Home > Conversations > Prevailing over Succeeding: A Conversation with Willy Barreno
Published: Mon Apr 29 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Bañando en Tiron / Bathing on Holy Saturday (detail), 2017, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
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Prevailing over Succeeding: A Conversation with Willy Barreno

Jennifer De Leon, a Guatemalan-American author who lives outside of Boston, has a conversation with Willy Barreno, founder of DESGUA in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. De Leon first met Barreno in 2008 when she studied at PLQ, Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

The following, lightly edited transcript has been approved by De Leon and Barreno.

Jennifer De Leon: I’m so happy to see you, Willy. After all these years. It’s an honor to be in conversation with you right now.

I want you to share about yourself and maybe give a short bio, and then we can go into the conversation from there.

Willy Barreno: Well, I like to joke a lot about my experiences, but when I introduce myself, I always say that as I’m growing older, I don’t have an identity because I see the past differently. I’ll be fifty-one tomorrow.

Willy, it’s an English name, you know? Barreno is a Spanish name, but I [also] carry a Mayan place within me, so that means I carry three identities. I’m speaking English today, which is the language of the neo-colonizer, Spanish the language of the colonizer. And now I’m learning the language of my ancestors, which is K’iche’. Hopefully in four years I’ll be trilingual. The idea for me is to return to my roots. Sometimes I like to, in a funny way, say that I carry a PhD in crisis, a Master’s in disgrace. I have a Bachelor’s in tragedy. But currently, I’m fifty-one years old, and I’m studying at the kindergarten of happiness. Because for me, it’s important. Today I’m in Guatemala because I want to remember my childhood and I want to remember my past. I’m very, very excited to speak about who I am. The reason I’m speaking English today is because I arrived in the U.S. when I was twenty-three years old. And I came back to my land when I was thirty-five. Next year, it’s going to be sixteen years since I returned, and I’ll probably be focusing a lot on why I choose not to be in the U.S. but in the place where I was born.

De Leon: Wow! If that isn’t a bio. Usually, you get a generic answer, focusing on where one went to school or where one resides, right? That’s beautiful.

So—a little background—Willy and I met in 2008 when I was living in Guatemala for several months. I had decided to take that trip to learn more about my background. Both my parents were born and raised in Guatemala, and I had little knowledge of the country and the history and the culture and the language—some, but little compared to what I think I know now. There’s so much to learn, of course. So I took that trip and I studied at a language school called PLQ, Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco, in Quetzaltenango, and Willy was one of the first people that I met at the school. He was so friendly, and he spoke Spanish and English, which I latched onto, and we spent several months developing our friendship, meeting in cafés, going to Mayan ceremonies, going to conferencias, and hiking.

I’m so grateful to you. You really lit a match for my passion to learn more about our homeland. I’d love for you to share your story, and I’m going to make you the focus on the screen, because, honestly, just hearing your words is so powerful.

Barreno: I was born in the seventies, the early seventies, and I don’t want to talk deep into the situation of Guatemala during the seventies and eighties. But my family, like many in Guatemala, were affected by the Civil War. Members of my family were murdered, and others escaped in the eighties to the U.S. A very conflicted moment for me. But in the eighties, in the middle of all the massacres and stuff, I saw the U.S. not as a military invader, but more like a country providing us with culture. Breakdancing was one of the things that appealed to me. I was a breakdancer here in Guatemala in the early eighties. But I had no identity, or I didn’t know who the Maya people were, because during those days, discrimination was really harsh. They used to be called Indians, you know, and my family was Indigenous but we tried to hide that identity. The Civil War somehow helped us to understand our past. That’s how I was introduced to learning the culture of the Mayan calendar. I started counting the days of the Mayan calendar when I was eighteen years old. But then, obviously, there was trouble with politics and the economy. In 1996, the last year of the war, that’s when I left for the U.S.

When I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, on October 17, 1996, it was one of the most dramatic changes in my life, because I’d been growing up in a country that is always green. That was the first time I experienced leaves falling down. I want to say, for myself, that was one of the saddest moments, to see a forest becoming dry. That was something I was not used to. But also entering a country that, at this moment, I still see as a very competitive society. You know, you have to struggle to show who you are, and it doesn’t matter how, but you have to make it in the U.S. I spent fourteen years [there]. First job, I was a janitor, but I didn’t want to clean toilets for the rest of my life. I also didn’t want to be in the cold winter of the Midwest. So eleven months later, I chose to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, because I found out that Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the least American city in America, because everything was made of adobe. And there was a Native American culture. There was a Spanish culture. And that’s where I changed. I think Santa Fe led me to who I am today because I became a cook. From 1997 until today I’ve been cooking. It’s been my thing every single day. Being in New Mexico, it kind of shocked me to see how many undocumented migrants were arriving into the U.S. And learning about the Pueblo people—because they don’t want to call themselves Native Americans—I think helped me to understand who I am today.

