A Place of Hope
This past week marks two years since I returned from a year-long stint living in Guatemala. Not a single day passes that I don’t revisit my experience there, the friends that became family, or the shear appreciation for another culture. While I faced hardships and endured daily struggles, these aren’t the memories I recall the most. Because, at the end of each day, my life wasn’t so bad. At any given time, I could return back to the US where I would have the ability to do and become anything that I dreamt.
I am fortunate beyond belief and blessed for every opportunity that I have had, and even more thankful for all of the opportunities that I have yet to create. But, I’m just one person that happens to hail from a country that has given me the ability to do so. It’s only unfortunate that it took 24 years for me to realize this. When I moved to Guatemala, I learned what it meant to be poor – to live day to day. I witnessed what true ‘hard work’ is. My idea of ‘struggle’ was only a figment of imagination relative to so many others.
In the midst of all that was challenging, not just for me, but the people I interacted with daily, I discovered what hope really meant. I realized that family is the most important thing I have, and I would do anything for them and vice versa. When I say anything, I truly mean anything. Family is the foundation of any home – and this was ever present in Guatemala.
What’s in the News?
Each morning I sit down to my cup of coffee. Before beginning any work related tasks, I read the paper and browse the news headlines. One of the most consistent topics for the past couple of months is focused on parents from Central American countries (Guatemala and Honduras), illegally sending their children across US borders. While some children whom are unaccompanied by parents, make it across the border to reunite with family, the reality is that far more are being detained.
This past July, border patrol agents in Rio Grande, TX, ‘captured’ over 5,000 unaccompanied children. In the months of May and June, the number was over 10,000 for each month. Think about it. In three months time, 20,000 children displaced from their families; 20,000 innocent lives (yes, they truly are innocent beings) uncertain as to what their future holds – without mom and without dad at their sides.
What will we do with our schools? Where are we going to place these children? The onslaught of questions begins. But the question I keep seeing is, “How could a parent do this to their own child?” Let me preface my response to this question with an explanation from my own life, and then I will respond based on my personal experience living in Guatemala.
My Parents Created Opportunities for Me
As I stated earlier, I am blessed to have opportunities and the ability to create them for myself. Without hesitation, I owe this to my parents. I am grateful for the Christmas my mom worked her normal day job, and third shift job so that all three kids could have a Christmas. I appreciate all the financial sacrifices that were made to send three children to private schools all thru high school. For the rest of my life, I will forever be indebted to my parents for where I am today. They provided the guidance and support for every opportunity I have, as a result of something they created.
So, why did my parents do this for me? I think it boils down to three things. First, they always have and always will unconditionally love me. As a result of that love, they would do anything to help me in life. Secondly, they truly care. They care about my ‘happiness‘ – they want to see me smile. And, what I believe to be a driving force behind everything my parents have done, is that they want me to have a better life and more opportunities than they had growing up.
By no means is this to say they didn’t have a sound upbringing, but rather it’s something inherent about a parent wanting to provide for his or her children. As I think about my future, as I’m not yet a parent, I have already said to myself, “I want my kids to have better and more opportunities than myself.” Again, my life is great, but I will want the same, and then some, for my own children.
The Truth Uncovered
The truth is that the little boy sitting on my lap was only 5 at the time. “Cheetah’, as we called him, was too young to know what his future held, too naïve to care. I had interactions with him everyday, as his family owned the apartment in which I lived, which was also attached to another apartment – which was attached to Cheetah’s home.
Truthfully, Cheetah was blessed and life was much better for him than a large majority of children. But, none of his opportunities wouldn’t have been possible if not for the actions of his father.
Meet Byron. Byron is Cheetah’s father. Byron is also the father to 7 other children. Six of whom are biologically his, and two who are his nephews. All eight of Byron’s children attended school, were well fed, and had more than one pair of clothes. All possible because he spent a period of time working as a chef in Queens, New York. Two failed attempts at crossing the border didn’t deter Byron. In his mind, the only way that his children would have a better life than he had, was to make it to the States. And so he finally made it. Saving every dollar that he made. Relishing in the fact that his meager earnings in the US, would provide a wealth of opportunities in Guatemala.
