The Train

Introduction

This narrative is based off an interview that was taken in July of 2015. The subject asked that his name be kept anonymous, but for clarity purposes we will call him Santiago. Santiago is in his mid-thirties, and he grew up in a K’iche’ speaking household. He grew up in an area of Guatemala that wasn’t as affected by the Civil War, but his life was profoundly touched by immigration to the United States. To get to the United States, Santiago rode a freight train from Arriaga, Chiapas in southern Mexico to Piedras Negras, Coahuila, a city on the US-Mexico border. This freight train, is called many names such as “The Train of Death” and “The Beast”. As many as half a million Central American migrants ride this network of freight trains to cross Mexico. These trains are solely cargo trains, and they carry a variety of different products north for export. Because there are no railcars for passengers, migrants have to hold onto the outside of the moving train or sit on the top of the railcars in order to make it to the border. 

For safety purposes, some locations and names have been changed. This narrative is an edited transcription of the interview that I conducted with him. This is Santiago telling his story in his own words. This is what he remembers from the journey from Guatemala to Brooklyn, New York. While Santiago’s story is unique in many ways, his story is the story of millions of people who have had to flee their homes in Central America for economic and safety reasons. This is the story of the risks that countless people have taken and continue to take for the chance at a better life. This is a story about survival, about hope.  

The Story

Well, the truth is we lived in a situation where our home was very, very, very simple. We had one kitchen and it was our room, living room, and dining room, everything. We did everything there. We would store our clothing in cardboard boxes. We only had one set of drawers, but it was really small. So that was our situation. I had wanted to continue studying, but I stopped studying when I got married. My job didn’t pay enough, and I started to get desperate when I would walk into my house and see my kids sitting there uncomfortably.

Our ceiling had holes in it, and when it would rain it would drip everywhere. We would put buckets everywhere, but it was a very, very difficult situation. I studied in the music conservatory, so I at least had a diploma for a career in music. I developed my skills, but I didn’t earn enough money, and I would get desperate every time I walked into my house because it was pretty horrible to be honest. So that was the situation, so I changed jobs. I got a job working at Tirsa. We started lift ourselves economically, I had been working for three months when there was a problem with President Colom, one of his magistrates was killed. The funds of the company were frozen and all of the workers were let go. I had left all of my jobs in music that had previously sustained me, so I started to get desperate.

All of that desperation came to my mind, and I told my wife, “I’m leaving. I’m going to a new place, because I can’t have you guys living like this”. I get really emotional when I remember those moments, but that was what made me leave this place. I asked my friend how to leave. He told me that I needed to pay a coyote[i] to leave. I told him that I didn’t want to pay. I said that if I had that kind of money, I would establish my own business. I told him that I was going alone and that I was going to ask God to protect me. That was the situation. So I traveled alone, and I took the train north.

[i] Spanish slang for human smuggler. 

The first time I crossed, I went through Tecun Uman, and I took a taxi to get to Chiapas. But I was caught in Mexico, and I was sent back. They dropped me off in Talismán, and I crossed into Mexico again. That time I went straight through. I took a van until I got to Arriaga. From Arriaga I only took the trains. In total I took about seven trains to get to the border in Piedras Negras. It took me 15 days to get there. It took me twenty days to get to New York. So it was twelve days on the train, and it took three days to cross the desert. I was in Houston for two days, before heading to New York. It took me twenty days to get to New York.

The train was dangerous. Very dangerous. It was very dangerous, and to be honest I never thought it would be that dangerous when I left. I made a friend along the way, and he became my partner. We would buy tortillas and cheese, because the train would last three days or two days or one day, there was no train ride that lasted for four hours. Trains like that didn’t exist, the trains were only meant to carry cargo. They weren’t for passengers. It was just a cargo train.

When we got to Arriaga, the first train that we took had 800 people on top of it. All of us were dangling from it, some people tied themselves to the train. The whole situation was very hard. On the first leg of the journey, the man in front of me fell. I don’t know who he was or where he was from, but it was really cold and he wrapped himself in a blanket. In one of those, he fell asleep. All of us were on top of the freight cars, but it was packed and there was very little space. You would arrive to your destination in the same way that you came. You could not move.  If you were laying down, you would be laying down the entire way. I think that young man fell asleep, and I just saw that he fell, but he didn’t make any noise, nothing. The sound of the train is so loud, so if he yelled, we never heard it. No one heard from him again. When we got to our first stop, we talked to the shelter and they supposedly went to find him. I don’t know if they did.

