The Journey to America: An Immigrant’s Story
Being called a melting pot country, a story of an immigrant’s journey towards the American Dream is quite common. We normally see them in the malls, at our schools, work places, diners and restaurants. And although they are omnipresent in our midst, it is very rare that we pay attention to them. Rarely do we give thought to the kind of life they had before they came to America and the reason behind their decision to leave home and opt for a life as a foreigner in another country.
I must admit that I have very seldom, if at all, paid any attention to these immigrants or aliens, as we sometimes call them. But that changed when I met Francisco, an immigrant from El Salvador.
Francisco is a waiter in a diner I frequent a few blocks from where I live. I have often seen him engaged in small talks with loyal customers.
From the first time I saw him, I thought that he had a way with people – customers seemed to like talking to him and he didn’t mind spending a few seconds for chitchats. He had dark brown hair, with streaks of white hair – which I assume are by-products of his age. He is in his mid forties already, tall and lanky and with eyes that could be very engaging when in a conversation with him. For me, he was the epitome of congeniality so when this project came up, I knew he would be the one I would interview.
Hence, on a windy Tuesday afternoon after class, I trooped to the diner where Francisco worked and braced myself on a conversation with him. I came to interview him for a class assignment but I left that diner with a whole lot more than what I bargained for. What I got from Francisco on that day was more than just a class requirement. I took home some of the greatest life lessons I could ever have.
In the beginning, it had the makings of a normal small talk between a guy serving burger and milkshakes and his customer. It started with “Here you go, kid. Hope you like ‘em hot,” and then I ask him if he had the time for a small conversation with me – told him I was interested in his life story and how he came to live in America.
He looked at me strangely at first but then started showing a hint of a smile. He took a quick look at his watch and observed me for a moment. After explaining what the interview was all about and why I needed it, he took his time to think about it. I told him it was okay if he didn’t feel comfortable about sharing his story. Just when I thought I had to find another subject for this class assignment, he told me that he gets off in an hour and if it was okay for me to wait. I told him I’d wait – so there I sat, lingering on my burgers and fries and milkshakes, thinking of the many things I can ask him.
After an hour, Francisco sat in front of me, with a coffee in tow and asked me what I needed to know. “Your life and how you got here,” I answered quite broadly. And he smiled again – that now familiar smile. He responded, “Well, my life can be considered a struggle for some. But for me, I just think of it as one long journey towards the fulfillment of a dream. I normally get by with that thought.”
He then started giving me a brief background of his country, El Salvador which rise to economic security was halted with the onslaught of civil wars. He noted though that although there is no longer any conflict of war in the country, employment continued to decrease and more and more people had to leave and seek greener pastures. One of them was Francisco.
“It was quite simple really. I left my country because my family needed the money. I did not know anyone in America, I had no idea what life was in America, I barely spoke the language –but a choice had to be made. I left because my family had to live and survive,” he explained rather matter-of-factly. So I asked him if his move to the US was out of economic necessity.
He replied, “In El Salvador, delinquency has increased and employment has decreased as a result of the civil wars. Because of this I became one of the thousands of Salvadorans who day by day decide to travel to the United States to the so-called ‘American dream’, eager to get ahead in my country and have a better future trip from Soyapango in San Salvador toward Tecún Umán, Guatemala.”
I asked him to describe his birthplace, Soyapango. He started by saying that it was not a good place to start raising children but since he has lived there all his life, it was still home to him. He described it as a “mix of poor working class and extremely poor people with a high level of gang violence in amongst, and surrounding, the neighborhood.”
He explained that if the kids from the church enter the plaza in town, they will be killed by the gang that claims that territory because the kids are from a rival gang’s territory. It doesn’t matter that the kids do not belong to the gang who claims the territory where the church sits, just being from that area is enough.
I asked him if there was anything positive that he remembers from his hometown. He smiled and nodded his head. “You are right. It is not all darkness in that neighborhood. It is a very vibrant place with vibrant hard working people. People who have been through a lot and have an incredible resiliency about them. The neighborhood is made up of mostly refugees and ex-guerillas from the war. Due to this it seems, the government tends to neglect the area, except after the spats of violence and basic things such as reliable water service and utility service are spotty. The neighborhood is not that far from rural El Salvador, so we see cows wander in from time to time and eat at the piles of garbage that tend to accumulate along the street and from the church you can see the hillsides lined with rows of corn. It is a close community where even the thieves and drug addicts seem to be known by people, and in a way, accepted as part of the community. Tiendas dot the street and you can get fresh tortillas at a little store across the street from the church and pupusas at a little stall further down the street. It’s a very rough area, but full of life.”
