I met Juan Carlos del Cid a few weekends ago. I was taking an Uber back to my house at the end of a Saturday night, and Juan was driving. We started to chat, and I asked him where he was from. “I’m from Guatemala,” he told me, “but now I think of myself as from the United States. By now I’ve lived here for longer than I lived there.” I explained to him that last summer, I worked in a soup kitchen for migrants in Sonora, Mexico, and I asked him how he’d come to the United States. As it turned out, he had a very good story.
When conservative politicians are demonizing immigration with a disturbing mix of hate and lies, it seems important to me to share the true stories of immigrants to the United States. Immigrants are not monsters, nor just statistics, but people, and each one has his or her own story to tell. So, I asked Juan if he would agree to share his story with me in an interview. We met in his sister’s house in Lynwood, and he told me how he came to the United States, and what his life has been like since he got here. This is part one of the interview.
Marjorie Hunt: What I’d like to know is your story. You’re from Guatemala, right? Why did you leave, and how did you get here? To where you are now.
Juan Carlos del Cid: I came because my sister, she left first. Because she saw the necessity, that we needed to get ahead. Because the position we were in, we were very poor. My mother worked as a maid, in a house. Of rich people in Guatemala. She would go all week and they have her four hours of rest. On Sundays. And that was to see us. My grandmother, the mother of my mother, raised us. We were born without a father, and years later, like 15 years, my dad wanted to get back together with my mom. She got pregnant with my brother. This, I’m talking about 1976. In 1976, there was a big earthquake in Guatemala. Thank God, nothing happened to us, and after the earthquake, my brother was born. And we saw ourselves in poverty. And my sister, being the oldest, they told her about the American Dream of there in the United States. We knew a person who came and went, who brought used clothes from here and sold it there like new. That is, it was a business. She came, but that person was illegal. And she made money, bringing people here from there. And so, my sister came. And her story is that, she came with this woman, and when they crossed the border, the border patrol detained the other woman, but my sister kept going. And my sister was here, she came were, without anyone.
J: Nobody, nobody. And she was a woman, she was 18 years old.
M: And she came to Los Angeles.
J: Yes, she came to Los Angeles. And here, she met someone who gave her a place to live without knowing her. She started working in a house, and then she started to send us money. We started living better. Then, well at that time, bad things started happening in my country. Always due to the government. One of the reasons I came was because, in 1976, I was in high school, at night. And Guatemala was fighting Belize. Belize was Guatemala, in 1976. So, Guatemala was going to invade Belize. Because, look. I was in school, when they said that Guatemala was going to fight against Great Britain. I remember that it was on the news that Guatemala was going to, so Great Britain put two aircraft carriers in front of the Guatemalan stuff near Cuba. Guatemala is very close to Cuba, you know? And they put it like that, and everyone was scared. That Guatemala was going to fight, and that all of Central America had united, that we were going to fight against Great Britain. Like how Argentina fought, for the Falklands. Same thing. So, the army started, but not like here that it’s volunteer, there, they force you. Everyone who was 15 years old and up, had to go to serve in the army.
M: From 15 years old?
J: They were even taking 14-year-olds. And I remember that, they arrived to where I lived, it was a neighborhood. It was poor. And they brought a truck, with a lot of soldiers. Everyone who was in the street, they started to grab them. And they wanted to take me and I started running. I was a very good runner, you know. I ran really fast. I was small but who was going to reach me? I remember that two people were coming up behind me. This was the sound of the doors, boom, boom, boom. But I knew my hood, and I escaped them. They got several friends. They put them in the barracks, where the soldiers are. And they were preparing them to go and fight against everyone. It was all like that. Really ugly. There was a lot of tension. You know what happened? On the fourth of February, three in the morning, 3:33, there’s a 7.8 earthquake in Guatemala. It killed 26,000 people, 27,000. And I was there, I’m a survivor of the big earthquake. From there, comes our story. Why we came.
After the earthquake, we saw the poverty we were in, “We have nowhere to live.” So, the people started to invade big pieces of land. And we didn’t manage to get any. And my sister, seeing all that, didn’t want me to go through the problems, and she asked me if i wanted to come. And yes, I came.
