We have changed the name of the person interviewed in this piece for their safety.
Back in Guatemala, “Maikin’s” father earned his living as a baker. Ironically, there was never any bread in the house for Maikin or his three brothers. When he was two years old, his father left for the United States, looking for a way to support his family. When he turned four, his mother left after his father, leaving Maikin and his brothers with their grandmother. Then, years later, with the faces of his parents slowly fading from his mind like the sea washing away a name written in the sand, he decided to leave Guatemala for the United States in search for them — he was 17.
In 2016 alone, more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, were detained at the border; all minors who crossed the desert without their parents for the purpose of family reunification in the United States. The parents, in most of the cases, decide to pay coyotes or polleros (smugglers) to bring their children to the United States and away from the poverty and violence that exists in the region known as the “northern triangle” of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The region remains menaced by corruption, drug trafficking, and gang violence, not to mention lack of jobs, stable economy, or opportunity. What drives these minors is hope in a better future and a united family.
Hope doesn’t guarantee safe passage into the United States, however. On the voyage north some are stopped at the border, and transported to detention centers where they are either released or deported. Others become the target of criminal organizations that kidnap them to ask for a reward for family members, and the even less fortunate ones lose their lives in the desert, leaving their parents with the unbearable uncertainty of their whereabouts.
For this edition of “13 Stories of Dreams” I talked with Maikin, now 21. He is the only one of his brothers who remembers and knows his father. Maikin’s story is emblematic of the thousands of children fleeing north trying to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries to reunite with their families. Some, sadly don’t make it. Others like Maikin, make it to the United States with their lives turned upside down. I invite you to read his story in his own words.
Julia Castro: How did it all start? Why did your parents come to the United States?
Maikin: When I wanted to eat bread, I asked my dad for money and he never had any. And I had to go to my grandmother’s house, and my grandmother would give me money just for bread since she didn’t have that much either. I was happy when I had something to eat. My dad was a baker but there was never bread in my house.
How often did your dad send money to Guatemala?
He’d send money very little. He had no one to help him here in the United States.
What happened to the family in Guatemala when your father immigrated to the United States?
After 3 years, mom decided to go find dad. She started working and sent money, we had more money. We could eat in restaurants every two weeks. We helped my grandma, we gave her money so she could make us food. I had my grandmother, but I was missing them. I needed to be with my mom and my dad. I looked after my brothers, and my grandmother took care of all of us. I went to school and also helped my uncles tending the cows or whatever they needed.
What was the most difficult thing for you in the absence of your parents?
I needed something and sometimes I did not know what, but I needed something. I never said anything. I never had my dad, I never felt hatred towards him. I knew they were working for us.
How did you get to Washington, D.C.?
After 15 years, I came to find my parents in the United States. I could no longer remember their faces, I had just a distant memory of their faces. I only heard them on the phone during that time, we did not have cell phones with cameras, we used my grandmother’s phone or the neighbor’s to talk. We talked every two days and the maximum time on the call did not exceed twenty minutes. I remembered them, but when I saw them I did not recognize them. I spent 15 years without seeing my father, and 13 years without seeing my mother. I only heard her voice on the phone for all that time and when I arrived in the USA I already had another sister, a little sister, a gringa. Now we are 5 siblings, and the love was never the same.
How did you feel about the arrival of your little sister in the family?
We did not feel the same love, the years went by and at the beginning I did not feel anything for them.
How was it when you got to see your parents, where did you meet, how did you communicate with them?
I crossed the border by land. It was quite complicated. One day I spoke with my father and he told me that if he wanted to leave I had to go by land because I would not be able to get a visa legally. Then he asked me if I was going to emigrate. I remained silent, I wanted to go and look for them. He told me that I could die [on the way] and I told him that I did not care about dying.
What happened, how did you start with the crossing?
Before I left I was already suffering and when I arrived I suffered even more. The difficult thing was from Mexico to the United States, I brought two changes (of clothes), the only ones I had. The person that helped me cross was the same man who brought my dad, the same pollero. We talked to him and he helped me with everything.
Who spoke with him?
My dad talked to him to ask him to please bring me to the border, they also arranged payment. We went in a van and did not eat for two days. They us left us someplace waiting to be picked up, cold and hungry, where we stayed two nights.
What happened, did you all just stay put? How did you know that they would come for you and not leave you there?
We had hope. Nobody wanted to move, we were all determined to go to the United States and we were about to cross, nobody could leave. But they never arrived until after those two days, where we waited at the border of Guatemala and Mexico. I did not know where in the United States they would leave us, and I did not know where in Mexico we were.
How did you cross Mexico?
We crossed Mexico in six days in a van. I remember Mexico, the food was delicious (laughing). The guy told us that he would leave us at the border — it was the only time I crossed words with the pollero — and we crossed without papers. We did not have any type of documents, what we had was all fake or crooked. I had my fake passport from Mexico, but I didn’t show it anywhere because it was very easy to realize that it was illegal, so we paid off the people in the booths [in Mexico] to let us pass. We had our suitcases, we never had a problem at the booths, we always paid and we passed. It was very easy pass through Mexico. We ran into “the beast,” the train, but we passed it. We were in a truck, we missed the violence we had heard [crossing Mexico], but we were still terrified. We spent days without going to the bathroom, we ate very little, we just drank water. The good thing was that the pollero had to deal with them (the national police in Mexico).
How was crossing from Mexico into the United States?
