Central America: Immigration Stories

As we travel, it’s common for locals the world over to ask us where we are from. In Asia, the response “The United States” was usually sufficient. In Europe, they didn’t ask; they assumed.

Not so in Central America. People were curious to know the states and often the towns and cities where we grew up, where we have lived. After sharing our details, it wasn’t uncommon to hear: “I had a cousin who lived there“, “Oh, I lived [nearby] for 15 years” or “My brother lives there.”

Old American School Bus - La Esperanza, Honduras
Honduras-American Cooperation?

Geography matters; that’s a given. But conversations in Central America serve up a reality check on how connected the United States and its neighbors to the south really are. Discussions on the street frequently offer another side of the immigration story, of those who have returned — by force or by choice — but have spouses and children that remain in the U.S.

Here are a few representative snapshots, including some humorous quotes in difficult situations.

“My Kids are Hicks.”

Deep in the recesses of the main market in Antigua, Guatemala, we ask the price of papayas and pineapples in our broken Spanish. The vendor, who calls himself T.C., responds in perfect American-accented English.

He explains: “I lived in the States – mostly in Kentucky – for 15 years. Yeah, my kids are hicks.”

His story: he married an American, his kids are American, but he was an illegal citizen and was deported three years ago. Now he’s juggling several jobs in Antigua – including selling fruit at the market – while he gathers the paperwork necessary to return legally to the U.S.

“I really like Bryn Mawr Girls.”

On our return from the market in Xela (Queztaltenango), Guatemala, we dropped in a local bar for a Saturday afternoon beer. We meet Eric (his Americanized name), a Xela native who tells us about dating a girl from Bryn Mawr (ironically, Audrey’s mother’s alma mater).

I really like Bryn Mawr girls,” he offered wistfully while recalling some classes he sat in on.

In an effort to make it to college, he managed to get GEDs in five different states (New York, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida). So it’s easy to collect high school diplomas, but what’s the most difficult aspect of living in the United States?

“I love Philadelphia. But the problem in the States is that everyone sees your skin and thinks you’re Mexican.”

Friendly Honduran Guy - La Esperanza, Honduras
Friendly guy in La Esperanza, Honduras.

“In the U.S., a contract is a contract”

While we were mashed between crowds during Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua, Guatemala, we began talking to an older Guatemalan man who had lived in Miami for 25 years.

I returned to Antigua to run a business and retire. If you just want to retire, living in Antigua is easy. Running a business here is difficult. In the U.S., a contract is a contract. Here, nothing is clear. An employee just stole an $80,000 piece of equipment from me. But I have to be careful about going after him to make sure he doesn’t have mafia behind him. I don’t want to end up dead.”

Readjusting to life – and business – back home is not always easy.

“I was once a Diamond Cab driver.”

We enter a very local, untouristed market in La Esperanza, Honduras and someone yells out “Hello! How are you?” We turn around to find a man selling medicines from a cardboard box.

Juan lived in the U.S. for three years, in three different cities. At one point, he was a Diamond Cab driver in Washington, DC. Now sells blister pack medicines out of a cardboard box. He was remarkably optimistic: “Business is better here in La Esperanza than in Marcala, my hometown. More people, more traffic.”

Maybe our paths crossed in a DC cab years ago. We’ll never know.

Santa Ana Vendors - Santa Ana, El Salvador
Vendor in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

“Iowa? Boy, is it cold there!”

In Juayua, El Salvador we were approached by a vendor selling wooden lizards. His interest: to practice his English.

I lived in Iowa for several years. Boy, is it COLD there! When I returned to El Salvador, everyone thought I was rich. The gangs in my hometown of Santa Ana told me I had to pay them $3,000 or I’d be in trouble. So I took my mother with me to Guatemala for three months to protect her from the gangs. Now it’s OK and we’re back in Santa Ana.”

We don’t know the circumstances of his return El Salvador (was it by choice or deportation?). Regardless, imagine returning home to gangs demanding money and threatening your family.

“I used to own two houses in Michigan.”

On a bus from Suchitoto, El Salvador we met Jorge. He had lived in the U.S. for 11 years. After eight years, he attempted to renew his work permit, but his application was rejected. At this point, he was already married to an American citizen and had two children. He decided to stay illegally, taking lesser paid jobs. Three years later he was deported.

He explained: “I used to have two houses in Michigan, but one foreclosed because we couldn’t afford it. My children have visited El Salvador once in the last three years. It’s difficult with their school schedule.”

Like so many others, he’s trying to get his paperwork in order so he can rejoin his family.

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Comments

  1. says

    This is really terrific! Thank you for doing this. I feel you’re doing the one thing most important in travel: opening up to others, to understand them and humanize them, until there is no more ‘us’ and ‘them’. You are doing important work, and I applaud you for it!

