A Honduras mayor gambled on a plan for her town. She got 80 guitars ... and a lot more
MACUELIZO, SANTA BARBARA, Honduras – For years, Suyapa Jaqueline Trejo watched her community dwindle as many of her neighbors looked for a better life in the U.S. When she was elected mayor in 2021, she began to think of ways to seek help from those who had left Macuelizo, a municipality of about 40,000 that's made up of several villages in northwest Honduras.
"We barely have the budget to deal with things like clean water, road maintenance or basic, basic health care," she said earlier this year while sitting on a bench in the main square across from her office, surrounded by bursting pink blossoms on the trees the town is named after.
Young people in particular are leaving the country in greater numbers, she says. "It's painful to see because it's young people who have energy, happiness and ideas, and to see them go, it's sad."
Macuelizo is filled with colorful murals depicting the town's life, including the native Macuelizo trees in the main square and small homes painted in bright colors. But if you venture outside the center, rural life and poverty fill the scenery.
"When you get to a community and see a dignified house, you know they have a family member in the U.S.," Trejo says in Spanish as she gives reporters a walking tour of downtown, "because with the salaries we have here a family can't build even a modest house."
Trejo says minimum wage in Macuelizo is around 500 U.S. dollars a month or 12,600 Lempiras, which can only cover basic food staples, like beans and corn, sometimes coffee and eggs.
Her government doesn't have the budget to support good education, she says, "and those lucky enough to have parents who can send them to school, once they graduate can't find work."
Trejo knows this all too well. Her only daughter, Mariely, has a college degree in psychology but struggled to find a job after graduating in Honduras. She migrated to Florida 3 years ago.
"It's hard and it's a contradiction," Trejo says. "How do I tell people not to migrate when my daughter is there?" she asked.
At the same time, migrants are a key economic engine in Honduras: Remittances make up more than a quarter of the country's GDP, according to the World Bank, the highest rate in the western hemisphere.
'I'm here to ask for your help'
Last spring, Trejo decided to tap into the diaspora of former Macuelizans who had move to the U.S. In Charlottesville, Virginia, she made an appearance at a Honduran restaurant called El Ciruelo, named after a small community in Macuelizo that has seen hundreds of residents leave for the U.S.
Trejo is welcomed like a celebrity by dozens of Honduran expats. The restaurant's owner Bertha Alicia Ramos thanked Trejo for visiting and "for not forgetting us," she says. "El Ciruelo, Macuelizo, is where we come from, even though we don't live there anymore, but we are always present in spirit." The crowd claps enthusiastically.
Wearing a white dress and black stilettos, 53-year-old Trejo takes the microphone.
"Good afternoon, friends, comrades, countrymen and women, fighters, all of you," says Trejo while attendees eat baleadas, a favorite street food in Honduras made from layers of refried beans, cheese and crème fraîche in a thick homemade tortilla.
"Now that I'm your mayor," says Trejo, "I'm here to ask for your help and to listen to your ideas so we can better the quality of life for people in Macuelizo, especially our young people."
She tells the crowd that she knows someday they'll want to go back and reunite with friends and family, walk the streets they walked as children. "I know you don't forget your people and you'd want to work to improve your community," she says.
"I'm here with a proposal," she says. "I want to give kids music lessons in schools." Trejo, who worked as a school teacher for 30 years, says that music can inspire change. "I'm asking you to donate a dollar or two to hire music teachers and buy a marimba and guitars."
Trejo says she sees music as a tool to stop migration, to instill pride in kids and perhaps keep them in Macuelizo. While at the same time, there's irony in her visiting the diaspora community, people who left Honduras looking for opportunity, to seek their help.
"I also want to set up other programs to improve education and health," she says with a big smile, looking people in the eye. "Having a good education system is the best way to free people from manipulation, violence and ignorance."
Before Charlottesville, Trejo visited two other U.S. cities. "In Miami we were able to fundraise to buy 30 guitars!," she says with excitement in her voice. "In Houston we managed to get funds for 18 guitars! So we are here to ask you: how many guitars will you contribute for Macuelizo?" She tells the crowd her government will write the name of the donor in the back of the guitar. "We'll share pictures and videos when the kids play."
