An exclusive extract from new book Solito, Solita, in which young Central American migrants describe the dangers and traumas of trying to reach and settle in the United States.
Age at crossing: 35
Age of child: 12
Born in: Jucuarán, Usulután, El Salvador
Interviewed in: San Luis Potosí, Mexico in transit
La Casa de la Caridad is a migrant shelter run by Caritas, an organization developed by the Catholic Church to promote social welfare. The shelter is adjacent to the train tracks. We notice signs for a shelter across the tracks that we later learn had been placed there by a crime organization for the express purpose of luring migrants into being kidnapped. On the outside, Casa de la Caridad is completely nondescript: another cement structure with no windows and one door with a small sign reading, “Ring bell 24 hours a day, Casa del Migrante.” Inside, it is the most expansive of the shelters we visit in Mexico. It takes up a good portion of the block, with an outdoor basketball court surrounded by a gigantic mural made by migrants, large sleeping quarters with rows of bunk beds, and a full industrial kitchen.
We speak with Rosa in a large meeting room in July 2016. Rosa and her daughter, Alejandra, are traveling with Rosa’s sister and her daughter, as well as Rosa’s brother. Escaping threats by gangs and a death squad, they fled El Salvador only to be assaulted in southern Mexico. At every step of the journey Rosa and her family don’t know whom to trust. They are hoping to receive Mexican visas that will let them travel safely to the US border, where they can turn themselves over to US immigration agents and apply for asylum. Rosa is the only one in her family to speak with us at length. She is clearly traumatized by the recent assaults but wants their story to be heard. This is the only time we are able to speak with Rosa.
I DON’T HAVE A HAPPY MEMORY THERE
I was born in Jucuarán, a town in the province of Usulután.1 In Jucuarán, the people are peasants who work in the fields, growing corn, beans. I moved to Chirilagua, San Miguel, as a child because my mamá lived there.2 It’s very pretty. It’s a village in the mountains. To get to the town, it takes about a half hour.
I lived in the city of San Miguel when I was with my late boyfriend, my daughter’s father. I don’t have a happy memory there. I moved there when I was fourteen and lived there for fourteen years. My boyfriend and I met at a store. He spoke to me and invited me to go out to eat. We went to the movies, and then we started to fall in love. He’d call me on the phone, and I would talk to him.
His family would go around to ferias.3 There were mechanical games, Ferris wheels, things of that sort. His mother, my daughter’s grandmother, owned the mechanical games, and we also went around selling enredos, toasted plantains, fried potatoes with cheese.4 I was working with his mother, and then I got pregnant and had my daughter. We always traveled from town to town. Then my boyfriend went to work in the United States, in a pizzeria. He got sick and came back to set up a pizzeria in El Salvador. I worked with him there. He eventually died of heart and kidney malfunction. He’s been dead for seven years.
After he died, I rented a house and lived with another man for seven years in Capulín, about a half hour away from Chirilagua. It’s a remote district. There are just a few houses.
I fought for my child. I started to sell potatoes, corn tostadas, enredos, soup, churros – I used to sell everything. I’d sell them from house to house. I’d go out at four in the morning to buy ingredients in remote places and come back to the house at ten. I’d make the food and then go out and sell it. During the Annona season, I’d buy the peeled Annonas and go sell them.5
We left El Salvador on May 22, 2016. There are a lot of gangs there. They said that they were going to kill us. They wanted to kill my brother, and because of this we all left. In El Salvador there is a gangster’s code that minors and women who have communications with anyone are killed. For example, if they saw me, a woman, here chatting with you, they would kill us just out of jealousy.