  2. says

    Really interesting post. I often wonder why someone would risk coming to this country illegally rather than trying to build a better life in their home (of course, for those who are being threatened by gangs, that might not be possible). To me, it seems more heartbreaking to build a life for 15 or 20 years in the U.S. and raise your children in the U.S. and THEN be deported, instead of just living and making a life elsewhere.

    And, part of the problem is certainly that the American judicial system has difficulty handling the quantity of illegal immigrants. Supposed illegal immigrants may be detained, even though they have not yet been ajudged in violation of the law, in prisons for months before their case can be heard by an immigration judge. Immigration judges are overwhelmed by their caseload and some cases may get short shrift. Most of these immigrants do not have attorneys and, though many request asylum, very very few asylum cases are granted.

  3. Lori says

    Dan and Audrey-
    Thanks for sharing these stories. Like you, I met several folks in Guatemala with some very sad sad stories. I think that the power of putting a human face on illegal immigrants cannot be underestimated.

    Akila asks why these people choose to risk so much by illegally immigrating to the U.S. instead of trying to build a better life for themselves in their home country.

    It’s a legitimate question that, really, can only be answered and understood by seeing the lives these people lead, the abject poverty and the dearth of any opportunity or hope to change their circumstances.

    By illegally immigrating to the U.S. when he was 16, working 2 jobs for 10 years, the son of the family that I lived with in Guatemala was able to save enough money to build a large new home for his extended family, start his own restaurant and have enough in savings to feed and clothe himself (and most of his extended family) for 3-5 years. That is something that simply would never ever have been possible for him to do in rural Guatemala (or, really, anywhere in Guatemala).

    There simply is no opportunity to speak of and even less “hope” for making a better life for themselves and their families. It’s just the way it is in a country that has almost no “rule of law” and is controlled by the wealthiest people who have little to no interest in seeing the peasants make any significant or sustainable gains.

  4. says

    what a fabulous piece! here’s hoping broken families reunite. I cannot even begin to imagine their pain. thank you for sharing this …

  5. says

    WOW-great blogsite ! Love the wonderful pictures . it’s so nice to be able to see when you can’t get there yourself-thank you !!Francis
    [duplicate link removed]

  6. steve says

    This may be true….but a lot of illegals come here for a decade or so, funneling money and material wealth back to their families who in turn, live like royalty. It would be enough to make any local envious. And make them resented in their own communities.

  7. says

    @Steve: As Lori mentioned in her comment above, the family she stayed with in Guatemala was able to build their big house because there were relatives who worked in the United States for years. All throughout Central America you can tell which families have a connection to the States or Europe because of the house. I do imagine that in some cases it can cause resentment with neighbors who are not able to build the same type of house and lifestyle.

    We also met some family members of immigrants in the United States who didn’t want us to photograph them for microfinance projects because they didn’t want their relative to find out that the money sent back wasn’t enough to support the family and they had to take a loan to build up a business. Sometimes the money sent back isn’t enough to survive. There are certainly many different and complicated immigration situations.

  8. Lori says

    @Steve-
    During my time in Guatemala, I did not, personally, witness any of the resentment you suggest. Instead, I observed that many were “happy for” those who had managed to improve their lot—even just a little bit. I never observed any of the “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality that is so prevalent in the U.S.

    And, while, the family I lived with did have a nice, large home, it did not have indoor plumbing or indoor heating and the family often did not have sufficient money for food each week. Also, there were three married couples and their children living in the home. Hardly living like “royalty”.

    I also heard stories of illegal immigrants who were murdered (for their money) right before they were to return home and many many who died at the hands of coyotes as they tried to get to the U.S. in search of “opportunity” to improve the lives of their families.

  9. Jessica says

    It sadness me, because I have been to el salvador 5 times in the past 2 years, my husband is there, and basically are living the life of many more american citizen women, like my self who is going through a sparation of borders! Although I am a mexican american, i truly love central america, its people are so sweet there… thanks for sharing!

  10. says

    Great article. I am a middle class Guatemalan who has traveled to the States several times. When I get to a public place, be it the airport, a mall or a convention center, and I see another Guatemalan cleaning restrooms, I feel sad to see the situation has pushed them into jobs nobody wants, but they are willing to take because of their families. And that in itself makes me proud of them, because those immigrants are not asking for a better life, they are working hard to get one, they are fighting in a ring where they are not welcomed, but where they have a chance to win. From my point of view, illigal immigration should stop, but it will only decrease when politicians realize they are earning insulting salaries compared to the income of the majority of citizens in Central America, who most of the time work to survive the day.

  11. says

    @Jose: Thank you for sharing this and adding your perspective on the situation. I agree that many immigrants in the States have to fight for making it in an environment when so much is against them – discrimination, legal issues, low pay, etc. And, it’s not that they are just fighting for their own survival, but for that of their family back home.

    I also look forward to a day when politicians are able to look at themselves — and their salaries – honestly and make changes to a system that encourages high income disparity between rich and poor.

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