De Leon: That’s fascinating. But what originally brought you to Madison, Wisconsin, of all places?

Barreno: It was love. Love and politics. But then I think Madison, Wisconsin, played a big role, especially the University of Wisconsin. At that time there was a group called Community Action on Latin America, and they were really aware of what was going on in Guatemala. That was very good. But that was not something that I wanted to do. And then, obviously, some people have access to higher education, like going to university, but that was not my case, because I needed to send money back to my parents in Guatemala. So I was not focusing on education, but more, like a lot of immigrants in the U.S. today, just trying to support their families back home. Almost the entire time I was in the U.S., I was helping and supporting my family back here.

De Leon: Of course, of course. Wow. So then you go to Santa Fe, and from Santa Fe back to Guatemala.

Barreno: Actually, later on I moved to—I’m not going to say the company’s name, but I was working for this organic or natural store, where I was cooking. They would send me to Texas, to Chicago, you know, to all the Midwest regions. But at some point I’m thinking . . . people are being deported like crazy in the U.S. I was in Chicago. I think that’s when I met you, because I started a documentary called Documigrante. You can see it on YouTube. It was about searching for the root causes of Mayan migration to the U.S. I think in the year 2005, after the big marches in the U.S. claiming rights for immigrants, and then immigratory reform, that’s when I gave up a little of my work as an activist for immigrants—because that’s what I did in Santa Fe, that’s what I did in Texas and Wisconsin: help immigrants. My side job as a volunteer. And that’s when I began filming this documentary.

After I finished that documentary in 2007, I did a tour all the way from Seattle to New York showing Documigrante, and that’s when, in 2007, in New York, we created a network called DESGUA. The intention was to prepare people. We had to have a plan if we got deported. What would we do when we returned back home? That was, I think, the initial idea, because a lot of people were being deported and others were getting tired of being in the U.S. I think that’s when we planned to eventually open up a restaurant in Xela. That was in 2007, and I was back and forth for four years, from 2006 to 2010. Finally I started seeing the numbers of deportations being increased in the U.S. during those years. And then in 2010 is when I gave up the U.S. and we opened up a restaurant here in Xela called Café Red. That was thirteen years ago. The restaurant has been open for thirteen years now.

De Leon: Almost a quinceañera for the restaurant.

Barreno: Almost, almost.

De Leon: That was a real pivot point in your life because you decided not to return to the U.S., whereas before you would go back and forth. This was a defining moment. I’d love for you to talk about what prompted you to make that decision. You already shared a little bit about seeing so many people who were deported and people who were tired of life in the U.S. and electing to, in some way, self-deport.

Barreno: I don’t like to talk a lot about myself, but I like to talk about moments in the U.S. that mark my destiny. And Judith, she was a middle-aged woman from Guatemala City and she was the dishwasher at one of the restaurants where I worked in Santa Fe. I think she was collecting trash in Guatemala City when she was here, and eventually she had four or five kids, and she says, no way I can take my kids or be someone here, so she moves to the U.S., and little by little she pays the coyotes to bring her kids to the U.S. The youngest one, by the name of Kevin, he was two or three years old [when] he came by himself. She told me that they dropped him in Nogales. He was unconscious, and they put him in a backpack, and that’s how he crossed—unconsciously—the border. Kevin arrived at two or three years old in Santa Fe, and when he arrived, she was diagnosed with cancer. Like six months later, she died, and they put Kevin up for adoption in Santa Fe because he was underage. All of her kids were underage. That’s a memory I never forget, because years later, thousands of kids will migrate to the U.S. in the same situation.

I was working for this very wealthy organic company in the U.S. that was making money out of farmers, and I said, why can’t we do something like that in Guatemala and start giving an opportunity for kids to stay here? And this is what DESGUA proposed in 2008, that we needed to resurrect the Guatemalan Dream. I always heard Martin Luther King, back in the sixties and seventies he would say, “I have a dream,” and I said, why can’t we have a dream? That’s when we started talking about the resurrection of the Guatemalan Dream, so the restaurant in 2010, it became our flag, to say we also have a dream. And then the idea was to create small networks of producers, artists, people who had been deported, and a lot of people who were cooks in the U.S. And that’s how we started the restaurant thirteen years ago.