The government also secretly sends around vigilante squads, like La Sombra Negra, to “clean up” all areas.6 They go around killing young people, families. This is recent. It hasn’t even been a year since it started. They dress like military police in green and black. They wear hats, black gloves, sunglasses, and tall boots. At first, they came close to my house. They only go around in armored luxury cars. With their tinted windows, they can see outside, but you can’t see inside. They have a list of all the people they want to kill. They killed my friend. They killed seven people nearby. Then they came to our house looking for my brother. They go around killing mareros and also people who aren’t even pandilleros.7 They go looking for someone at one house and the people there tell them about someone else, and then they go looking for that person. They take people out into the street to torture them. They come by late at night, at midnight, and knock on the door when everyone is asleep. When they first arrive, they throw a canister of gas, and when the person walks by, they shoot him and cause an explosion so he burns.
The truces between the gangs began in 2012, so there wouldn’t be more deaths. Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who became president in 2014, initiated the truce but changed his mind and called the truce off.8
My brother is twenty-one. Some men came looking for him like a week before we left, and then they came again the night before we left. I think they were La Sombra Negra, and they seemed to think my brother was a gangster. He was sleeping in the jungle. They went to look for him but didn’t find him. I told him that we should leave. He didn’t want to go, but I said that I was going to go. I already knew the way to the Guatemalan border because I had traveled there before. My dad suggested that my brother go. He was the youngest son. Our father didn’t want him to get killed. If they have someone they’re looking for, they kill everyone in the family, even if you aren’t in a gang. They set people on fire. They leave white pieces of paper stuck to the bodies with tape, put tape on people’s mouths, and tie up their hands and feet with cables. They put photos on the internet, sometimes showing people with big holes in their chests. Look for the pagina azul.9
THE GIFT OF NOT KILLING HER
We left at dawn. We were a group of five: my brother, my sister and her daughter, and me and my daughter. My dad had already taken out a $500 loan from the bank so that we could flee. My brother usually held on to the money for our trip. We first paid for bus tickets from El Salvador to the Guatemalan border.
Approaching Guatemala, we climbed over a hill. It was raining. We walked almost all day to get to the border. Because my daughter is a minor, she doesn’t have a passport, and I didn’t have a parental permission form because I didn’t have the chance to get one.10 Because we didn’t have the permit, we couldn’t cross the border legally, and we had to go all the way around the checkpoint. We walked around lost in the mountains. We had to endure hunger, worrying that maybe La Migra would catch us, or that a pandillero would rape or kill us. Then, at night, we stopped a tractor and some guys helped us. One guy took us to a gas station and from there to Tecún Umán.11 We drove all night and then the next morning at ten, he left us there to get a combi to travel to the river between Guatemala and Mexico.12 At first the van operators told us that we couldn’t go in the van. I had to pay for the tickets. The van then took us part-way to Tapachula, where we crossed the river.13
On the other side of the border, the Mexican Migra kept following us from block to block.14 We were running like crazy. A guy helped us escape, and we got in another van to get to Tapachula. We looked for a hotel. We stayed a day, and the next day we left Tapachula. We made friends with another guy and kept going with him. We walked for days, through the jungle, risking our lives, not meeting anyone. We would take a van for a while, walk for a while. When there were immigration checkpoints, we went around, sometimes walking all day without eating. Our route was from Tapachula to Chahuites, walking through the jungle in the mountains at night.15 We passed through Mapastepec, Pijijiapan, and Arriaga. Then from Chahuites we went to Ixtepec.
We had changed our money into Mexican pesos. I was carrying fifteen hundred.16 My sister and brother were carrying two thousand each. I was with the kids, my brother, and another guy. These men came up to us, looked through our brother’s backpack, and said they were the police. They wanted to take our daughters away. They said, “You’re trafficking minors.” They asked me, “Are you her mother?” But they weren’t the police. They were dressed like private citizens, like anyone else. Another man intervened and asked, “Where are you from?” Another said, “Don’t move! We’re going to check your bags. We’re the police.” After that they said, “Stay here. Don’t move!” We were really scared. They told us, “Don’t be scared.”
