The Survivor


To write this narrative I interviewed a woman named Jimena in July of 2015. She was working as a teacher at an elementary school in a small village in the Guatemalan highlands. She is in her mid-twenties and she is the mother of two young children. Jimena is indigenous, and she grew up speaking Mam. When I interviewed her, it was clear to me that Spanish was her second language, but she spoke it very well.  Her husband is a bus driver, one of the riskiest jobs to have in a country where one bus driver is killed a day by gangs. This narrative explores her journey from a small village in Guatemala to the United States during the major immigration crisis in 2014.

To protect the interviewees identity, I used the name Jimena as a pseudonym. Certain names and places were changed to protect her identity. Some content was edited for clarity, but this is Jimena telling her story in her own words. 

The Story

We left for the United States, but it was very painful. I always tell my husband, I’m married, that if it hadn’t been for economic necessity we would have never risked our lives over there because what we lived was very difficult. We didn’t have a home–where to live. We already had two babies, and I’m renting now, but the owners can evict us whenever they want. Because of that we decided to leave, because with our income there was no way for us to overcome our situation. So we made the decision, and we tried to leave, but things didn’t go according to plan.

It hurts me a lot to tell this story because we went through some horrible things, and when we were caught it was like everything we had gone through was worth nothing. We were chased in the desert by six men. My thirteen-year niece was with us, and we were chased. They hit my husband because they wanted to rape us. They hit my husband hard. When we were dropped in the desert by our guide, we bumped into these men who wanted to rape us. They hit my husband because he was defending us, and when they began to hit him, we ran. We came back an hour later, and after that we spent one day and one night without eating. My husband was really beat up; he had bruises all over his face. When we were caught, immigration took pictures of him and we made a declaration.

When we found my husband, we stopped walking. We walked towards the nearest road and gave ourselves up, we were so dehydrated and my niece and I could not walk any longer. My niece began to faint and when was saw that, we knew that our journey was over. My husband tried to leave again, but in Mexico he was caught by some cartel. They asked us for money and we wondered how we were going to pay. Later my mother in law did what she could, and deposited 25,000 (3,200 dollars) quetzales. When he came back he was really beat up, his hands were burned, his feet were burned, and I told him that I would do everything I could to help him, but the truth is we don’t have anything. I finally found a job, every day I try not to think about what happened. If we had something, we would have never gone to suffer in that place, because the truth is you suffer a lot.

We crossed from Mexico into the United States from Reynosa. We crossed the river for the first time, but there was immigration on the other side and they send us back. We waited for another hour so they wouldn’t see us, and the second time we were able to cross. After that there was a helicopter and we hid on a mountain close by. There were needles everywhere and we saw a patrol car pass by. We waited for it to leave, and we were picked up by our guide in a pickup. He drove us for two hours, before dropping us off in a safe house in McAllen. We were in McAllen for three days, and that’s when we started to walk the desert.

We left on July 16 of 2014. The whole journey took us about a month because I came back to Guatemala on the fourteenth, the fourteenth of August. I came back here again on that day. My husband took longer because he tried to fight his case. When I found out that the bail was 7,500 dollars, I decided to come back to Guatemala, it was too expensive. My husband stayed behind to fight his case for political asylum. He was fighting his case because he had a problem here in Guatemala. He drives a bus, but that job is very risky here, it’s a big problem. Anyone who works in that job is not safe because they have to pay. They have to pay to work, and if they don’t pay they get killed and that’s it.

They have to pay a gang, or some group from a jail. But the point is that anyone who works in public transport has to deposit a certain amount of money. I don’t know how much, but everyone does it. One day, I think he didn’t pay, and they waited for him at the bus station and they beat him up and broke his hand. They ran away, and because of that they didn’t do anything to them. If they hadn’t run away they would have killed them. I know of other cases where they follow them on motorcycles and shoot them, and that’s it. My husband reported the case and he had a ton of documents proving what had happened, he had the X-Rays from his broken hand, and we sent them to him when he was in jail in the United States. But when he saw how expensive the bail was, he didn’t want to pay. He didn’t want to fight his case, because where was he going to get that amount of money? So no more. He no longer fought his case. But they still punished him for trying to fight his case, and he was punished for two months, so he came after I did. I was only with the people from immigration for four days.

