August 01, 2019•
9 min read
Names have been changed.
When I saw my grandma answer the phone, I knew it was the smugglers calling. My family had paid some smugglers—which everyone calls coyotes—to take me from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico and across the border to Texas. From there, I would travel to New York, where I would join my parents. They were coming to pick me up. It was time to say goodbye.
My grandma started to cry. I gave her a hug, she squeezed me, and she said, “Me va a dejar solita.” (You are leaving me alone.) I couldn’t find words to comfort her. When the smugglers drove up, we squeezed each other tightly. It was the most difficult part of the whole trip because I didn’t know if that hug would be our last.
It was also hard for me to leave my country and the home where I’d grown up. I lived in a small town in the countryside. It was hard to say goodbye to the chickens and the cows.
Still, I felt ready to make this journey. My dad had left El Salvador for the U.S. when I was a baby. My mom joined him when I was 7. It was the plan that when they had made a stable life in America, I would join them. I dreamed of playing with my dad and having my mom go to the parent-teacher conferences at school. I was jealous of other kids who weren’t separated from their parents.
Also, although my family never wanted me to know the details, I knew the local gang had threatened to hurt me if my grandmother didn’t increase her payments to them. I was 14 and the time had come.
We Sped Out of Town
The two coyotes arrived with a friend of theirs and an older teenage girl they were also smuggling across the border.
A lot of people were on the street, including my school friends—I hadn’t told them I was leaving. I got into the coyotes’ car. We lifted dust and sped out of town. I realized it was probably my last time traveling through El Salvador, and I wanted to remember all of the details of my country. I tried to memorize every person’s face, the houses, cars, and road signs.
After three hours of driving, we stopped to eat pupusas, Salvadoran tortillas made of corn flour filled with cheese and ground beans. They were special pupusas to me because they were the last ones I was going to have in El Salvador. I ate four of them.
That night we pulled up to a house guarded by a dog, in a city where I think the smugglers lived. The first thing I did was call my grandma to tell her I was OK. I had no idea where I was, but the smugglers were nice. I trusted them because my family had entrusted them with my care. There was no bed, just a mattress and sheets on the floor, but still I slept like a baby.
The next day we took a bus to the border between El Salvador and Guatemala. I didn’t have a passport, so we could not cross at the official checkpoint. There was a river between the two countries, and a guy I didn’t know led me to a spot where I took off my clothes and walked in. The water was shallow but we had to hurry across. Then we walked to the street where a motorcycle taxi picked us up and drove us to a house. After that, we made our way through Guatemala in buses, resting in hotels, and acting as normal as we could, as if we belonged there and were not on the run. It took about a week to reach the Mexican border.
Through Mexico we did the same, going from car to car, hotel to hotel, house to house. I was taken to houses that were full of people from different Central American countries, but we all shared the same goal—reaching the United States safely. There I learned that it was not as easy for everybody as it had been for me so far. In one of the houses where I stayed, a woman had been there for more than a week and her smuggler had left her there. She was almost out of money.
One night a car came to pick us up. We drove to a place where a truck was waiting, crammed full of people. It had two levels with the women and children on the top and the men on the bottom. The truck was sealed and we couldn’t see any light. It was hard for us to breathe. We could hardly move. The women on the top could feel the breeze but I was down with 70 other boys and men, desperate for fresh air. We spent the whole night in this truck, and at the end of the trip I couldn’t feel my legs.
Crossing the Border
The first day we tried to get across the Rio Grande, the smugglers went ahead to see if it was safe for us to cross. When they came back they were scared. “Los Zetas are on the river,” they said in Spanish. Los Zetas is one of the most dangerous Mexican drug cartels, and everyone is afraid of them.
The smugglers left and said they were going to get help. While we waited, I wondered: What options did I have if these guys didn’t return? Two guys who had joined our group offered to take me to a part of the river where the U.S. Border Patrol could find me. They said I was a kid, so I might have a chance to go to court and stay in the U.S. But these two men had already been deported once and were trying for the second time to get back in. They were strangers and I didn’t trust them. My family had told me not to talk to anybody, and not to trust anybody, and to do what the smugglers said. This helped me to make the decision to stay and wait.
Finally a new smuggler came to replace the others, and we walked to the street from where we had been hiding behind bushes. We took turns carrying two heavy backpacks full of canned food. I thought we were close to the river, but we had to walk another half day to get there. The sun hit us hard so when we finally got there. I was excited to go in because the water was clean and fresh. I wanted to stay longer, but there were some dangerous rapids and also the Border Patrol tends to be around.
We walked through the river carrying our clothes on top of our heads so that they would not get wet. When we got to the other side someone said, “Esta es tierra Americana.” (This is American soil.) I thought that meant the journey was almost over, but it was just the beginning.
Suddenly, one smuggler told us to get as far as possible from the river, fast. We ran and climbed over some fences. He reminded us to to help each other and make sure nobody got left behind.
