20 Nov 2012
In mid-October my host brother Pepe approached me with an out-of-the-ordinary request. He knew of someone who tried to cross the border and had since gone missing. Pepe was hoping that I might be able to help find him, or find out what happened.
My Guatemalan family knew of Arsenio, the missing, through the woman who helps my host mother keep house. María travels to Xela two mornings a week to clean, wash dishes, and do laundry. Sometimes she brings her eight-year-old daughter with her.
In June, four months earlier, María’s husband had left for the north.
At the time my host brother talked to me, María hadn’t heard from Arsenio since July. The last time he called he was about to cross the border. Pepe seemed unsure as he related the story, but it’s possible that Arsenio was being transported by drug runners. And now all they had to go on was that a man recently returned said he had seen Arsenio, that they had been in el cárcel together in Arizona.
“Nos puedes ayudar, Nicki?” Can you help us. “María is very worried.”
Pepe and I did some internet searching and found a website where you can supposedly look up prison inmates in Arizona. We tried different combinations of Arsenio’s name but didn’t find anything.
“We probably won’t ever know what happened. He could be dead who knows where.”
After the tenth combination, Pepe sighed and closed his laptop.
“I don’t know what María is going to do,” he continued. I’m sure they spent a lot of money to send him to the States. They might have taken out a loan on their house.”
A couple of weeks later I had an idea. I started planning an email that I was going to send to two friends, a lawyer who has worked with inmates and a community organizer who has worked with immigrants. And then I overheard my host mom talking to María. Arsenio had returned.
The conversation did not last long. María expressed her relief. My host mom said that she was happy for them.
Arsenio had apparently spent months in prison in Arizona. When I asked my host mom about why he wasn’t able to call from there, she shrugged her shoulders.
Following came a few more questions that she did not know the answer to.
I thought she had an unfortunate lack of curiosity.
I would like to have asked María, learned more of the story. But I did not know her that well and I felt uncomfortable asking such personal questions.
One of Pop Wuj’s best employees is Angelica. She began working in the Guardería, the family support center, where her two daughters are students. Angelica showed that she is awesome and reliable and so was gradually given more and more work: as a stove group leader, at the school. Before Pop Wuj she worked selling fruit and vegetables on the street of an outdoor market.
Her husband left for the north years ago. To pay for his passage he mortgaged land that belonged to Angelica’s father.
He has a new family in the States while she is still paying off his loan. He sends some money, but it is not enough to keep her from working three jobs. Sometimes he calls to talk to their daughters, promising them gifts that he never sends. And to verbally abuse Angelica.
The community where the Guardería is situated is called Llanos del Pinal. The view while riding the bus through Llanos is a lesson in contrasts. Two-story modern houses with bright new paint stand next to worn grey adobe houses with rust-covered corrugated metal roofs.
I asked Amy, our student and volunteer coordinator, about the discrepancy.
“The families with nice houses have husbands or sons in the US who send money. The families with adobe houses either do not, or their husbands or sons have stopped sending money home.
How strange it must be. To have a hard life, but the promise of a better one in a land not far away. If you can just take a few arduous steps you can get there.
What kind of effect does this have. On a person. On a culture.
My friend Anna has lived in Guatemala for more than a year. Sometimes she is approached by people who are considering crossing the border and want to know, as an American, what she thinks of the idea.
“Don’t do it,” is always her response.
Like me, Anna has heard stories of those who mortgage their homes only to be sent back. Or of those who die in the desert trying to make the journey.
“It’s just not worth it.”
And yet people continue north.