SAN MARCOS, Guatemala — Six years after receiving a teaching degree 25-year-old Susana Mateo Cano still has not gotten a teaching job because she has no connections in Guatemala's educational system.
Frustrated by the lack of employment opportunities like many other young people in the region, three years ago Mateo Cano told her mother that she wanted to leave for the United States.
Mateo Cano said she felt "great sadness and anger" that her parents had sacrificed so much for her education and she was still unable to find work. After such a long stint of unemployment, she did not care about the dangers she would face along the migration path northward especially as a woman, she said.
"When she told me she was leaving I did not accept it," said Mateo Cano's mother, Odilia Cano, 55. "I am not ready for her to go far away from us.
"Those who leave do not return," she continued. "We need family unity, not disintegration. I hope our youth can have opportunities here in their own country."
The pull toward better opportunities is strong for Mateo Cano even though she and her family are part of a coffee cooperative that provides for their sparse livelihood.
Called Nuevo Eden, or New Eden, the cooperative was created in 1996 by a group of returning refugees who had escaped to Mexico a decade and a half earlier during Guatemala's grueling 36-year civil war. Atrocities were being carried out in their villages at the time as the long conflict pitted a U.S.-supported military dictatorship against peasant guerrillas, some of whom had communist leanings and who were fighting for a more equal distribution of wealth and property for indigenous people.
Cano was 7 years old when her family fled their village in the Guatemalan highlands but she still remembers the sounds of gunfire and the screams of terrified villagers.
"They (government soldiers) were raping women and killing people. I heard it from far away. I heard the bombs," she said. "It is something I can never forget."
Residents of other indigenous villages remember stepping over dead bodies as they escaped. People were burned alive in a village church.
"We had to leave with only the clothes on our back. We had to abandon our country without taking anything with us. We had one blanket for all six children. Thank God people gave us some shelter," she said. "The Mexican church was the first to welcome us with open arms."
As an adult Cano returned to Guatemala with her fragmented and impoverished family. Now she and her husband struggle to keep their family together and the thought of her children having to leave their country and becoming migrant workers in a foreign land as she was forced to do as a child worries her.
"My mother-in-law died with the hope of seeing all her children together in one place again," said Cano. She does not want to go through a similar situation with her own children, she said.
In addition to growing coffee beans, Cano's husband keeps honey bees. Cano also grows macadamia nuts. With her husband's honey, she produces a sweet confection with the nuts and sells the candy at a local market to supplement the family's income.
"I worry because we went through that (war) for a reason, and almost all those reasons still exist," Cano said. "We still have high levels of unemployment, we have no access to government jobs and we continue to be poor. We do have land but we don't get good prices for our crop. Even though we work hard we don't achieve anything."
Many youth get involved with a life of crime and gangs out of desperation because there is no work, Cano explained.
In 2012 their fledgling cooperative was hit with another blow when coffee leaf rust disease swept across Central America, devastating their emerging coffee operation. The disease is affected by the change in the local climate, with higher than normal temperatures even in the mountainous region helping the fungus to spread.
Cooperative members are among 1,403 farmers who received help in renovating their farms with disease-resistant coffee plants as well as diversifying their production to include crops such as fruit trees, timber and macadamia nuts from the Green Coffee project, a program of Catholic Relief Services and Caritas San Marcos. In a unique partnering, the Anacafe National Coffee Association, which normally works with large plantations rather than small farmers, also collaborates in the project. The project also has taught farmers soil management practices to improve plant nutrition and control soil acidity.
With the farmers now starting to produce coffee beans once again, the project is coordinating with Anacafe to teach young members of the cooperative and other area residents improved post-harvest management practices to assure superior quality coffee production. The goal is that producing high quality coffee beans will not only secure a higher market price, but also will provide employment opportunities for young people in a place where jobs are few.
"We realize there are youth here who have the capacity to do this work, and really want to work," said Jose Guzman, a post-harvest director for Anacafe. It could be a win-win situation all around, he said.
The possibility of an opportunity to work in quality management with Anacafe has given both mother and daughter hope.
"If she has the desire to move forward, she has that opportunity here," Cano said of her daughter. "She can be a productive person. She can have a better chance here. Nothing is for certain, but this makes me happy."
After years of struggling to get a job, Mateo Cano said she finally sees the prospect of using her newly acquired skills to work and will give it a go.
"I now have a dream," she said.