And then he adds what I think has a twinge of pain in it, “…and I do miss the place.” A statement which, needless to say, broke my heart. I then asked him what his life was in his hometown –what his job was like, and if he had a family.
Francisco told me that he was a math teacher in the third grade and that he loved his profession very much. Although the neighborhood he served was not the one he was hoping for, he saw himself as a tool to help children get better lives and leave the gangster world they have grown used to.
He smiled at me when he said, “The people at my neighborhood always said I had a gift. A gift of relating to people. I don’t know if that is true but one thing I can say is this: I love people. Regardless of what I have seen in this world, I believe in the innate goodness of every human being.”
At this point, Francisco also told me that he has daughters –2 of them and a beautiful wife. After some time, they were able to join him here in the United States but the years apart were very difficult. Those years were wrought with tears and sacrifices.
“No regrets, though,” says Francisco. “We are all here in America now and living the life we envisioned to have. All the things we had gone through were all part of the process.”
He admitted that he didn’t really want to leave his family behind, saying that no fool would ever leave his home unless it was a matter of life and death. But he had no choice. It was either sink or swim – and he opted for the latter. I asked him to recall how his trip to the United States was and he looked at me as if to ask me if I was ready for life’s brutal truth.
“It was not an easy journey,” he began and paused. A long pause. I asked him to expound on it and he nodded his head, as if thinking if he should go ahead and spare naïve, little me the horrors of his journey.
“When I arrived at the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala, I was warned of the difficulty of crossing over to Mexico. He added that it was in Casa del Migrante where he shared conversations about ordinary things with other migrants “who told me the places where it was best to cross, where the Immigration check points were.”
It was at that point, Francisco said, when he decided to cross to the other side of Guatemala toward Mexico. “Crossed the River Suchiate in an inner tube. I remember that they said they would charge me ten Mexican pesos. Good, I said, that’s fine. What I didn’t know was that on the other side, the same man of the rafts would assault us with a pistol and take the little we had brought. I was left without a nickel.”
I asked him to stop for a moment – more so for me than for him. I had to have time to take it all in. I couldn’t understand how someone can do such a thing to a fellow human being and I said that aloud. He smiled at me and said, “Well, that is life, my friend. I’m glad that my money and possessions was all he took from me. At least I had my life and was able to continue with the journey.”
With that response, I couldn’t help but tell him how much I admired his resilience and the way he viewed the negative incident he just shared with me. He then said, “Americans have pampered lives. They think they have problems but they really don’t – at least not as serious as the ones being experienced by people who live in third world countries like me. You Americans don’t realize how lucky you are to live in a country where you can be free to do what you like, speak what you like and basically act how you like. Not everyone is as lucky as you are.”
We stopped for a moment. I guess he was allowing me to digest what he just told me. As for me, I must admit that I have had a lot of complaints about how my life was going. What Francisco just told me made me realize that compared to him, all I had were little inconveniences, not problems.
After some time, I asked Francisco to continue with his narrative. After hearing this much, I just had to hear the end – of how he finally came to America.
He responded, “We continued until we boarded the freight train, which the immigrants call the iron beast. In the train station of Ciudad Hidalgo I asked others who were there waiting for the train, ‘Hey, compa’, what’s happening? When does the train leave?’ They told me, laughing, the train has no hour or day. You just have to wait until night. Fortunately, we began to see movement in the train that would leave for Tapachula and then Tonalá, Chiapas, at approximately 2:00 a.m. In the early morning, the train left and with it hundred of migrants. I didn’t know where they all came from. They came out from all sides like ants. We came about fifteen in each car. When I looked out on the sides of the train, I felt like it was a carnival of people.”
He paused as if to sense if I was ready for what he was going to reveal next. I nodded slowly, as if not sure myself if I wanted to hear the next part. I asked him to go and almost haltingly, he continued with his story.
“When we came close to Tapachula on this stretch, the assailants started to come out, from train car to car, assaulting the people. And if you don’t give them anything, they throw you off the train. I saw many people thrown off the train and saw the men put their hands all over the women and even rape them…” and then he stopped and looked at me in the eye. He then told me something I will never forget for as long as I live.
“When one sees these things, one feels impotent in not being able to do anything, since they are up to 30 gangsters and delinquents. The only thing one can do is ask God to protect us. Upon arriving in Tonalá after a couple of army check points, we had to go and ask for food, a taquito, since we no longer had any money-all was robbed. After a while the shame of begging left me.”
