“And by a miracle, I arrived”: Interview with Juan Carlos del Cid, Part Two

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Juan Carlos del Cid arrived to the United States from Guatemala in 1976, undocumented. Now he is a U.S. citizen and has lived here for longer than he lived in Guatemala. Last Monday, I published the first part of his story, how he came to the city of Los Angeles. This is the second part of his story, about his life in the United States. Juan Carlos’s story is not one of pure success, but it is a story of struggle and change for a better life. Everyone has the ability to change for the better, and everyone deserves the opportunity to do so. When the media and politicians spread stereotypes and prejudices about migrants, I choose to share this story with the hope that it shows the reality of the life of one real person who has been an immigrant.

Marjorie: You told me that you went to classes to learn English, right?

Juan Carlos: Yes. You want the other part, from here? Okay. I came here, and on the third day, where I arrived, my sister and I lived in a two-story house that was divided into apartments. And all the people who lived there were from my country, from Guatemala. From other parts of Guatemala I met them, and we were good friends. There was a man who lived there downstairs, we called him tío [uncle]. Everyone called him that. Because he lived with some nephews. The mother was married to the brother. And they called him tío, we all called him tío. His name was Abraham. I remember tío Abraham. And he’s a really good person, he said, “If you want I’ll talk to the manager. My sister was from Guatemala,” he said. And I tell him, “For what?” He worked in Jack in the Box. And, he took me and interviewed me. I had only been there for two days. And they gave me a job. And I remember that he told me not to park my car in the parking lot, because it was for the customers. And me, I told him, “I don’t even have a car!” I tell him. “Yes, but very soon you’re going to have one,” he told me. “You’re going to have a car. Here in the United States, a car isn’t a luxury, like in our country. It’s a necessity.” And I got the job, there it was, and I started to work graveyard. From 12 at night to eight in the morning I worked, for a year.

But when I started working, my sister, who lived there, urged me to go to school. And when I wanted to go to school for the first time, I was coming from work, and I had to go home. I was working in Santa Monica, I had to pass all of Beverly Hills, Olympic, before getting to Vermont I had to get off and walk a block to get to the house. And I get to the house when a minivan from Immigration goes by, it was there. And I was scared. At that time, when I arrived, Immigration went to the stops and would pick people up and take them away.

M: At bus stops [paradas de buses]?

J: At bus stops. In that time it was… Now, today yes, we’re living well now. Because there are a lot of immigrants and the migra doesn’t bother us now. Only if you do something bad, no? Before no, before, you came and if they looked at your appearance, they asked you for your papers, and if you didn’t have papers, they’d take you away. They went on the buses saying, “Papers?” “I don’t have them.” And the van would arrive. That is, they were hidden and they came like that, undercover, and they stopped you and they took you away. And I was scared that they were going to take me, that’s why I didn’t go to school. Because I had the school called Evans, which is over on Sunset, near downtown. Because that school at that time, they said it was a good school to learn English. And during the daytime. And I didn’t go.

But I started to learn English at work. And I was never embarrassed. I worked for a year on graveyard. Then, after a year they changed the manager, and the new manager told me that I would work during the day. And I started to work in the daytime. I was a cook and I was one of the best hamburger makers there. And so, I wanted to be a manager. Well, I had to learn English. My English was completely terrible. Because people talked to me in English at work, I wasn’t a cook anymore. Now I was on register. And I would say to myself, “Huh? Huh?” I was stuck, “Huh?”

M: So they put you on register without…

J: Yeah. Because they needed people. I knew the product but, well? And back then there weren’t registers like the ones they have now, digital, they were mechanical. I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but you can imagine what they were like. They were registers like that. So, I started to go to Los Angeles High School.

M: Oh, my mom went there too! L.A. High. That’s where my mom went to high school.

J: I went, but I went at night. To Los Angeles. But, I already knew a little bit of English. And when I arrived, they tested my English, and they told me, you’re ready for level third. But when I went to the third, everyone was ahead of me. I didn’t go again. I left, I didn’t want to go any more. So I said, me, no. And I came back and signed up again about a year later, but I signed up for the first level. In the first level I was like everyone else, and I started to stand out, to get ahead, to get ahead. I went through first, second, third grade, and from there I changed. I’m talking about some two years, three years. Because sometimes I went, sometimes I didn’t go, things, the girlfriend, you know, and then I stopped going. But one time I told myself, “You are going to finish this.” And I was already working as a manager in a Jack in the Box in Studio City, Laurel Canyon. So, I said, “I’m going to go to school.” And I found a school that’s there, in the center of Los Angeles on Union, near Wilshire, and I started going. And I met a really good teacher. She was from Asia, Asian, and her name was Suzy Wang. And I liked how she taught so much. She was so special at teaching English that I started to get English really quickly with her. She helped me to get the fourth, fifth level, until I graduated. Then, I had laboratory, and when I graduated from laboratory they sent me to the college. I had to go to college, Los Angeles City College, but during that time I met the woman who was my wife. She got pregnant, and I had to work. And yes, I could have done a lot.

