Support and Setback:

Catholic Churches and the Adaptation of Unaccompanied Guatemalan Maya Youth in Los Angeles

Stephanie L. Canizales
PhD Candidate
University of Southern California

Credit: Leon Rafael/

Support and Setback: Catholic Churches and the Adaptation of Unaccompanied Guatemalan Maya Youth in Los Angeles


Scholarship on the incorporation of immigrant youth focuses on two socializing institutions: family and schools (Portes and Rumbaut 2001). The family bridges children to the co-ethnic community (Portes and Zhou 1993; Zhou and Bankston 2008) and schools socialize youth to American culture and practices and integrate them with native-born peers (Suarez-Orozco et al. 2007; Gonzales 2011). Churches are recognized as pillars of solidarity and support within immigrant communities, but research focuses particularly on church participation among adult migrants or the family unit as a whole. The role of the church in the adaptation of immigrant youth has been sparsely acknowledged.

This paper examines the role of religion and religious institutions in the adaptation of unaccompanied Central American youth in Los Angeles. Two questions guide this analysis: To what extent does the church provide social support and adaptation resources for unauthorized, unaccompanied youth in Los Angeles? And, in what ways might church membership hinder the adaptation of young migrants outside of the traditional protective institutions of family and school?

Research in this area is important for several reasons. First, religion and religious institutions are salient in the various stages of migration and settlement that immigrants encounter.[1] Once in the United States, churches and religious organizations play an important role in the creation of community and serve as a major source of social and economic assistance for those in need (Hagan and Ebaugh 2003; Hagan 2008). Indeed, churches are lauded as advocates for immigrant rights (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001) and as an “urban service hub” for immigrants (Ley 2008). Yet few studies consider how immigrant children and the children of immigrants in the United States interact with religious institutions (Bankston and Zhou 1996; Menjivar 2002; Cao 2005). This research will fill a conceptual gap in the immigration, religion, and social capital literature.

Second, between 2008 and 2013, the United States saw a five-fold increase in the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the US southern border from 8,041 to nearly 40,000. Over 70,000 child migrants are expected to cross the border by the end of 2014. In 2012, the rate of unaccompanied minor migration from Central America — namely Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — outpaced that from Mexico (CAP 2014). Fleeing violence and poverty, some children migrate in hopes of family reunification (Chavez and Menjivar 2010; Kennedy 2014; Donato and Sisk 2015); others leave their families behind to find work in global cities such as Los Angeles (Canizales 2015). These children are not only navigating US society without parents or guardians, but because they are workers they have little time for school and socialization through ties with teachers, counselors, and peers. Alternative community spaces, including churches, are especially salient to their adaptation trajectory. Through observations and interviews, this research investigates the role of the church in the lives of unaccompanied Guatemalan Maya youth in Los Angeles.

Literature Review

Social networks organize immigrants’ incorporation into the host society (Menjivar 2000). Within immigration scholarship, the social networks of immigrant youth are thought of as inherited from parents (Portes and Rumbaut 2001) and obtained through schools (Suarez-Orozco et al. 2007). For unaccompanied immigrant youth who live and work in the United States without a parent or guardian and do not attend school, access to traditional forms of capital and resources are sparse at best, and nonexistent at worse.

Churches and religious communities often provide ethnic communities with refuge from hostility and discrimination from the broader society as well as opportunities for economic mobility and social recognition (Hirschman 2008). Churches provide fellowship, ethnic retention, social services, and social status for those who are excluded from mainstream institutions (Min 1992), such as unauthorized immigrants. The church plays a historically salient role in the migration and settlement of Central Americans, who, when refused refugee status in the United States at the height of the Central American civil wars in the 1980s, were welcomed to cities such as Los Angeles by the Sanctuary Movement and immigrant rights advocates (Hamilton and Chinchilla 2001; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2008). Churches also link uprooted Central American migrants to their countries of origin (Menjivar 1999; Popkin 1999, 2005).

Research contends that churches do not facilitate transnational ties for youth as they do among adults (Menjivar 2002). A study of Vietnamese immigrant youth found that the church may serve as a “surrogate family” for those in the United States (Cao 2005). Throughout various religions, fictive kin organize to provide community support (Ebaugh and Curry 2000). Among Catholics, fictive kin, or copadres, are responsible for guiding a child in their faith and morals and assume “the obligation to provide for the material welfare of the child if the parents die or lack the requisite material resources” (Ebough and Curry 2000, 196). As such, social ties established through copadrazgo might be especially critical for the incorporation and well-being of unaccompanied Catholic migrant children, such as the Guatemalan youth in this study.