So, yes, I accepted, but I waited about seven months to come, because she said the news said that the KKK was killing people on the border. And, because of that she told me to wait, a moment before I came. And yes, the day came that she sent the money, but I didn’t know how to leave. So, in my country, the newspaper comes out, and it has some advertising for jobs, and all that, and there were trips to the United States without… there was no problem, nothing. For, I don’t remember, it was 300 dollars… 300 quetzales, which was, at that time 300 dollars were 300 quetzales. So, I bought the ticket, and first, I went to the Mexican embassy. Mexico gave me a visa so I could go to Mexico. To cross the border from Guatemala to Mexico without problems. But, the visa was only until Guadalajara. If I went past Guadalajara and the police found me, I was illegal. Because they didn’t want me to come to the United States, which is a treaty between Mexico and the United States, something like that. So, I arrived to Guadalajara, okay, with nothing.
And my adventure started when we were in Guadalajara in the hotel, waiting for the coyote that we had contracted from Guatemala. So, they were here on the border. To get to Guadalajara, they did it on land, because at that time the airlines were on strike, and there weren’t any flights. So, I was there in Guadalajara like three, four days, living.
M: Who did you go to Guadalajara with? Alone?
J: Alone. Only one hundred dollars came with me. A hundred dollars. Imagine. To eat, and everything. And so, we were a lot of people that came. I didn’t know, until we all came in the same bus, we went to the same address. I didn’t know until we got to the hotel. But in the hotel they had a floor prepared, just for us, because the police came to check. But they knew that in that floor, they couldn’t check because we had already paid in advance. So, when the coyotes arrived on the third day, they said, like random, this guy goes here, this guy goes there. And it fell to me to go by rain. And to the rest to go by bus.
So that was my story, that’s where my adventures start. That we got on the train, and I made friends with someone who lived close by in Guatemala. I don’t remember his name. And, in Guatemala they had sold him like an ID, and he took off the picture, and put his picture, and the stamp, he did with a pen. You know how they put the stamp, and he did it. So, he became my friend. And then when the first police officers got on to check the train, and they asked me where I was from, I said I was from Mexico. That I was from Guadalajara. Before arriving, before leaving Guatemala, they told us that we had to talk like Mexicans, because our accent is… way different than Mexico, than the Mexican.
So, we talk, the accent is different. There are things we say, things that for them are bad manners. They’re bad things, no? And then, I started to talk like a Mexican, and… and they asked me where I was from, that I was from Mexico. From where, from Guadalajara. But I made out that I was 16, even though I was 18. They believed me. That I didn’t have papers because I was underage. And, they kept going. But my friend, that I made friends with on the train, he was 22, 23 years old, and he had the ID card. And they told him, “This card isn’t good. This isn’t yours. Where are you going?” But they had asked me where I was going. And I say, “I’m going to Tijuana.” “And why are you going to Tijuana?” “To see my sister.” They believed me. They didn’t believe him. Well, he says, since they didn’t believe him, and the desperation that they were going to take him, he told them, “I’m going to see his sister. I’m going with him.”
Boom, they tell me, “Come here.”
And they took me to the bathroom on the train. And they kept us there. Some bathrooms, ew. I remember, it was all ugly, it stank, and they had us in there. And they were telling us that they were going to put our faces in there if we didn’t say where we were going. Me, well, no. So, they told us, “Central Americans, yeah?” So, what they do is, they take off your t-shirt, and they check the tags. The tags say “Made in Guatemala,” or made in wherever they’re made. And the majority, since there they make everything, said “Made in Guatemala,” on all the underwear. But they told us when we left, before we left, that you have to cut that off. So they couldn’t do it. “No, Central Americans. Now, where are you from?” So, right there we said we were Central American. “So, from Guatemala. Well, if you don’t give us some cash, we don’t let you go. You stay here.” So, they take the dollars from him, and the pesos that he had. What little he hadn’t spent, on hotels, on food. In Guadalajara. And they took all my money, they only left me three dollars. Three dollars.