The time I was with immigration wasn’t good or bad. The one thing was the food. They said they gave us food, but that wasn’t food. Here we are used to eating poorly, but the food over there was horrible. It was gross. But I wasn’t there for very long. In the first place I was held, when they caught us they told us that they were going to give us food and everything. But they gave us nothing. There was a water fountain, and they gave us a cup, but that was it. That was the only thing they gave us. They call the first place we were in "iceboxes" because the rooms that they put you in are freezing. They let me put on a sweater, but they didn’t let my husband. They made him take off his shirt and everything. All he had on were his pants. All of the men were like that, all of the men were like that.

When we were in McAllen, we stayed in the house of the man who picked us up in his pickup. He had three daughters and a wife. They lived in a trailer park, and we were there for three days. They treated us well. The women left us food in the refrigerator and I would take it out and prepare it. I then gave it to everyone in our group, it was a lot better there than with immigration.

After that we drove from McAllen for a half hour, and they dumped us on some mountain. They called it the desert, but I don’t know if what they were saying was true. After that we ran into the desert, there were six of us, the three of us, and another three men, plus the man who was guiding us. But at one point he no longer wanted to keep walking, he said he had hurt himself when he ran out of the van that took us there. He gave himself up to immigration, he told us that he was going to find water, but he left us there alone. When we got caught by immigration, he was there too, they had already caught him. He told us that he had given himself up because he had hit himself, but he pretended like he didn’t know us. He only asked us where we were caught, and who we were with. In my head I was furious, because of everything we’d been through. He acted like nothing had happened, like he had never seen us before. My husband started to talk to him. From the icebox, they took us to the main immigration center.

After the guide left us in the desert, we waited, but we soon realized he wasn’t coming back. At that point we started to walk. We had to find some antennas, because that was supposedly where we would be picked up. The three of us started to walk, the other three no longer wanted to walk and they decided to wait for the guide. We started to walk, and that’s when that horrible thing happened to us. The men who we bumped into were Mexican. I could hear their accent. If they had been from the United States they would have had a different accent. They wore baggy clothes and their arms were full of tattoos. They were wearing large tennis shoes too. I don’t think they were in the desert for a long time, because they looked very different from us. They had better clothing and better shoes than we did. I always tell my husband, that maybe it’s because we pray every day and night that God saved us. If we didn’t do that, that would have been something we would have never been able to get over.

We saw a lot of dead bodies there. We saw five or six, we found a lot of them, but they were all full of worms and stuff. The person that was most affected by all of this was my niece. She was able to make it over there with her mother, but she was traumatized. Whenever she calls me she starts to cry. It's something that I always tell my husband that I will never be able to get over. But my husband says that if I try I will, because everything is possible in this life. I’m gradually coming out of this. Sometimes I’m asleep and I started to have bad dreams and I wake up and cry. It was horrible. Yes, we found a lot of dead bodies. Some of them were just bones, but there were others where we could see their faces. We could see their ribs too, it just looked bad. We only found two dry bodies, they must have been there for a long time. There were others that were full of maggots and this white liquid. All of that was horrible. 

Photo credit: Gary Nored via Flickr

Photo credit: Gary Nored via Flickr

When I left I brought three pants, one short, five shirts, and one pair of tennis shoes. I also brought underwear and socks, I think they were seven pairs. When we got to Reynosa we were forced to leave all of our clothing. We were housed in a warehouse there for fifteen or twenty days. We left the warehouse when it was time to cross into the United States. When we were in McAllen, the women who housed us give us some clothing too. I didn’t take any pictures of my children, only clothing. They told us that we were going to have to leave everything behind, so I didn’t bring anything.

