I am one of those human beings you call a fucking wetback, a fucking beaner, a fucking immigrant, an illegal alien, a fucking invader etc., and here is the story on how I earned the privilege to be called all those things.
It was December 26th, 1989, and the civil war was still going on in Guatemala at the time. Christmas had been different that year. There had been no tamales, ponche or warm Merry Christmas hugs at midnight and consequently no dancing to cumbia, salsa, and merengue all night until six in the morning. No, none of that for us. We had been busy making the final preparations and saying our goodbyes to every one we knew because we were about to begin our journey by land to the U.S.
Making what we prayed to God would be a one-way trip, were nine of us varying in ages. There was my mother Francisca Bonilla 36, myself 16, my younger brother of three siblings, David, who had just turned 15 on December 23. We would affectionately always call him Baby Jesus at that time of year, but he never liked having his birthday so close to Christmas because he never really had an actual birthday celebration such as a serving of a favorite dish such as pepián or a gift such as an item of clothing he may have really needed at the time. His birthday and Christmas all blended into one. This year, however, there was one particular surprise in store for him.
Then there were six of our paternal cousins, whom my mother had volunteered to bring up to the U.S as long as Carlota was willing to contribute to all the travel expenses for them including bribe money for the Mexican immigration authorities, and the cost of a coyote, an illegal alien smuggler, which we knew we would need at two border crossings. She also had to be willing to have her children risk their lives, in such an endeavor just like the rest of us, and she like all of us had decided that a successful outcome was worth it.
My mom and Carlota had become really good friends in California because they had so much in common. They both had crossed the border illegally in the early 80’s. Both had had the same horrible mother-in-law, Bertha Valencia, who claimed to be of pure Spanish blood and despised them both, my mom for being of African descent and Carlota for being of indigenous decent. Both women worked as live-in nannies in the U.S., and both knew the pain and sadness of working so hard to send money home and not be able to have their children with them in the U.S. And as their children, all of us wanted nothing more than to live with our respective moms and altogether have a better life in what we believed to be the most beautiful and wonderful country in the world.
Debora Valencia Funes had just turned 18, and she was the oldest of Carlota’s children from her marriage to uncle Moisés. Her younger brothers and sisters all had the same last name as her. Their names were Saul, 15, the twins Salomon and Saraí who were about to turn 13, Jocabed, 11, and Libni 5. Libni had been born a little different. She had some kind of mental and speech delay, and always seemed to live in a bubble of her own little world. Her eyes were rolled back a little and they were never looking in the direction in which they were focused. She had contracted polio at some point and consequently could only walk for short distances and with a limp. My mother and Debora had planned to take turns carrying her during the parts of our journey where we expected to walk long distances during the night. We all loved Libni so much especially because she was happy to be going on a trip, and she was the only one who had no concept of the potentially dangerous and even tragic turns our voyage could take.
Out of all of us, David was the only one who didn’t know he was on his way to the U.S., and this was the only particular birthday surprise that he got that year. My mother decided to avoid a big dramatic scene from mama Bertha by telling her we were just going on a tour to a neighboring town just for fun and that she would be bringing David back to her in a couple of days.
Mamá Bertha hard raised us since David was seven months old, but it was hard to read my paternal grandmother sometimes. At times she would make us feel as though we were a burden to her and other times when I was younger, she would say she would fight tooth and nail if my mother ever tried to take us away from her. Nevertheless, by the time I was sixteen my grandmother didn’t really care much to have me living with her because she considered me a liability for being a teenage girl. She knew I had the potential for falling in love and all the trouble that can get a sixteen-year-old girl into including the much-dreaded pregnancy out of wedlock. So, a year earlier, I had left the village of Ujushté and was sent to live in Guatemala City with an aunt of mine to go to school there and try to make my family proud. David, however, seemed to be grandma’s favorite, and for that reason, only David’s absence needed to be explained to mama Bertha. In the process my mom also could not take the risk of telling David from the start that her actual plan was that he never return to the village of Uhushté, and that the two day trip would be actually a little longer than that and would hopefully take him a little farther than just a neighboring town.
My cousins’ father, uncle Moi knew his children were leaving to go live with Carlota, their mother, so they had nothing to hide in that respect. Regarding my father, we had gotten word that he was visiting Guatemala from Anaheim, California. He had made his illegal journey back in 1984. Since he had greatly neglected his role as a father for a long time, there was no need for us to tell him of our plans.
