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Golden teeth

By Thushan Amarasiriwardena | Comments Off January 17th, 2008

We’re on our way up a curvy mountain road to the sizzling mineral baths of Fuentes Georginas, riding in the flatbed of a camioneta – a pickup truck that doubles as taxi and delivery truck in rural towns like Zunil, Guatemala. Halfway through town, the driver—whom we’ve paid the equivalent of $3 for an 8-kilometer (about 5-mile) drive—slows and shouts to a 20-something man who is ambling along with a group of men. The man, two Coke cans in hand, deftly pulls himself into the flatbed with us as the driver hits the gas.

Almost instantly and without any reservation, he greets us in nearly flawless English, “Where are you guys from?” he asks.

Immediately, my eyes are drawn to his mouth full of bling. Try as I might, I can’t help but notice his two gold-plated canines. While it is definitely not rare to see the indigenous people of Guatemala with full-on golden grills, witnessing this young man’s mouth of Olympic gold up close makes it harder than normal for this foreigner not to give in and stare. His mouth – both the English and the shine flowing freely from it – is certainly not his only distinctive characteristic. His slightly baggy pants and dark blue denim coat atop a white tee are not-oft-seen reflections of the west in a sea of straw hats, flannel shirts and bolts of colorful floral cloth.

This is Sebastian, and he has golden teeth.

Before we can even answer his question, he delves into his story. “No one speaks English here,” he says, pointing to Zunil. “I try to use it whenever I can. They don’t teach it here at school,” he continues, talking at a speed equivalent to the camioneta that’s jetting us through the mountains.

A few moments later, taking advantage of a rare pause, we ask where he learned his unbroken English. “Miami. I used to work there,” he declares with a slight grin that translates perfectly; his work in the States was, perhaps… less than legal.

I steal a glance at Brian. I can tell he’s equally awestruck. Back in the states, we’ve surely but unknowingly, come into contact with the orbits of other illegal immigrants. But here, right in front of us under the safety of the Guatemalan flag, was someone willing to be brazenly truthful about it.

While we whiz by patches of radishes and onions, Sebastian continues his story. Marriage and a child at the age of 16 led him to what he said was a financial inevitability – a trek across Mexico and into the United States. Taking a series of buses from Guatemala to northern Mexico with eight others, they eventually found themselves near Nogales, Ariz. Then, he dropped $800 – two years’ worth of saving here – for a guide to take him on a four-day trek through the desert and into the United States.

“I snapped a couple times,” he said. “We kept running into rattlesnakes. All I wanted to do was turn around and go back. My cousin kept on telling me to chill out and take it easy.”

That was 10 years ago he said. Doing the math, I realized that we were looking at a mirror, if not a skewed one. Here was another 26-year-old, but with a completely different story. Later when he complimented me on my camera and asked how much it cost, I lied, not wanting to admit it cost more than his two years of saving to cross the border.

“It was so hot man,” he continues, explaining that after Arizona, he headed to family in Los Angeles before crossing the country and finding work at a factory in Miami. Earning multiples of what he could in Zunil’s rural, farm-based economy, he said he was quickly able to build a home for his family by sending money back to Guatemala.

Fields of corn growing on an impossible inclines pass by.

“I love it there man,” he tells us, unprompted.

Two years ago a sick mother brought him back, and a second child kept him here.

“When I told my boss that I had to go back to Guatemala, he asked me if I was crazy,” Sebastian said. A trip back is a near certain one-way ticket.

The taste of the States is obviously still on his tongue. Re-acclimating to life in Zunil wasn’t easy, and vestiges of his other life still manifest in the form of his urban clothing. Normally quick to provide an answer, he was reluctant to answer what he was doing these days. If the lineup of men, sitting in the town center mid-day was a sign, finding work, even farm work, is a tough order.

“I want to go back. I hope to go by the spring. My old boss said that he would give me another job if I did,” he said.

Saying it more for himself than us, he repeats himself, “I love it there.”

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contributors

Thushan Amarasiriwardena

, former Senior Multimedia Producer at The Boston Globe, has always loved telling a great story. Combining his eye for visual story telling and his technical background in computer science at North Carolina State University, Thushan has reported on business, sports and travel for The Globe. You can find his site here.

Michael Kurtz

, graduated with a degree in Ethnomusicology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His thesis research focused on the intersection of race and music in Northeastern Brazil. He worked previously as A&R and Production Coordinator for Putumayo World Music, an international music record label based in New York City. You can find his site here.

Brian Rogers

graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and has traveled extensively in Latin America.

Alicia Conway

is LongJaunt's home base chief and a Technical Producer for The Boston Globe. She joined and contributed with the team out in England, Kenya, Tanzania, The Netherlands and Thailand.