Build Bridges Not Walls

I met Alberto on the 12th of December in the central park of Xela, Guatemala. He is a “Guatemalteco” (a term used to describe someone from Guatemala) and he is around thirty years old. Like many others that day he was celebrating the “Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe”, a day which celebrates the belief that man encountered the Virgin Mary in Mexico. Anyway, it was nice, I bought some churros and sat down, then Alberto came and sat down next to me, asking if he could talk to me so that he could practice his English.

He explained to me that since he left California, where he has spent the last 11 years, he found it hard to practice his English. His English is pretty much fluent while my Spanish is pretty bad. So he told me his entire story in English. We met up a few times so that I could write down everything he said. According to Western main-stream media and the likes of Donald Trump, Alberto is nothing more than an “illegal immigrant”.

Like so many so called “illegal immigrants” Alberto never wanted to leave his country “I never thought I would leave, I wanted to be a soccer player, that is what I always wanted, I dreamed about it. I was playing for Xelahu for 18 years waiting for that moment to get on the first team. But maybe people thought I wasn’t doing anything with my life”. On May 14th 2005 at 19 years of age he took an unexpected one month trip across Mexico to the US border. Of course there are thousands of people that risk their lives’ to get to the USA and while they may all leave for similar reasons, for instance, poverty, lack of opportunity, family reasons or threat from their country of origin. The definition of a migrant literally means a person that moves to another country or place.

Yet, all too often we are provided with narrow narratives of migration. If you are white and moving from the Global North to the Global South, then you will most likely be categorised as an “expat”. If you aren’t white, moving from the Global South to the Global North, then you may be categorised as an “illegal immigrant” or an “economic migrant”, “refugee”, etc. These narratives often mask complex realities, they stir up fear and concern .The media present us with stories that deem migrants unsuitable for national integration and often present them as a threat, mainly drawing on cultural or racial difference. The narratives we are bombarded with, often neglect personal accounts of what migrating means to the individuals or families that decide to move. Every person’s story is unique, so it is important that we listen to them with empathy and non-judgement. Alberto is hear to shed some light on his experience.

Crossing the border

Alberto left for the Texas border at 19 years of age. “I left my country, Guatemala in 2005. The train that we take is called the ‘La Viesta Negra’ (The Black Beast), in English. There are many encounters with death. You feel a lot of fear; Adrenalin can rise to the top of you in less than a minute. You are tired and your feet hurt. When I crossed the border it cost $7,000 to pay for the traffickers, there is no guarantee, you get 3 chances and if you don’t get in you are sent back. My brother, Randy was supposed to go but he had college in Guatemala, studying. My other brother lived in California at the time and wanting us to join him, he send us, me and my cousin $2,000. This was the down payment for the guide, $1000 each and the rest you pay back in installments, for two people that is $14,000. You pay that when you get to the USA. I guess we migrate for our family, to have a better life than you were given”.

“I, my cousin and 10 other people, 6 other men, 4 women, (12) we all took the train. It is crammed full of people trying to make it to the Texas border. It stinks of shit, and you have to cling on to the sides, with no sleep and no food for days on end. There are some really kind women that pack bags full of food and throw it on the train, they are poor, but they make bags of fruit, oranges, tortillas, tamales and water. On the train it is even worse for women, if they are pretty, god. You have to be the ugliest woman. If you are a woman then you will get kidnapped, people grab you off the train and sell you for prostitution. Women and girls still leave their countries but it is impossible. Before setting off we made a plan to protect the women we were with without putting our own lives at risk, we stand around them, like a wall. Women are more vulnerable in these situations”.

“After traveling for days we went to a security house to stay. But we didn’t know that our ‘coyote’, the trafficker didn’t pay the owner of the house. The owner was really, really angry with us. He said, ‘if that el sapo”, frog (the nick name for traffickers) doesn’t pay me then I will take the girls for me. You are like shit in my country (Alberto explained that some of the Mexicans are extremely hostile toward non Mexicans). I don’t give a fuck’. I thought that maybe he is right, I was in his country, you don’t know how the waters flow. I told him that he didn’t have to take the girls. The girls were shaking so much and crying a lot. We actually prevented that situation, we made a wall around the girls, it helped that we were tall. But he had a gun; I thought maybe he would shoot us all. But he didn’t and it worked. The girls were very grateful”.