But that English that I learned, I became assistant manager at Jack in the Box. And they gave me a store in South Central. And then, they robbed me four times in two weeks. Five times.

M: In the store?

J: In the store. And with every person that arrived, my legs were shaking.

So, my sister knew a man from El Salvador, at that time, and I told him, “You know what, I want to work on cars. Even if it’s washing cars. Because I don’t want to work over there. Even if they pay me minimum.” And anyone who earned minimum wage spent more than that. “I don’t care. I want to wash cars, park cars. Tell me if there’s an opportunity,” I tell him. And exactly. Two weeks later, he told me, “There’s an opportunity. Come. But come with me to learn, the mechanics.” I was working at night, and in the morning he took me to the dealer. A Ford dealer. And after two weeks, they gave me the job. I was so tired one day that I got in a van they were repairing, it didn’t have an engine, and I fell asleep. And the nephew showed up, who worked there, and he had a friend. The nephew was in L.A. High School. And he was a porter, you what a porter is? The person who drives cars and washes cars at the dealer. It was his best friend, he was working. But they’d given the job to me, of lube man. The one who does oil changes. And he said, “Uncle, uncle, why did you give the job to him if my friend is right here?” He told him, “Don’t worry. He’s very stupid, he’s really bad. Two weeks. Not even one month, and he’s out of here, and then he’s gonna get the job.” It hurts my feelings. I hear everything. And I said, “No. Uh-uh.” And I started to work. Because they put me in between a black guy and a white guy. The black guy didn’t want to help me. And the white guy, I became friends with him. And he said to me, “You don’t know anything? Don’t worry. I’ll help you.” I remember. Son of Italians. And he started, “You do this like this.” I started to learn, I started to do it, little by little by little. And when the black guy started getting jealous, that’s when he started helping me. He helped me after that, and I made friends with him. I had a lot of trust in him and everything.

At that time, I was earning by commission, per hour. But I stayed until twelve at night working. I got ahead on the work for the next day, so I was making a lot of money. I started making $13.50 an hour, which was a lot at that time. But a new owner arrived. The same owner, his wife took over the business, and said, “Uh-uh, he’s making a lot. We’re going to pay him according to what they’re all making.” And then, my average, I was making like $17.70 an hour. And when they gave the raise, I was making more than a mechanic. A real mechanic. I go, wow. Everyone was jealous, but no, it was the law. But, I’m a person who, I never give.

So then, the rich people started coming. And nobody wanted to do the rich people because they paid too little. That’s why I give thanks to God that I went to school. I didn’t know what it was, that they did for the rich people, but I read the instructions. And I go step by step. Boom. Done deal. I put them together, I did the service. And then, next one, with the eyes closed. And like that, little by little. And then, the guy who was the nephew of the man who got me the job, he didn’t want to do the work of replacing mufflers. So I took the mufflers job. And the Cadillac convertibles. Since it was hard and it paid little, he gave it to me. But later on, Ford, it changed. Because it was all warranty. They changed the prices. And instead of what it was, it raised up. But they left it to me, and I was expert at doing that. And so, the rich people with the Cadillac convertibles came, and me, oooh, I was making money. And I started like that, I started to get experience. The managers realized that the transmission people didn’t want to do it, they don’t wanna use their machine to exchange fluids, cause they want to pull it apart so they can upsell. But I said, no. So the manager said, “You want that job? It’s yours. Read the instructions, and you’ll do it easy.” And I started to do it, and after that I started doing everything. They gave me assistants and everything. Well, because I started to read. And all the English. That’s why I went to school. And I could interpret, I could read.

Okay, so when they sent me, they sent me to… because the Ford dealer decided that everyone who worked on their cars had to be certified. Boom, they sent me to school. And it gives me a surprise, that there were Americans who didn’t know how to write. When I arrived, I was the only Hispanic. But, my accent, sometimes it was hard, but I could read, and I could write. So they saw that. To stay in class, you have to take a quiz of ten questions. And to be able to stay you have to answer nine of them. Less, they send you back to the dealer. I started, boom, boom, perfect. I started to work, I started my school, and I graduated. And I’m certified for about 18 different courses. Electrical, computer, but I can’t work anymore. Because I hurt my arm. I was going to be a master technician. All of that because I went to school. And I learned in English.

