I Left on My Birthday
by Oscar Garcia, February 2016
Poverty is a factor that forces many people around the world to leave their countries of origin to better their families’ economic outcomes. Some people risk the lives of their siblings and other members of their families. Today, many Central American children are forced to leave their countries of origin to help their families. Some parents know that their children might not make the journey, but still choose to let their children make the unpredictable journey to the US, and some of the consequences can be as bad as losing their lives–rape, exploitation, and/or possible deportation from Mexico or the US. A song by Rumel Fuentes, translated to English, sings, “through my [mother] I’m [Guatemalan] by destiny I’m American…both countries are home…” Although Henry states that he decided to make the journey, he is one those children who was forced to leave his family, to become a man at an early age, and his concept of home is his family.
The Salvadoran Civil War forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate to different countries throughout Central America. Guatemala was one of those countries to which Salvadorans fled. Guatemala had its own civil war beginning in the early 1980s and lasting through the late 1990s; members of Henry’s family were among the many Salvadorans who migrated to Guatemala. Henry’s father passed away when he was two, leaving his mother to raise him and his two siblings. His mother earned a living by buying and reselling bread. At fourteen, Henry began to feel guilty and noticed that his mother was getting tired because she was caring for them alone after his father had passed away. Henry’s aunt had promised that she would help bring him to the US, but Henry would have had to make the trip without her or any other member of his family. Although Henry claims he chose to make the journey through Mexico and into the US, in truth he was forced to make the journey to the US. With his aunt’s help, he began the journey through Mexico to the US. Henry was afraid and nervous to make the journey, but he had no choice if he was to improve his family’s economic situation in Guatemala. Now twenty-two, Henry lives in San Francisco, CA, and attends San Francisco State University; he is studying to become a schoolteacher.
Poverty was the push factor that forced Henry to leave Guatemala. Henry, who lost his father at the age of two, was left fatherless and felt that he should be the man who provided for his mother and siblings because his mother could no longer care for her three children. As Henry was getting older, he began to see that his mother needed help, and Guatemala was not going to be the place where he would be able to provide for his mother and siblings. Moser quoted the PNUO that 80 to 90 percent live in poverty and 75 percent live in extreme poverty, unable to afford the basic foods in Guatemala (46). Guatemalans who live in this condition have no better option than to leave their country of origin and look for a better place to migrate, like the US. Paul R. Amato, in “The Impact of Family Change on the Cognitive, Social and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generations,” concluded that single parents put their children at risk because of economic hardships, which can cause stress for the children. Henry was one those children and began to feel the impact of the economic hardship that his family faced; he stated that he wanted to come to the US to help his family. “I wanted to help my mother because it was [difficult] for my mother to support my sister, my brother and I,” said Henry. Economic hardship within his family began to accumulate more after they started to get older and Henry felt that it was his obligation to provide for his family.
Henry left his family and Guatemala; the arrangement to travel through Mexico was prepared and improvised. Smugglers need to be a few steps ahead of checkpoint agents so that immigrants could get to their final destination because Mexico can deport non-Mexican immigrants. “I left on my birthday,” said Henry. Henry did not know what the journey would be like and staying in Chiapas, Mexico for a few weeks helped him to pass through the checkpoints (Las Casetas); the plan was for him to stay in Mexico for a few weeks to learn the way Mexicans speak. In a book entitled Enrique’s Journey, journalist Sonia Nazario explains how checkpoint agents trick those they believe are immigrants from Central American by asking them questions and awaiting their response. Guatemalans use words like voz (you), sincho (belt) or chumpa (jacket), words of automatic deportation from Mexico, if they do not have the money to bribe them. Henry was picking up a few Mexican words, but was still afraid to speak because this might have made him forget what he needed to say when questioned. After a few weeks in Mexico, Henry’s smugglers got him a fake birth certificate with a name he does not remember anymore. Henry said that his skin complexion and facial characteristics made him appear as a Mexican from Chiapas and he resembled the person with whom he was traveling; he was advised that if caught he would have to say that he was traveling alone and wass going to visit his father. Audrey Singer and Douglas S. Massey have concluded that migrants “…on initial trips, crossing with either a paid (coyote) or unpaid (a friend or relative) guide dramatically lowers the odds of arrest; but on subsequent trips the mode of crossing has no effect on the odds of apprehension, which are determined primarily by the migrant’s own general and migration-specific human capital… (561-592). The odds of Henry crossing through Mexico with a coyote are improved, but there are coming checkpoints. After leaving Guatemala, Henry’s risks increased; most of Henry’s fears were cantered on what would happen if he was caught.