“It was so hot in Mexico. There is a lot of danger. We had to cross a river called the Rio Bravo, the angry river in English; it is full of mud and rapids. Many people die trying to cross it. It is about 600 meters. I also got cactus spikes stuck in my right leg, it was hard to walk”. I asked Alberto what they took with them on their one month trip, “just a little backpack with canned food and 2 gallons of water”. “One night we crossed a river in the middle of the night and took a really quick shower in the river, it was a full moon, we saw some girls showering, and then we got dressed. We crossed some land, we came out of the bushes to some land and people were staring at us, they were annoyed because we were not local people. They told us to get out, we walked another 45 minutes and waited for the train, but it didn’t pass. We didn’t eat for four days and we ran out of water for a day, maybe more. It was hot but the night was so cold. We tried to buy food; we found a shop, the only shop in the whole place. The guy wouldn’t serve us because if someone saw him he said that he would get into trouble. We were so desperate. We saw some mango trees and went to them, but we couldn’t climb it, it was actually kind of funny because when we were resting we heard the mangoes fall on the ground and then we heard the pigs running and grunting, it wasn’t funny at all at the time but we were like “Noooo, that’s our mangoes”, we had to fight with the pigs for the mangoes, pigs. We ate maybe 2 or 3 mangoes a day for two days. We were surviving, that’s what we had to do. When you are in that situation you can trust nobody, people want to make money out of you”.

“In the end someone warned us that the police were coming, in Mexico the police don’t protect you like they should, they would hurt you, so we just ran. Then we walked along the train tracks. In the middle of the night we found a place to sleep, we had no food again for 2 days. We heard footsteps, a little boy (11 years) was riding a horse and he said to us ‘Hey, what are you guys doing here, this is my dad’s property’ so we told him the truth, we need water and food. He wanted to help us, his mum was actually a Guetamalteca girl, and this helped. Her husband was a really nice man, he was Mexican. He bought the food and the woman cooked it, she made us a huge Tomale for all of us with meat, beans and sauce. It tasted like heaven; it was the best food I had on the whole trip”.

The Border

“The border is in Tijuana, TJ we call it. It is a horrible place, in Mexico people are hostile toward us, if you are in a Taxi or anything you can’t speak. Even though we are the same colour, they just know you’re not from Mexico. I don’t know how”. Tijuana and San Diego are both known as the busiest land border for crossing in the world. “The first time we crossed we got sent back to Mexico, we were tired; everything was done so we just gave up and accepted. We hadn’t eaten for days and were hiding in a bush. Afterwards we tried and the America security guards actually gave the Central Americans a 3 month permit but not the Mexicans. In America I had to find a lawyer and go to court and convince them why I have to stay in America. I wasn’t allowed to speak on the trial. They took all my files and just left me, I don’t know why. It was good because I had my 3 month stamp, I just over stayed, but I feared getting sent back. I didn’t have to pay the traffickers the rest because the deal is that they get us into America safely, but we got caught”.

Life in America

“It was not what I expected, after three years in America (2009) I really wanted to come back home, I missed my friends and family. I was working hard as a ‘finisher’ in the cement business. I was making my own money which was good; I was sending it back home”.

Remittances can actually help address problems associated with long term global inequality. “According to official figures at the World Bank, people from poorer countries working in rich ones, send home some $160 billion a year in remittances, informally they are reckoned’ to send home $340 billion a year. That makes $480 billion, that is 6 times the amount of official development aid, going directly to families’ (Legrain, 2007,p. 20). ‘Migration is good for the country to which they go and it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come from’ (Galbraith, 2005, p.1). Just think about that fact, it is a less patronising way of helping people from poorer countries without aid; it also helps our countries by improving our economy. It is basically a win-win situation for everyone. We will come to the “oh but they take our jobs” part later. For now take it away Alberto.

“That is the point of migrating, you don’t spend the money on yourself that it what people don’t understand. When your family are in Guatemala living on tortillas and suffering because they miss you, you have to help them. We pay rent and bills and get the rest and send it back, that is why we leave. I still wanted to go home, I wanted to be free again, I was trapped in a different place. The culture, the language, everything was different. Even with my friends and my brothers, I was lonely and desperate. I stayed for my brother, uncles and family. It was a good decision because when my mum was really sick I was there for her, not in person, I wasn’t there for her when she died but I helped pay for everything, and she didn’t have to worry about the medicine and the food. Me and my brother paid off all of her bills”.

