LAKE WORTH, Fla. - The Guatemalan Mayas of Palm Beach County , a quiet subculture of hardworking and often undocumented immigrants, will make a rare public appearance on Saturday when they celebrate the Fiesta of San Miguel Acatan.
Wearing colorful native costumes, the Mayas and their children will sing, crown a princess, dance and make offerings for peace in honor of St. Michael, the archangel, said Mario Aguilar, who runs the Escuelita Maya, an after-school program at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth for 46 immigrant children.
"It's a way of showing gratitude and paying tribute to the saint," said Aguilar, whose program offers academic and cultural support. "The gratitude is about the struggle to stay here and be together as a family unit."
Aguilar said the Mayas, many of whom work as landscapers and housekeepers, make few public appearances, afraid of being deported or showing their illiteracy. Many don't even speak Spanish, excluding them from the Latino cultures of South Florida, he said. Their languages include Qanjobal, one of at least 25 native languages of the Mayas.
Many Mayas, descendants of a rich Central American culture that created the 365-day calendar, fled Guatemala to escape a civil war from 1960 to 1996. Today, about 20,000 live in Palm Beach County , the fourth-largest county population of Guatemalans in the United States, according to the 2010 census.
Some immigrated to Palm Beach County to work in agricultural fields beginning in the 1980s, harvesting vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes. The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, which is organizing the festival, was founded 20 years ago to help the Mayas transition into Palm Beach County life, offering after-school, family outreach, translation, legal and social service programs.
The Rev. Frank O'Loughlin, a retired Catholic priest from the Diocese of Palm Beach and co-founder of the Guatemalan-Maya Center, led a parish in Indiantown, in Martin County, when floods of Guatemalans were immigrating in the 1980s. He remembers their stories of violence, terrorism, gangs and military crackdowns, and how they came to the United States hoping for a better life but often ended up working in agricultural fields in slave-like conditions.
"These were people who had no concept of the U.S. except 'El Norte,'" O'Loughlin said. "They knew they could be assassinated if they returned to Guatemala. They were running for their lives, with no prospect of turning back."
Today, many have been settled in Palm Beach County for 25 years, and Guatemalan migration has slowed to a trickle because of U.S. immigration restrictions and the end of the Guatemalan civil war, said Elisa Tomas, the Maya Center's outreach worker.
The Maya Center is expanding its outreach to other immigrants, including Haitians, Egyptians and Bangladeshis, Tomas said.
"We keep a low profile," Tomas said. "This festival is one of the few times in the year we invite people to come join us."
The festival begins at 6 p.m. at the Finnish American Club, 908 Lehto Lane, Lake Worth. Call 561-547-0085.