At the last caseta [checkpoint], thirty minutes into Sonora, the checkpoint agent called him out as Henry was boarding the bus. “I was the only one left behind,” Henry said. As he was re-boarding the bus, the checkpoint point agent called him out and asked him, “Donde vas?” [Where are you going?]. His fear was always about how to respond when questioned by any Mexican checkpoint agent. “Every thing went blank,” Henry thought. His mind went blank because he was afraid that he would speak like a Guatemalan and would be deported, although he was told that, if caught, he should give money to the checkpoint agent and maybe the bribe would buy his way from getting deported to Guatemala. “I remember the series of ‘El Chavo del Ocho’ [a Mexican TV show that began during the early 60s and still is played in Mexico]. I remember how the Chilindrina (one of the teen female actors of El Chavo del Ocho) called her dad ‘mi apa’ [my father], and Henry answered “Voy a ver a mi apa en Tijuana.” “I was afraid that my answer was not going to be enough, but the agent let me go,” Henry concluded. “We arrived around 2 AM in Sonara.” Henry said with pride that he had made it through the last Mexican checkpoint.
While in Sonora, the coyote begins to get him ready for the long walk. The smuggler lets Henry know that he needs to pack more water than food, and to mix the water with oatmeal: “it was nasty…but I won’t die, so I would be fine,” Henry said. Henry did not know how long the walk was going to take. To avoid migrants fearing dying in the desert, most times smugglers do not let them know the risks of the trip, especially crossing the Sonora Desert in Arizona. The average rate of walking depending on the terrain and people varies between three and four and a half miles per hour. Henry claims he was walking about twelve hours per night with ten-minute breaks at times. The average hours at night in June were about twelve hours. “We did not know we [were] going to leave that day; [we] ate as much as we [could],” Henry added. Henry continues by saying that the smugglers fit twenty people into a Dodge Ram van. The van was going to take them as close as it could to the US boarder, and the rest of the journey was going to be on foot. They started to walk at nights through the desert. Some people argue that the reason the wall of the US boarder ends in part of the desert of Arizona is to deter migrants from crossing while others argue that only the strongest migrants might be able to make the journey “because of the utterly dangerous nature of trekking across the Sonoran Desert, especially in the summer months. Many of these unfortunate migrants succumb to the effects of heat-related illness and perish along the journey. The combined effects of a dry, hot environment and the remoteness of some of the trekking corridors can quickly render a deceased person unidentifiable by visual means,” Anderson concluded. Coyotes are known to let people die in the desert if they fall behind or lose their way. As soon their water runs out, so will their lives. Henry had this fear of dying in the desert and was the youngest in the group.
Henry says “my country” throughout the interview, but means his country of origin. His concept of home is not limited to Guatemala nor the US, though the US is giving him many opportunities for his upward mobility and here he has greater chances of improving than in Guatemala. He claims his home is his family. Henry left Guatemala because he was looking to better his home and to become a father, a father he did not have. Henry claims he might not go back to Guatemala and/or live in Guatemala even if he has the opportunity because his family is living in San Francisco with him. I can relate to Henry. We are both of us are from same trajectories; we left when we were fourteen years old. WWII veteran Irving Grover said, “It does not matter how old a man is, while dying (the wooden soldiers who were brought into the ship where he was a radioman) they called for their mothers.” A man’s mother is important no matter how old he is or what era they are living in. Henry makes that clear; even though at this time does not want to go back to Guatemala, he might change his point of view in the future. This happened to me because I felt anger towards Guatemala and its people. I went back a few times to Guatemala with my mother, but it does not feel like home anymore. Both Henry’s and my concept of home is our families, the identity where we live and how happy we are where we reside. If Henry or I, like any other migrants, would have the opportunities not to struggle with life basic needs in our country of origin and to able to live happily with our families, most of us would not have migrated to the US. My mother reminds me that she buried my umbilical cord in the corner of our home in Guatemala, but more than half of my life I have not lived in that house. At the same time, I am the only one who has lived with my mother of our family members. And maybe for many of us the concept of home might be the womb where we came from; after all, many of us make sacrifices so that we can be happy with our families. Henry missed his mother and felt he missed his country of origin as well, but since his mother arrived to San Francisco, he no longer misses her by being distant or Guatemala.
Many Central American parents, especially single parents, find it impossible to feed and shelter their families and often have no option but to allow their children make a journey that could bring them into the US or leave them in the desert to die. Once in another country where they might have a better chance, they can help their families. Poverty is of one the main factors that force many parents to let their children make this unknown journey to the US. If the journey is successful, the rest of the family will follow. An unaccompanied child who journeys to the US might face possible death, sex slavery, and exploitation, which are risks people in this situation take.
Amato, Paul R. “The Impact Of Family Formation Change On The Cognitive, Social, And Emotional Well-Being Of The Next Generation.” Future Of Children 15.2 (2005): 75-96. ERIC. Web. 17 Dec. 2015
Anderson, S. E. “Identifying the dead: methods utilized by the Pima County (Arizona) office of the medical examiner for undocumented border crossers: 2001-2006.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: n. pag. NCIB. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18279232>.
Grover, Irving. Personal interview. 9 June 2015. A World War II merchant Marine, formal radio operator who was let know how his life was during the war.
Nolastname, Henry. Personal interview. 1 Dec. 20015. An interview with an accompany minor migrant from Guatemala. Push factor of living his country of origin –poverty.
Nazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. New York: Random House, 2006.
Rogers, Ibram. “Deep Impact.” Diverse: Issues In Higher Education 27.8 (2010): 15-16. ERIC. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.