BORN: Campeche, Mexico
STATUS: Undocumented, but DACA application is in process
FAMILY: Lives with mother in the U.S., father deported to Mexico
MAJOR: Business (graduated with the highest grade point average in the College of Business and Management)
H.S. can close his eyes and painstakingly recount his passage into the United States in astonishing detail, describing sounds heard in moonless nights, smells along treacherous trails, the rumble of the truck engine, and each day as it unfolded during the five-day journey. Traveling in a group of about 15 people, H., age 12, was the youngest among them, making sure to keep up with his mother and father as they scaled steep hills, slept under the stars, endured extreme thirst, and stayed out of sight.
H.’s parents first traveled to the U.S. several years before, when H. was about 7 or 8 years old. He lived with his grandmother in Mexico while his mother and father earned their wages picking fruit and vegetables for a farmer in New York before being deported to Mexico. Once back, they established a small business, but were unable to sustain it, so they decided to return to the U.S., making the difficult decision to risk bringing H. this time.
“I think my mom had depression when they left me the first time they went to the U.S.,” H. said. “She missed me, so they struggled with the decision about whether to take me this time. Mom asked me and talked to me about it. In my mind, I imagined it would be a beautiful place with different seasons and the chance to see snow.”
With a pre-dawn departure and tearful good-byes to his grandmother, H. and his family began their journey by truck, plane, taxi and foot, led by a man known only as “the Coyote.” Traveling with constant vigilance, H.’s family endured each day’s punishing heat and each night’s bitter cold as they rationed food and water, overcame extreme fatigue, and talked mostly in whispers.
Safely arriving in the U.S., H. and his parents spent one-and-a-half year California working in fields and groves to harvest oranges, olives, tangerines, eggplant and other produce in season. H. excelled in school and played soccer, gradually learning English and occasionally taking breaks from school as his family moved temporarily to areas that needed migrant workers.
After he finished 8th grade, H. and his family moved to Wisconsin where his uncle lived to pursue industrial jobs instead of the field work of California. From there, his father soon moved to Pennsylvania to make a living building and repairing swimming pools, leaving H. and his mother in Wisconsin where H. enrolled at St. Anthony High School.
“When winter came, my dad worked shoveling snow. Then a guy didn’t want to pay him for his work, so he sent immigration and my dad was deported. It was a hard time. There wasn’t that financial support anymore.”
Then, during an attempt to return to the U.S., H.’s dad was kidnapped by Los Zetas, one of the most violent and ruthless in drug cartels in Mexico.
“It was a Sunday and Mom got a call,” said H., who was 14 or 15 at the time. “She woke me up so worried. ‘Los Zetas are calling you,’ she told me in Spanish. And that’s something you never expect or imagine will happen to you. I took the call and a guy basically said, ‘I have your father, so I’ll give you a bank account with a name, and you can deposit $3,000. If not, you’ll face the consequences.”
In shock, he asked to talk with his father. When his dad came on the line, he told H. he had to pay the men. They scrambled to gather the money and his father was released. But now his father is resigned to stay in Mexico, staying in contact with his family and receiving money and support from them.
H. finished high school while working to help his mom with finances. He applied to several schools and didn’t really consider Cardinal Stritch University until a friend encouraged him to apply. When he saw his financial aid package, he enrolled and met people who welcomed and nurtured him during a difficult four years when he had to work full-time to support his family.
First encounter with the law
“I had no idea where the Coyote took us, but I remember it was all desert. We encountered the federal police. The only thing I remember is the guy said, ‘Good luck,’ so I’m sure some transaction went on. He was dressed all in black, had a rifle and a helmet.”
Literally lying low
“I told the Coyote I heard a car. He said to run and jump over by the long grass and lay down. It was a patrol car. The officer got out of the car and I remember seeing him approach us in the distance. Tears started coming down and in my head I was wondering what happened. Then cattle started running, and I think he just thought it was that, and they left. I felt so relieved. What a good feeling! We kept walking after he left, but I kept hearing cars now. I told the guy again, ‘I hear a car,’ and we did the same procedure again, laying down in the grass. But it was a false alarm. It was all in my head.”
