A dramatic arrival — and a decision to return
This story is a collaboration with the Immigrant Stories Project, with storytellers from Parachute to Aspen. Read or listen to more personal history and immigrant stories here.
Alex Gonzalez grew up in the mountains of Guatemala, the son of indigenous parents.
Gonzalez: I came to the United States five years ago, when I was 19. I came without papers up through Mexico and across the desert into the United States. It was a difficult time. We had to walk many miles.
It all started when my uncle began talking to me about America. He told me I would have a better life, so I decided to make the journey. My mom and dad helped me get the money to hire a “coyote,” and he tricked my parents into believing it was going to be easy. It was sad to leave my family, but I was excited about the adventure.
The coyote and I took the bus to the Mexican border, at Chiapas. He told the border guards that we lived close and we were just crossing over to buy some things and return. So they let us cross, but they seemed suspicious, so instead of taking the bus to more checkpoints, the coyote decided to hire a canoe to take us into the Mexican jungle.
Gallacher: Were you frightened?
Gonzalez: Yes, I had never done anything like this before, and I was with these two guys I didn’t know and the coyote that I only knew for a day. But I kept telling myself that we were going to a better place.
We walked all night and by morning, the coyote felt like we had passed all the checkpoints so we took a bus. He told us to sit separately and not act like we knew each other. He gave us his cell phone number to memorize in case we got separated.
We hadn’t gone very far on the bus when a police car pulled us over and two policemen got on. They saw me and realized how scared I was, so they took me and four other immigrants off the bus. The coyote got lucky. He and one of the other guys were still on the bus when it left us there.
The police told us that they were taking us to jail if we didn’t “cooperate.” They wanted us to give them all of our money. I had 2,000 pesos in my front pocket, and they took that, but they told me it wasn’t enough. They kept scaring us until I gave them the 1,000 pesos in the secret pocket my mom had sewed into the waist of my pants.
They left me on the road with 10 pesos, only enough to make a phone call. I called the coyote and we met up in Vera Cruz and took the bus to Mexico City. That’s where he told me he was leaving me with a Mexican coyote and going back to Guatemala.
This new guy wasn’t near as nice as the Guatemalan, but I didn’t have any choice. So we took a bus to Nuevo Laredo, at the U.S.-Mexico border. We stayed for seven days in one room with 150 people. It was hot and sweaty and everything smelled. There was very little food and the food we had was bad. They told us if we left that room and got shot it wasn’t their fault.
Gallacher: Were you in a house?
Gonzalez: We were on the upper floor of a house. A man and his wife and three kids lived downstairs and we stayed upstairs. Every night 15 people would leave with the coyotes and 15 more would come.
Finally on the sixth night, they told me it was my turn. They took us in a van to the river and told us to strip to our underwear and swim across. The people who couldn’t swim were in tubes and the rest of us helped push them across.
When we got to the other side, the coyote told us we were almost there but we had to walk a few miles. We walked all night. There were 14 of us, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Mexicans. That first night everyone was excited and talking and sharing because we thought we were going to make it.
By the second night, everyone was starting to realize that the coyote was lying to us. We began to realize that we were a long ways from the United States. That’s when it got very quiet.
Gallacher: Did you ever think about turning back?
Gonzalez: Yes, those nights in the desert made me wish I was home but I knew I would probably die if I went back by myself.
The coyote we were with was crazy, but I had to stay with him. He was getting high all the time. He barely talked to us except to tell us to stop or go. If you didn’t pay attention and follow him he would leave you. I had to help some of the older people because he would just leave them if they didn’t follow.
By the fifth day, we were almost out of water and people were walking like zombies. Some people were seeing things and talking to the bushes. We found bottles in the desert and drank whatever was in them. Anything was good.
Gallacher: Weren’t you worried about getting sick?
Gonzalez: By then we didn’t care, we were already sick.
Finally, on the sixth night we came to a two-lane road and there was an extended cab truck waiting for us. They stacked 11 of us where the back seat used to be and three of the bigger guys got in the bed.
We drove a few miles and suddenly there was a police car behind us with its lights on. The driver took off and drove as fast as he could but he lost control and hit a tree. I crawled out of the back and saw the coyote running for the trees so I followed him.
We hid in a haystack overnight while the coyote called for another ride. Finally a van came and took the nine of us who made it to Houston. From there I took a bus to Glenwood Springs where my cousin lived.
My cousin got me a job doing construction and I spent the first year paying back the $6,000 that my parents had borrowed from the bank to pay the coyote. The bank would have taken my parents’ house and land if I didn’t pay.
Gallacher: How did you learn to speak English so well?
Gonzalez: At the end of that first year my cousin told me he was going back to Guatemala. He told me if I was going to stay I had to learn English. He took me to ESL classes. I met some really nice teachers there who really helped me learn English and learn more about the United States.
When my cousin left, I started to realize that there were more things that I could do. I liked studying and after awhile I was having fun. My studies started to move something in me and change me.
Gallacher: So that was five years ago. Talk to me about the person you were then and who you are now.
Gonzalez: I was just a kid then. I wanted to help my family. I dreamed about fancy cars and a fancy house. I was into money then. The lack of money and stuff in Guatemala made me want it here. I thought that having money and things was happiness.
What I finally realized is that many people here have money and stuff and they still are not happy. Seeing that really changed me. Now I appreciate my friends, my family, the people who love and care about me. My experience here helped me evolve as a person. That evolving was a huge gift that America gave me.
Gallacher: So you’ve decided to go back home and be with your family.
Gonzalez: Yes, I have a younger sister and brother. My sister just graduated from high school and I want to help her go to college. I don’t want her to be in the big city all by herself.
She is a kid and I have learned that people sometimes take advantage of kids. Me being there will be better for my sister and brother. I can help push them toward college and make sure they’re safe. It’s going to be a better future for them.
Also my lack of identity here has been difficult. Down there I can be somebody and grow faster because of the things I have learned here. The dream has turned the other way. I came here for stuff and now I just want to go home and help others.
Note: Alexander Gonzalez flew home last week. In January, he will help his sister start college.
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“I can’t even begin to tell you how important this is,” said YouthZone Executive Director Lori Mueller. “This is an integral part of helping kids get back on the right track.”