Enter Byron’s brother. As previously mentioned, Byron was the father figure for his two nephews. That’s because his brother was currently in the states doing the exact same thing that Byron once did – fulfilling a familial obligation set by himself to provide for his children and create opportunities for his children. And what happens when Byron’s brother returns to Guatemala? His youngest son, only an infant when he left, will reject his father because he has never seen him. He will cry because his son calls someone else by the name of ‘dad’.
But, why? What does the journey of these two fathers have to do with sending children across the borders now? Everything. It has everything to do with the probability of what their children would still become if they remained in their native country.
The days in Guatemala begin long before dawn. The empty streets slowly come alive. Unlike Cheetah who gets to wake up and go to school, a vast number of children his age and a bit older begin their day much differently. The other children go to work. Yes, work. Damn hard work. They go to work with their families. On the coffee farm picking coffee beans, into the hills to cut wood, or to the market to unload all of their goods that they will sell to make a day’s wage.
The boys in this picture likely aren’t more than 12 years old, and it is probably 6AM. Trip after trip, all day long until dark – 7 days a week. No school, no change of clothes. Making enough money to eat. In 2011, estimates say that the average Guatemalan earned the equivalent of just over $8 per day. Account for transportation to and from and the cost to eat, and it’s easy to understand the actual earnings are next to nothing. If you were the parent of these children, is this what you would want for them for the rest of their lives?
Yes, I know, just go through the entire process to gain citizenship to the United States. What if I told you that just to begin the process of obtaining a green card costs thousands of US dollars, and at $8 per day before expenses, it’s feasible? What if I mentioned that Central American countries are less likely to even issue a travel VISA if you don’t own something tangible? Yes, own a car, a house, a business, or even a food stand. Again, $8 a day before expenses, there aren’t too many that can claim to own anything other than the clothes they are wearing.
If by some chance, permission is granted to work towards immigration, how about the additional costs? Studies suggest it can vary anywhere from $7,500-$15,000 for an immigration lawyer. So, let’s say an individual does save a couple thousand dollars to apply for permission, how many more years will it take to earn the money needed to hire a lawyer? Oh, and how many years does the immigration process take? Plain and simple, the process is too costly and too lengthy to be feasible.
Why the Children?
For the opportunities that will present the children if they can make it. It reverts back to the mother and father wanting a better life and future for their children. Wanting to see their sons and daughters succeed in a place where it can happen – a place where their children can ‘make it’. By not sending the children, they are feeding into a vicious cycle that constrains a person from reaching his or her full potential. They are preventing their children from being exposed to opportunities that will better their lives.
Sure it’s scary, and likely frightening, to the children. Traveling thousands of miles with more uncertainty than you or I will ever experience. At the very same moment, more hope than you or I have ever felt. In reality, sending the children might possibly be the quickest and easiest route for the children to receive a better life.
I understand the implications – physically, mentally, emotionally and financially that the US faces with this current new media topic. As a parent, as a future parent, or as someone who has had to foster the life of another being; I ask you, look into the eyes of these four young boys. All too often I saw them standing on the same street corner, listening to the American rock band, Linkin Park. In their teenage years – no school, just work. Asking and begging for a few quetzals (coins) to grab a bite to eat. As you look at the smiles on their faces, probably filled with more happiness and joy than you and I, take a second to think about these questions: If this were your child, if these were your sons, how could you not want them to have a better life than what they currently have? What would you do to create opportunities for them that you never had? If sending them on a journey into the unknowing was the best option for breaking the chains of poverty, would you do it? What would you do for your children?
In writing this blog post, I want it to be known that I am not stating whether I believe what is occurring is right or wrong. My intentions are merely to explain a side of this story that is seldom heard. I am fortunate to have experienced this first hand – to have lived in the midst of this. There is a system for everything that is done.
Right now, the system for these children is broken and needs to be fixed. My hope is that better avenues are created to providing not just these children crossing the borders, but for all children, to have a better and more sustainable life. A life that is better than what you received growing up, and one better than I received in my childhood.
If you liked this story, I encourage you to share it with someone else. Not because I want more people to read this post, but because there is a need to educate others on the opposing views to what we read in the papers and hear on the news. You don’t owe it to me, or yourself, you owe it to these children.