A tough life at a tender age with little money, no school
Pablo (not his real name) was 5 when he woke up in the United States in the home of people he had never met. His mother had left him and his abusive father a few months before. When his mother left, Pablo’s dad decided to take him and go north on what he called a “vacation.” When they arrived in Tijuana two weeks later, his father sedated him and had a “coyote” bring him across the border.
It took two weeks for his father to cross. When he finally came to Los Angeles to get Pablo, he came with his new girlfriend.
Pablo: We stayed with those people for two weeks. During that time my dad drank a lot. Finally he, his girlfriend, me and three other guys got in the back of a truck and headed to Washington State. That’s where I got to see my grandpa. He had paid $4,000 for our crossing and our travel to Washington.
We lived in the basement of a house and I remember being cold all the time. My parents slept on the bed and I slept on the floor. I really didn’t like the idea of having a stepmom yet. While we were in Washington, they worked in the fields picking hops for a beer company. They worked 15 hours a day, and I stayed home with the woman who owned the house and played with her kids. I didn’t go to school.
Before too long my parents got in an argument with the landlady and we were asked to leave. We moved into a Super 8 motel, and that was pretty good because we had two rooms, one for them and one for me and my grandpa.
When the hops season was over they went to work in the apple fields and they brought me along because I didn’t have a babysitter. Sometimes I would stay in the car for 10 to 15 hours waiting for them to finish work. I would get out of the car and wander around. All I saw were long fields with rows and rows of apple trees.
Gallacher: Do you remember how you felt during that time?
Pablo: I felt like I was nothing in this world, like an ant so small that I couldn’t reach out. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t speak English, so I didn’t have any friends. Back at the motel, I used to get beat up by other kids who lived there because I was different. I never really went to school at a decent age. I didn’t start school until I was 10.
While we were living in Washington, my parents were drinking a lot. Sometimes I don’t think they even realized I was there with them. It was hard. Sometimes I imagined myself growing up like other kids, going to the park. But I didn’t have any of that. All I saw was the motel room and the fields when I was 5 and 6.
Since my parents were alcoholics, we didn’t really have a stable place to live. We moved from Washington to California. My dad didn’t have a steady job and neither did my stepmom. We moved from place to place and city to city. I remember when we were living in Anaheim my parents would buy boxes of strawberries and sell them door-to-door. We didn’t have a car so we used a grocery cart to push the strawberries around.
By then my parents could only afford to rent a room. They didn’t have enough money to get a motel. Finally, when I was 8, we were living in Fullerton along the train tracks under a tree. We were there for six months through the summer and the winter.
We lived there with an Indian named Mike. He was a nice dude. I think he paid more attention to me than my parents did. He was always concerned about my well-being. While we lived there my home was the park, a laundromat and the streets. We ate from the trash. I remember going to KFC and eating the chicken we found in the garbage containers. It tasted good because when you’re hungry it doesn’t matter if the food is cold or warm as long as you have something in your stomach.
After that we moved back to Santana, California, where my dad got a job as a dishwasher at a Denny’s. We were kinda stable for a while until they started drinking again. I can still remember the day it happened. I was outside playing in the dirt. I was wearing a blue shirt, shorts and fancy shoes like the ones you wear to go to church. I was really dirty. We were renting a room from another family at the time. I came in for dinner about six and everything seemed cool. My stepmom was cooking green chili in the room.
I’m still not sure why it happened. My dad was really drunk and he got up all of a sudden and kicked the pan of green chili and it splashed all over the room. Some of it got in my stepmom’s eyes. I jumped out the window and stayed outside while my dad beat my stepmom.
The neighbors called the cops. I watched through the window crying as the cops wrestled my dad to the floor. I didn’t know whether to like or dislike the cops. They were doing the right thing for a good cause but it was my dad. The cops took my dad to the police car and started asking the neighbors questions. They told the cops that there was a kid, meaning me, that lived there too.
My stepmom was like in another world. She didn’t seem to care what happened or about anything. I remember the police officer asking her if they had a kid and she said, “Yeah, we have a kid.” The officer told her that if she sobered up she could keep me. But I remember her saying, “I don’t care about the kid. You can take the kid. It’s not mine anyway.” Before that I considered her to be my mom. I remembered wondering what had happened to all of the love she had shown me. I felt betrayed.
So the police took me to this place. I’m not sure what it was called, a place where they take abused kids I guess. When they first took me in it was really late, like one in the morning. I remember when I got there they sat me down while they took my information. I was in a little room and they played a Ninja Turtles video for me.
A lady policeman asked me if I was hungry. She was just staring at me. I could tell she was feeling so bad for me. I could see it in her eyes, but I didn’t look back at her. I was too embarrassed. She brought me something to eat and a glass of milk. It was the first time I had had milk in months.
After I ate I was taken to a building that looked like an apartment house. It had a lot of rooms. They put me in a room with a lot of other kids and I was there for five months.
Gallacher: You didn’t see your father or your stepmother?
Pablo: I didn’t see my stepmom for a while. I learned later that my dad was across the street in county jail.
Next week: part two of Pablo’s story.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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