But I remembered that I had like twenty dollars in my pants. How I had my pants, the hem, I sewed it and right in there I had the money. I still had reserves. And they didn’t take us off. They left us. We stayed on the train. We arrived to a place called Benjamín Hill. I don’t know where it is. But it’s before Coahuila, Mexico. It’s another place where they say that it’s a train station where no Central Americans pass through. Nobody. So, well, to avoid the immigration of Mexico, we got off. And he tells me, or I tell him, “With what money?” “Don’t worry,” the other guy tells me. “They didn’t take all my money.” He did have a lot of money. Same thing, in the hem.
And we went to eat tacos. To avoid it, you know. And the Mexican migra started going around. And we got off, and we went to the taco stand. And then, when he says—I don’t eat chile. He says, “With everything, young man?” “No, without chile.” “Central American!” Oooooh, the chile! “Mmmm,” he says, “be careful,” he says. “Because the migra is around here.” “Yeah, I know. You won’t say anything?” “No, don’t be embarrassed. You’re going to the north, right?” “Yes,” I say, “yes, I’m going to the north.” “Good luck,” he tells me. He even gave me a free taco.
That’s something that I always carry in my mind, in my heart. When I receive help from someone. They told me there in Guatemala that Mexico was pretty, but without its people. You understand? That in Mexico it was really pretty, but the people were bad. But, there I understood that this was a lie. Because the people of Mexico live well. The people of Mexico are hospitable and gave me food to eat. Because, after all that, after this story that I’m telling you, more about Mexico, the people of Mexico, comes later.
We went back, and when we saw that a train was leaving the station, I said, “Our train is leaving.” And we started running to the train. And we caught it and we got on, boom, while it was going and everything. And we went to the front, and I said, “This isn’t the car.” And we started, and we kept going, kept going, and we arrived to the end. And the car that we came in wasn’t there. And I say, “This train, where is it going?” Or, I said it like a Mexican. “Y este, ¿pa onde jala, eh?” “This is going to Nogales.” “Nooo, we’re not going to Nogales!” And the train is going, choo choo choo, it’s going fast, it was full, and we found the exit, and we’re throwing ourselces. Going, and we fell all scraped up, my knees scraped, my hands scraped, and my friend was saying, “It’s your fault,” he told me. “Because you told me this train.” “Why are you following me?” We started to fight, and we started walking. All of it, going back, on the train tracks, all sad, and in my mind I was saying, “I’m already headed back to Guatemala. What do I do? Oh well.” And well, we started walking, I started to see a little light, a little bigger, bigger. It was the train station. And looking, the train was still there. And running! And I kept running and I kept running and it’s over. We’re there. The migra had already left. They’d taken away a ton of people. And they didn’t tell us and we didn’t see anything! So, we did it well. And I believe that God did that so that I could be here. Because, if that hadn’t happened to me, they would have gotten me.
And then, when I get there, my seat was taken. And I had to go standing up. Standing, and hungry. And we walked on the train. So then, I had to steal. I made a stop, some ladies with baskets, and they were carrying fruit. You know. To survive with hunger. I didn’t have money. And, it went on like that, and we arrived in Coahuila at midnight. And in Coahuila, they were waiting for us in a hotel. And when we all got there, we kept walking, one here, one there, and we were following the coyote. But the coyote made friends with me. His name was Tony. And I had to follow, I went with him, and everyone went following me. I was the sign, and everyone else followed me. And when we arrived at the hotel, all of us together on the corner, they told us, “You can’t go in the hotel.” “Why?” Because there was a patrol of the Mexican police there. If not, they were going to send us back. They were going to take us away.