When you’re caught by immigration, they inspect you. They check everything. They took away our bracelets and earrings. We couldn’t even wear our hair up. We had to have it loose. We couldn’t have anything. We couldn’t shower either. In the icebox we couldn’t shower, once we went to the main station they let us shower. At the main jail they made us wear an orange uniform, and when I left I put on a blue uniform. They gave me underwear and some crocs too. While we were in jail our clothing was stored, and they washed it for us. But they never cleaned our shoes. The guards at the main jail were all women. Some of them were kind, others were not. To wake us up in the morning they would knock on our doors at four, four thirty in the morning. They did this to wake us up to shower and to get breakfast. They had a speaker telling us breakfast was ready, and we would run and line up. I was in the main jail for four days, and for two in the icebox.

I made some good friends at the jail. They were from Honduras. We were in the icebox together, and when we were there we didn’t talk, but once we were in our cell we talked. The room in the icebox was also very small. There were 60 people in there with me. If you wanted to sleep, you had to sleep standing up. Sometimes you could kind of sit on this bench made out of cement. They moved four of us to the jail, and the rooms at the jail were much larger. There were only 20-25 people there. I guess it was good that there were 60 people in the icebox, because the body warmth of the people in there kept us warm. It was kind of a beautiful thing because it was freezing in there, and having us all there kept us warm. It was much colder than in the main jail.

I left my children with my mother. My youngest daughter was eleven months, and the boy was two years old. We wanted to go to the United States for three years. Our goal was three years because between the both of us it was going to be six years. We weren’t going to stay over there, our entire family, our entire future was here. We were going to stay with my husband’s brother in Orlando. His brother got married over there and he has two kids.

My niece hasn’t been back since she left. But she doesn’t live in peace. I want my sister to take her to a psychologist, so she can forget everything. I get really sad when I talk to her. She says she’s studying and that she has friends, but that she can’t forget what we saw. I always tell her that she needs to try, and she asks me if I have forgotten, and I tell her that I have. If I tell her that I haven’t forgotten it, she will never forget it. It’s worse for her because she was a girl when it happened. My niece was let go almost immediately after she was caught. They gave her new shoes and new clothing. She was very clean when they gave her to her mom. My sister burned all of her old clothing. She burned them because of all of the terrible things that happened when she was wearing them.

Crossing Mexico wasn’t very difficult for us. We rode a tax for most of the time. One time we rode in the car of I think they are called Federales. They passed us through a check point. We paid them for that. They told us that if we got stopped, we had to say that we had been caught by them because we got assaulted by someone and they took our money. If that happened they would then have to take us to the police station to make a declaration. They spoke with a lot of swear words. They kept on saying that if we got them in trouble, they would abandon us. They kept on swearing the entire time, but they made some sign to a woman who was standing at the checkpoint and they let us pass.

There were was one night that we slept in a hotel, other times we had to sleep by the road side. Other nights we slept on the floor of other people’ houses. The Mexicans were very kind to us. We were always fed. We would usually eat breakfast at ten in the morning, and we would then eat at 2 in the afternoon. I think in Mexico you only eat two times a day, right? To be honest, I think our experience in Mexico was a very beautiful one. We were laughing and joking for most of the time, but the difficult part came when we got to McAllen.

We were in the desert for two days. We walked with the guide for one day. He left us at five or six in the afternoon, and that’s when we continued walking by ourselves. He told us he was going to find water. He had hurt his leg, and he would make us carry him. When we would rest, we would hide under piles of sticks. Helicopters would pass, and the guide would say “don’t look up because if you do you will get f****d”. So we would hide our faces, and he would say “be careful with the animals, I’m going to take a nap”. He would sleep, while the rest of us were wide awake. All I could hear were the sounds of rattle snakes and coyotes. These animals that looked like dogs would pass. They were white with beige spots. I don’t know if they are called coyotes. I don’t really know what coyotes are. When we would walk they would jump behind us, and we would walk even faster. The guide also walked really fast, he would say “whoever doesn’t walk gets f****d”.