The migra (American immigration authorities) grabbed me. We were in a car, it was not the same truck, we had changed to a truck with a smaller camper. We were just eight people, seven men and a woman. We did not talk to each other, we just looked at each other. We were scared and the only thing I could realize was that everyone was praying in a low voice, moving their hands. The cold and hunger does not let you think and you try not to fall asleep — fear does not let you sleep. Suddenly we heard a very loud sound, like a blow. Some stones and the truck began to bounce, we realized that something was happening but no one could say a word, fear also freezes you.
What happened to the driver?
The driver noticed that a patrol was coming, so he stopped and ran. Lying down, we could not leave, we waited in silence for about two hours until one of the men who was going to cross was the one who decided to try to open the doors. At that moment we tried to leave but we could not — the doors of the truck were locked. Another three hours passed and nobody said anything, only tears came out. The driver never returned, but we tried to stay calm. Patrol sirens were heard, at that moment we knew it was the migra. They handcuffed us and covered our eyes and put us in a van that did not have a cover. The cold was almost unbearable, it was early morning. Well, I don’t know if it was early morning, I did not know what day it was or where I was. They took us to a room which was hot, the heat made us feel weak and weslept for about twenty minutes.
What happened with the U.S. immigration officials, did they speak with you?
They did not talk to us. We were still handcuffed and they put me in a car.
Did they give you food?
Yes, yes, they gave me a sandwich, but I was already fed up with sandwiches, but we did eat and they gave us water after taking us out of the hot room. Oh, I almost forgot. They also searched us with dogs before taking us to the hot rooms, in case we had drugs.
What happened when they put you in the truck after they took you all out of the hot room where you were locked up?
Oh yes, they got us into the other car and we arrived at a Casa Hogar (shelter or detention center for unaccompanied minors) in the United States and they treated me well there. I was there for 17 days. I did not speak for 5 days, I was afraid. After I managed to talk to a lady who fed me and spoke a little Spanish, she told me that I had to tell her something about my parents so she could help me and that was when I was able to communicate with my parents. They sent me money for a plane ticket to come to Washington. The lady had told me that I could seek help with attorneys and ask for refuge. After that call they located my parents and gave them the address. First they took me to a lawyer and after I signed some paperwork they bought the plane ticket to D.C. When I got here, I had to call another lawyer to apply for political asylum for four years, and so here I am in Washington. Until that time I had no idea that I had been in Arizona and that was where we had crossed [into the United States].
What do your parents do in the USA to support the family?
Initially, my father used to work in a restaurant the first years, now he feeds fish, moves furniture, does many things, he does everything. My mom works in a restaurant and in cleaning.
How has your life been with your arrival in the United States?
I arrived and had to go to high school. I left a program which they told me would help me, the attorney helped us and told me I could study. He recommended some schools and I took my documents. I studied because I want to get ahead. I finished high school, it was easy, everyone passed the exams, I do not know English and I do not write good English, but I have my high school certificate. After that, I found out about a place to study: La Cocina VA, where I went to be a chef assistant. They talked to me and I came to interviews and they accepted me. They accept all immigrants, but I think that because of my situation, with my mother who was mistreated, and with my need — you understand — I think they saw that I needed it most and accepted me. I graduated after 4 months and I am now working.
What is it that you do in the United States?
What I like most about the United States is that I can go out in the street, even if I only rest one day and wake up early to go to work. I am in a Chinese restaurant and although I come in at nine in the morning, I have to get up at five in the morning to get there. I also work in a cafe during the week and earn $15 an hour. On weekends I go [work at] the Chinese [restaurant].
Is the money you earn enough? Washington is a very expensive city.
That money is enough for what I need. I help my family. I want to earn more, I want to do something, to study something else, to build a nice house. I want to return to Guatemala. I want to work 10 years in the United States, and depending on what happens I’ll go or stay.
Why do you want to return to Guatemala?
The United States is very competitive in everything. You only hear about money and work. You miss birthdays. There are no celebrations. You do not see the family. There is no time. In Guatemala you get to spend time with the family, but you also die of hunger. Life in the U.S. is better than the life of my friends in Guatemala, but they tell me that there is nothing, that businesses are closing, and that there is more violence. Here, even though I go out and have to work — and the streets are clean — I don’t have any friends.
What do your parents tell you when you tell them that you want to return to Guatemala?
The relationship with my parents is not the same. Over time I have learned to forgive [them leaving] and love them again. Love them more. I hug them but I don’t feel anything. I live with them and I help them, but I do not feel resentful either. Yes I love them but it is not a strong bond.
Why do you say you do not have friends? Do not you talk to anyone?
(Between laughs) I have just Latino friends. My work is in a Chinese restaurant. I started cleaning. Now I have to cook and chop [vegetables]. I am constantly frustrated because there are colleagues who look down on me. They always cursed at me every day, and hit me on the head. Even though I wanted to respond with blows, I always resisted. Now I don’t let them hit me, or curse at me.
What motivates you to get up every day?
What motivates me is loving my mom again and wanting to help her. I want her to rest and give her everything she deserves because she has treated me so well.
What do you like most about your life in the United States?
I do not like my life, it’s complicated, I just get up and go to a job, I go out and I go to another. I do not have time to know myself, I don’t even know what I like. What I like about here is the opportunity and the clean streets. I like gringas, they’re pretty, although I do not think about that. I do not have time to think about women […] I do not want to get married, I want to have children, but I do not want to get married.
What would you say to the people who are going through your situation?
I would tell people who are having a hard time that they can read my story and learn from it and if they still want to come to the United States, I would support them.
If you had the opportunity to turn back time, would you cross again into the United States?
If I could turn back time, I would not cross the border again. I would have stayed in Guatemala. I would not risk being left dead in the desert.