Difficult terrain
“It got so dark, with no moon. I had no idea how the guy knew the road. We were holding hands tightly, branches hitting our faces. We walked all night. Then we got to a little hill where it was all rocks. It seemed so dangerous. My parents were in their 40s and, to me, they were old. At my age, I felt invincible. I’m young, but in my head, I worry for my parents. You have to be especially careful where you step because things live underneath rocks.”
Change in direction
“[The Coyote] told us we had to take a longer road because there was too much movement going on where he usually walks. What usually takes three days took us five days because he said we had to go around a mountain. We only prepared provisions for three days.”
Unexpected shrine
“Walking through two big rocks, there was a hole and in it was an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Most Mexicans pray and are devoted to her. There were candles, half consumed. One was still lit out of the four or five in the hole. It seemed someone had been there recently. It was nice to know a human presence other than our group was there. It make me feel like we were going the right way, too.”
Threats of ambushes
“Guys from drug cartels work together – they rob people, rape women, take kids, do human trafficking. One part of the road seemed very scary. I kept hearing things, trying to use all my senses as it was getting darker and shadows were coming out. I knew we had some money with us. My mom exchanged Mexican currency into dollars and put it in her hair with a bit of dark cloth. She braided the money into her hair, so I kept looking at her hair during that time.”
Oh, the spiders!
“We kept finding tarantulas – a lot of them – and they were so big. One guy wore brown boots up to his shin and didn’t seem afraid of the tarantulas. He’d step on them and the sound they made was horrendous.”
Wondering what happened to the shoeless man
“There was a guy, I believe in his 20s, 23 at the most. I don’t remember his face, but I have an image of him. The sole of his shoe fell and he said he wasn’t going to continue that day. And we’re like, ‘No, we can’t leave the guy.’ I think the guy understood that our guide was not going to sacrifice 12 people for one person. One, because each head has a cost. And all we are to him is money. So he wasn’t going to sacrifice $13,000 for $1,000. So one lady asked us if we had any clothes so he could tie as much as he could on his foot and throw that shoe away. So he did that and said, ‘I guess I’ll be OK to walk.’ The road had so many rocks, you can’t walk on it without a shoe. So he managed to walk a little bit with that. When I used to pray, I would always pray for him. I never knew what happened to him afterward even though he did make it with us. He was by himself when he walked with us, no family with him or anything. So I didn’t know anything about the guy, but I always wondered. I’m hoping that he’s OK and I’m hoping he tells his story, too.”
Treasures – and a shoe! – along the road
“We started walking along the road and I made up a game. People leave things along the road, so I kept looking for shoes for the guy along the road. We’d walk and look around. I’d tell my dad, ‘There’s a shoe!’ But some seemed too small or were very torn, so we’d keep walking. Finally, we found a shoe that fit and did the job.”
“We finally ran out of water. I remember my mom gave me a piece of lime and I bit on it, little by little. It got my mind distracted from drinking water. The citric flavor was sort of refreshing.”
Filtering water
“There was a place that we found that seemed inhabited but there was some cattle excrement. I’m guessing it was where they would drink water, like a little pond. But it seemed so dirty; you could see algae. It looked bad, but it was water. That’s what counted. My dad grabbed his shirt and got the shirt wet. Then he poured the water from the shirt in the gallon. That way a little bit of the dirt could get filtered. So he did that and that’s how we drank water. It seemed gross, but it wasn’t at the time. It was delicious. It was water. And we saved a little bit of that. My mom actually had some of that water in a bottle. She kept it for years. It was just a reminder of what you go through. It marks your purpose of coming to the U.S. It marks the American dream, which means a lot. And every time we would see that bottle of water, we’d talk about the story between us, what happened, and we’d remember things. My dad didn’t talk much about it. He was a little more serious about it. But I think he was proud of me for making it.”
Gallons of water left in sand
“We saw gallons of water still sealed and left in the sand. I asked my dad why the water was there and he said Native Americans leave those to help us out. They cannot help us directly because it’s against the law. But, by leaving the gallons, they are doing a lot.”
Education a goal
“In California, my dad would take me to the fields to work every weekend. He would say you have to do this with us so you can see what life is like without an education. That’s always what he said. … What hurt the most was seeing my parents work that hard for not that much money. They wouldn’t talk about it and there were no complaints, but you could see in their eyes that this is not what they wanted.”
