“Dime cómo mueres y te diré quién eres/Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.”-Octavio Paz
Jose De Leon was lying on a hospital bed unable to move any part of his body. In a matter of seconds, he went from sitting in a car headed to work in a factory, to a paralyzed man in a white room that he did not recognize. It was never supposed to be this way. This was not the American dream he had left everything to pursue.
I met Jose, years later and thousands of miles away from his hospital bed in Lowell, Massachusetts. I was conducting oral interviews in Guatemala to learn more about the root causes of immigration to the United States. I was introduced to Jose by one of his daughter who worked at a local café in Quetzaltenango, the city I had chosen to spend my summer in. Jose had commuted into the city to talk to me. He came from a village on the outskirts of the city, but it was a world away from Quetzaltenango’s lively university scene.
His village, was like many villages in Guatemala, a place full of large families and small plots of land where subsistence farming was the way of life. He lived there with his wife and nine children, five daughter followed by four sons. Like many in his village, Jose became a father at a young age, and never went to school. He did not know how to read or write, but he knew how to feed his family. Since he was child, Jose worked in the fields planting corn, beans, and other seasonal crops. As his children got older, he began to commute into Quetzaltenango to work in its growing factories, and he left his children to tend the fields outside of their home.
Unfortunately, Jose was eventually laid off, and he took it as an opportunity to set up his own ice cream business. He took out loans to establish and run it, but he ultimately acquired a debt worth over 22, 000 dollars. The business venture was abandoned, and Jose worked many odd jobs in an attempt to keep his family afloat. “The wages were too low”, he lamented. The interest on the debt kept on accruing and it seemed like he was never going to pay it off. Jose was unable to find a stable job in a factory like the one he had before he set up his business, and it seemed like he was running out of options. The bank started to threaten him with home foreclosure, and jobs in the cities were no longer hiring illiterate people like him. Factories were now demanding elementary school diplomas, which Jose did not have, and he began to wonder if he would ever find a job again.
As the financial stress of the debt was closing in on him, Jose noticed that some of his neighbors had left for the United States. Their houses were no longer made of tile, but of cement, and many of them had two floors. People who once couldn’t afford shoes, suddenly were wearing sneakers. It seemed like all of their economic troubles had gone away. How did they do it? Jose knew that many of his neighbors couldn’t read or write, but they were making money. Was the United States the only place that people like him could get hired?
With all his other options exhausted, Jose set his sights northward. He knew that if he lived in the United States for a time he would be able send money back to Guatemala to pay off his debt and build a better home for his wife and children. He didn’t want to live in the U.S. forever—all he wanted was to create a better future for his wife and children, and he had every intention of returning. That’s what he told his family when he told them that he had made the choice to immigrate. They were devastated, but the decision was made. All they could do was hope that they would see him again one day.
Jose contacted a local smuggler who had a lot of experience taking Guatemalans across Mexico into the United States. He promised they would ride public transportation across Mexico and they would sleep in hotel rooms. The smuggler assured him that they would be fed. He said the journey would be a quick. Before they dropped him off at Quetzaltenango’s main bus station the smuggler talked to Jose’s family and told them not to cry when they said their goodbyes. The journey was going to be long and difficult and he didn’t want Jose to have second thoughts. They did their best, never fully understanding what the smuggler meant by long and difficult. All they could do was keep him in their prayers and in the hands of God.
Jose left Guatemala with only the clothing on his back, but he carried the hope that he would one day come back to Guatemala with his debt paid and with a better future for his family. At the bus station, Jose met up with forty other men and women trying their luck at a new life in the United States. They were of all ages and from all over Guatemala. Some were extremely poor; others were more well-off. Some were looking for adventure, but the vast majority were looking to feed their families. None of them knew what to expect, they only knew where they going were going.
After a four-hour drive, they took some rafts across the Suchiate River, and entered a land similar in language and culture, but that was known for being hostile to Central-Americans looking to reach the United States—Mexico. In the coming weeks, they would cross this 2000 mile long country and all sorts of topography in order to get to the US-Mexico border, the divide that separated them from economic opportunities that their home country could never provide.