We prayed to God for a safe trip, put our lives in his hands, and boarded a bus headed to the town of Xela. From there, we would take another bus headed to the bordering town of La Mesilla in order to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border with the help of a coyote.
We thought we were dressed strategically for the trip. We wanted to look as though we were merely tourists, so we knew we had to travel light, and have the right kind of shoes and clothing. We were wearing Nike shoes to try to hide the fact that we were really poor. Nike shoes were no doubt a status symbol, so we thought wearing them would disguise the fact that we were poor even for Guatemalan standards. Along with the shoes, we wore denim jeans a t-shirt and a denim jacket. We hoped that the way in which we dressed as a group, would throw everyone off. Unfortunately, many other Guatemalans and Central Americans were making the same journey North and were mistakenly dressing the same way. Unbeknownst to us, and as we were to find out later, Mexican authorities had mockingly dubbed our attire “El Uniforme de Mojado” “The Wetback Uniform.” Our journey as illegal aliens had begun.
Tamales, as in traditional Guatemalan tamales, are made with masa, (corn dough) recado (a red sauce made from scratch), and meat: chicken, beef, or pork, and then garnished with a slice or red bell pepper, green olives, and raisins. These tamales are then double wrapped in a big non-edible green leaf called “hoja de marshan”, or leaves of marshán. Marshán is not a word I know to be Spanish. These leaves are about 10 inches in diameter and 20 inches in length, and they grow in the wild or are farmed. The tamales are then cooked in a big pot made of clay, which we call apaste. There are light variations to the traditional tamal. These tamales tend to be much bigger than traditional Mexican tamales. Tamales are relatively expensive to make and they are labor intensive, so they are very special and are usually only made for eating fresh at midnight on Christmas Eve. All families share their own rendition with neighbors.
Pepián: A red sauce made from scratch with chicken added. It is a special dish, and it is accompanied with rice.
Birthday celebrations for poor people who live in the country entail a lunch, which is the most important meal of the day, in the form of special dish that is a favorite of the person having a birthday. The gift the birthday person gets is usually one new outfit to wear on their special day and any day thereafter when they need to look presentable such as when we go to town to run an errand. The person having a birthday is spared from having to do a lot of chores on that day as well.
Ponche: A hot apple cider beverage that contains pineapple, raising and cinnamon sticks.
Warm Christmas Hugs: For a large percentage of the Guatemalan population, Christmas gifts are just not a reality. Instead, at midnight on Christmas Eve, everyone goes up to each family member and neighbors and says, “Feliz Navidad” and a big heartfelt hug is shared. A lot of times, along with a big hug from your neighbor you get a plate full of tamales to take home as they have probably received the same from you.
Coyote: A coyote as you all know has the same literal meaning as it does in English: coyote. In figure of speech and in my story, a coyote is an illegal alien smuggler. It is used for purposes of anonymity. I think of it as saying, “I was walking in the bushes trying to cross the border at night, and I just came across a coyote, decided to follow him, and as luck would have it, the animal just happened to know they way.” In reality, professional coyotes are businessmen who make a living, at leading illegal immigrants across borders in exchange for thousands of dollars. They operate by word of mouth.
Illegal Alien: I use the term because it fits in the definition and translation for “coyote” . In other parts of my story I use the word illegal alien and I know it has a much harsher connotation from the more proper “illegal immigrant”. In this entry, I also use illegal alien as the translation for “mojado.” Mojado is the word for “wet” in Spanish, and it is what we call ourselves merely to describe our migrating circumstances and legal status. It usually does not carry the derogatory and hateful meaning that “wetback” and sometimes “illegal alien” do in English.
I also wrote a Spanish version of my blog, and it is available at: http://www.ilegalymericana.wordpress.com
i-l-e-g-a-l-y-a-m-e-r-i-c-a-n-a Please make sure to spell it correctly.
Please stay tuned for my next blog entry, which I will write by Sunday December 6. In the meantime, I will be responding to questions and comments that my readers my have for me. Also, I have some questions for my readers:
What kind of things would you like to know more about?
What parts of my story would you like me to elaborate on?
Overall, what are your thoughts on my story?
You might want to know whether it is actually real. This story and everything you will read about from me in this blog are real.
Thank you for reading,