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From refugee to citizen: a Guatemalan in Mexico

News Stories, 29 November 2001

Estela Figueroa receives her Mexican citizenship at the hands of Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda at a naturalisation ceremony in Chiapas.

CHIAPAS, Mexico (UNHCR) Estela Figueroa held up her naturalisation papers, smiled broadly, and waved a Mexican flag. Just moments before she had received her Mexican citizenship from the hands of Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's foreign minister, in a ceremony at La Gloria settlement in the southern state of Chiapas.

Figueroa had long been waiting for this day. Twenty years ago, she was a 10-year-old girl living in Ixcán Grande, a small community in Guatemala near the Mexican border, when the war between the Guatemalan military and insurgent guerrillas reached her town.

"We were strongly affected by the war," the young woman recalled. "Terrible things occurred in front of our eyes. We had to flee our community and walk for two long days through the mountains, carrying some of our belongings, before we crossed the border."

The Figueroa family was not alone. Between 1981 and 1984, more than 200,000 Guatemalans entered Mexico to flee the fighting in their country. Some 46,000 of them were registered and allowed to remain the camps or local communities. But by 1999, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had assisted 43,000 of the refugees to voluntarily return home. Another 22,000 chose to remain in Mexico.

Half of those who remained are minors born in Mexico and were therefore automatically given citizenship, but the rest did not have permanent immigration status until the Mexican government began the naturalisation project that benefited Estela Figueroa and more than 900 other Guatemalans in four refugee communities in Chiapas.

In 1996, before extending the naturalisation programme to Chiapas, Mexico offered Guatemalans living in the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo the possibility of becoming citizens. To date, 6,204 Guatemalan refugees have been naturalised Mexicans, more than a thousand of them in Chiapas. Another 4,000 cases are currently being processed in Chiapas alone.

After their arduous trip, the Fugueroa family mother, father, Estela, and her eight brothers arrived in Ejido La Sila in Mexico's Lacandonian Forest. With more and more refugees arriving in the same area, however, the family decided to move on. One day, Estela's father was fishing in the Lacantun River when he met an old man by the name of Don Angel. Because he could no longer work his land, he asked Estela's family to live in a small hut near his house in the village of Playon de La Gloria and allowed them to work the land without charge.

The family stayed with Don Angel for several years before moving to Campeche State at the end of 1984 as part of a programme by UNHCR and the Mexican Commission to Aid Refugees (COMAR) that transferred 18,000 people to Campeche and Quintana Roo states for security reasons.

Although the Figueroa family was not facing a particular threat, Estela said that her father thought the living and working conditions would be better. Nevertheless, they have since visited Don Angel a number of times in Chiapas, but have not heard from him for two years.

In Campeche, the family established itself in the Quetzal-Edzná settlement. Yet the memories of the terrible things she saw as a young girl in the war remained strong. "That is why I did not want to return to Guatemala when my father asked us to go back," she explained.

Many other Guatemalan refugees did go back, but for Estela remaining in Mexico seemed the only option. The option became a legal possibility when Mexico first offered Guatemalans in Campeche the opportunity to become Mexican. Eventually, in fact, her father and the entire family also decided to stay.

For the Guatemalan refugees, the naturalisation documents are much more than just pieces of paper. Everything was burned in Estela's hometown, for instance, and her family had to flee Guatemala without any documentation, in effect without any legal identity.

A widow, Estela hopes becoming a Mexican will give her two daughters, Leydi, 13, and Magda, 11, more opportunities than she has had. "I am hoping to get a scholarship for one of my daughters from the Ministry of Education," she explains. As a non-Mexican, Estela was denied a scholarship for her daughters two years ago even though the two girls were born in the country and thereby hold Mexican nationality.

For the past four years Estela has been working at PACEPIC, a non-governmental organisation formed by refugees and promoted by UNHCR. The group manages projects that produce goods for sale, promote credit schemes, and train refugees. Estela has also been able to carry out her own project, keeping bees to produce honey.

"For me it is very important to have this document," she said, "because now I am allowed to work, to vote as any other Mexican, with no difficulties."

By Diana Goldberg

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