So we would get on the train whenever we saw that it was moving slowly. The train never stops, it’s always moving. So you have to find a way to get on. The person who is able to hang on, hangs on, the person who can’t doesn’t get to ride the train. Seeing that man fall was my first bad experience. On the second leg of the journey, there was a steep turn after a bunch of mountains. Those turns are huge, and at the time there were a ton of young men sitting on top of the railcars. I never went on top, I always stayed in the area between each car.

Well, I went up a few times, but only to breathe, because it’s very dangerous up there. When we got to that huge turn, about fifteen people flew off the train. You could just see how each one of them flew off the train. You would see them fall off at different times, because the turn was so steep. So yes, they were left to lay there by themselves, if they got help, who knows? I just remember holding on, we never found out what happened to them—that was the brutal part. After that I swore to myself that I would never go onto the top part of the train.

When I wanted to sleep, I would tie myself to one of the tubes on the train with my belt. If I fell asleep I would always wake up when the train stopped because my head would hit the bar. I was terrified of falling off after seeing that other man fall. So I had a new fear, falling off. There was a part where there were these huge tunnels that went into the mountainside. It was by this volcano; I think it’s called Orizaba. That was another experience, because before getting to the next station, we had to jump off the train even when it was still moving at an enormous velocity. A rumor spread on the train that Mexican immigration was just ahead. So those of us that could, threw ourselves off the train.

When we jumped off, we got hurt really badly. After we jumped off, we walked around the station and we went to wait for the train ahead. We waited for the train about a kilometer ahead of the station, but by that point the train was going too fast, and not all of us were able to hang onto the train. But I did get on. People on the train were telling me to be careful, because they said it was about to get very cold on the train. I didn’t give much thought to it, because it was already cold. But once I got on train, that cold was a different beast. It was so cold; I had never been so close to death before. I couldn’t take it anymore, and neither could a lot of the men on the train, so amongst ourselves we started to hug each other to keep warm. Some time passed, and the train suddenly stopped. After the tunnels, the train stopped. I had no idea what time it was, but it was pitch dark, and we went to the closest mountain. We went looking for sticks to make a fire, because it was so cold.

On the next leg of the journey, we were approaching a town, where people told us that there were people called Zetas that kidnapped. I didn’t believe them, I thought they were just trying to scare us. We didn’t think much of it, we got to the town and bought food. When we came back to take the train, people came to kidnap. Five vans came and they parked next to the tracks. They asked is if we were Guatemalan. We said that we were. They then started to divide all of the people waiting by the tracks by nationality. The Guatemalans with the Guatemalans, the Hondurans with the Hondurans, the Salvadorans with the Salvadorans. To be honest, I didn’t see any Mexicans, maybe they were in the back of the crowd.

Once the Zetas put us into groups, we saw that that they were putting a group of people into their vans. I think they were the Mexicans. My legs were trembling, I felt so much pressure, and I just saw how they took some of the friends I had made on the journey. They then started to randomly select people and they put them in their vans. But they didn’t take everyone, and for some reason they didn’t take me. I was just praying to God and saying “God help me! Help me!”. Just seeing their shot guns and machine guns, terrified me.

They had a ton of machine guns, all kinds of weapons. They were dressed like civilians, they didn’t have any special uniform or anything. It’s not like you could see them and know who they were and run. They suddenly approached us and took out their weapons. There was one guy from Mazatenango who was really tall who saw them, and he tried to defend himself. But that was useless, because they hit him with their guns, and they threw him onto the ground. They took him, and out of the fifty Guatemalans that there were, they took forty of us. Only ten of us were left, and I was one of them.

They dragged people from each group. They told all of us not to move, because if we did they would kill us. When they left, I thought they were going to come back and take us too. We just sat there, and suddenly the train appeared. I didn’t know whether to stay or leave, but the train was approaching slowly. Just as those thoughts crossed through my mind, I saw another group of men dressed as civilians on motorcycles. They had shot guns and machine guns too. The two groups of men with shot guns looked at each other as if they knew each other. Maybe they were working together, or maybe they were rivals, I’m not sure. I just felt like I was going crazy, I was so confused. The men on the motorcycles told us to get up, and jump onto the train. We thought that once we got onto the train they were going to shoot us, so they could practice their shooting skills.

