LUIS AGUILAR

Guatemala,

Luis Aguilar is reviving rural Guatemalan villages socially, culturally, and economically by creating and maintaining a platform for communication between the communities and their emigrant family members abroad. This platform also facilitates remittances to create jobs in the communities and catalyzes migrant-sponsored development projects that allow the villages to prosper from their cultural and natural heritage.

This profile below was prepared when Luis Aguilar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.

Luis está haciendo que las noticias locales sean accesibles a los ciudadanos de Guatemala que viven dentro y fuera del país, logrando de esta manera vincular a ambas comunidades para que se mantenga la identidad cultural y para promover oportunidades de desarrollo económico.  

INTRODUCTION

Luis Aguilar is reviving rural Guatemalan villages socially, culturally, and economically by creating and maintaining a platform for communication between the communities and their emigrant family members abroad. This platform also facilitates remittances to create jobs in the communities and catalyzes migrant-sponsored development projects that allow the villages to prosper from their cultural and natural heritage.




THE NEW IDEA

Luis is mitigating the negative social and economic ramifications of migration on rural Guatemalan communities by connecting emigrants and their home communities using an Internet news platform called News of My People. News of My People provides Guatemalans, both at home and abroad, with information previously unavailable to them—news about their community in the form of written articles, radio, TV, and photographs. The participatory nature of the site creates a dialogue between emigrants and their communities. News of My People is not only informative, but helps guide readers to collaboratively create positive changes in their communities. As a rule, stories are not alarmist; nor do they sensationalize violence. Instead, each story is presented with a relevant background to inform decisions.

Each month, Luis connects over 7,000 Guatemalans in 43 countries using this multimedia platform. He will use this active audience to address poverty and unemployment, typically the root causes of emigration. Luis plans to channel wealth into Guatemalan communities and create jobs by allowing emigrants to purchase gifts for friends and family members from local businesses through the News of My People virtual store. News of My People will also raise awareness about opportunities for community development projects and motivate financial support from emigrants who want to make a difference in their hometowns. Thus far, emigrant communities in the U.S. have only sent collective remittances to their villages in reaction to natural disasters. Luis’ media platform will allow emigrants to proactively select and fund development projects that promote tourism or improve the villages’ public services. By infusing the economy of rural Guatemala towns and allowing the community members to benefit from their cultural heritage, Luis will offer future generations of Guatemalans an alternative to involuntary, poverty-driven emigration.




THE PROBLEM

Emigration has divided and strained Guatemalan families and communities for decades, especially those in rural areas. From 1968 to 1986, armed conflict drove waves of emigrants to leave Guatemla. Since then, however, economic hardship has been the primary cause of emigration. Everyday, about 400 Guatemalans leave their country; the majority are young workers from rural areas. Most are destined for the United States where an estimated 1.4 million Guatemalans currently live.

Migrants generally leave Guatemala with an intention to gain money or skills elsewhere and then return to help their communities. However, a systematic breakdown of the communication between Guatemalan migrants and their community deters this from happening. Studying the frequency of communication between migrants and their communities, Luis has found a consistent pattern: Migrants communicate frequently with their families and friends in Guatemala for four to five years after leaving but then communication lines go silent as the emigrant establishes a new family, culture, and community.

This breakdown of relationships with emigrants has social and economic ramifications for Guatemalan communities. First, villages left without their most productive, young, and healthy members become even poorer. As the middle-aged population leave to seek better economic opportunities, some villages have been left almost entirely populated by the elderly and children.  Moreover, the volume of communication and remittances between emigrants and their families are highly correlated: As communication wanes, remittances also stop arriving. Thus, families are left without income-earning members and after an average of five years, they receive little or no remittances from them. Second, the social cohesion of the community deteriorates as family members are left emotionally and economically disconnected from their relatives abroad, fostering a sense of hopelessness within the communities. Finally, not speaking to emigrants perpetuates a common belief among Guatemalans that the life of an emigrant outside their borders is a “paradise.” Youths do not hear about the challenges of emigrant life and make decisions based on uninformed and unrealistic expectations.

Emigrants also suffer consequences of broken communication with their hometowns. First, it is difficult for the emigrant to see what social, cultural, and economic changes are happening in his or her hometown. Guatemalan national newspapers are available online, but they focus on national and capital city news and politics, not rural communities.  Second, emigrants lose touch with their native culture, language, and identity. In an effort to assimilate into their new communities, emigrants often don’t celebrate traditional holidays and their customs are devalued.  Rural Guatemalan’s speak 24 indigenous languages, which are lost without use. Finally, emigrants often struggle with feelings of guilt for having left their families behind. While they have a strong desire to give back, it can be hard to do so, and sending money individually doesn’t change the underlying poverty pattern. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to send financial support to their community for sustainable projects that would have a substantial and lasting impact. While groups of emigrants have reactively sent collective remittances in the aftermath of natural disasters, there is little that an emigrant can do in conjunction with other emigrants to better the welfare of their communities in non-emergency situations.




THE STRATEGY

The cornerstone of Luis’ strategy is gaining the credibility and trust from a large audience of Guatemalans, both within and outside the country, through an innovative Internet news platform.  News of My People (www.NoticiasDeMiGente.com) provides local news in a multimedia format that invites viewer participation. The website offers the reader written articles, radio and television programs and photographs. Guatemalan users around the world can not only view this information but also offer comments and call into radio programs.

News of My People stories focus on local interest topics in rural areas. A user can select their region and read about a recent cultural festival, a protest, a school vaccine initiative, or local elections. In contrast to other media sources, News of My People has a strict policy against the popular “red articles” that sensationalize violence and are accompanied by gruesome pictures.  Instead, the news is intended to offer information to help people make better decisions and consider how positive changes can be made in their communities. For example, when a young boy was run over by the driver of a tuk-tuk (converted motorcycles that are used as taxis), national newspapers reported a dramatic story showing pictures of the victim. The News of My People article took a different angle; the impact of the boy’s death on the community and information on government legislation that would require license plates on tuk-tuks.
 