“Remember to take care of your water bottle as you take care of your eyes,” he also told us.
We walked all day and night, resting for only a few minutes. The days were hot and lonely and the nights were quiet and cold. My clothes were torn and full of thorns. At night I couldn’t see what was in front of me. Thorns punctured my bottle and drop by drop I was losing my precious water.
Still, I felt connected to the sound of the wind in the lonely Texas desert, and the sadness of the paths other people had followed with the dream of reaching the other side. I was amazed at the endless desert. I felt like a little boat in the middle of an ocean. When we stopped to rest, we told each other stories about our lives back home and it made us feel better.
The night I got caught, we had been on the road for six days. We were exhausted from walking day and night. My smuggler wasn’t sure where we were going because he had lost his phone. But after several hours we found a house. The lady who lived there told us to follow the roads of dust, which would get us to the main road.
After we had been walking for a while, we saw cars coming and one of the smugglers yelled, “La migra!” which means Border Patrol. We hid on the side of the road, thinking the bushes and the darkness of night might cover us.
I heard branches rattle and knew they had found us. We all ran in different directions. But soon I stopped and they handcuffed me and took me to their car. They kept looking for the others for a while. I have no idea what happened to them.
The Border Patrol took us to a detention center. They put me in a cell with other kids. They were around my age, and looked tired and sad. The cell was cold and there were no sheets, only a toilet, a sink, and a bench to sleep on. A tall man in a dark green uniform asked me if I knew my parents’ phone number. He gave me the phone and my mom answered. “Mom, they caught me,” I said in Spanish. It was the first time she had heard my voice since I started to walk through the desert.
They let me talk to her for five minutes. I told her where I was, and that I was OK. Then the man in the uniform took the phone and explained to my mom through an interpreter what would happen next. The officer started to ask me questions about my trip, if I had any tattoos, if the smugglers had abused me. He told me that what I had done was illegal, and therefore I faced deportation. I felt scared and started to regret surrendering. I should have continued running, I told myself. The officer told me I was going to go to court and a judge would decide if I could stay in the U.S. or not.
The officers were nice and offered me a choice between a burrito and mac and cheese. I didn’t understand what mac and cheese meant, but it turned out it was just “macarrones con queso,” a similar dish we have in El Salvador. I think it was the best mac and cheese I have ever had, maybe because I was really hungry and tired.
Early the next morning a van came for me and other people who had been arrested at the border. They were older than me so they were dropped in different detention centers. They had handcuffs but I didn’t. All I knew was that we were in Houston, and I didn’t know where we were going.
The van took me to Casa Quetzal, a shelter for migrant children. Casa Quetzal was a cozy place where I met kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with similar experiences to mine. We all wanted to be with our families and to stay in the U.S. That was our dream. I shared a bedroom with three other kids. I got food and new clothes to replace my old torn ones. A lovely doctor gave me 12 vaccines, six in each arm. That’s how I spent my first full day in the U.S.
I Fell in Love
I felt comfortable at Casa Quetzal and made many friends. I was allowed to call my family twice a week. I had plenty of food and snacks and some English and Algebra classes. The staff treated me nicely. All of them were Spanish speakers.
We had a small field to play soccer. There were no police, only a few security guards at the doors. Some of the kids had been at Casa Quetzal for more than six months, and they got bused to churches, dentists, and other places. I was new so I never got to go on a trip.
I met a girl named Elizabeth who was short and beautiful. I remember the way she looked at me when I first entered the classroom; I fell in love in that moment. We sat together and we started to get to know each other. She was also from El Salvador, which made me feel more comfortable with her.
Soon we became more than friends. But at Casa Quetzal we were forbidden to touch each other. The boys always walked into the room ahead of the girls, so I’d try to be last in the line so I could talk to her. We talked during class and shared some letters.
While my parents were doing everything to get me out of the shelter, I was hoping to stay longer so I could be with Elizabeth. She was going to the West Coast and I was going to New York. But one morning after I had been at Casa Quetzal for almost a month, my social worker came in with a yellow folder and told me I’d be leaving the next day. Even though I had known Elizabeth for only a short time it was hard for me to say goodbye. I couldn’t even hug her because of the rules.
Arriving in New York
I boarded a plane to New York. During the flight I thought about my grandma, my parents, the journey, my friends, and Elizabeth. I was hungry but I didn’t know English, so I just kept looking out the window. I knew I was over New York City when I saw the Statue of Liberty.
We arrived at LaGuardia Airport where my parents were waiting. I felt weird having not seen them for so long, but I also felt happy when I hugged them. I felt complete. For so many years I had only heard their voices on the phone, and seen their faces only in pictures. But here they were right in front of me in the flesh and then I knew that the journey was finally over.
Editor’s Note: Two years after arriving in New York, the writer was granted asylum. Eventually he plans to apply for U.S. citizenship.