M: What happened to your arm?

J: I had an accident. I had a brand new truck, I got it from Ford, and in 2005, the last day of 2005, December 31st, I was on the freeway going to the dealer and it was raining, and the car lost control and it’s spinning and spinning and I’m trying to, I don’t wanna hit another car, right? So, I thought that, to approach the wall, it would be okay. No, I hit the wall like 100 miles per hour. Booom. Straight ahead. Nothing happened to me, only my arm. But after that I couldn’t work. Now I’m fine, I’m good, but in that time my hand wouldn’t respond. I couldn’t lift nothing, and you know, working on cars. I had to lift the cars. I couldn’t work anymore.

And also because, well, I was earning a lot of money, and just like good things arrived, bad things arrive. One time they gave me cocaine to try, and I became addicted. I had a house, like three blocks away from here. I lost my house, I lost my children. I lost everything. That’s why I became a Christian, and God gave me another opportunity. Because I lost everything. I also won, but I lost a lot. Because when you have money, and they give you something to try, and all that because of what I told you, I’m like that, before and now. Because I did a favor for someone, he wanted to pay me with that, “Do you like it?” “I’ve never tried it.” “No?” And you know. I tried it, and he told me, “I have it, whenever you want.” And I liked the feeling, and after–before I didn’t drink. I started to drink at the age of 27. And 20 years passed before I stopped. Now it’s been nine years since God saved me. Because I believe in God. God is great. That’s why, now, I serve God. And I don’t forget it. And in Uber, I talk about God a lot. I don’t have to talk, but I talk.

And, when they saw the change in my life, because my family was… Do you know the word desahuciado [a lost cause]? They had already left me for dead. They had gotten rid of me. Because I arrived at a stage in my life, low, low, low. They were waiting for prison, hospital, or death. So, when I converted to Christianity, that is, the Gospel that is the good news of salvation, and giving us a new life. So, I believed in the word of God. And he changed me into a new person. Something that I am, really. When my family saw my change, I started to talk to them about God. And, my mother came, she started to come with me to the church I was going to. She was Catholic, she went to the Catholic church, and yes, now she comes with me to the evangelical church. She believed, and she converted. My sister believed, and she converted. My daughters believed, and they converted. So now we are all Christians. We believe in God more. That is, we believe in one God, creator of all things, and we don’t believe in images.

What else can I tell you?

M: Well, I think you said that sometimes – you have papers now, right? You’re a citizen?

J: Yes.

M: And you said that sometimes, you go to Tijuana to help –

J: Oh, yes, as part of the church. In the church, we like to serve. We have what they call, I don’t say religion, because for us it isn’t religion, it’s service and adoration of God. So, we serve God by serving our neighbors. So, a sister, we call the people of the congregation brothers and sisters, well, I went to a convention of the churches. And, what they taught, they taught me that, like Uncle Sam said – what did he say? What we can do for me?

M: Oh, JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for…” what was it?

J: Ah, John F. Kennedy said it? Okay, that’s what he said. So, it’s the same. Don’t ask yourself what God can do for you, but ask yourself, what can you do for God? Well, they used that, and I ask myself. They said, when we got back, to ask our pastors, what can we do? How can we help, in what area? And in the airport, in Los Angeles, here, I asked my pastor, “What can I do for you?” He tells me, we have to pray. Before a month was up, he called me, he asked me, “Would you like to be in charge of the van?” The transportation. And I told him yes. I like to drive. And I started to give rides to the brothers. House by house, to pick them up and take them to church. And then, since I was in charge of the church, one sister told me she wanted to go to Tijuana. She needed the van, because there was a church where there’s a lot of need, there are a lot of brothers and sisters who have been caught by the migra, and they’re living there now. Many of them want to go to their homes, and many want to return [to the U.S.]. First, we go to bring them food, we go to bring them clothes. But the main thing, we go to bring them the bread of life, which is the word of God. And yes, I went many times. Right now we aren’t going, but yes, I went many times to help there. Maybe five times. Now we’ve stopped because another church took over. But if they call me, yes, I want to go help out there.

If they left me there without GPS, I would get lost. Into the deep, the center of Tijuana where the poor of Tijuana are. And there we found people who, brothers, children of pastors, who are there, who are illegal here, and they get taken away. And there they are. They don’t have anything, so they stay there. And yes, I really like to help people. Because of God, that from grace you received, from grace we are going to give. Like God helped you, you have to help others.

M: Exactly.