I started to cry. In that moment, I started to regret everything. I couldn’t stop thinking about my family, I didn’t think it through. I was so nervous, and my nerves betrayed me even though the train was moving slowly. I had my backpack on, because people said that this train lasted for three days. I had food, tortillas, cheese, and water in my backpack. But my legs just couldn’t move, I just couldn’t move. When I couldn’t get on the train, one of the men on the motorcycle with his shotgun and everything, grabbed me from the belt, and threw me onto train. While I was jumping onto the train, he told me to hand him my backpack. I wondered why he wanted the backpack, but I gave it to him. Then helped me get on the train, and once I got on, he threw the backpack onto the train. He said, “Go, and don’t look back, just go”. I was so confused.

I was completely confused. I don’t know what happened in that moment. I still don’t know if the men on the motorcycles were friends or enemies of the other men. Whenever I tell my family what happened, I always cry. I wonder why I survived. The ten of us who survived that experience were spread out all over the train. There were four of us on the same train car, but we didn’t speak for two days. I don’t know, it was like each person had something inside of them. We didn’t eat for that entire leg of the journey. Not even a tortilla. That fear that we felt, really hurt us. I just couldn’t move. 

 Photo Credit: The Los Angeles Times, Don Barletti, July 31, 2014. 

Photo Credit: The Los Angeles Times, Don Barletti, July 31, 2014. 

Later on, we found out what happened to the people that had been taken. I don’t where that train stopped, but I took another train to get to Mexico City. By that point I was alone, I had lost all of my partners, but I saw that there was a group of people walking by the train tracks. I figured that one of them was a coyote. I decided to follow them because they were looking for a shelter to sleep. I followed them in secret, and when they got to the door of a shelter, the head priest told the coyote that he would not be served, but that his clients would be. He said he didn't serve greedy people like him. He forced the coyote to leave, but he helped his clients. He was angry at the coyote for profiting off his people’s suffering, and told him to leave. He let the group in, and shortly afterwards I knocked on the door asking if there was room for me. He told me there was no space left, so that night I slept in front of the door. The next day, some people left and they opened the door and let me in. They let us eat, shower, and everything.

Suddenly, I saw my friend from Mazatenango. When he saw me, he hugged me, he wouldn’t let me go. I could feel his pain because we he was sobbing, just sobbing. I asked him what had happened to him, and he just started to cry. I told him “Look, I have your backpack, I have our food inside of it”. He told me that he the backpack had some of his money inside, and he grabbed it. He was very thankful. Then he lifted up his shirt and I could see that he had been tortured. I asked him if he had been tortured, and he said "Yes".

Then he told me what happened. He said that they were taken to a warehouse and they were all housed there. One by one, they grabbed them, and tied them up with a rope. Then they would ask for the phone numbers of people they knew in the United States or in their home countries, so they could pay for their rescue. He told them that he didn’t have a phone number, so they hit him. They asked him again. He said he didn’t have a number. So they continued hitting him, until he gave them a phone number. It didn’t go well for him because of that, and when I saw him he told me that he had been raped. He said, “I was raped, I’m staying here”. I said, “If that happened to you, I’m staying here too, I’m not going anymore”. He told me not to quit and he said that he was going to call his wife so she could pay for bus tickets so we wouldn’t have to ride the train any longer. I told him, “I don’t have any money, that’s why I came”. He said that he would pay for my ticket because I had saved his things without knowing that I was going to bump into him. So he called his wife, and when we got to the bus that was going to take us to the border, the chauffeur told us that it was 1500 pesos, but we only had 2000 and that wasn’t enough for both us. I told my friend, “Go, please go. I will just go back home”.

He begged me not to take the train again, he said, “I don’t want the same thing that happened to me to happen to you”. I told him that I wouldn’t, and I asked him how he ended up in Mexico City. He told me that his wife had deposited some money, and after the Zetas received the money they dropped him off at that shelter. When I left, I called my wife to tell her I was coming home. I couldn’t take it anymore. No more. I called, but the call didn’t go through. There was nobody. So I decided to carry on, and I took another train, that one was supposed to last for four days.