De Leon: I love that you’re creating a welcome mat, or a welcome-back mat, for Guatemalan people in the U.S. who come back to Guatemala. Some people were taken to the United States as babies or toddlers, and they’re raised in the United States, but they could be deported. And they come back [to Guatemala] as adults. Many, I believe, don’t speak Spanish, have never been to Guatemala, minus the couple of years they were there as babies. Do you know people like that, or does one story come to mind in particular?

Barreno: Yeah, I mean, many stories like that. When you were here in Guatemala, did you ever meet Giovanni Lopez? He was a young boxer and hip-hop artist.

De Leon: Is he from Denver?

Barreno: Yes.

De Leon: I remember. Yup.

Barreno: Yeah, just months before we opened up the restaurant . . . I have two stories. Giovanni moved to the States when he was three years old—Los Angeles, Denver—and he was deported when he was twenty-five. He almost didn’t speak any Spanish. I don’t even know if he knew where Guatemala was when he got deported. He’s still part of our community here. He is now a boxer trainer, and he produces music for kids in Guatemala. When he got deported, the first thing he wanted to do was return to the U.S. And we said, “Stay here. Stay here.” Just a week ago he was saying, “That was so stupid. Now I don’t even think about going back to the U.S.” He learned Spanish, and obviously, we have different lives from what you live in the U.S.

Something that I want to point out is that, yeah, I had papers. All the time I had papers. I didn’t go to school for English—that I learned in kitchens—but I had all the privileges a documented migrant had. But, working with undocumented people, seeing all the suffering, I think that’s what made me very sensitive, and I said, why should I be here when I can be in Guatemala and help people and also provide them with hope and happiness? And a lot of people, when I deported myself back in 2010, people here said, “You’re stupid! You have papers. You speak English. You have all the opportunities.” I said, “No. I want to make it here in Guatemala.” So, with all these migrants I have met in New Jersey and New York, that’s when we started the restaurant. I took you to Cajolá once. We have carpentry, there’s a collective, there are weaving groups. There are coffee farms like Santa Anita, [they] were guerrilla fighters, and they have coffee. So I said, why can’t we do a network and help each other, but also wait, because more people from the U.S. will return. And that’s what has been happening in the last few years. A lot of people are returning, not just deported, but people voluntarily return.

You know, Jennifer, something else is happening. A lot of people who migrated in the seventies and eighties are retiring and they don’t want to be in the U.S. So that’s something we are facing now, there are a lot of elders returning to Guatemala. It’s a really wide network. But then also, kids that were born in the U.S. want to come and see where their grandparents or their parents were born. So my job is becoming very expansive, very complicated, because migration has created that. People are going and people are returning now.

De Leon: I include myself in that. Going as a young child, nine years old, the first time I visited Guatemala was completely eye-opening and transformative. We would go back every few years, but then I went back alone, because it’s different going on vacation or for even two weeks, even a month, versus living there and going food shopping in the mercado, and learning about the history, going to places like Santa Anita or Cajolá. That was a whole re-education when I was living there, and it’s exciting to hear you talk about the programming you’re doing and the way you’re . . . you’re . . . I don’t know the word, I’m going to think on it, but [you’re a] welcoming soul to all the people who are returning or coming back for a short time.

My father would love to return to Guatemala. After fifty years in the United States, that’s really all he wants. And then you have my son, who’s ten, who also wants to come and learn about his abuelos and their history. So I love that you’re open to all ages in that way. And this idea of the Guatemalan Dream, that’s really compelling.

What do you see for the future of Guatemala?

Barreno: Well, back to my studies in the U.S. That’s where I got my PhD in crisis. I was always living in a crisis of identity. Seeing that I’m making money, and my brother is not making money in Guatemala. But then I go back also to my current studies, which is the kindergarten of happiness. We all know from the news that Guatemala is a very conflicted country. We’re in the middle of a political crisis. But I see, for the years to come, that governments cannot create solutions for people, but people as a community can have the solutions. When my community sees a lot of politics, they go into depression and anxiety. But I say, if we dream or have the imagination or have the minds, we [can] build huge buildings and pyramids with no government, with just stones and art. It’s not that we are anarchists, because we are really aware of what’s going on, but something that I learned from the U.S. was to believe in myself and have an attitude. Sometimes, as people who were colonized, we don’t have that attitude, because we were trying to be workers. But now I think once you’re a dreamer, you have to make it happen.