The smuggler, or the coyote as they’re called turned out to be just like the predator he was named after. He was power hungry and was only concerned with the investment his clients represented. The people he was guiding were simply products he was delivering, how and in what conditions they got to the United States was not his concern. They weren’t people, they were merchandise. Each individual had paid him the equivalent of 4, 500 dollars for the journey. They either paid in cash or with the guarantee that they would pay off the debt—with the deeds to their houses as collateral. Jose gave him the deed to his house. Their money and dependence gave the coyote an arrogance and sense of superiority that he never let them forget.
“The clothing we were wearing was very dirty because we had been walking in it for days, but the coyote would always change his clothing. Whenever he was done wearing he would leave it on the ground. We could not pick it up,” Jose told me.
The food and drinks he promised seldom came. The coyote only gave them enough to survive the journey, his clients hungrily watched as he ate in the country’s famous taquerias and fondas. Besides his appetite for food, the coyote had a strong sexual appetite. Throughout the trip, he picked out the girls in the group that he deemed the most attractive and raped them in front of the entire group.
“We could hear their screams, and there were times when we tried defending them. But we could not do anything because we had paid the coyote money. If we did something he threatened to leave us,” Jose recalled. The women’s screams, and the memory of them was something they would have to live with. It was the hidden currency that they were never told they would have to pay.
The journey turned out to be much longer than expected. The buses that were supposed to take them across Mexico rarely came. The only thing that got them closer to the United States was their feet. Throughout their time in Mexico they were harassed and forced to bribe corrupt Mexican officials and they became experts at walking around military checkpoints that were along the highway. They never slept in hotel rooms; the ground by the roadside was their bed. They had no blankets and no mattresses. They had nothing to cover them from the rain. It rained almost every night and their clothing would dry off on their long walks during the day. It would always rain again.
Crossing the Desert
After a month of barely eating and sleeping, they made it to the US-Mexico border, with the state of Arizona lying straight ahead of them. They thought that the worst part of the journey was over, when it was in fact about to begin. This border was much different than the first one they had crossed. It wasn’t tropical here. The land was barren. There was no water, only endless streams of cacti and mesquite trees. Large mountains loomed in the distance, which they would soon have to cross. The desert seemed to have no end, and he was expected to march through it. There was no room for backing out now, the trip was paid for and the promises were made. They had to do it. Their families were depending on it.
“There was no other way,” Jose stressed to me.
Before leaving to the more remote parts of the desert that were less patrolled by US immigration forces, the coyote handed his clients backpacks. They were full of ketchup and mayonnaise bottles. It was the first time that the coyote had handed his clients any sort food item. He told them that if they did not carry them, they would be left behind, and with that all of their time and money would be wasted. Everyone obliged.
After the coyote stocked up on food and water for himself, and gave his clients their backpacks, they began moving into the more remote parts of the desert. It was 2002, The Twin Towers had collapsed months prior and the United States was particularly invested in protecting and securing its border from potential terrorists. The only way to make it into the United States was to cross into the most remote part of the Sonoran desert.
They walked into the United States in an area with no evidence of human existence. The only thing that indicated that people had passed through the area was the barbed-wire fence marking US-Mexico divide, and like the border itself, it was flexible. They put a stick between the wires through which they crawled into the United States with ease. The hardest part remained.
To avoid getting caught by Border Patrol, the coyote made them walk at night. It was colder and easier to walk. The heat during the day was unbearable and paralyzing, but walking at night made it tolerable, enough to walk. It protected them. But the darkness of the night sky only shielded them from the heat, it did not shield them from the harshest reality of crossing America’s natural wall.
On the first night Jose felt something underneath his feet that made him recoil in disgust. He did not scream, but he knew that what he had stepped on was not an animal and it certainly was not the desert floor. It was a body. A dead one. A lost one. A forgotten one. It was the remains of a person who had died on the long walk towards a new life, with the hopes of creating a better one. Remnants of a dream whose seeds were never planted, left to dry out in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. There were so many that tripping over them became as normal as the thirst that was gradually killing them. They were walking across an open cemetery.
“There were men, women, and children. There were many dead people.” Jose recalled.
