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Trenton, Princeton & Salcajá

In July, I spent two weeks on a scouting trip in Guatemala, assessing the possibility of future documentary work there as part of The Trenton Project. I owe thanks to many folks for helping me out – including funders here at Princeton University, Trentonians who generously put me in touch with their family and friends, Alfredo Maúl of GT22 in Guatemala City who travelled with me, Professors Tatiana Paz and Andrés Alvarez at UCV -- and of course the wonderful folks I met in Salcajá. By way of thanks, here’s a brief account of the trip & the work there.

BACKGROUND: Migration between Salcajá and Mercer County

Salcajá is a small city in the Western highlands of Guatemala, a few kilometers from Quetzaltenango (Xela), the country’s second largest city. With a population of about 15,000, Salcajá is a manageable, welcoming place that feels a bit like a modest city and a bit like a small town. I was there on a hunch. Conversations with Guatemalans in Trenton over the last years helped me develop my hypothesis that strong demographic, economic and emotional ties connect Salcajá to the world we know here in Mercer County. This proved even more true than I had imagined.

From my very first meeting with Mayor Miguel Ovalle to numerous chance encounters on the street, I confirmed that Trenton, Princeton and all of Mercer County are crisscrossed with a network of families and friends that know both places intimately. One encounters this phenomenon all across Central America and corresponding points in the United States, but Salcajá is the place in Guatemala that connects most strongly to us. In fact, Mayor Ovalle and Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson have discussed the possibility of an official sister-city status. It’s also a good site of inquiry because Salcajá has witnessed heavier migration (and remittance) than much of the rest of Guatemala. First, the destruction caused by the 1976 earthquake forced many to flee then. Later, violent reprisal from the military during the civil war, which was particularly focused on this part of the Central Highlands, chased still more from their homes. The political and economic climate of our hemisphere shifts over the years, and migration waxes and wanes, but there has been a fluidity between the two cities for almost four decades.

I felt that students and I could do original and useful work documenting this community. Despite the fact that Central American immigrants are fast making up over 30% of Trenton’s population, they are still largely invisible to much of our community, and by extension, under-represented in our political and civic life. When I ran into L.A. Parker, a local journalist, at Trenton’s Guatemalan Independence Day celebration, he remarked how the Central American population barely registers in Trenton papers. Without overstating the impact of The Trenton Project, I feel any work we undertake would offer a significant contribution to the public conversation about the changing face of our area.


The story of overland migration to the United States should continue to be told, not least because dramatic accounts of the journey loom large in the lives of anyone who has made the trek. But that story is just the introductory piece of a larger tale of two cities. I went to Salcajá equally interested in the deeper, ongoing ties of remittance between our two communities and curious to discover whether this wonkier side of the migration topic—which is now mostly told by economists and social scientists—lends itself to documentary storytelling.

I knew I would see visual evidence of the remittance economy, and sure enough, construction is booming. Whimsical dream houses are rising up in the center of the city and in the rural outskirts. Cars from the U.S. are for sale on the periphery of the city along with other artifacts of life in the U.S., the flotsam and jetsam of our culture washes up daily on the streets of Salcajá.

But it was the specific stories that I found most promising. I spent much of my time with the extended Lopez family. In that one family, I found men who came to Trenton, profited and returned. They have children who migrated and stayed in the U.S., other children who migrated and preferred to return to Salcajá, spouses who tried the U.S. briefly and disliked it intensely, and children who never left. They have cousins who were deported home and a 90-year old matriarch who has memories of exploring the Princeton campus when she visited.

Cesar Lopez transported used cars back to Guatemala for decades, each time bringing more tools for the auto repair business he runs with his son. Sometime in the 90s, his brother Adalberto, after spending years learning to bake in the Italian neighborhoods in Trenton, drove back to Salcajá with an industrial mixer from Plainsboro that is the pride of his bakery. Rony Lopez went to Princeton High School, studying computer science by day and working the late shift at a pizza place in Quakerbridge Mall. He’s put both skills to work: A tangle of wires leading from his extra bedroom supplies high speed internet around his neighborhood— and reaches to his own pizza restaurant by the river. Like every good American culinary hipster, Rony also has a food truck.

I followed similar threads in a few other families; it was remarkably easy to find such examples. In addition, I became very interested in finding the first folks who migrated from Salcajá to Trenton. Mayor Ovalle turned out to be an ally in this quest. I was invited to appear on his Monday evening cable access show, and as I sat next to him, he had the brilliant idea of crowd-sourcing this question. He looked into the camera and asked his constituents to call in with the names of the first migrants. Soon, the phone was ringing and the video techs were scribbling names and dates and sharing comments on the air.

I have a list of leads to pursue—some here, some there—but my hunch is that the first Salcajeños arrived in the 1970s from New York City when someone told them that good manufacturing jobs could be found in Trenton. They had little way of know they were arriving at the end of a long chapter in Trenton’s history and would soon have to adapt to a new reality. Their experience is connected to the larger story of manufacturing decline that I’ve been telling in class for the last few years.

There are counter-narratives as well. Globalized culture in Salcajá exists in contrast to the city’s more traditional trade, weaving. Salcajá is a production center for a very intricate type of textile work currently popular across Guatemala. It is also a trading hub for both finished cloth and the raw materials and supplies for the weaving industry. Many less-entrepreneurial migrants only stay in the U.S. long enough to get the capital to buy a loom, build a space to house it, and then they return to Salcajá to live and work. I was surprised that people in Trenton don’t talk to me much about this traditional side of the culture, nor do I see much evidence that they’ve marketed this beautiful artisanal work to higher-end consumers in the U.S. But that seems not far off. I, of course, love the metaphorical connection between the long threads Salcajeños hand-dye and my themes of connecting communities.

Politics adds another layer. U.S. immigration policy was never far from the surface in my conversations. There is much to learn about the logistics itself; since people have been travelling back and forth for decades, everyone seems to have different papers, status and strategy. There is little stigma to so-called illegal immigration, but the repercussions of governmental policy are felt strongly—and personally. The journey north is so much more dangerous now than it was even a few years ago, so the stakes are higher. And deportation creates a group of unwilling returnees who are trying to get their footing in a place they barely know.

Other troubling issues that affect this community. Migration and separation destroys families, and Salcajeños on both sides of the border worry about those who can’t handle the poverty, loneliness and disenfranchisement they face in Trenton. Some fall through the cracks. By necessity, Salcajeños grapple gamely with the political realities they often feel powerless to change, but beneath the surface there is plenty of anger, heartbreak and confusion. As a filmmaker, I sensed a hunger to give voice to this experience and have these struggles reflected back.

POTENTIAL FOR FURTHER WORK: Trenton, Princeton and Salcajá

Documentary is most powerful when it’s most specific. In Salcajá, when Adalberto Lopez pulled out a snapshot of himself sitting in front of Robertson Hall—my office!—it altered the way I think about migration. Many others shared photos of themselves, or family members, posing among the fake gothic arches of Princeton. It’s funny, but also draws more serious, and compelling connection between our worlds.

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