"I don't need to remind you of our needs," she adds.
Problems are huge in Honduras
Honduras has the highest teen pregnancy in Central America, according to the most recent Honduras Demographic and Health Survey.
The country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, according to World Bank data. And the highest rate of femicide in Latin America.
Trejo says most of Macuelizo residents work in subsistence agriculture, but they are not producing like before, she said, "It's a shame," says Trejo, "we have a lot of farmland, and yes lots of people own a small plot but they don't have the money to buy seeds or soil fertilizer."
"And now climate change has impacted these lands, we have a scarcity of water, and unpredictable weather patterns," she adds.
Since the beginning of 2021, U.S. immigration authorities have encountered more migrants from Honduras at the southern border than any country except Mexico. Some of the reasons that they have left their homeland are familiar: violence, corruption and a lack of economic opportunity, exacerbated by the pandemic.
For the last few years, climate change has become part of the reasons people are migrating, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Trejo pleads with the crowd: "If we help farming families in Macuelizo, we would alter migration. And it's not that I see migration as a negative thing," she says, walking a fine line. "Migrating is a human right." But we need to find ways to make a living in our own country, she says.
Already her government has set up a free afterschool lunch program — "funded by two sons from Macuelizo in the U.S," she says. The crowd cheers.
Trejo tells the crowd that she dreams of building gyms in Macuelizo's parks. "Healthy body, healthy brain," she says. It's key to keep young people away from drugs and crime: "Some weights, monkey bars, stairs," nothing fancy.
"You can be a model to other communities in Honduras," she tells the crowd. "People would look at you and say: Look, the children of Macuelizo in the U.S. are funding these programs!"
Trejo then opens the floor to questions.
Dilcia Guardado raises her hand. She's also a former teacher and says that when she was in school she took a class on agricultural studies as did her students. She asks, "Is that still the case? It's important because kids today don't want to work hard, they just want to be on their smartphones. What are teachers doing about this in Honduras today?"
"Gyms could work, but kids need to learn to work the land, to connect to the land," she says.
"That's an excellent observation," responds Trejo. "That's why we are here, to hear your ideas." Several people say they'd support the music program. The group agrees to designate an organizing committee to fundraise and send the money to Honduras.
The mayor: a realist ... but also an optimist
Trejo knows there are limits to what she can do to keep young people from leaving Honduras. When NPR reporters visited, she took them to a small village in Macuelizo called Colonia 6 de Mayo. A dozen kids were playing soccer in the afternoon sun while a group of young women watched from the side of the field.
María del Carmen Caballero, 22, Leslie Tobillas, 19, and María Sorto, 19, all live in Colonia 6 de Mayo. Asked about their future plans, the three friends respond in unison, "we dream of migrating to the U.S." Their parents are farmers who rent land and struggle to grow beans and corn for subsistence.
"Unfortunately, we don't have any opportunities here," says Caballero.
"The truth is that I don't see a future for me here," says Tobillas, who is one of nine siblings. She says that having an education doesn't guarantee you a job in Honduras. She knows too many graduates who are struggling to find work. She said she has many friends already in the U.S. working and sending money back home. They tell her she could do the same.
"All I want is to work to help my parents buy a home — that's my hope," Tobillas says in a whisper.
When reporters ask Trejo what her government can do to offer these young people more opportunities in Macuelizo, she struggles as she gives an honest answer. "To say that as a mayor I can offer them employment opportunities so they don't migrate, so they stay in their communities – no, I can't do that," she says.
But Trejo does have something to show for her efforts. She says the guitar project has been a success. "We made it!," she declares jubilantly. "We have 80 guitars and kids learning to play, and we have more kids who are interested." The children, between 9- and 12-years-old, are learning to play Honduran and Latin American songs.
Trejo was optimistic when she made the plan to tap the diaspora community in the U.S., she says. But she also felt it was something of a gamble when she appealed to Macuelizans living in the U.S.
"In a way, they know that by giving money to buy guitars, they are present," she says. "They are seeking connection." Trejo says many migrants in the U.S. can't go back home to visit because they don't have documents.
Trejo hopes that by strengthening social and cultural connections for young people, they may think twice about migrating: "They'll feel rooted."
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