J: And you know, when I worked in Jack in the Box, as a manager, I helped a lot of people. Sometimes they came to look for work. I would say to them, “Sure, you’re from Mexico?” “Yes, I’m from Mexico. I just got here.” I remember when I had just gotten here and they helped me. “I’m going to say that you are my brother.” And he was a Mexican, I was from Guatemala. And I said to them, “Come on, let’s go.” I gave them a job. I helped a lot of people, a lot, because someone helped me, he opened the doors of the United States to me, and look, here I am. I have papers, here I am, thank God I can travel. I can go to anywhere in the world, and I can come back here. A lot of people can’t go. Look, how good is God with me that many people long to be near their mother. They’re on the other side, they can’t go, they don’t have papers. Look, I have papers, and I have my mother here. Yes, because God is good. Because God has blessed me. Because I have everything here. My mom isn’t here right now, she’s with my daughters, they went shopping. What else can I tell you?

M: It’s a really good story you have.

J: What would you like to know, how else can I help you?

M: Well, this. To know your story, and now I’m going to write it and put it as an interview on my web site, on my blog. Because for me, what’s important now, there are people who don’t know anyone who has lived these stories, they don’t know the truth. For example, Donald Trump and other people who walk around saying terrible things about migrants.

J: I’m going to tell you something. I forgot it, I had it in mind. I am thankful that the doors were opened to me after that man helped me to work, helped me get a job. I am grateful to an American. His name is Ronald Reagan. I’m sad that his wife died, Nancy Reagan. I remembered. Because of him, because he had the heart, the heart that Donald Trump doesn’t have. He opened it up to a lot of people. A lot of people who were working. A lot of people have made their American dream. They’ve responded to the opportunity that he opened the doors to for us. We’re still here. Do you think we’re going to vote for Donald Trump?

M: I don’t think so.

J: I don’t think he’s going to win. For me, he’s the devil [laughs]. He’s bad, bad news. He is going to help everyone who is a very conservative American. That doesn’t know the background, because we came here to work. \

M: That’s what I want to share, because there are a lot of people who don’t understand. They just here, I don’t know, “They want to bring drugs and steal our jobs.”

J: Many people think… we came here to work, we came here to do our work without offending, doing what the American can’t do. I’m not going to see an American who’s cleaning bathrooms, an American in the kitchens like in Jack in the Box. They don’t do this work. The American wants to do work where he makes good money. We settle for whatever money, the minimum. If you understand me. I worked, before starting with Uber, I was working in a warehouse. I only saw one American working with us, because he was a friend of the boss. He was helping him, because he was an actor. A film actor, but he wasn’t making money, and he went to make some money there with us. But out of thousands, one American. The Hispanic, he’s there, unloading the containers. Hard work. Work where, it’s 100 degrees outside, and how hot is it inside? 120, 130. And they’re sweating, and I had to do that work. I was sweating like I was in an oven. Who’s going to want to do that work? You tell me. Nobody. Only us, who have the need, do it. And we came here with the idea that we would make it economically. To maintain our families over there.

He [Trump] thinks because of the news, but that’s like 20 percent. What happened to the other eighty percent? Those of us who work. Who have good intentions. And the only thing I say to people who come here, when they start their paths here, is that they go to school to learn English. That’s the key here, to get ahead. One. The other, is that if you want to speak English, you have to live in English, not in Spanish. From the border it’s called United States of America. It doesn’t say United States of Mexico. And we have to respect the laws of this country, and live like Americans. Then, it will go well for us. Because if we’re here, if we bring our heritage, we can do it here in our house. But when we’re outside, to live like an American. Because that’s how it is. It’s not our land. This is American land. You remember when there were some protests, from, who was it, about immigration? How do you think that an American is going to receive us if we go out with the flag of our country? Of Mexico? No, why don’t we go out with the flag of the United States? Then they will receive us well! Right? Because I live here, I think like that. So, my way of thinking, I have to think like an American, because I live in America and now I’m American, we have to live like Americans. And if you want to keep living here and make it, you have to stick to the law of the United States, because that’s the law here. So if you’re going to live here with the law of Mexico, you’d be better off returning to Mexico. Seriously. Why come here? If you’re going to come here to get ahead, you have to leave your stuff from there, and take the things from here, and you’re going to succeed. Because if you’re going to protest, no, this or that, no, you’re mind won’t let you. That, that’s what I think.

M: Right. Is there anything else you’d like to say, to share?

