will only have one or two rooms, no central patios nor corridors. The bigger room can be used as a living and eating area and the other one as a collective dormitory, where the family sleeps, sometimes with two or more members sharing the same bed. Floors are made of dirt and domestic animals like dogs, cats, chickens and pigs may sometimes enter the house and even sleep inside. A kind of shack is also built to house a cooking area and latrines may be a couple of meters away from the house.

This investigation resulted in an exhibition and the publication of the photos in a book called Arquitectura de remesas (Remittances architecture). The book was published in Guatemala in July 2010 and the exhibition will be presented in the countries of the region.

Millions of Central Americans have left their countries since 1980, the decade of civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, and the Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, with Honduras and Panama being used as US military bases.

The remittances are the second highest source of dollar income in most of these countries, and an important source of income for many families, in countries where unemployment and underemployment rates are as high as 45%.

You can see the pictures at the blog Arquitectura de remesas. The comments are in Spanish but the photos need no translation.

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Jacinta Escudos Twitter: @jacintarioJacinta

Writer, columnist and blogger from El Salvador. With 8 published books and an op-ed column on the Sunday magazine of the country’s main newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica. I'm interested in literature, culture, the rescue of historical memory and how these can be used to transform reality, construct a better society and improve individual lives.