We were headed to this place called Piedras Negras, but halfway through the journey at around 3 in the morning, we had to get off the train. It changed directions, I don’t know where it was going, so we jumped off. When another train appeared it was moving very fast, I tried getting on but I felt like it was pulling my arm off because it was moving so fast. I let go, and had to wait for another train. My other colleague who was in front of me, got on the train, but when he got on he didn’t notice that there was a pole in front him, and he fell onto the tracks. The person standing next to me said that was his brother, but we couldn’t see anything. We didn’t have a flashlight so we couldn’t see anything. It was dark, it was completely dark. We were standing on a mountain, and we yelled for him; no one responded. To survive, you can only watch your own back, and when a new train appeared the rest of my colleagues got on it. I was the last one to get on and I just remember thinking “Help me God” and I closed my eyes. I just remember holding onto this rail and feeling a gust of wind and my body being pulled onto the side of the train. I stayed on that train until getting to Piedras Negras.

 

 Photo Credit: Smithsonian 

Photo Credit: Smithsonian 

In Piedras Negras, on the border, I met a guy who told me that he knew a pollero[i] who could take us to the other side. When we finally went with the pollero he asked us for our phone numbers, and he took us into a room. He had shrine for “La Santa Muerte” that was full of candles and pictures, and I was just thinking what have I just gotten myself into. I stared to feel an overwhelming sense of regret, but one goes for their family, and the pollero decided to take us across. Crossing the river was another nightmare. We slept on the ground, under the sun, without blankets or anything! We ran out of water and food, all we had were cans of canned corn. That was all. But we couldn’t swallow the food, we didn’t want to eat, we just wanted water.

In the desert we walked through marshes and our clothing got full of dirt. We had to squeeze all of the dirt out of it. That was good because small drops of water dripped out, and we drank that. We were just so thirsty. Many of women collapsed because they were so exhausted, but we couldn’t leave women behind so we carried them. The polleros did nothing, it was a question of those of us in the group helping each other out. We all had the same need and desire for a better life so we were going to help each other until the end. When we got to our final destination, I was full of needles and flees. It was crazy.

On the journey through the desert, I heard a lot of coyotes howling and I saw lots of deer. I never saw any dead bodies because they made us walk at night. During the day we would sleep and hide. Who knows what we couldn’t see? The polleros had a set schedule. They also were definitely associated with the drug cartels. The Santa Muerte statue and the pictures they had in their rooms definitely indicated they were a part of an organized crime group. The polleros were carrying a backpack that they never opened, and they never shared what was inside of it. We can’t say it was food or water if they weren’t opening it and they were suffering just as much as we were. Whatever they had in those backpacks wasn’t edible, and they were carrying four full backpacks. Only the polleros were carrying them. I guess that’s why they weren’t helping the people that were collapsing.

There were twenty-two people in our group, five of them were women. There weren’t any minors with us, but one of the women was impregnated by the polleros. They raped her. We didn’t see when they raped her, we just saw that they took her aside. When we were waiting to cross the river, they called her up and she disappeared. She came back four hours later, but she seemed very shaken up. We imagined that she had been raped and the entire way she was throwing up. She didn’t stop throwing up until we got to Houston. That’s how she went.

No one stayed behind. Everyone survived. Everyone survived, but we had to drag that women. It became more evident that the polleros had abused her when one of them asked her why she was so easy. We were so angry because we had to carry her, but she couldn’t walk and she wouldn’t stop vomiting. Anything she ate, she would throw up, and we were exhausted. They didn’t rape the other women. Just her. She was twenty-five years old. She was from El Salvador.

Everyone in our group was from Central America, just Central Americans. The only Mexicans were the polleros. I just remembered another detail that I forgot to recount. There was one moment when we were on the train where we got off and went for a walk. On the walk, we bumped into a group of thieves, we weren’t sure if they were Zetas, but they grabbed all of the women in our group. They told them to get naked and they all got naked in front of us. The thieves wanted to start abusing them, but there was one really thin woman who said “Come have sex with me, I have AIDS, it’s up to you if you want to f*ck me”. Thanks to her they didn’t touch the rest of the women in the group. The thieves told them to put on their clothing and to leave. They said, “Put on your clothing and scram!”. We all left, and I thought that I was never going to see that woman again, but we ended up taking the same pollero across the border. She was from Jutiapa, Guatemala. When I met up with her on the border, I asked if she really had AIDS and she said “Of course not, but since I am skinny, it’s believable” [laughing]. I told her that she was really brave because she saved the rest of the women.

