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.”
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.”
“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.
“Iowa? Boy, is it cold there!”
“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.