“My grandmother called me, on a rainy afternoon on the weekend, it was cold. She was crying so I asked her, why are you crying, when she told me my grandfather had died. The whole world stopped because he was like my dad who left me when I was just 2 years old. He taught me everything. A lot of things, how to work with electricity, how to, what do you call it, be a carpenter. When you come from a country like Guatemala you have to do anything and everything to be a man. Responsible. A worthy man. Your worth is more important than anything. I was crying, I told her he was in a better place. My grandfather and grandmother were really in love, they cared for each other a lot. He respected her. I still keep his harmonica that he gave me. He played with it all the time; I still don’t know how to play it. I remember the dark nights and how I would remember him lay down in his hammock playing his harmonica. I had it sent to me when I arrived in America. I didn’t bring it on the trip. I don’t even want to imagine ever losing it”.

“My mum passed away in 2010. They called my uncle first and my uncle was the one to tell me. It was a Thursday night when I arrived to his home. I know my mum was really sick with cancer, diabetes and partly blind. But when he told me the news, he said ‘I am going to tell you something but you have to be strong’. I just knew, I sat down and cried. Took a seat for a while. I thought maybe I have enough money to fly back home, but why? I couldn’t see her again, she couldn’t ever feel me again, she couldn’t hear me again. I cried a lot. Then I stopped and knew that she wasn’t suffering anymore, she was finally resting. She was such a strong women, you know, fighting cancer for 8 months. The hardest part now was telling my little sister. I am supposed to be the clown of the family, the funny one, now I was in charge. Dorian my sister, I couldn’t tell her. What I did was I went to her apartment, she was curious to why I came round at 9pm; I usually go round in the afternoon or the morning. I told her that I just came to see her. The Next day, I took her to where some of my families were and when we opened the door she saw the people crying. At this point in our conversation, Alberto began to cry a little. “what is going on” my sister said, and my Aunt said “ You didn’t tell her?”. One of them told her and she screamed, she didn’t believe it. “Why didn’t you tell me” she asked me. I just hugged her and we cried together in each other’s arms. My brother was the same. We didn’t get to say good bye to our mum and that is what hurt the most. I am never going to see her again. In 2012 a couple of years later my grandmother died, she had experienced the death of her family and now it was her turn. It was a different kind of pain. It hurt but it was different. Now they all rest in the cemetery in Ocos.

‘The America Dream’

“It is impossible as an immigrant to live the American dream because you are sending everything back to your family. Nobody understands this. I earned about $120 a day, but in America it is just enough to get by, our rent for me and my brother is $900 a month and that is cheap, my sister is paying $1200 a month. The Latin American community in America is also hard, some are really nice guys. If they have a small business they will give you a job but they don’t pay enough. Your own people fuck with you. They should pay us $100 but they pay us $70. An American owner will pay better but right now it is hard to get a job because you need a green card “social security”, if it is false they won’t employ you right now, because of that machine that scans the card.

“There is also a lot of racism in America. For example in Sanctuary City in Texas when you arrive you have to leave, because they just hate you. They don’t like Latinos or Blacks so it is hard to work. Many people just leave their homes and become broke because they are so exploited, they will pay a white person $20 and us maybe $8 or $12 maybe. But we are so important; we work harder for less money. We work in vegetables, picking fruits stuff like that, if we weren’t there, the productivity would drop. They don’t do it because they don’t want to, it is really hard work. They don’t want to us to “take their jobs” and when they hear “lets make America great again”, they get all excited. Latinos work hard but they just don’t like us. Maybe it is because we are ugly? I don’t know.

Donald Trump – What would you say to Donald trump?

“I wouldn’t say anything to him. He doesn’t deserve to be given a name. That is what makes him powerful. You know he won’t stop us from coming over. He will just make it harder for us, more expensive. It is $10,000 now to cross the border that is $4,000 more than 5 years ago. The traffickers will just make more and more money. The wall will make it even more expensive and way more dangerous. So many more people will die for sure. But we will always find a way, we will dig a tunnel”.

Alberto was sent back to Guatemala after being in America for 11 years. He is currently waiting to hear back from the embassy. “I don’t try and think about, I just have to wait”. “Allan my brother is helping me, sending me money, he is the best, I have no words to define him, my first brother he has always been there for all of us. The 6 brothers (two girls and 4 boys)”.

So, there you have it. The Story of the ‘illegal immigrant’. Since my travels and I meet people like Alberto, I realise that we are no different from each other. I feel that in the West our attitudes are becoming hardened and we have removed ourselves from the whole (humanity and nature). while I cannot comprehend racism or the hardship that poverty brings. My white privilege is unfair. Yet, I am also aware that our place of birth (our gender, race, economic status) does not define who we are, we are all human beings, part of one animal kingdom. and…we have the potential to create a better world.

In short,
Let’s not build a wall. Let’s not dig tunnels. Let’s build a bridge.
Thanks for reading
Written by
Alberto and Beth Dicken.

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