So our restaurant: we collapsed every single year, and we went bankrupt every year. In the U.S., once you’ve finished your business, you close it. As Mayans, we’ve been around for 5,000 years, and we have grown corn for 5,000 years, so we need to learn from these very primitive lessons. A year might have an earthquake or hurricane, but the next year, you have to plan and eat again. This is something that we show Guatemalans when they return from the U.S. Yeah, maybe you feel like you failed by trying to cross the border, or you failed by being deported. But let’s forget about success, because that contains a lot of pain. We are changing the vocabulary, saying, we are not going to survive, we are going to prevail. When we say “we prevail,” it’s less painful. This is [an area where] I want to involve a lot of the Mayan teachings: there is no such thing as competition or being “on top of it,” because I think that’s Western. But coexisting, you know, like nature, it helps us heal a little bit of the anxiety and depression I had in the U.S.

De Leon: It’s in the oxygen in the United States—competition. The ladder to quote-unquote “success,” I mean it’s endless.

Barreno: I want to share this story. My wife, she is from a town called Zunil. When I was dating her, one day she says, “I want to invite you to a party,” and I say okay. It’s a Monday and they’re having a carnita asada in the streets. They have a marimba, and we start dancing around twelve. And in my mind, because I had just recently returned from the U.S., I was very conflicted. I said, no, this cannot be happening. This is Monday. This is the most productive day, and it’s noon and I’m dancing here. That’s when I understood that my communities are not very attached to the system.

De Leon: Wow!

Barreno: I still repeat this experience. To me, this is incredible. It can be any day and you’re at a party. Because birthdays are everything for communities. And funerals too: the community stops if someone dies because it’s more important to go and say goodbye to someone who was part of the community. That’s something that has been helping me a lot to understand. These teachings. I’m trying to pass it on to people who are returning from the U.S. because there you’re on a very square schedule and you’re always going fast. And something that my wife, when we were dating, she says to me, “Willy, why do you always say ‘I’?” and I didn’t realize that I had acquired that language in the U.S. The ‘I.’ So now I’m trying to say the ‘we’—because we are a part of a community.

De Leon: Right, right, right!

Barreno: And this is something that I still learn, you know, that always it has to include your family, your community. That’s one of the main reasons I think I don’t want to go to the U.S. again, because I feel that I belong to a community here that supports me all the time.

De Leon: Right, right. And there’s so much emphasis on going north and the United States as the center. It was actually in Quetzaltenango, at PLQ, in the library there, where I first saw the map that was upside down, and I had never seen an upside-down map before, where South America was in the northern hemisphere and North America, the United States, was in the south. It completely shifted something in me that day, you know? And meeting with you and all the trips that we took. But you’re right, there seems to be a new wave of Guatemalans coming back, whether that’s something that’s chosen by themselves or by the U.S. government. And we were talking earlier about the Guatemalan adoptee community. Many of those children that were adopted are now in their twenties, thirties, forties even, and they’re wanting to come back to Guatemala, right? Not all, but there’s a big community. So I see some positive shifting and, yes, less emphasis on coming north. Maybe it’s the Guatemalan Dream. Tell us about Café Red.

Barreno: We named the restaurant Café Red in 2010. But then, two years ago, we changed the name to La Red. La red in Spanish means the network. Café Red, people were thinking in English it was the color red. So we had to change the name. The difference between 2010 and now, 2023, is that we were very competitive when we opened up because we wanted to be the best restaurant, but then we failed because I don’t think the nature of the restaurant was to be competitive but more a collaboration. So now it’s not just a restaurant, it’s a community space.

Something that I forgot to mention, Jennifer: we opened up our own university this last spring. It’s called La UAPA. Universidad Autónoma y Popular de las Artes. Are we certified? I don’t think we want to be certified. We just want to teach what we learned in the U.S. to the next generations. So every Saturday we gather and we bring kids to La Red, the restaurant, and the first class we provide with food. It’s a buffet, an ancient buffet. That’s a new way of educating people, recovering the recipes from our ancestors. And once we finish eating, we start studying technology, artificial intelligence. We study finance, but also historical memory and art, because we need to help each other. A lot of immigrants who have returned come and teach what they learned in the U.S. but also the kids teach us how to protect the mountains, how they weave. This is an exchange. Fair-trade education. So today we are not focused on doing big sales but on having more friends. That’s the difference between the restaurant in 2010 and now: we are more in collaboration with community members.