All of them were engulfed by the vastness of the desert and its heat. Their bodies were impossible to recognize. They had no funeral. No goodbye. No casket. No one to identify them. No one to find them. No one to hear their screams. They were unseen and unheard in death as they were in life. They were invaders. Aliens. Illegals. People who deserved it. A political issue rather than a humanitarian one.
Dead bodies weren’t the only things they found. Across the desert floor they found IDs, prayer books, crosses, and foot prints. Long before they had reached the American desert, they had run out of water. There were no oases in this desert, so the half-empty jugs of water left behind by migrants who had made the journey before them became their sustenance. The water inside of them was too hot to drink, but they would take some to wet their mouths, to feel alive for a brief second, to survive.
Jose was never able to quench his thirst, but he was unknowingly satisfying somebody else’s thirst— America’s insatiable thirst for Latin-American drugs. The ketchup and mayonnaise bottles were full of bags filled with a white powder he had never seen before. In his naivety, he sprinkled it on the ground unaware that he was carrying a drug called cocaine. Jose could have easily paid off his debt in Guatemala by selling the contents inside the backpack. That option was not available to him; he was simply a pawn in a much larger game. Had he been caught he would have been charged with a federal crime of drug trafficking, but Jose didn’t know that.
After three days, the group eventually made it to a safe house in Tucson. In the safe house, the containers were turned into to the smuggler. The coyote opened Jose’s containers, and realized that one of the mayonnaise jars was missing the white powder that had been inside of it. He asked Jose, “Where’s the mayonnaise?” to which Jose cheekily replied, “You told me to give you the mayonnaise, and I just gave it to you”. He still didn’t know what the powder was, but he definitely knew that it was not mayonnaise. There was nothing the coyote could do. Jose had delivered most of the product and the smuggler could cut his losses. The worst was finally over. The drugs and the people carrying them were finally delivered.
When they arrived in Tucson, Jose could not walk. He went into great detail on how all of his toenails on his feet had fallen off and how the skin on the palms of his feet had peeled off. Jose’s entire body was full of scratches from cactus needles, and he spent hours removing the needles from his skin. The physical injuries healed during the two weeks they were in Tucson, but Jose would carry the memories of the trip for the rest of his life. From Tucson the coyote took his clients to Los Angeles where most of them went their separate ways, and Jose was finally able to call his family. They were ecstatic to know that he was alive, that he had made it, but Jose never told them in what condition.
Reflecting on the journey with me thirteen years later, he said, “It was very sad, but you do everything you can to come to the United States and work, because here in Guatemala there is no work”.
Moving to Lowell
The coyote took those who had no family in the United States across the country to Massachusetts, a name that Jose could not read or pronounce. The smuggler told them it was a better place to work than Los Angeles, and Jose accepted his offer to go there. The coyote hid them in the bunker of his friend’s tractor-trailer. And after a three day drive, Jose was finally able to begin his new life.
He moved to Lowell, Massachusetts a blue collar mill town about five miles south of the New Hampshire border. There he found a job working in manual labor in a factory that made red-solo cups and plastic utensils. Jose worked the night shift every single day. “I always had money in my pocket,” Jose recalled. He had never experienced that in Guatemala. Sending money home every Sunday and watching the debt shrink kept Jose focused and motivated.
But in 2008 he started to sense that he was going to be let go, when ICE (Immigration Customs and Enforcement) started to raid factories in the area. It was only a matter of time before his factory was raided. His manager was forced to hide him in the back office, but he could not do that permanently. As his final task, Jose trained an American how to use the machine, and he was let go. His labor was disposable because he happened to have been born in a country that was not the United States.
As a darker skinned, indigenous person, Jose was no stranger to racism. He had experienced it in Guatemala, and he was experiencing it once again in the United States. Jose saw that his American coworkers were never yelled at in the same way he was. They were never grabbed by the neck like he was. They were never held to the same expectations. If he made one mistake, his employers threatened to fire him. He, like his work was deemed inferior, replaceable. Although briefly unemployed, he was able to find a new job in another factory, this time in one that made baked goods.
The years of living away from his family were beginning to weigh on Jose. He was the only Guatemalan from the Quetzaltenango area. Life was expensive and while the dollar went very far in Guatemala, it wasn’t as powerful of a currency in the place it came from. Food was expensive. Rent was expensive. Transportation was expensive. Life in the United States was much harder than he ever imagined.