To produce local-interest stories, Luis works with a group of volunteer “info-activists,” or journalists who’s reporting is intended to inform and activate communities by providing high- quality information. Luis carefully selects and trains the info-activists because their approach to news gathering is a critical component of his strategy. He looks for young, courageous people who feel strongly about improving the communities they work in. The ideal new info-activist does not have a reporting background and is not used to writing red articles; rather, he/she can adapt quickly to a new form of socially proactive journalism. Luis trains the info-activists to write local news stories that enable readers to make better decisions and inspire them to take action.

Luis has also formed a strategic alliance with the Guatemalan Federation of Radio Schools, an organization that organizes educational and formative community radio programs for rural Guatemala. Through this alliance, Luis streams multicultural and multilingual community radio stations over the Internet to migrants abroad. In collaboration with the federation, Luis produces a weekly radio program, Migrant Contact, which is dedicated to providing information and discussion about the risks, policies, and trends of emigration. In a weekly radio program, both emigrants and locals call into Migrant Contact with questions and comments, thus creating an open dialogue about the realities of emigration.

To attract new users, Luis advertises News of My People on local community radio stations in Guatemala.  Local users then tell their family members who are living in other countries about the site. The number of emigrants that use the site has boomed as word of mouth has spread throughout emigrant communities abroad. Usually, clusters of emigrants from a particular Guatemalan village congregate in the same town in the U.S., so there is rapid communication about News of My People within these groups. For example in Jupiter, Florida emigrant laborers listen to their village’s local community radio projected over the orange groves as they work thanks to the Internet streaming provided through News of My People.
News of My People is rapidly gaining new users, growing from 10 to 15 hits in January, 2008 to 30,000 hits in January, 2009. An average of 7,000 people uses the site each month, half of whom live in Guatemala. The other users are from 45 U.S. states as well as 42 other countries. Its growing credibility is reflected in the editorial stance of Free Press, Guatemala’s biggest media organization: If News of My People covers a story Free Press’ editors are likely to leave it alone.

Resources for News of My People have been provided thus far through volunteers and Luis’ personal savings. However, Luis is beginning to sell advertising space on the website and plans to launch an employment classifieds page to financially sustain their operations.
 
Luis is dedicated to assuring that News of My People works to reduce rural poverty, the root cause of emigration. The Internet platform is a critical first step in gaining the attention and participation of a large number of people. As News of My People continues to garner trust and credibility they will move to poverty reduction strategies. Luis plans to open a virtual store that would allow an emigrant living in Chicago, for example, to purchase a birthday present for his or her mother from a local store in the mother’s town. Using the network of info-activists, Luis will establish four to five stores in each of the 21 towns in Guatemala that would sell their goods through his website. This service would make it easy for emigrants to contribute financially to their families while also supporting local jobs back home.

The cumulative strategy of News of My People is to coordinate and drive community development projects that would allow rural Guatemalans to take advantage of their cultural and natural heritage with financial support from migrant communities and guidance from News of My People’s foundation. The info-activists would play a key role in seeking out opportunities for projects as they report on community issues, revealing, for example, the need for a new municipal drainage system or a new roof for a village’s primary school. Their access to government officials allows them to gain and share credible information that can inform potential development plans.

The foundation is where Luis will use his alliances with members of academia to help consult and guide projects. The community development work would be sponsored by communities of migrants that would be able to collectively send their remittances for a project with which they are familiar through reading News of My People. This strategy builds off of previous efforts that migrant communities have undergone to send collective remittances to their community in times of natural disasters. The foundation’s projects would allow migrants to make a similar collective contribution to a proactive project in their community that would be carried out under the auspices of an organization they know and trust.

After establishing News of My People in Guatemala, Luis plans to create franchises of the organization in other countries that experience similarly high levels of migration in Central America and later in Mexico.




THE PERSON

While Luis pursued graduate studies abroad, he experienced first-hand the challenges that emigrants face in communicating with their families and knowing what is happening in their communities. Luis received a scholarship from the Inter-American Development Bank to pursue a master’s degree in eBusiness Management at the International University of Japan. He left Guatemala with an inspiration to build on his long-standing academic interest in information systems and bring back knowledge that he could employ to contribute to the development of his country.  Luis quickly discovered that he felt disconnected from his home and although he had access to national Guatemalan newspapers, he struggled to find local news that would tell him about changes in his community. It was while in Japan that Luis began to design the plans for News of My People. Upon graduating in 2005, he returned to Guatemala to put his plans into action. 
Throughout his life, Luis has been interested in his country´s indigenous culture and entrepreneurship. Luis’ father is from an indigenous community, and as a child Luis had taken a special interest in learning about this culture and studied his father´s maternal language, Quitche. Luis has also started a number of ventures including a Cybercafé and restaurant.  The restaurant, which specialized in traditional Guatemalan cuisine, was very successful but left Luis feeling unfulfilled, which motivated him to pursue graduate studies abroad.

Luis’ interest in community development projects was also shaped by his experiences in Asia. He studied the comparative development of Asia and South America and was struck by the fact that the two regions had similar cultural, natural and social heritages yet many countries in Asia had been able to develop rapidly by taking advantage of its assets in tourism and in the exportation of agricultural products. Reflecting back to his country, Luis began to imagine how different the rural areas of Guatemala could be if they were able to benefit from the wealth of their heritage. From this experience, Luis envisages that News of My People will be able to unlock new potential for economic development in rural Guatemala through tourism and the sharing of traditional agricultural practices.




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