The church consistently is touted as a supportive institution that promotes immigrants’ social capital formation and incorporation. However, scholars who have conceptually decoupled social networks and social capital find that social ties within institutions such as the workplace may become exploitative mechanisms for “downgrading, rather than platforms for upward mobility” (Cranford 2005; see also Portes and Landolt 2000). The consequences of social ties within the church should be similarly examined.

Social ties do not always equate social capital. In fact, social ties including family ties are fragmented under conditions of economic disadvantage and labor market marginality (Menjivar 2000). The lack of supportive institutional resources and financial capital among Latino immigrant groups, such as Mexicans and Central Americans, weakens the potential of social capital and can go as far as to create ethnic opportunism whereby the lack of resources causes co-ethnic exploitation (Mahler 1995). Because immigrant churches form based on congregational homophily (love of the same) (Stohlman 2007), I hypothesize that in conditions of resource impoverishment, much like those found in Pico-Union, Los Angeles, social networks established through churches may, too, be debilitating in the immigrant integration trajectory.

While immigrant youth scholarship focuses on children in family and school, this study examines the role of the church in the adaptation of unaccompanied Guatemalan Maya children in Los Angeles. Indigenous aldeas in Guatemala lack infrastructure and institutional resources such as schools, but my respondents describe the ever-present hand of the church in their hometowns. Thus, absent parents emphasize the importance of maintaining embeddedness in the church for protection and support. Research on immigrant religion and churches frame the church as “service hubs” (Ley 2008); however, social network researchers find that social ties do not always create social capital and social capital does not guarantee positive integration outcomes (Portes and Landolt 2000). This research bridges these bodies of literature by examining the role of the Catholic Church in the adaptation trajectories of unauthorized, unaccompanied Guatemalan Maya youth.


Guatemalan migration to the United States began in the 1950s, but Maya migration to Los Angeles gained visibility during the 1970s and increased as the Guatemalan civil war intensified in the 1980s (Manz 1988; Hamilton and Chinchilla 2001). US Census data indicate that approximately 1.2 million Guatemalans live in the United States, and Los Angeles is home to the largest Guatemalan community outside of the home country (US Census Bureau 2012). Concentrating in Pico-Union and MacArthur Park, 50 to 60 percent of Guatemalans in Los Angeles are Maya (Estrada 2013).

Research Methods

This study is based on 24 months of ethnographic observations with Guatemalan Maya young adults in two Pico-Union churches where youth respondents congregate, as well as community gardens, an informal support group, cultural events, and gatherings among friends. These unaccompanied migrants arrived as minors but are now between the ages of 18-35 and have lived and worked in the United States without the guidance of a parent or guardian since arrival. I use “young adult” and “youth” interchangeably since conversations and formal interviews include recollections of initial years of settlement during which time respondents were still minors.

Findings also include data from 27 in-depth semi-structured interviews. Twenty-three interviews were conducted with unaccompanied young-adult Maya migrants, 20 men and 3 women. Twenty interview respondents are garment workers, two respondents work in the downtown Flower District, and one is a domestic worker. The highest level of education earned among group members is the sixth grade, with the exception of one young man who earned a GED after 10 years of study in the United States. Four interviews were conducted with community leaders, including two church youth group leaders from a local Catholic parish where a majority of my interview respondents congregate, as well as two coordinators of an informal support group that serves unaccompanied Maya young adults. Interviews lasted between 40 and 75 minutes and were conducted in Spanish. All interviewees agreed to be audio recorded. Pseudonyms were selected to protect anonymity. Only portions of the interview reported in this article were translated into English.


When children leave their home countries their parents and grandparents ask that they promise they will not leave God and will commit to the church, as it is the only safeguard parents can take against the dangers Los Angeles might pose to the lives of their children. Interview respondents express that their parents believe that going to church will keep them from doing drugs, engaging in dangerous sexual activities, and forgetting about the families they leave behind. These young migrants find that the church does provide apoyo (support) but with time they also begin to recognize that it can be a place of retraso (setback).