Our first guide was Guatemalan, but when we got to the border we changed hands, and the new coyote was Mexican. He was the one that crossed the border with us. The Guatemalan one was very nice, he would stop and let us buy whatever we needed. The new one did none of that. He had some Gatorades in this black backpack that he was carrying, but only he could drink them. The Mexican guide didn’t give us anything. We were dehydrated and exhausted. Then he got hurt when we went into the desert, but I don’t think that’s the reason he abandoned us. I think he got lost and I think he got frustrated, and he then gave himself up to immigration. He then left us alone out there. When we realized he wasn’t coming back, we had to find a way to get out of there. The sun was so strong, and it was much hotter than it is over here. Everything we lived out there was very hard, but thank God we didn’t have to ride the train. We had to walk a lot of Mexico, because we had to circumvent a lot of the checkpoints, but thank God we never had to ride the train.

But the hardest part was the United States. It’s strange though, because my sister’s story is so different. She had to walk across the desert too. She walked for three days in this place called Arizona. She walked for three days, but she had a backpack with canned food and oranges, meanwhile we had nothing. My sister lives in this place called Maryland, I think. I’m sad we never got to see her, but I’m glad my niece is now living with her. But my niece isn’t very happy over there. She says that she doesn’t feel as happy because she can’t go outside. She says she’s inside all day. She says that the only time she goes out is to go to school, but that the rest of the day she’s inside. She says that she doesn’t have the same liberty to go outside anymore, and that she doesn’t feel comfortable. She often asks me why she got to go over there and why we were sent back. She says that she’s not over everything that happened on the journey. I tell my husband that if we had stayed put none of this would have happened. We could have died! 

Photo Credit: Slate, John Moore, Getty Images, 2016

Photo Credit: Slate, John Moore, Getty Images, 2016

I would never go to the United States again. Our guide gave us the option of going with him again, he said he would give us three opportunities. My husband asked me if I wanted to try again, and I said no. “No more. The journey is too hard”, I said. I said, “God saved me from this one, who’s to say that I will survive the next one. I don’t want to leave my children without a mother, I’m staying here”. I told him that if I had to live on the street, I would, because I would at least be with my children. It was a terrible experience. I was recovering from all of this, when my husband decided to leave again. He left in October, but he was captured for about a month.

The Zetas captured him, but we had nothing to pay them with. He came back very burned.  He says that they would put his hand into a fire that came from a stove. I didn’t hear him much, the people who heard him the most were my mother and my sister because they were the ones that talked on the phone. The men on the phone spoke with a lot of swear words, and I would get really anxious and I would cry. I had no words to respond to those men, and they would tell me that I needed to deposit a certain amount of money. They would then put my husband on the phone and he would say “Please deposit the money, tell your mother to mortgage her house because I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave my children without a father”. My husband now says that he will never try again. He says that all of the money that we spent on the journey could have been spent on something more. But I always ask him for what, nothing works here. But here we are trying hard every day. He feels ashamed and wonders what other people think about us not being able to better our situation. But I tell him that God will bless us, that right now we have to think about our two babies. Everything we have lived has been very difficult.

My husband was caught in Reynosa. The Zetas caught him. When he came back, he had huge burns on his feet, the entire bottom part of them were black. All of the skin on his hands had peeled off, and they were full of burns and cuts too. I just cried and cried. He had cuts all over his arms. He was really grateful that I wasn’t with him. He said there were some young women there with him. He said that they were raped among other things. He said that they would make the young women take off their clothes, and they put sticks up their vaginas. When my husband came back, he would cry a lot. What he went through the second time was horrible, and now he says he would never go back.

My husband is working as a bus driver again. I am very scared for him, but the only thing I can do is pray to God and beg for his life. There are so many women here who have become widows because their husbands were killed by extortionists. It’s been hard, but we have been working very hard. It was very hard when we left, but my husband says the second time was harder. He says that he walked more because there were eleven men in his group. He said that there were no women in his group, so the guide didn’t contract a car. He then had the misfortune of bumping into the cartel. But I tell my mom, that it was a great miracle from God that he came back alive, because so many people don’t come back alive. There are so many people who don’t come back, not even their dead bodies.