Even after six years in the United States, all of Jose’s money was going to pay off his debt. The night shifts and the fact that he was working every day made it hard to coordinate calls with his family in Guatemala. During Christmas and during Holy Week, he could hear the fireworks and excitement through the phone. He could hear his children, arguing over where they were going to celebrate and what they were going to eat, as Jose sat in his quiet apartment—alone. “I never saw parties when I lived in the United States,” he told me.
Although he lived with eight other Latin-Americans in an apartment, Jose hardly saw them, their work hours never overlapped. Every Sunday, Jose would go and buy his groceries by himself. He hardly ate in restaurants, but he fondly remembered the time he tried T-bone steak. He became nocturnal and hardly saw the light of the day. He felt completely alienated and isolated.
Not knowing the language meant that he there were few people he could talk to. Turning on the television and forgetting about his troubles was not an option. Neither was losing himself in a book. The cold New England weather meant that he couldn’t go on long walks and appreciate the beauty of Lowell. Everybody kept their doors shut here, it was so different from Guatemala. Year after year he got more and more homesick.
Most of the Latin-American immigrants in Lowell were there alone, trying to feed their families. Over the years, Jose saw some of his Latin-American colleagues succumb to solitude. Some of them picked up bad habits like drug use and drinking. Jose at one point began to drink, but only occasionally. He was once caught wandering the streets of Lowell by himself by police officers, and he remembered telling them, “I’m alone. My family is not here, and I have no one to talk to”. He never drank alcohol in Guatemala, but the loneliness and isolation that he felt pushed him to drink. Jose hated the taste, but it numbed the unbearable pain of solitude; solitude that only got worse after his crippling accident.
Jose was counting down the days when he would finally be reunited with his wife and children, but everything changed one night when he was driving to work with three of his coworkers, when the car suddenly flipped over. Jose’s body flew and his eyes left their sockets. When he opened his eyes he was in an unrecognizable room at Lowell General Hospital, and awoke to the news that he was paralyzed from the neck down.
After years of sending money home, the money stopped coming, and in one moment everything that Jose had been building collapsed. The interest on the debt began to accrue and the coyote seized his family’s house after Jose was unable to pay off his remaining debt. But what worried them the most was if and how Jose would ever return home. Jose was hospitalized for a year and a half. Although the man who crashed the car came out of the accident unscathed, his insurance paid for all of Jose’s medical expenses.
Only one person visited him while he was in the hospital, a friend from work. No one else. He could hardly talk and his friend would spend his visits feeding him spoonfuls of food, because he could no longer feed himself. For a year and half, Jose was in a hospital room without the ability to move or talk. In a country where no one knew him and where he was unable to communicate. He was more isolated than he had ever been before. He was living in purgatory. A living corpse. Motionless. A failure. Everything was coming undone. His family. His job. His life. While his family was scrambling to keep their home and to survive, he was confined to a hospital bed—alone. His fate was in the hands of a doctor who could not even tell him if he was going to return to Guatemala in a wheelchair or in a casket. All of this because his country could not provide him with the opportunities to thrive and prosper.
While Jose was in the hospital, Jose’s family was able to recover their home when the people in the village joined together to pay off the debt to the coyote. With proper care and therapy, and by some medical miracle he was able to walk again. Jose started working at the bread factory again, but he was never the same. He was no longer able to work the grueling hours he had worked in the seven years before. He got tired more often, and when he was fired in 2012, he saw it as the perfect opportunity to come home.
“I was thankful, “Jose told me.
Jose couldn’t be in the United States any longer. The weight of the injury and the solitude of living away from his family was too much for him to bear. The debt remained unpaid, and the house he had promised to build was never built. He failed, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to be home. He wanted to be heard, to be loved. Jose bought his plane ticket to Guatemala one day and left the next. He called his family, and they agreed to travel to Guatemala City and pick him up at the airport.