Mechanisms of “Apoyo” and “Retraso”

The church and religious beliefs provide a series of important functions for migrants as they leave their homes and begin to settle in the host society (Hagan 2008). Hagan and Ebaugh (2003) find migrants use religion in six stages, including decision making, preparing for the trip, the journey, arrival, in settlement, and as they develop transnational linkages. While research focuses on these functions among adult migrants, young people are not exempt from them. For example, Ismael explained to me that his mother emphasized church attendance as he grew up in Guatemala. He said, “My mom would tell me, ‘Go to church and there is a God who will give you everything you ask for.’ Since I was a child I would ask God for my trip here. It was difficult but I passed through.” Religion and belief practices might persuade a young person to risk the migration journey and give hope for their safety.

Upon settlement, unaccompanied migrant youth who struggle with depression, fear, anxiety, and isolation are able to find “inner strength” as they seek God. Oswaldo arrived at 14 and participated in a weekly support group where I met him. I interviewed him five years after his arrival. In our conversation he described the emotional support he received from the church as he struggled through his depression. He said:

Being in the church helps me be at peace when I feel challenges because my emotions sometimes go up and go down and when they are down sometimes I can’t find what to do. Prayer helps me a lot. It gives me hope. It gives me inner strength. My emotions go up and go down and when they are down I don’t know what to do so it helps me a lot. Sometimes I cry and I start to cry out to God and I feel at peace. I feel free. That helps me.

Oswaldo found emotional support and the power of prayer through church, which he explains allows him to “feel at peace.” Along with emotional support, young people also garner access to music classes, cultural celebrations, and participate in leadership or vocational seminars. For example, each Sunday afternoon a group of about 15 to 20 young Maya men gather at a Catholic parish for seminars on self-esteem, responsibility, pastoral care, and other leadership related topics. These seminars give young people a sense of belonging and social status (Min 1992). Thus, the church may serve as a platform for the formation of social ties and social capital.

In some instances, however, the church may also be a place of retraso as the challenges youth face are neglected or exacerbated. When I met Benito in a Pico-Union support group for unaccompanied Maya youth, he rarely made eye contact and stuttered as he spoke. I asked why he began attending a support group and he cautiously began describing that he spent three years dedicating his limited free time to church but did not find the comfort and guidance he sought. Benito explained:

B: The church does not support us. For example, sometimes. . . sometimes instead of helping us they criticize us. Like, what is sexuality? They don’t talk about that stuff in the church.

SC: Why is it important to talk about that?

B: Well, that . . . in Guatemala they don’t tell us about that. Over there you learn. . . you learn when you are married. But us, as youth, we don’t know.

One of the obstacles unaccompanied young people face is transitioning into young adulthood without parents or guardians who will guide them through puberty and physical transformations. Once in church, it is taboo to talk about sex and sexuality. Thus young men feel guilt and shame and carry the burden of confusion with their own bodies. In these cases, the church’s role as a surrogate family for young migrants is limited (Cao 2005). In fact, these sentiments can be made worse through the religious practice of condemning sin.

Wilfredo is a catechist instructor and the co-coordinator of the support group that Benito attends. Our interview centered on his observations of the unaccompanied Maya youth community, including the potential consequences of their steadfast dedication to the local church. He encouraged me to attend mass to understand how youth become entangled in guilt that may lead to social stagnation.

Go to the church and you will hear they talk about this. You will hear this, that when they are going to initiate mass they say, “I confess before God almighty and before you, brothers, that I have sinned in thought, word, action, and mission through my own fault, my own fault, my own fault” (pounds chest). So I tell them, listen you guys, religion sinks you weekly instead of liberating you and tell you, “I am fine. I made a mistake. Forgive me God. I want to continue ahead.” I want them to overcome that guilt.

In church, youth learn that overcoming guilt comes when one presses further into God. As they struggle with guilt and depression, they only encounter more shame when their burdens are not made lighter, a supposed indication of their weak faith.

While unaccompanied young people received spiritual solace and community through their church participation, my respondents also expressed their frustrations with the absence of tangible support that goes beyond the spiritual edification. For example, one young man expressed:

There are a ton of churches but they simply talk about, “God loves you. God cares for you very much. You are important.” But only up to there [spiritual development] and nothing else. There is no group that tells us, “hey, look, your culture ‘this.’ That is what matters. If this is your culture you are capable of doing ‘this.’ You have to study. You have to do ‘this.” . . . Groups only focus on one area, only on the spirit and that’s it. So they never tell us, “study, prepare yourself, help your community.” Nothing. There is nothing.