And I don’t know what he did, I don’t remember very well what happened, and they took us in another truck, another bus. We took a bus, and this bus took us to a little town. I don’t remember the town. We stayed there. And so, we stayed in a house. A hut of a señora where it was just dirt. It was the poorest that there was, and the señora had beans, she had coffee, and she gave us food to eat. Coffee, and in the morning she made us eggs with beans. And we woke up there. On the floor, on the ground we slept. And she gave us blankets, and everything, and the woman told us, “What you want to give us.” That’s why I tell you, the people of Mexico are really nice. And I told her, “I don’t have money.” “Don’t worry, someone else will pay me.” And others gave her the rest of the money. That’s why Mexico is beautiful. I know it.
And then, we kept going. At two days, I don’t know, three days, we arrived in Mexicali. Now we’re close. And again, people gave us food to eat. We were in a house and they gave us food. I wasn’t carrying money. What I was saving, it was very little. And to these people yes, I gave them they money. Because I was ashamed. Because they gave us food, even meat. You know, meat in that time, wow. And we kept on going like that, until we arrived in Tijuana. But with a whole strategy of the coyotes, of, “Get off here, follow us here,” because they knew that here, you couldn’t go, here we wouldn’t pass, and here they would take us on different paths. We were walking, and we got the bus. We left the bus that was carrying us, and we got off here, and we waited for the bus somewhere else, because here was the Mexican border patrol. And they were sending us back. Until I arrived. In Mexico, I remember that we climbed a lot, we walked a lot in Tijuana, until I arrived at the border, Mexico-United States. Not the border that’s there now. The border was a chain-link fence, you know, that was kicked over. And there were some little streams that went under, of black waters, and I was saying, “This is the United States?” As ugly as it looked, “That’s the United States?” But, the people who were there, who got there first, were the people who came on the bus. But there was a girl from El Salvador who came and she and Tony liked each other. And he told me, “You go in the first group. I’m going to stay with her.” So he stayed with her. And I left.
Look, on the first try, I made it. We left behind everything that was light colored, and we got dressed in black, dark, and we started like that, some 15 or 20. So, on the border we were going on the hill, and the guide said to me, “Careful, you want to watch out.” Because there was a cable, that if we touched it was a sensor, and we passed like that, easy. And when we saw the helicopter we got in some bushes and we hid. And we walked some, maybe some two hours, perhaps. When a car arrived, and it was an American. An American. That was the first time that I saw and American here, in the United States. He arrived with a station wagon. And he put some people in the back. And we were like 15 people that went in the car. Almost all of us fit in the car. I went in the passenger side, but where you put your feet, there I curled up. The put someone else on top, and two on top of him. We were four people! And everyone in the back was like, one on top of the other, like, boom boom boom. And everyone. And him, “Everyone good?” “Yes.” He took out a joint of marijuana, smoked marijuana. And he left. And they didn’t stop us.
He took us to a motel in San Diego. I don’t know, Chula Vista, around there. I don’t know where it was. And they took us to a motel. And then, the next night, the next group was going to cross, the one I was supposed to go with. But when they left, this group when it left, they say that they killed someone there. And they couldn’t cross, because the police was watching. We waited four days, without food, without water, only the water from the tap that we were drinking, until the group crossed. And that same night, a truck arrived. And it had, I remember that it had the sign of Budweiser. Budweiser. And when we got in, some other people from here arrived, we were some 70 or 80 people. And all standing up. Like, like steaks, like cows in there. Standing up. I didn’t know. My heart beat every second. And we started the trip. And everyone says, “When they hit the door like this, be quiet. We’re passing San Clemente.”
And suddenly, “Boom,” and everyone quiet. And they didn’t check the truck. Boom, we arrived to East Los Angeles. And I arrived to the United States. Like that. A very good story.
This was my story, how I arrived here. Mine, for me it’s easy. Because in that time it was easier. Now it’s more difficult. They keep making it harder. You see how they put up out of metal, they put up like a wall.
But I always, they say that for the hispanic there is no impossible. He has ideas, he’s very clever. It’s a legacy that we bring from the Spanish, you know. Because the Spanish didn’t bring good people. With Christopher Columbus they sent only vagabonds, criminals, that’s why we’re like this. [Laughs]
This is part one of Juan’s story. Look back in the next few days for part two, on his life here in the United States.
Many, many thanks to Juan for sharing this story with me.