At first most of his children did not want to accept him back into their home, because he had fallen back on his promises. But his oldest daughter convinced them to forgive him. Their neighbors lent them money to bus to Guatemala City, and they picked him up. Although he had been gone for ten years, he looked twenty years older, the cost of a heavy work schedule and a terrible injury. It was a happy moment, and his family’s dream of seeing him once again was finally complete. But Jose was also deeply embarrassed, coming back without fulfilling his promises was a defeat, and his family never let him forget it. His American dream was an illusion, nothing more.
Adjusting back to Guatemala was very difficult. Everything was different. His children were much older, and they no longer wanted to spend time with him as they had when they were younger. His youngest son, who had been six months when he left, was now taller than him. The buildings were different. The village was larger. He no longer recognized the home, he so desperately wanted to return to. But worst of all, he couldn’t find a job. By 2015, he still hadn’t found a job, and his prospect of finding one remain small. The one thing that has remained the same has been the worry and concern for his family.
When I asked him what he missed the most from living in the United States, his response was simple, he said, “being able to work”.
Before leaving for the United States, Jose would never let his daughters study, work, or talk to people outside of the family. His daughters had only two years of schooling because he didn’t understand the value of education. When they were children, he burned all of their books even as they screamed and tried to rescue them from the fire, because in his world education for men and women was meaningless. But the years that he spent in the United States humbled him. They made him realize the importance of an education, and he now has allowed his daughters to receive an education and to look for jobs in the city. But that change has not been enough to feed his family.
Jose’s family is reunited, but the question is for how long.
The debt remains and only two of his children are employed. While his sons are still too young to find a job, some of them are starting to contemplate leaving, to finish what their father started. But crossing Mexico now is very different from what it was in 2002. The rise of drug cartels and tougher immigration policies in Mexico has made traveling through Mexico as an undocumented Central-American more difficult, but most of all more violent. Between 2002 and 2012, it is estimated that 70,000 Central-American migrants disappeared, and the number has continued to rise. That number doesn’t include the record number of people disappearing in desert that make up the US-Mexico borderlands. Coming to the United States is getting harder than ever, and while the number of Central-Americans trying to cross the border has fluctuated, it has not ceased.
The desire for a better life and the belief that working in the United States can make that a reality is deeply entrenched in Guatemalan and Latin-America society. In many places going to the United States is considered a rite of passage, and the only way to rise out of poverty. The circumstances that have led thousands of poor Guatemalans and their other Latin-American counterparts to look northward have not changed. Wages remain depressed, and the jobs are too few.
As the drug trade has shifted and people have gotten hungrier for wealth and power, crime rates throughout the region have increased. In Guatemala and in its surrounding countries, there are no jobs or wages to keep people from hurting one another. Only three options remain: commit a crime, starve, or leave. Today Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador rank as the most murderous countries in the world outside of war zones, due to the rise of transnational and local gangs that appeal to the masses of unemployed and disillusioned men and women. But unlike the guerrillas who thrived in the Guatemalan highlands, they have no ideology—only the desire to have power in a world that disempowers them. And by terrorizing local communities, they have convinced many more to leave in order to survive. But too many of those who make the decision to immigrate to the United States are traumatized, raped, or killed.
People like Jose cannot get visas. To apply for a visa to the United States one needs to own a home, have a bank account, and a stable job. American visas are not meant for impoverished people. People like Jose cannot come to the United States in a dignified way. The only way they can come to the United States is in a way that puts their lives at risk, and that leaves permanent mental and emotional scars. Once they arrive in the United States they are readily exploitable and disposable, and they live with the constant threat of deportation.
Today the word “Mexican” has become the umbrella term to describe all Latin-American immigrants, or more specifically all undocumented immigrants. Mexicans, and by extension Latin-American immigrants, are blamed for the United States’ economic problems. They are thought to be free riders who are taking, rather than giving. They are seen as thieves, as criminals, as invaders. But many of them pay taxes, and they can never reap the services they pay for. While many Americans commit illegal acts every single day, undocumented immigrants have been marked as illegals. Their existences are illegal because they came to the United States in an illegal way, but it was the only way they could come.
Eight months after my interview with Jose was concluded, I traveled to Lowell to fulfill a promise I made to his daughter. I promised that I would take pictures of the city and send them to her so she could see what it looked like. I walked around the city trying to retrace Jose’s step and to imagine what his life must have been like. Blocks away from the hospital that housed Jose’s motionless body in Lowell I saw fliers posted on people’s windows that said Trump 2016 and Make America Great Again.
