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.

"The only way to have all of this is to work more than the regular," he says of his house.

With an eye to the future, Juan and Florinda have built another two-story home, this one in San Cristóbal. Replete with a deluxe kitchen and furnishings from Houston superstores, the abode is ready. They plan to go back for good after they've saved a little more and the younger of their two daughters has finished school.

Americans to the quick, his girls rarely wear the traditional clothing of Mayan women. But Juan shrugs this off as a tolerable trade-off for what they have in the United States. Griselda Soledad is a beautician, and Marisely is studying to be a nurse -- opportunities they never would have had in Guatemala.

Deron Neblett

Spanning the generations: Soledad with great-granddaughters Griselda (left) and Marisely.
Photos courtesy of Juan Chanax
Spanning the generations: Soledad with great-granddaughters Griselda (left) and Marisely.

"Life there is slower and a little calmer. You could say healthier," he says. "But we can't aspire to something more."

The San Cristóbal to which he returns will not be the same one of his childhood, thanks in no small measure to his role in creating a bridge to Houston. Satellite dishes now sprout up next to the small plots of corn, and the drone of television has replaced evening conversations. Professors Rodriguez and Hagan note in a chapter they co-wrote about the Maya that the number of stereos, appliances and other electronics from Houston "gave rise to a movement to convert the town's 220-volt European-style wiring to 110-volt U.S.-style wiring." And San Cristóbal today sometimes seems like a town of the very old and very young, says Rodriguez, who estimates that 2,000 working people and their families live in Houston.

The period of rapid growth for Randall's is now a memory. In the 1990s, the stores began replacing in-house cleaning crews with contractors, blocking off one avenue that had led many from San Cristóbal into the workforce. In 1999, the chain was purchased by grocery giant Safeway Inc. The number of employees was cut. The bakeries started making less from scratch and relying more on premade goods. Through all the changes, though, the chain continues to provide hundreds of Houston Maya with jobs.

"Randall's opened the doors and welcomed us," Juan says gratefully.

Like Juan, Esteban Chanas wants to retire to San Cristóbal. Going back would separate him from his children but bring him closer to his 92-year-old mother, who still gets up before dawn every day to make bread for the local markets. Maria has no intention of giving up what she has worked for in the United States. She still makes yearly trips to Guatemala and even sent her son to live with relatives for a month to learn Spanish. But she became a U.S. citizen last year and continues to dream big.

She will help finance the sports bar that brothers Edgar and Edwin intend to open, and has her sights set on more bakeries.

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