We told them, “We can’t stay here. We have to go on.” After they let us go, we left at about noon for another town. It might have been Mapastepec. I don’t remember what town it was, and there was a car following us. Every block we walked these men were following us in their white four-door car. We walked one more block, and they were one block down watching us. We walked another block and then started running. In the end we ran and walked so much that for a little while we lost them, and we got in a van. They followed us for many days. We walked in the jungle, climbed hills, mountains. We’d catch vans. We had to give the van drivers money so they’d let us off one kilometer before the checkpoints, and then we could avoid the men by going through the jungle. Sometimes the van drivers would tell us, “When you go, be careful because there are thieves. They assault, rape, everything. Especially taking your children, you are more at risk.”
We were walking through the jungle at four in the morning. You couldn’t see anything. Thank God the thieves were sleeping because they didn’t come out. Later on, we arrived in Arriaga, where we stayed for five days.17 We traveled on from Arriaga.
It was raining again. It was pitch black. Under a bridge there was a big lagoon. La Migra were going around in patrol cars. When we saw that they were turning around with their colored lights— blue, red, and yellow—we left the road and threw ourselves into the lagoon. We got all wet and ran to a hill. When we got to the other side of the hill, I realized my sister was still stuck on the other side of the water. The immigration police were so close. Everyone was running, and I got stuck in a chain-link fence. It seemed like there was no way to get unstuck and everyone was running. All my clothes tore apart on the fence. La Migra was so close to catching me!
We walked all night and slept an hour.
I also lost track of Alejandra, as well as the others, when thieves assaulted us. They stole some of our money; they took everything. It was June 18, 2016, my sister’s birthday. They gave her the gift of not killing her. I ran one way and my daughter ran the other way. Then I was lost in the jungle. I ran from the thieves and went to a gas station. The owner gave me a mattress so that I could sleep there. There were people coming in, and I was scared that immigration would come, that they’d see me sleeping there.
At dawn the next day I wanted to pay for a cab to get away because the thieves had left me two hundred pesos, but my heart wouldn’t let me go because I had a feeling that my daughter was in danger. I was distressed for her and went to the hotel in Chahuites, because before we got separated, we had all said a prayer and planned to meet there. I paid a guy on a motorcycle to take me under the bridge past La Migra. I found my daughter at the hotel, all beaten up. She couldn’t even stand up. And after a half hour, the rest of the group arrived as well. They smelled awful, with nothing, naked, as if they were monkeys. I was crying because I thought that they’d killed my sister. My brother was followed all night. I was the last to arrive. I found my daughter, sister, niece, and brother there. My sister told me that, after we’d all been separated, she had found her daughter and they’d met a man who took them into his home. For an entire day my sister and her daughter had stayed in that man’s house, where they could take a shower and sleep, waiting for us to walk down that road. But we never did. We stayed at the hotel for twenty-five days because my sister couldn’t walk. The hotel owners gave her pills for the pain. The night of the assault was the most tragic night of my life.
It turned out the thieves had assaulted both families that night. In the jungle, they’d grabbed my niece by the hair and tried to rape her, and ended up stealing 3,800 pesos. They were all dressed in black and were carrying machetes, guns, and a flashlight that was the same color as the flashlights of the immigration police. There were ten of them, and they formed a circle. My niece was held inside the men’s circle. They were telling her to give them the money. “Where are you carrying la lana?18 Take it out,” they were saying. They lifted my sister high up above their heads in the air and then she fell front first. She landed very hard and cried out. My sister thought they were La Migra but asked herself, How is it that La Migra is going around at this hour at night? It’s scary to go into the jungle at night. The hotel owner later told us that La Migra doesn’t go there because they’re scared that people will kill them there in the jungle. I asked a woman at the hotel who those men were. She told me, “they’re not La Migra. They are a pandilla.19 They assault and rape women and kill men.”
MAYBE ONE DAY YOU CAN GET TO THE OTHER SIDE
Was it worth it? When you leave home, you never know that you’re going to suffer so much. You think the road is going to be easy, but it’s not. I think it’s worth it to look for a better life because in El Salvador there’s so much poverty. There are days you don’t even eat because there’s no work. There’s no money. You always look for the best for your family, thinking maybe one day you can get to the other side and work.
