American Breadwinners

Two decades ago, the Chanas family joined an exodus of Mayan people from Guatemala to a Houston grocery chain. Today they are self-made entrepreneurs working to stay true to their roots.

Guatemala's civil war formed a bloody backdrop to Juan's youth. The U.S.-backed military regime used broad strokes to paint whole indigenous regions as sympathetic to leftist guerrillas, clearing the way for right-wing death squads to massacre thousands. San Cristóbal maintained a low profile through the conflict and was spared the deadly violence of other areas. However, the artisan economy took a hit because people were afraid to travel and sell wares at markets in neighboring villages.

Even in the best of times the prospects for the Maya and other indigenous people were few. Juan's formal education ended after elementary school. He spent his early teenage years working in the weaving shop of an aunt. When he was 17, his uncle Esteban set him up with a job stitching sweaters in a factory in nearby Quetzaltenango. Paltry as it was, the regular paycheck allowed Juan to marry his sweetheart, Florinda, in 1974. Their first child was born later that year. Marco Antonio would change the course of their lives, but not in the usual ways.

The toddler kept falling ill. Juan's grandmother dug into her bread earnings to pay for doctors in Quetzaltenango. They diagnosed the problem as an "infection" and prescribed antibiotics, to no effect.

For years, doctors did not know what was ailing Marco Antonio.
For years, doctors did not know what was ailing Marco Antonio.
Fruitful relationship: Juan Chanax blazed the trail to Randall's that hundreds followed.
Deron Neblett
Fruitful relationship: Juan Chanax blazed the trail to Randall's that hundreds followed.

"We never knew what was wrong," Juan, 46, says today.

Toiling in a dead-end job was bad. Being unable to cure his child was hell. Juan was stuck in this awful bind when a fellow factory worker mentioned that his brother had just returned from the United States, and hadn't done half badly for himself. These were passing words, but they stuck with Juan and pointed to a way out.

In September 1978, he kissed Florinda, Marco Antonio and their newborn baby girl good-bye and boarded a northbound bus.

"I was afraid and I was sad, because I had never left my family," he says.

According to Juan, the Border Patrol nabbed him trying to sneak into Laredo five different times, and each time he claimed he was Mexican and got deported. On the sixth try, he says, he got through. Juan knew of a pair of elderly sisters from San Cristóbal who had gone to Houston to work as housekeepers. He tracked them down and they helped him secure work as a live-in for a family in the Memorial area. It was during a shopping outing at a Randall's that he met a Guatemalan who told him of a job opening on the grocery store's cleaning crew. Juan applied and got the job.

His steady remittances home allowed Florinda to bring young Marco Antonio to Guatemala City for tests. On Christmas Eve in 1980, she called him with the news: Their little boy had leukemia.

Within a month, Juan was back in Guatemala to fetch his family. Against long odds, he says, he was able to obtain passports and tourist visas for all four of them. The next month they were settled in Houston. Juan felt certain that the doctors at Texas Children's Hospital would work wonders. His hopes were soon shattered: Marco Antonio's cancer had advanced beyond any hope of saving him.

The child spent the last year of his life shuttling between home and hospital in a strange new land. Tutors came to give him some schooling. His parents showered him with love. Despite their best efforts, Marco Antonio died in February 1982 at the age of seven. Juan and Florinda brought him back to Guatemala and buried him in the family plot.

Juan's journey out of the highlands did not, in the end, save his son. It did offer a new life for hundreds of his struggling townspeople who followed him to Houston.

In the 1980s Randall's hit a growth spurt, jumping from 15 supermarkets in the Houston area at the beginning of the decade to 42 by the end. With the opening of each new store came jobs. From his cleaning post, Juan Chanax had the inside scoop on the company's needs. He would send word to family and friends back home whenever positions became available. Each recruit added his or her own fresh connections to the network, until hundreds of Maya were at work at the stores.

Rodriguez, the UH sociologist, has studied the Houston Maya since 1985, and visited San Cristóbal numerous times. He says the built-in social relations within this community gave Randall's a highly disciplined labor force.

"If you came late to work, you didn't just have to explain to your boss why. You had to explain to your uncle," he says. "That's a huge source of authority in traditional Mayan culture."

People in the highlands began to view the future not in terms of the meager living they could scrape from the family loom or maize fields, but with an eye to the faraway place relatives returned from each year in shiny cars and new clothes. They faced the thorny problems of illegal border crossings and obtaining false documents, but became skilled at overcoming those obstacles. Different amnesty measures and other opportunities would ultimately allow many of the Houston Maya, including members of the Chanas family, to become legal.

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