And from here, we are starting next year a program called Chiltepes Chilerxs in the U.S. I think that’s going to be a key program to keep space open for years to come, because we now understand that the diaspora has kids in the U.S. and these kids are in middle school and high school, and others are in college, and at some point, they will come back here. And hopefully what you guys learned in the U.S., you can come and teach us here, and what we are experiencing here we can teach you there. Something that I had a lack of in the U.S. was a sense of community, so what we are trying to provide is this culture of community, and hopefully we can reply and also build up communities in the U.S.

De Leon: I love that! Instead of big sales, we’re focusing on more friends. Imagine if everybody was like that. And you know, one thing I remember really appreciating was how open you were and how welcoming and encouraging, because I think many Guatemalan people who were raised in the U.S. want to learn more about their culture, their heritage, their background, their parents or grandparents. But there’s an element of shame that you don’t know this already. I was twenty-eight years old before I really learned and studied Spanish. And there was a kind of fear I had, going to PLQ, because I thought, oh man, everyone’s going to say, “Why don’t you already do XYZ?” And they were not like that. It was so welcoming. It was almost like, okay, “Ahora vamos a trabajar,” like “Let’s get to work,” instead of shaming, further shaming. That is a very Western thing.

This is so wonderful to talk with you and hear more about La Red and all the incredible work you’re doing. If people want to learn more about your organization, the collective, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Barreno: We have a website. We’ve tried to update it, but it doesn’t have a lot of information. I would encourage you—because the young diaspora uses a lot of Instagram, we recently opened up our page called Chiltepes Chilerxs, where the diaspora can see that, through fun, through food, and through connecting with the community, we can make it. Again, I was very competitive. I was thinking about money thirteen years ago, but now I think providing community can help us out. I’m hoping that the diaspora—because they experienced their parents’ suffering, probably, the first years when they arrived in the U.S., and they hear all the stories—I hope the next generations in the U.S., those especially who are going into college or schools, can remember that there are undocumented migrants who can barely speak Spanish, only Mayan languages, and they feel alone, as I felt. As Guatemalans in this case, I think we need to create the culture of healing and building up communities.

De Leon: One hundred percent. That’s a beautiful note to end on. There is healing to be done, and there are parties to have on Mondays as well. I love that. Thank you for your time and your stories and your work. And adelante, we have more to do. I’m so grateful you’re in the world, and I’ll see you in Guatemala.

Barreno: One last thing, if you ever come to visit—I know you will—but for those who are going to read or see this interview: when I was in the U.S., I was being trained to please customers, make them happy by presenting a meal. Now, I’m fifty-two, and I don’t want to cook for customers. I want to cook for friends. So when people come from the U.S., I’m more delighted just to present the food, not as a commodity or for profit, but through a table we can tell stories, the oral stories, not just what we experienced in the U.S., but what our parents and grandparents did here. And way back, when we settled 5,000 years ago and we started planting corn—that’s how we start exchanging the little products we had, but also the stories. And then the great civilization we are today.

De Leon: Thank you. I could talk to you for another three hours. Vamos a continuar, but right now we’ll pause because I feel like you’ve given me fuel. You say you like to cook with friends and for friends. My cup is full. Thank you!

Jennifer De Leon is author of the YA novels Borderless (Simon & Schuster, 2023); Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Simon & Schuster, 2020), which was chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection; and the essay collection White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, & Writing (UMass Press, 2021), which received the Juniper Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is also the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), an anthology that won an International Latino Book Award, and the author of two forthcoming children’s picture books—Sammy and Samuel and a biography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú. Associate professor of creative writing at Framingham State University and a faculty member in the Newport MFA in Creative Writing program at Salve Regina University, she has published her prose in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. In 2022 De Leon founded Story Bridge, which brings together people from all walks of life to shape, share, and hear each other’s unique stories. She makes her home outside Boston with her husband and two sons. Connect with her @jdeleonwriter on Instagram or at her website, www.jenniferdeleonauthor.com. (updated 4/2024)

With Esteban Rodríguez and Ben Black, she coedited To Never Have Risked Our Lives: An AGNI Portfolio of Central American and Mexican Writing.

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