Ninety percent of the Mayan people, the indigenous people, were poor people.: Becoming Minnesotan

Emiliano Chagil. Minnesota Historical Society, Oral History Office files.
  • Name - Emiliano Chagil
  • Age at interview - 57
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Immigrant
  • Date of Interview - 04.07.2010
  • A view of Volcan Tolimán in Guatemala.

    Class & Work

    Economics, Latino, Oppression

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    Essential Question

    Life in the Old Country: What makes a country a person’s homeland?

    Class & Work: How important is work in defining a person’s identity?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    In Guatemala, campesinos, or agricultural workers, on coffee or fruit plantations faced oppressive conditions which severely limited their ability to own land themselves or to have any complaints heard. Calls for social, political, and agricultural reform in the highly socially stratified country led to revolt and unrest, and the eventual outbreak of civil war.

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    • Chapter 1

    Download Emiliano Chagil 3
    2:47 Minutes | 2.68Mb


    Narrator: Emiliano Chagil (EC)

    Interviewer: Lorena Duarte (LD)

    LD: I know that Guatemala has suffered a great deal with a lot of internal strife and the Maya people in particular have suffered greatly Did you see any of that growing up?

    EC: Well, that’s the case where I grew up.

    In Guatemala, when you say Mayan or indigenous, it means, still today, poor people. Also, we have to clarify that not every Mayan person is a poor person. There are some wealthy Mayans in Guatemala, but, definitely, I would say ninety percent of the Mayan people, the indigenous people, were poor people. And that’s the case where I grew up. Most of the people were indigenous people, Mayan people, but, also, these were the peasants that were working for this one family that owned the plantation.

    Going back to your question, yes, when you have three hundred people who are surviving on fifty cents a day supporting their families, and when you see one single powerful European type of family that owned this whole plantation, well, definitely, many people were questioning. Many of them either they felt thoroughly oppressed to work for the plantation with no room for complaining or raising their voice. At the time when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, people were beginning to question why this man, why this one family has this much land and us don’t have anything.

    And actually, it’s a great story about it, and not because my dad was involved, but also other men in the same community. There was a huge piece of land that was not being used by the plantation owner, it was just land that was sitting there. The peasants, these peasants from this community, went to the government and said, “We want the government to buy this land from the owner, and then distribute it among us, the peasants working for this plantation.” This whole issue took maybe ten to twenty years of struggles. And many of the campesinos who were part of the organizing committee lost their jobs. They got kicked out of the plantation because of that. But, nonetheless, they survived, some of them. My dad survived. The government bought that land from the owner and distributed the land among - that’s what is called the famous process of land reform in Guatemala.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun: Spanish for farmer or peasant.


    Verb: To make something more clear and less confused. (clarifies, clarifying, clarified)


    Verb:  To divide into portions and hand out.  (distributes, distributing, distributed)


    Adjective: Native to a land or region, especially before an intrusion.


    Adjective: Weighted down by unjust and cruel authority.


    Noun: Violent conflict, usually brief or limited in nature.


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access].
    nid: 2163