I crossed the border five years ago, in 2010. It was a violent year. I left Guatemala on September 16, 2010. I met wonderful people and terrible people on that journey. During the journey there were a lot of Mexicans who gave us food to eat. For example, when we were on the train there were people who had bags of food and they would throw them onto the train. They would yell, “Take them! Take them! Take them!” They were very, very beautiful people. There was a town that I will never forget, but unfortunately I forgot its name. It was a town where the train parked, and when it stopped there were mobs of people of waiting for us. They came out with an anxiety to give. Can you imagine? They came out of nowhere and asked us “What do you want to eat?”.  I was shocked, I thought it was so strange because you never know how strangers are going to treat you. They started to bring warm food, plates of warm food with tortillas. They asked us if we wanted hot sauce, coffee, bread, water, everything. When you finished eating, they would take your place and they would ask you if wanted more, or if you wanted to take some for the road. Even if you said no, they would say “Please take some food”. They had such an anxiety to give, I will never forget that town. It was very special.

I arrived in that town just before arriving to the border with the United States. The houses that I saw in that town were all made of brick, many of them were deteriorating. They were very poor. The houses blended into the same desert that was in front of them. The houses were made of adobe. The town was very, very simple and there they were feeding us. Everyone came out. Everyone came out. I thought it was so weird when they would ask us if we wanted hot sauce, and they would send someone to bring it. The people giving us the food were teenagers, and the women from the town were the ones who prepared it. They just gave and gave. I remember eating a lot of warm food and drinking a lot of hot coffee. For the entire journey I hadn’t eat warm food, before eating there everything I had eaten was cold, stiff. I felt something very special there–they helped us.

I stayed in a lot of shelters in Mexico. They helped us a lot too. They gave us a lot of new clothing and the opportunity to shower. I remember the first one that I stayed in was in Chiapas. I remember that there were a lot of people there without legs or arms, but they weren’t travelers anymore, they lived in those shelter. I remember they told us not to travel on the train, they said that they didn’t want us to end up like them. They said they couldn’t go back to their countries in the state they were in. They didn’t want to be burdens, so they stayed in the shelters. They said, “We came to prosper, but look at how we ended up”. It was sad to see them like that, and just like there were people who fed us, there were also terrible people.

Just outside of Mexico City there was a town where there was a stadium. The people there threw rocks at us. There were mobs of children and teenagers who threw rocks at us. They yelled, “Wetbacks! Wetbacks!”. We had been accustomed to receiving water, bread, and fruits from people, but that place was different. All of the kids were throwing rocks at us, they were even some adults doing it to and they were laughing amongst themselves. They threw them at us like we were animals. They hit four of the people in my group. They had huge cuts on their heads. We got off the train to hide, so that’s why you can’t trust strangers, you really can’t. That was a very strange place, especially because we were so used to receiving food from other people.

There was another place, that I will never forget. We saw a group of policemen by the tracks and we all got very scared because we thought they were going to arrest us. Instead they started to take out bottles of water and throw them onto the train. For the entire trip I was really confused because I didn’t know who to trust. People could either throw food or rocks. When that group of people threw rocks at us, we started to repudiate the Mexicans because we didn’t understand them. I don’t understand what happens over there. Once we got to the border, to Piedras Negras, there were a ton of drug addicts. The drug addicts are the ones who control the border.

When we were waiting to meet with the polleros there were tons of drug addicts. To meet with the pollero we had to say a password, and one of his helpers took us through a subterranean tunnel that took us to his office. I think it was a sewage pipe. There were tons of drug addicts sitting in the tunnels, they were injecting themselves, some were doing crack, others were smoking marijuana. My friend kept on telling me that not all people in Piedras Negras were like that and there wasn’t a problem. We waited for the polleros to form a group, and we left.

I never imagined that the journey would be as difficult as it was. If I had known what it would be like, I would have never tried to go to the United States. I would have never done it. There have been other moments where I have been asked if I want to leave, but I always say no. The only way I would go to the United States again would be with a visa, without one I wouldn’t because it’s a terrible experience. I would never let my children come to the United States.