It’s hard to think about, but we’re getting over it. I try not to think about it. I try to distract myself, I just got a new job this week. I now don’t have time to think about debts, I even forget about my children sometimes. I feel calmer now. I haven’t had the time to think about those things. One of the women from my new job wants to go to the United States, but I told her “Think of your life! If you love yourself, you wouldn’t go”. If you love yourself, it’s not worth it. Some people are lucky, but I suffered a lot. She told me, that it’s okay because you suffer in the beginning, and enjoy later. I told her that you may get all of the money when you go over there, but that trauma never goes away. She thought about it for some time, but then she started to laugh. My boss is trying to convince her to stay.

I have so many things, I have so many things that I am grateful to God for. He saved me from those horrible men in the desert, I don’t know if I would have ever been able to get over that. I ran with my niece the most that we could until we no longer could run. When we bumped into those men we no longer had any strength, but when that happened, I don’t where we got the strength from, but we ran. Only one of the men followed us. My husband says that he played dead, and that he just laid there. He says that if he had tried to pick himself up or run, they would have killed him. Not in a single moment did I see them carrying guns, well I didn’t have time to look, when I saw that they started to hit my husband, I began to run with my niece. He kept on saying “No aunt, they are going to kill Uncle Willy”. I convinced her to run, and we left him there on the ground. We came back an hour later, but he was really beat up. His lip was bleeding, his nose was bleeding, and he had a black eye. When immigration caught him they took pictures of him. When we were caught an immigration officer came, and took our declaration and everything.

I would never try going to the United States again. But so many people from our village have left. Women, men, children, all kinds of people. No one would ever risk their life if they had everything here. No one would risk their life. No one would risk their life. If I had a house, I don’t care about the size, but if I had a house with a bed, a stove, and a table, and I knew that it was mine and that no one was going to kick me out, I would have never left. I don’t care about having a big house, I just want to know that my children have a home, and that no one is going to take that away from them. With that I would feel satisfied. But since we don’t have that, we left. Sadly the journey wasn’t for us. 

Guatemala is beautiful, but the problem is people don’t think. For example, when my husband drives his bus, a group of bad men sends little boys that work as shoe shiners in the park to put phones on the bus. When they park the buses, the boys give the phone to the bus driver’s assistant. Then the bad men call the phone and tell the bus driver how much they want. Then the owner of the bus and the bus driver have to find a way to pay, and they leave it in a place where they are told to leave it. If they don’t receive the phone, they are followed, and if they refuse to pay, they are killed. But here we are trying very hard, because everything in this life is possible. Everything in this life is possible. I have a lot of faith, because faith can move mountains. Without faith you can’t accomplish anything.

I came back hating the United States, hating Mexico, because all of this for me was very traumatic, but I’m coming out of this. I am learning to forgive. God’s love has taught me how to do that. I am so grateful my husband came back alive. That is what has made me change my mind. I believe that my life did not end for a reason. God has been giving me opportunities to move forward, and that has made me forgive. What we suffered is nothing compared to what Jesus suffered, and he forgives and makes miracles in one’s life. That’s why I forgave.

In the United States there was one immigration officer who had a computer, and he asked me where I was from. I said Guatemala. He asked me where I lived, and I said next to church and a school. He then asked me why I had come into his country as a thief. He said that for coming into his country as thief, that I would be punished for five years, that I would not be allowed to come back for five years. He said that if I got caught before then, that I would not be allowed me to come back to my country. He said that I would have to wait, and work, and that I would only be paid one dollar a day.

The man with the computer said that we didn’t have the right to come into the United States, that we were thieves and that we needed to apply for a visa. But to apply for a visa you need to have a bank account and property, but we don’t have any of that. I was so angry when he said, “apply for a visa and don’t come into countries that don’t belong to you”. I told him that if I had money, I would have never risked my life. I called him an idiot. He was hard to understand, he spoke Spanish, but not very well. I told him that if I had bank accounts and property, I would have never risked my life. I don’t remember what his reply was, but immigration officers are bad, bad people. All they say is that they are going to deport you. They say,“you don’t have rights, you don’t have a right to ask to ask for bail, you don’t have a right to ask for privileges, you don’t have a right to anything because you are illegal”. After talking to the man with the computer, they took me to my cell.