Everything is in a legal report on the assault that the Mexican police wrote after questioning us. It has the same story I’m telling you. The government typed this up two days after we were assaulted. They said that they were going to give us a military transit visa. We went to the immigration office today to get the permit, which we need before the visa.20 Now that we have the permit, I can go to request visas for my daughter and me, and my sister can do the same for herself and her daughter. When we go, we’ll leave our daughters here at the shelter. They’re going to tell me how long it will be before we get the visas. Supposedly it will take thirty days. Then we can continue north. From here, I think we can go by train. It doesn’t matter. As long as we have the permit, Mexican immigration won’t touch us. The food here at the shelter is not very good. They cook rice and beans, but they do it very differently. In El Salvador, we don’t use much chili.
I want to keep going until I get to the United States. I have a friend in Virginia from our hometown who’s going to help us. She lived six houses down from where we lived in San Miguel. She’s been in Virginia for a long time now, working at the Salvadoran embassy. She told me to turn myself in to the US Border Patrol, and then when I’m on the other side she will welcome me. We have some family in the United States, my mom’s nephews, but we can’t rely on them. We’re not in contact with them. They are mojados, just like us.21 When they were poor like us, we got along, but since they went to the United States they feel more important. My friend in Virginia who will pick me up with my daughter can submit legal papers for me. She’s a citizen there. We want to apply for asylum. When I get to the United States, I want to work. I’ll do whatever work I can do in order to care for my daughter. She was going to fourth grade, but before we left I took her out of school. She’s twelve now. I want to put her in school in America, far from the dangers in El Salvador.
Usulután is the largest department, or state, in El Salvador by land and is located on the Pacific coast.
San Miguel is the third most populous city in El Salvador, and is 138 kilometers east of the capital, San Salvador. It is also the capital of the state of the same name.
Spanish for “fair.”
Enredos are a fried Salvadoran street food, typically made with yucca.
Annonas are a Salvadoran fruit, also known as custard apple.
La Sombra Negra, “the Black Shadow,” was the name attributed to US-sponsored death squads during the civil war in El Salvador. ere has been a recent resurgence of death squad-style slayings of suspected gang members, along with girlfriends, family members, and children who are not in the gangs. Some claim they are off-duty military or police, while others say they are law-and-order vigilantes.
Both marero and pandillero are terms for gang members, though pandillero is more general and can refer to any type of gang.
For more on the truce, see “Historical Timeline.”
Spanish for “blue page.” Rosa is referring to a Facebook page, now closed, called “Héroe Azul” (Blue Hero), allegedly administered by policemen of the Policía Nacional Civil, which published pictures of murders as they happened.
The Mexican National Institute of Migration requires special documentation for minors traveling through the country.
A Guatemalan city close to the border with Mexico, named after the last ruler of the K’iche’ Mayas.
The combi is a van-taxi that operates like a small bus.
Tapachula is Mexico’s southernmost city located in the state of Chiapas, at the border with Guatemala. It is the main center of migration to Mexico from southern countries.
Chahuites is a Mexican city approximately 248 kilometers from Tapachula.
Fifteen hundred pesos was about $86 US in 2016.
The distance between Mapastepec and Arriaga is 146 kilometers.
In Mexico, money is often referred to as lana, or wool.
Spanish for “gang.” See glossary.
Victims of violence in Mexico can apply for visas that allow them to travel through the country. In the Mexican bureaucracy, they first get a permit and then have to go to another office to get a visa.
Mojados or wetbacks are derogatory slang terms sometimes used to describe (and sometimes used by) undocumented immigrants. See glossary.
Edited by Steven Mayers and Jonathan Freedman (Haymarket Books, 2019)
To buy Solito, Solita, visit www.haymarketbooks.org