J: Well, that’s everything. That’s my advice. We have to do the work that a lot of people don’t want to do. Right? And that’s why a lot of people take advantage of us. The American is fair. But some people take advantage of immigrants. Because they don’t have papers. So they’re going to treat us like slaves. And that’s not okay. So, for us, only when we learn English and know the laws from here, from the United States, only then, they won’t be able to do anything to us.

And we need to have another amnesty, because there are a lot of people. Like I had the opportunity. I received amnesty in 1985. On August 28, 1988, I was legal. Yes, from that time until now, I’m legal. We need this, we need an amnesty. And thanks to God, I had that. Right? I haven’t been in jail, I’ve never been in jail. One time they took me because they thought I was drunk, but no, I had only had one beer. But I was there for like three hours. They told me, “Tell the truth, how many beers have you had?” “I’m telling the truth, one!” Boom, boom, they took me to the station. And then, they put me, in that time they were starting with the-

M: The breathalyzer.

J: Yes. [Blows out] “Beepbeepbeep.” Zero zero zero zero. The police said to me, “It’s lying! Blow!” Paa! He hit me. I blew more. “It’s lying!” “No,” I say, “I’m telling you the truth! Don’t hit me.” So the guy who was in charge say, and he says to me, “What happened.” And he told me, “Blow. But do it right.” I blew. “No, he’s not drunk. Why did you bring him?” He took me back to my car. In this time, I’m talking about 1980, 81, when I had my first car.

Now, it’s hard to cross. It’s hard.

M: Yeah. It’s really hard.

J: But people cross.

M: Yes. They’re always going to cross.

J: But how much does it cost now? A lot of money. That is, how much did it cost me to cross?

M: You said three hundred, right?

J: Fifty. How much does it cost now? It’s thousands of dollars! It’s expensive.

After me, I was the second, and then the rest of the family came. My mom was caught by the Border Patrol. She was in jail in Chula Vista. With my brother. But this was later, when they came. They came in 85. In 84 or 85, my mom came with my brother, my brother was 11 years old. And my brother only recently became a resident. He didn’t want to, didn’t want to, didn’t want to. Until one time I said to him, “You know what, I’m going to go find you.” And I found him a lawyer. And it cost money. And like that, now we’re all good. But I tell you, where did all that come from? 1976, earthquake, poverty. Many people because of poverty, many for politics.

That’s why, watch the movie, The North. Look, it’s going to help you a lot, a lot. They’re two Guatemalans, indigenous. From there comes the story of why they leave Guatemala, they cross through Mexico, and there’s the story in Mexico, what they live through in Mexico. What they had to do to be able to make it here. Him and his sister. They crossed. But that story is so… sad. And wow, it’s terrible. It’s a story that sympathizes with the same things we all experienced. Many people went through more, many less. But it’s the same story. They had to go through worse than what I went through. And one of the actors from that movie, they’re all Mexican. The actors. One of them, I’m not sure how long ago, maybe 18 years, got killed by a drunk driver in East Los Angeles. Yeah. But yes, it’s a very good movie. With the government, everything because someone wants to fight for his or her rights. People don’t have rights there. You think they have democracy? You think they have a democratic country? Lies. It’s because there is neither democracy nor communism. It’s the law of the government. They’re dead. They take away your land for the rich. And like that. Many people here in the United States for the same reason. They leave fleeing from there, and they take us away from here. We think we’re safe here, and look at the police now. There’s no way to cross.

Well, this is part of the story, this house. Small, we live here, humbly. But now we have something. There, we didn’t have anything. You know what our house was like? Where we lived? It was like half of this room, but it was made of wood. But it wasn’t wood like here that’s straight. It was, you know, here’s the tree, and you take off the sides, and that’s called lepa. And the house is made out of that. They cover it with newspaper, wherever it has holes, and it’s not straight, no. They’re pieces, the round part of the tree, and you make a house from that. A frame, and you put on a roof, you put what’s called lámina [aluminum], out of metal, for the water, and you cover it. But there, it’s never too hot or too cold. That’s why they call my country the country of eternal spring. It’s never cold, it’s never hot. It’s always spring, all year.

M: What part of Guatemala are you from?

J: From the city. Guatemala City, in a colonia [neighborhood] from Zone 19. It’s a place, here how they have cities, there they’re zones. Zone 19. And they’re made up of colonias. I lived in a colonia called El Milagro [The Miracle].

M: El Milagro. And the miracle is that you left.

J: And by a miracle, I arrived.

This is the final part of Juan Carlos’s story. Read the first part, about his journey from Guatemala to Los Angeles, here.

Thank you so much to Juan Carlos for sharing this story with me.

“Where My Adventures Start:” Interview with Juan Carlos del Cid, Part One

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.

M: Wow.

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.