On hindsight, I realized how stupid I must have looked to him after he said that. I did not know how to respond because firstly, is there a way to properly comment on a story such as the one he just shared with me? Secondly, if I agreed on what he just said, he might assume that I had seen the same thing myself before –and that was as far as the truth as anything else. I had never seen such horror in my life nor would I ever hope to. In fact, I can not even begin to comprehend what he went through on that train.
He shrugged his shoulders and continued, “I was the first to get off the train to ask for food in the towns after Tonalá. I continued on the train to Arriaga, then to Ixtepec, Oaxaca. After I arrived there, the train didn’t leave for three days. That is where I, with other companions, decided to walk. We walked for two and a half days to Matías Romero. On this path we went through moun-tains, where we slept with the coyotes surrounding us. They were very hungry, as we were ourselves. A Honduran woman whom we will call Sandra told me: Either the coyotes will eat us or I will eat the coyotes. I assume she said that because she was so hungry. She was a little plump, so she suffered more.”
He said that as soon as they arrived at this particular town, the “preventive” police came out, the ones they call “cuico.” Francisco recalled how the police stopped them and told them to “share some” to Immigration. “Since we had no money, my Honduran friend was the one who paid for us with her body,” he said.
At that point, I began to have an idea of how gruesome Francisco’s journey to America has been. To witness all that evil and continue with life is something that definitely is worth raving about. I asked him how his rest of the journey was and he continued.
“From then on, there were no check points until Veracruz. We went through various towns. I will never forget one of these towns, with such beautiful people. When the train was arriving, all the people came out with bottles of water and bags of food and gave them to us on the train. What good people.
“Upon arriving at Orizaba, we went to the Casa del Migrante. There I got to know other Salvadorans, from the Port of La Libertad, and one said to me, ‘Hey, you know the way.’ Look,” I said, “I don’t know the way, but this train goes North, and everyone goes there.” In the end, we became compadres and went on together. We only knew that this train would take us to Mexico City.”
“We got on the train enthusiastically, not knowing what was awaiting us. Upon arriving in Tlaxcala, there was an Immigration and army check point and we all jumped off the train. I jumped off and then I saw my friend, the guy from the Port of La Libertad, who was walking along the side of the train, and he didn’t jump. Then he jumped and when he fell, the wheels of the train cut his two feet. When we picked him up he cried out, “My feet! The train took them off!”
“Seeing this, I went running to a telephone to call the ambulance. The press arrived first. We did not want the press. At this moment we needed an ambulance to help my friend. When the police and the ambulance arrived, the others left and told me, “Let’s go, because Immigration will come.”
Francisco told me then that he opted to take his chances with immigration for as long as he is able to help his compadre. Eventually, the police and the ambulance took Francisco’s friend to the hospital to recuperate. Fortunately, everything turned out okay.
After this harrowing accident, Francisco admitted that he became afraid of traveling on a train. “I decided for bus or car-whatever ride was good. Then, arriving in the State of Mexico at a place called Huehuetoca, I decided to work to put together money to continue my journey. I worked approximately six months and earned $5,000 Mexican pesos. I said, with this I can make it to the North.”
“When I arrived in San Luis Potosí to board another train that would take me to the Northern border, I met other Salvadorans waiting for the train. The private police hired by the train came out and asked us for money, but we didn’t have any. They beat us and let us continue on our way. We got on the train and in two days we arrived at the Casa del Migrante in Nuevo Laredo. There, talking with other migrants, I got to know another Honduran who told me that he was ready to walk to the other side. And I told him I was ready as well.”
At that point, Francisco told me that the two of them had decided to make the walk the following day. “We found our way to the Rio Grande and looked over the possibilities of crossing to the other side,” he noted.
Francisco added that upon arriving at the bank of the river, they saw about ten people crossing, and he told his friend to “go down lower.” They then took off their clothes and crossed. “In Laredo, Texas, we walked for a day until we got to where the freight train leaves. I decided to board, but my Honduran friend did not. He said, I prefer to walk.”
He paused and smiled. “And this is how I came to be in America.”
At this point, I had looked at him with different eyes. Now, he is more than just a waiter to me. He is a survivor and a damn good one at that. I doubt if I could go through what he just told me and live to tell about it.
As I had earlier mentioned, I had begun this conversation only because I had a requirement to fulfill in class. But after an hour of talking to Francisco, his story changed me. It changed the way I view immigrants in America. I had always thought them to be parasites – living off America’s wealth.
I never realized the kind of sacrifice they had to go through in order to get here. Most of the things I take for granted are sacred for them. Among these is freedom to live a normal life on a daily basis.
Cite this The Journey to America: An Immigrant’s Story
The Journey to America: An Immigrant’s Story. (2016, Jul 01). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-journey-to-america-an-immigrants-story/