Before that, the woman next to me was speaking to the agent, and she said “I’m not signing any form that you give me”. He replied, “We are not asking you if you want to sign that f***ing paper, you have to sign, we are not asking you”. The woman began to cry, and I told her “Please don’t cry”. We talked about it, and she said, “They don’t have a conscious, they are privileged, they have papers, they have opportunities. When Americans come to Guatemala, we don’t treat them like this”. I said, “Yes, you are right, but unfortunately people don’t think the same”.  They wouldn’t stop calling us illegals. They never called us undocumented. They said that we came into this country as thieves, as illegals, and that we had no reason to be there. But again, if we had everything here, if we had a place to live, we would never risk our lives. That’s what I tell my husband.

There was a young man who came in afterwards. He was beat up by immigration, and his face wouldn’t stop bleeding. I think that immigration had to pay him for hitting him so hard. They say that immigration had caught him, but the man tried to run. He was sitting on a chair and they were taking his shoelaces, when he started to run. A man from immigration saw that he was running, and he took out his gun and began to hit him with it. His entire face was destroyed, all of his lip, his nose, everything. I just heard that the man from immigration had to pay him for the damage.

The man from immigration was yelling a bunch of swear words at the young man. He said, “Why did you say that I hit you! You were supposed to say that you fell!”. The young man just cried and cried. He was probably only twenty years old. We were on the other side of the room, in the cell for women. It was freezing in there. All they gave us was this big sheet of aluminum paper. That’s where they had us. Everything we experienced was so traumatizing. But I am happy to be back in Guatemala.

It’s horrible to go through that, but you have to pick yourself up, but picking yourself up after that is difficult. But it’s your decision if you want to think negative thoughts, or if you want to move forward. I have realized that in any place you can move forward. I tell my husband that there is money in Guatemala too. But he says it’s not the same thing, and it’s not the same thing, but we can do it.

My family is here, and that’s the most important thing. When I came back from the United States I was in really bad shape. I had no money. When I landed at the airport in Guatemala, we landed in the back part. We weren’t allowed to go through the front door. In the back, they allowed us to call our family members, and then they paid for a bus to take me home. I called my mom, and told her I was in Guatemala City. When I came home my daughter was really, really sick. I think she could sense what was happening to us over there. She wouldn’t eat or drink milk, nothing. All I could do was cry. I had no money. My sister gave me 200 quetzales and we took my daughter to the doctor. She had a stomach infection, and after that she was fine.

I was destroyed, because of everything that had happened with immigration, and having no money. When I came back my one-year-old daughter only weighed 9 pounds. My little boy was really happy to see me when I came home. Thank God I have my mother. I am so grateful to her for many things. Whenever I run out of money, she gives me some of the money that my father sends from the United States.

My father lives in the United States. He first left when I was eight years old, and he moved in with a young woman, she was only seventeen years old! He had ton of cars and money. During that time, he sent no money to my mother, not one cent, nothing. My mom started to wash other people’s clothing to provide for us. But one day immigration caught him, and they deported him. He came back here with nothing. My mom didn’t want to accept him back in the house, but since we were young, we begged her to take him back, and she let him back into the house. He lived with us for two years, and he left again. He’s been over there for twelve years now.

I haven’t seen him since, but he sends 700 quetzales to my mom every month. But he only does that occasionally. My mom was the one who moved us forward. We are six, and my mom raised us by herself. She did it by herself. All of us graduated from high school, except one. She got pregnant, but all of us graduated. I think I will be able to make a better life for myself. If my mom could do it with six children, we can do it with two children. My husband studied to be a mechanic. He wants to continue studying; he wants to study either psychology or pedagogy. He says that if doesn’t find a job as a mechanic, he can at least teach. I laughed at him, and I ask him how a mechanic can teach. But he says he’s going to prepare himself, that he’s going to try very hard. He says he’s going to teach. My husband is always thinking of things that cheer me up. I always tell my mom how grateful I am to have a husband like mine.

So yes, that was my painful experience. I am never going back to the United States again. I am going to fight for my future here.