This young Maya man acknowledges that young people coming of age without parents require guidance in the areas of education and community involvement. Yet he also importantly points to the challenges that young indigenous immigrants face with self-esteem and intra-group relations.  As such he specifically identifies an absence of leaders who tell youth what social or cultural capital their indigenous backgrounds provide.

The absence of leaders and mentors that guide youth in this direction is a significant gap in the lives of unaccompanied young people. Financially independent unaccompanied young people experience time constraints due to their work schedules that demand 10 to 12 hours to make ends meet at the end of the week (Canizales 2014; Martinez 2016). Many young people are unable to access organizations that provide resources for socioeconomic or political incorporation. Speaking predominately indigenous languages upon arrival in the United States, unaccompanied Maya youth also experience barriers in accessing services provided by immigrant community organizations that may not have indigenous language translators. Furthermore, without parents ushering them, young people often expressed confusion about where to seek out advice on work, school, and legal support. Being led solely toward spiritual growth, young people may be deterred from incorporation advancing institutions, such as school. During my interview with Wilfredo, he went on to list four young men who stopped going to school at the advisement of church leaders who suggested attending more youth leadership events — a clear impediment to social adaptation as these young men were no longer learning English, which would enable greater socialization.

Indigenous young people also expressed retraso in their religious incorporation because of the ethnoracial hierarchies that organize the Latino community and ultimately the organizations they participate in (Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003). Within the Guatemalan community, ethnic boundaries rooted in the colonial legacies of the region that separate Ladinos, the Hispanicized population, and the indigenous population are sharply drawn (Vanthuyne 2008) as the indigenous population is “painted . . . as dangerous, lazy, childlike, or mulish” (Wellmeier 1998). The Guatemalan government and the Ladino population take up various strategies to subordinate the indigenous communities in the home and host societies (Menjivar 2002; Castaneda et al. 2002; Batz 2014; Loveman 2014). In the Catholic churches observed for this study, the subordination of the indigenous Latino population is evident to unaccompanied youth who report that they are more often recruited for laborious service within the church relative to non-indigenous youth, which exacerbates their sense of marginalization within the community. These tasks include setting- and cleaning-up events or guarding the parking lot while non-indigenous youth might be ushers or greeters. Mayan youth then attempt to conceal their ethnic identity as to avoid being identified as Maya. The concealment of ethnic identity can cause youth to retreat from social interactions that could provide them with new sources of social capital (Canizales 2015).


Research assumes that as networks grow, so too does social capital (Coleman 1988). The networks immigrant children develop are linked with parental background factors, including family status, parental human capital, and modes of incorporation (i.e., government policy, economic structure, and community ties) (Portes and Zhou 1993). Research on how children independently navigate social institutions has been sparse. Unaccompanied child migrants who leave their families behind learn to navigate US society without a parent or guardian. Child migrant workers turn to other familiar institutions, such as the church, for support.

This research shows that unaccompanied youth acquire spiritual and emotional support through their participation in Catholic churches in Los Angeles. Interviews reveal that unaccompanied Guatemala Maya youth experience unique challenges with ethnic and cultural discrimination and language. Young Mayas feel a sense of retraso, or setback in their adaptation when they fail to receive tangible support in advancing themselves educationally, politically, or socioeconomically. They also feel marginalized within the organization and its subunits (youth groups or small community groups) when relegated to tasks deemed appropriate for indigenous Latinos.

In all, the church provides spiritual solace and community, but does not lead resource-poor unaccompanied youth toward opportunities for greater socioeconomic and political incorporation. Reliance on a discourse of spiritual edification and waiting on God’s provision can contribute to their adaptational retraso. Congregations have been found to tailor their practices to reflect the worshippers they host (Stohlman 2007). Thus, congregations should consider the unique needs of their unaccompanied children members in order to ameliorate or eradicate barriers to their adaptation. Among the most vulnerable youth are those of indigenous backgrounds, who face unique barriers to incorporation in the Latino community and broader US society. Doing so is critical given the centrality of the church to the formation of social ties and incorporation into the host community.

[1] Hagan and Ebough (2003) outline the following stages: (1) decision making; (2) preparing the trip; (3) the journey; (4) arrival; (5) settlement; and (6) developing transnational linkages.


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Author Names

Stephanie L. Canizales

Date of Publication November 3, 2016
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy110316