Meaningful literature
“In middle school I read The Circuit” book series by Dr. Francisco Jimenez, a professor at Santa Clara University in California. And as we started reading his book, it described basically what I had just lived. It was my story. It was most of the things that I was experiencing or experienced on my way to the U.S. or when we got to the U.S. And just to know there were similar stories out there kind of makes you feel good. It also makes you want to tell your story to inspire others. So I always remember this book.”
“We also read “Reaching Out,” the butterfly book by Dr. Francisco Jimenez and how he identifies with the different stages of being a butterfly. And when the butterfly finally comes out with its beautiful wings, it gets the feeling of liberty and flying and reaching out for things. Butterflies overall in the Mexican culture are very symbolic because they are the definition of what migration is. There are no barriers for them.”
Battled hardships to get through school
“For a time while at Stritch, my mom and I didn’t have a place to live. I had to take a third-shift job, working every day from midnight to 8 a.m., and then I had a class at 9 a.m. But I still managed to go to school. One of my high school friends let us live in his house. This just made me a stronger person and gave me a work ethic, but I never thought of leaving school.”
DACA in process
“Many lawyers denied me the chance to apply for DACA because I wasn’t able to produce proof from two months that I was in the U.S. The only solid proof I had was my school record, which started in August. But they needed to see proof dating back to June. So a lawyer told me a letter from a religious institution was valid if I was able to get a letter from a priest. After I came to Stritch, I met a professor who connected me to Sergio Magaña, who was an immigration lawyer. So I asked him about that letter and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s valid. If you’re able to get it, I can help you file your documents.’ So I contacted a priest in the archdiocese of Milwaukee and I told him about the situation. He was able to communicate with the priest in California, who then I contacted and he was able to provide the letter. And now my paperwork is in process. I’m so excited about the future and the possibility of getting my work permit.”
Job-hopping part of his education, survival
“As an undocumented immigrant, someone might ask me, ‘Why do you constantly change jobs? Why is it that you’re constantly moving?’ In my situation, you always have to look for your next best salary because there’s not much you can do unless you really have connections. So I had to constantly move to see where I could get more money, even a little bit more at least. However, every single job that I had, each was such a different experience where I learned different skills, including how to adapt to different cultures at different companies, and I experienced things that were not in my comfort zone. …So by the time I entered my final semester at Stritch, I had zero debt and I paid off my car as well.”
The importance of telling my story
“To me it’s just another story, a common story, nothing special. But with the uncertainty and the things that are happening now, if I can change someone’s perspective or even influence someone a little bit, that’s enough, I think. …My last semester, I became involved in Dreamers Welcome. I’m glad there are people like myself in the same situation and are trying to create opportunities for others. I’m very excited and happy for the people who run the organization, because I know that even though I wasn’t able to take that initiative, there is someone that’s going to do that. It shows that people care, that we’re not alone. When people ask me, I’m open. I don’t mind giving details about my story, because what I went through made me the person that I am and gave me the values that I have. I always try to turn those experiences into positives. Always. If I could do it again, I’d do every single thing that same. I’m happy in life. I’m grateful for what I have. I owe so much to Stritch, and I look forward in the future to giving back.”
Grateful for Stritch
“Hopefully I can make a little change in someone’s life, influence them a little bit. I’m really grateful for all the people I’ve had in my life. The professors, my friends…I always appreciate a smile in the hallway.”
Worried still, even with DACA a possibility?
“There is always that worry of my mom being deported. It’s just that deep fear, that feeling that someone can take something that you’ve worked hard for. I was talking to one of my classmates and she was describing the same feeling. I don’t know who hates me in this school, what faces smile at me that don’t want me here, to them I’m not welcome here. I would recommend that everyone listen to people’s stories. Even if you don’t change your mind, at least get educated on the topic and appreciate a little bit more of what you have. Appreciate that you were born in U.S., that you’re a privileged person.”
Family support
“At times, friends are closer than family that was here. But I always get support from my family in Mexico, too. They are really proud of me, I think. I cannot talk to my grandma on camera – I’ll cry if I do. But I recently saw my father for the first time in eight years on camera because he started using the phone. …My mom always said that once I finish school. She’ll be good. That’s her main goal. And I did it.”