After Houston I took a van to New York. I lived in Brooklyn with my two brothers. I lived there for two years. I promised my wife that I would only go for two years, three years at most. We really love each other, and we love being together. It was very painful for me to be over there. The children of Hispanics were very discriminatory.  The Dominicans and the Mexicans were the worst. They would yell at us very aggressively. For example, one day we were playing soccer when a group of them came and they said “Immigrants get out of the soccer field!”. We said that we weren’t going to leave, but they came out with bats and they kicked us out. They yelled a bunch of swear words at us, and kicked us out. I started to cry, I was especially angry because they were children of Hispanics. Luckily, the Americans, the ones I worked with really appreciated me. 

[i] Pollero or coyote refers to the people who guide people across Mexico, and the desert. An accurate translation of these words would be human smuggler. 

 Photo Credit: NY City Lens 

Photo Credit: NY City Lens 

They would always ask me if I had eaten, and if hadn’t they would give me food. When they see that you are working hard they give you food and water. They treat you well, but the children of Hispanics are the ones that discriminate the most. It’s really hard to be over there. There were a lot of Mexicans in New York. That’s another topic. They were nice to each other, but they weren’t to us. That’s something I’ve never understood, we are both immigrants! They thought they owned the place and whenever they opposed me, I would oppose them. I always tell my kids that when the Mexicans opposed me, I would oppose them, and they would get angry at me for it. One of my employers who was Mexican didn’t want to pay me one time. He didn’t pay me, so I stood up to him. He told me that he had a lot of problems, and I told him that I also had a lot of problems, and that I needed to feed my family. I said that I worked to earn money, not because I liked it. The whole situation was very serious, but when the Mexicans realized that I stood up for myself, they began to leave me alone.

The Mexicans thought they owned the place, I guess it’s because they are closer to the United States. We clashed with them a lot. We didn’t clash with black people at all. I remember one day my brother got out of work, and a group of Mexicans was coming to steal out pay checks. When they were assaulting my brother, a black man came up and hugged my brother and asked him if he needed anything. He told my brother to tell him if anything bad happened to him. The Mexicans backed out. The black man saw their intentions, and he defended my brother, so the Mexicans left. The Mexicans are terrible; they think they own the place.

I worked in construction. I worked twelve hours a day. I worked from eight in the morning to eight at night. I worked a lot and I was paid 100 dollars a day. The Americans only worked from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon. They were paid 350 dollars. We worked 12 hours, for 100 dollars. It was very different.

I was living with my brother and he told me to be afraid of the police. He said they have a lot of freedom; I guess it’s because the United States is also a free country. I was very cautious around police, especially because I had a problem with an Italian man who refused to pay me 1200 dollar after I had made a really beautiful brick wall for him. He owed me 1200 dollars for that wall, and when I went to ask for my pay check, he disappeared. I want to speak with the owner of the house, and he told me that he had nothing to do with it because he had paid the Italian man. He said it was my problem and that I needed to fix it myself. I started to cry because it was 1200 dollars, and in Guatemala there was no food. I got so angry, and I looked for him until I found him.

I went to talk to him, and told him to pay me. He said no, and he pretended like I didn’t exist. So I went to look for him at his house, and I begged him to pay me, but he still said no. My brothers speak a little bit of English and they helped me call the police. We called them outside of the Italian man’s house, and when the police came they told me that he wasn’t going to pay me, and if I didn’t leave they were going to arrest me. When I saw that I wasn’t going to get paid, I started to cry a lot, but it wasn’t my country, so I couldn’t defend myself. That job I did was worthless, I was paid nothing. I was paid nothing. Later I did a similar job for a Jewish man. The first week he paid me, but the second week he didn’t pay me. Apparently he had left for Israel. I lost 800 dollars. That time I didn’t call the police, I was afraid of getting arrested.

One thing that always bothered me was that I felt like my work wasn’t valued as much as the work of the Americans. We worked hard, we worked honestly, and we worked the hours we are supposed to work, but in the end we don’t get paid the same. When I was working with that Mexican man, we were working from eight in the morning until eight at night. During Christmas I was looking at the paychecks of the other workers, and I realized that the manager was reporting that he was paying us 350 dollars when he was only paying us 100. He would keep the extra money, I was so angry when I found out. I didn’t say anything because it was Christmas and I thought we were going to paid a bonus, but we weren’t. They didn’t give us anything. We worked from Monday to Saturday, and we just received 600 dollars. The paychecks said we were earning 350 dollars, but we were being paid 100 dollars. We were supposed to earn 350 dollars plus over time, but we received none of that.

