Earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl had died while she was being held in custody by Customs and Border Protection. The little girl’s name was Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin. She was traveling to the United States with her father, Nery, and a large group of would-be migrants.
Jakelin and the others reached the US border with Mexico on the evening of December 6. That’s when they turned themselves in to Customs and Border Protection and were taken into custody. The next morning, Jakelin started vomiting and having seizures. She spiked a fever and was taken to the hospital, where she had a cardiac arrest. Doctors briefly revived her, but she died soon afterward.
A news crew from the Spanish language station Telemundo tracked down Jakelin’s family in a remote area of northern Guatemala. You can watch the Telemundo report here. Here’s what you need to know about Jakelin’s family:
1. Jakelin’s Family Lives in a Small Home Made of Wood & Straw in Guatemala’s Impoverished Alta Verapaz Region
Jakelin’s family — her mother, her grandfather, and her siblings — live in a tiny community in the municipality of Raxruhá in Alta Verapaz, an impoverished region in the north of Guatemala. The family lives in a small house made of wood and roofed with straw. The house has a dirt floor. A wooden cross wrapped in plastic and bearing Jakelin’s name has been set up just outside the house to commemorate the seven-year-old.
The Telemundo report shows that Jakelin’s brother is dressed in torn clothes and that all the children are barefoot. The family is hoping that Jakelin’s father, Nery, will be allowed to stay and work in the United States, because that’s their best hope of being able to raise enough money to pay off the smugglers who helped him and Jakelin travel to the US border. If Nery is forced to leave the US, the family’s small home could be repossessed by their debtors.
The World Bank has called Alta Verapaz the poorest department in Guatemala. A World Bank report estimates that 43.1 percent of the population in Alta Verapaz lives in “extreme poverty,” compared to just over 15 percent at the national level.
2. Jakelin’s Mother, Claudia, Doesn’t Speak Spanish & Spoke to Reporters in Her Native Language, Q’eqchi
Spanish is the official language of Guatemala. But an estimated 7.5 percent of Guatemalans speak a Mayan language called Q’eqchi, or Kechi. Q’eqchi speakers mainly live in the country’s remote north, where the population has been more isolated and has had less contact with the rest of the country. Jakelin’s mother, Claudia, doesn’t speak Spanish, but only Q’eqchi. She communicated with the Telemundo reporters through a translator. Jakelin’s paternal grandfather, Domingo Caal, does speak Spanish. AP reports that this is typical in the region, where men tend to learn Spanish but women do not.
There are 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, with the most widely spoken being Kiche, a language spoken mainly in the country’s central highlands. About 11 percent of Guatemalans speak Kiche. There are two other (non-Mayan) languages spoken in the country besides Spanish. Spanish is the country’s official language; an estimated 93 percent of Guatemalans speak Spanish.
3. Jakelin’s Grandfather, Nery, Said Jakelin Was Bursting With Health & Happiness When She Left Home
Claudia, Jakelin’s mother, told Telemundo that she decided to let Jakelin travel on the long journey with her father because she and Nery were inseparable. She said she was hoping for a better life for her daughter in the United States. She and Jakelin’s grandfather, Domingo, agreed that Jakelin had been full of health and in very high spirits when she left home to begin the long and difficult journey to the US border. The family is now waiting for Jakelin’s remains to be returned home so that they can give her a proper burial.
Both Domingo and Claudia described Jakelin as a happy little girl who filled their lives with joy. They said she loved fishing and climbing trees, and they added that she was excited about the idea of traveling to the US where she might have toys and learn to read and write.
4. Jakelin’s Father, Nery, Said US Border Agents Did ‘Everything Possible’ to Save Jakelin’s Life
Nery Gilberto Caal, Jakelin’s father, told a Guatemalan consul that the didn’t blame US Cutoms and Border agents for his daughter’s death. The consul, Tekandi Paniagua told CNN that Caal said he had “no complaints about how Border Patrol agents treated him and his daughter.” Caal also told Paniagua that agents had done everything they could to help his daughter.
Caal said that, contrary to earlier reports, it wasn’t true that his daughter had gone days without eating or drinking before she reached the US border. A statement from Caal’s lawyers said, “Jakelin’s father took care of Jakelin — made sure she was fed and had sufficient water. She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border.”
5. Jakelin’s Community Sets Off a Firecracker to Celebrate Whenever One of Their Neighbors Reaches the US
The AP reports that 13 people from the tiny community where Jakelin grew up have managed to establish themselves in the United States. Nery and Jakelin were hoping to join them. The community sets off a firecracker to celebrate whenever they get word that one of their neighbors has reached the United States.
Domingo Caal told the AP that his son had used his tiny patch of land as collateral to pay for the long, expensive trip to the United States. If he’s unable to stay and work in the United States, his family worries that they might lose what little they now have.