I was 5 years old in 2007, when my mother left Mazatenango, our small village in southern Guatemala. Gangs run that town and evil runs everywhere.
I lived with my mom and dad and older brother until my dad started to get into trouble with bad people in town. I never knew what kind of trouble it was, but he couldn’t face his problems so he sank himself in alcohol. Soon his problems became our problems. He would come home and abuse my mom and just act crazy. Once I remember he threw my little bicycle at her.
One night my dad got drunk like always, but this night was different because he came home with pure anger. My brother and I were sleeping in our room when I woke up to hear my mom screaming and crying. The next thing I saw was my father pouring gasoline around the house and our bed. My brother hugged me because I was so afraid, until my mother’s father, who lived next door, came over and beat up my dad. I think he almost killed him. My dad went to jail after that but he didn’t stay there long. My mother tried to get a restraining order, but that never happened. We don’t really have much of a court system in my country.
A few months after that night that my mother left for the United States, leaving me and my brother with our grandparents. The morning she left I woke up to see my grandma cooking breakfast and crying. I didn’t know what was wrong. I thought my mom had just gone to work like always. But then my grandmother gave me a letter my mother wrote to us saying she was trying to find a way to support us. She was doing what she considered was best for us.
She said she ran out of options. My father wasn’t giving her any money and there was no job for her in our town that paid enough. Later my mom told me she had to try five times to cross over. Each time she was arrested and sent back across the border, but she kept trying until she made it. I didn’t know if I was happy for her that she made it or mad or sad. I was just confused.
My mom ended up in San Rafael, Calif. She worked two or three jobs at a time, including at Jack in the Box and at a car wash.
After seven years, I decided I wanted to follow her. On the phone she told me: “Don’t expect it to be paradise. We live like prisoners here. We work and we go home. We’re always inside.”
Not Paradise but no more abuse
I was 12 years old. At first I didn’t think it was going to be that hard to just leave my life behind, my grandparents and my brother, but after my grandmother dropped me off with the coyote, it hit me. I cried for most of that first day, as we rode on a truck and then a big bus. People told me to stop crying because someone might think they had kidnapped me.
I was in a group with about 200 people. I didn’t know anyone. We took more buses and stayed in hotels. The whole trip took nearly one month because we had to wait to move until the time was right. From northern Guatemala we crossed a river to Mexico by standing on rafts made of tires. The coyotes gave us money they were handing out from duffel bags. When we got to Mexico, we saw two soldiers who told us to stop but some of the men in the group gave them money and they let us go.
We finally got to the U.S. border after crossing another river on rafts. My mother had paid extra for a “special trip” for me so I got directions as to how I could be arrested by ICE. That way I could stay in the United States and she could pick me up from detention. One of the coyotes told me to walk five minutes straight, five minutes to the left and five minutes to the right and I would see the border police. I heard other people yelling that they were lost but I couldn’t help them. I was just a kid. I had to follow the directions.
ICE agents caught me on the border and locked me up in Arizona for a few weeks. My mom had told me I could make one call. I called but she wasn’t home. I talked to my stepfather. But nobody came for me. They sent me to Houston where I stayed for six weeks, and then to Portland, Ore., to a receiving home. I stayed with a family for maybe two months until my mom came to take me.
She came with one of her friends and my little sister, who I’d never met. At first I didn’t recognize her. I know she saw my reaction, because when they entered the room, I was just standing there staring at them for a cool minute, until one of the ladies said “Mijo, soy yo tu mama.” I ran to her and hugged her.
That was five years ago. My mom was right. It’s not paradise. We work hard for less pay than people with papers. And I ended up in Juvenile Hall because I got in trouble with the police. Still, it’s a better life than we had. I don’t have to watch my mom getting hit anymore, and I have more opportunities. My goal is to go to law school. I want to obey the law and understand the law and help other people like me. I also want to write a book about my trip across the border. I would like Americans to understand us better, to know why we come here.
Alan, 17, is now living at home with his mother. He wrote this piece while he was in Marin County Juvenile Hall.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.