I lived with my two brothers in New York. The Mexicans, the Dominicans, and the black people all lived in their separate areas. We were independent and we decided to live in an area where there were a lot of Jewish people. We were the only Guatemalan family. People thought we were very weird for choosing to live there.  We lived in an apartment with three other friends. We lived in a basement, so it was pretty large. There was a kitchen and three rooms. Two of us lived in each room. I am the only one of my brothers who has come back, the other two are over there. I don’t know if they like living there more than I did, I just think they are used to it. With time they have adapted to life over there, and it looks like they are paid normally now because they have received trainings and they are studying English. They go to an English school, so they can defend themselves. It was harder for me, because I didn’t speak English.

I remember two men who discriminated against me. I ignored them and ignored them, until one day one of them asked me for a favor, and I refused to help him. He asked me why, and I said “No, because you treat me like an animal, and you aren’t the person who pays me”. He finally understood, and he kept on apologizing. I helped him, and after that he occasionally said hi to me. I said hi back, and when he needed help I helped him. We were working together, and we needed to work together.

When I was in the United States, I sent a lot of money to Guatemala. I used it to build a new house. I had three kids when I left. The youngest was a year old, the middle one was four, and my son was ten.  I just have three because I have to pay for their school. When I came back from the United States, I immediately went back to school and I got my high school diploma. I thought about going to the university, but I didn’t have enough money, and I needed to fight for my children.

When I came back they were so, so different. My youngest daughter got really hurt. When I came back, she didn’t speak to me, but when I left she wouldn’t let go of me because she didn’t want me to leave. She couldn’t even talk. It was so hard to let go of her little hand, but when I came back she went and hid in a corner. I thought it was very strange, but I just thought it was because she didn’t know who I was. I didn’t understand her reaction, but I just she didn’t recognize me. She kept on saying that she wanted to speak to the father that she spoke to one the phone. I told her it was me, but she didn’t believe me.

The day after I got back I went to visit my father, because he hadn’t seen me yet. When I was at his house, my wife called me and she told me to come home. My daughter hadn’t been sleeping since I had gotten home, but when I went to visit my father she fell asleep. When she woke up, she saw that I wasn’t home and she began to sob. She thought I had left again and that it was her fault because she had fallen asleep. She was sobbing on the phone and kept on saying “It’s my fault! It’s my fault!”. I came home immediately and that’s when I understood, she was really hurt and she was blaming herself for my departure. When I came home, I hugged her, and from that moment onwards she never let go of me. Wherever I went, she went. Now she trusts me and lets me to go other places by myself, but it took a long time. My time in the United States affected her the most, I guess it’s because my two other sons were older.

My wife suffered a lot while I was gone. She says it’s not the same thing to have two parents versus one. When I left I promised that I would call her once a month, but we couldn’t do it. We called each other two or three times a week. I missed her too much. But I will admit that coming back was an adjustment. I felt a deep wound in my heart. When I came back I cried so much, and after some time I told my family what had happened to me, and my tears would not cease. I had to tell them what happened to me on the journey to the United States, I had to tell them.

It’s been hard to come back because when I left I had a number of clients who I taught music to. But when I came back I felt like I was a complete stranger, even though it had only been two years. It’s not that people didn’t know who I was, it was that other people had replaced me, and people no longer needed me. That was hard for to adapt to, and it’s only until know where I have found my footing. Since coming back I have struggled economically. Family wise everything is going very well, but economically it’s not. My wife and I try not to discuss it in front of the children. The kids just know that they eat and go to school. But there are just so few opportunities here. The most we can earn here is 100 quetzales daily (13 dollars), but when I lived in the US I made 100 dollars daily. There’s just no comparison.

A lot of people from my town have left for the United States. I often wonder if they had the same experience I did. I wonder if the people who pay for polleros suffer less. I’ve asked other people, and a lot of them just took the bus and they even slept in hotels. They just say crossing the border was the difficult part. I guess people have different experiences.