Those words appeal to the fears and anxieties of millions of post-industrial Americans who believe that the United States is losing its stance in the world due to free trade and immigration. Lowell is the epitome of that post-industrialization. The town is known as the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution and images of old, abandoned factories are visible from every corner, factories that were once powered by European immigrants.
It is also a place whose demographics have drastically changed over the past thirty years due to immigration.
Donald Trump’s campaign manager grew up in Lowell, but the Lowell he grew up in was very different from the one that Jose lived in. In 1980, Lowell was a majority white town with non-Hispanic whites making up 91.3% and by 2010, non-Hispanic whites dropped to 49.5%. The Lowell that Jose lived in was populated by a wide variety of immigrants from places like Cambodia, Brazil, and Liberia. It was full of signs with the words “Envios de Dinero” or money transfers, and with the current exchange rate. These are all indications that a majority white, blue-collar mill town is no longer a reality. That a majority white America is gradually disappearing.
It comes as no surprise that Donald Trump chose to hold a campaign rally in Lowell months before he went on to win the Massachusetts primary. He filled up Lowell’s Tsongas Center with more than 8,000 people, and made grand promises of massive deportations and a border wall built by Mexico. But what the people inside that stadium did not know, was that that Trump embodies America’s long dance with contradiction. While the United States was founded by immigrants and it was built by successive waves of immigration, fear of immigrants has always been a part of the American fabric. Throughout American history there have been various waves of immigration that have shaped American history and culture in deep and long lasting ways, but each wave has always been accompanied by fear. It was manifested in the mass deportation of Chinese immigrants. In the signs that said “No Irish Need Apply”. And now this fear is manifested in the billions of dollars spent on border security and deportations to prevent Latin-American immigrants from settling permanently in the United States.
The rhetoric regarding immigration in the U.S. has largely focused on securing the border and on stemming the flow of immigrants from Mexico and Central-America. But they have a terrible humanitarian cost. Currently, the number of people crossing into the United States illegally is at a record low, but border crossing deaths are at a record highs. The existing 700 miles of physical fence/barriers and increased Border Patrol checkpoints have driven millions of people to walk across the most remote and dangerous parts of the desert. After Border Patrol enforcement increased after 9/11, the recorded migrant deaths per year increased tenfold.
Prior, to 2000 the average number of migrant bodies found in Arizona per year was twelve, between 2002 and 2014 it was 165, in the Tucson sector alone. To put this into perspective in 2013, 44 people died of murder in Tucson. The amount of people found in the desert was nearly four times that amount. But these numbers only include the number of bodies found. Migrants are very unlikely to report deaths, and the bodies often disintegrate very quickly because of the desert heat. These statistics do not include the people were never found or declared missing. Nor do they include the people affected by their deaths. They also do not fully illustrate the trauma and physical pain that comes with having to walk across the desert. And they also don’t describe the difficulties that undocumented immigrants face once they come to the United States.
Stories like Jose’s and those who have perished on the journey to the United States exist and they affect far too many people. The wall and the ways in which millions of undocumented have lived and died, speak more about our society than the people making the journey. Those coming across the border should not be feared, they are simply people trying to feed their families. The failures of our global economic and political systems are the culprits, not the people making the journey. While the desert may be full of lost bodies and lost stories, the dream of a better life has not been lost. Will we choose to look away from the cost of that dream, or will we continue to build walls to shield us from that gruesome reality? Buildings walls takes effort, but dismantling them takes much more.
What if the invaders are not the people crossing and circumventing the wall? What if the invaders are our own fear and ignorance?
The day after I interviewed Jose, I met up with his daughter, Alicia. She sat down at the table where I was drinking my coffee and began to cry. She said that after the interview her father came home with a big smile on his face. She told me that he didn’t smile very often, and that she hadn’t seen him that happy in a long time. It turned out that I was the first person to hear his story. No one in his family knew the story because they did not know what questions to ask. He had been carrying all of that pain, and hurt by himself. This article is for him, and for all of the people who have ever dreamed of having a better life.
Date: May 6, 2016