It’s not easy to find undocumented workers who will agree to be interviewed for a newspaper article.
And the more xenophobia spreads, the greater the reluctance by undocumented Hispanics to come forward and share the pragmatic realities of their lives.
The fear of deportation is rampant. In 2008, almost 359,000 immigrants were removed from the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That’s 18,000 more than in 1980.
Two women, who want to be referred to only as Magdalena and Jovita, spoke to Boulder Weekly about their lives as undocumented immigrants. Jovita would respond only in writing.
Magdalena and Jovita are friends who live, work and have small families in Boulder County. They hail from different parts of Mexico, and both decided to take a chance on crossing the border in pursuit of what moves humans all over the world to take serious risks: hope.
Predators here and there
In her hometown of Guadalajara, Magdalena was one of nine children. Her family owned and operated a small grocery store that barely made enough money to pay the rent and feed the family. On two occasions, bullies decked out with guns and testosterone tied the family members up in their small bathroom and robbed them of their supplies and what little cash they had in the store. They were forced to close the store, leaving the parents, seven sisters and two brothers without jobs and with plenty of debt.
With the blessing of her father and the prompting of a pregnant cousin, Magdalena decided to cross the border at the first opportunity and head to California, where both women had relatives.
The trip took two weeks. The price was $2,000 per person for the “coyote” fee, which her cousin lent her. She was moved to and from various houses, slipping in and out of vehicles led by strangers. There were two early-morning attempts to cross, while patrol cars on both sides of the border cruised the area. She dodged helicopters with bright lights and men with loud voices warning them not to cross.
“It took digging a hole in the dirt that separated the two countries,” says Magdalena. “We had to crawl through this nasty hole on our backs twice, because we would have been caught if we had crawled out the first time. It seemed like an eternity to me. I didn’t think that tunnel I was crawling through would ever end.”
According to Magdalena, once on the U.S. side, they ran in a dirt/sand mixture that gave them no traction.
“There were barking dogs; we had to run through people’s yards and over or around fences to avoid running in the streets so we wouldn’t get caught,” she says. “The first town we came upon, we ran to this yard. And my pregnant cousin had to plead with a man who came out with a bat not to hurt us four women and the coyote for taking refuge in his backyard. She explained to him that we were very needy and begged him not to hurt us.”
The man didn’t seem to understand their Spanish too well, and he went back inside. Magdalena and her small group spent the early, dark morning hours huddled in that yard, cold, hungry, dazed and uncertain about how, when and by whom they’d be picked up and delivered someplace safe.
Eventually she arrived in California, where she wasn’t particularly welcomed by a number of cousins who didn’t want Anglos to call the cops because more Latinos were congregating in the neighborhood.
Jovita’s journey to the border, on the other hand, was outright brutal. What happened to Jovita, says Magdalena, is something that has happened to many of her other friends when they get to Mexico while migrating from places like Chile and Guatemala.
Born in Zacatecas, Jovita was encouraged to make the crossing by her three brothers, who lived in the United States and sent money home to the family. Her brothers sent money to one of their friends to get her across the border. She was picked up and taken to a house where 30 other people were awaiting passage.
When she got there, she was told that they’d take her to the border that very night.
“But it wasn’t like that,” she writes. “That night the man took me to a hotel and raped me, [and] not only once.”
After two days with no word from her, her brothers called the man who had been paid to take her across the border, the man who raped her for two days. He lied and told them that he had already gotten her across the border. A woman who cleaned rooms in the hotel where Jovita had been taken helped her escape when the abusive man left the room to go buy food. The woman took Jovita to her house, and the woman’s daughter, who was headed for California, helped her cross to the States.
“We walked in the desert without stopping for a full day,” writes Jovita. “At night we rested by some bushes. I remember that it was very cold, and I was so thirsty.”
The next day they came across more people who were lost because the “coyote” who helped them cross the border took off when a patrol car at the border saw them. They ran and hid so they wouldn’t be taken back.
“After that all of us were lost for three days, wandering in the desert without water,” she says. “Two guys killed some turtles, and they cooked them in their shells. They smelled horribly. I remember I didn’t eat any. There were women in our group who were lactating and had babies. There was a boy, and the children kept asking for water and food and were crying the whole time. Finally we arrived at a highway, I was shaking, thinking that I didn’t want them to take me back [to Mexico] after everything I had gone through.
“Finally a van with a family drove by, and they stopped,” Jovita continues. “The man driving was from Michoacan, Mexico, and he told us he would help us. So we all ran and jumped into his van and finally, feeling safe, we arrived at a house; it was very humble. The women, we helped with the cooking; they were the best potato tacos I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. From there, we left in small groups of two and three at a time, as [we were able to make contact] with our families, who were waiting for us in particular places. I first arrived in San Francisco, where my brothers live, who, by the way, were furious; not for the money they paid him but for the damage he caused me, after I told them he had abused me.”
Land of opportunity
Magdalena spent five years in California before she moved to Colorado. She learned quickly that to get a job, she needed a social security card and a green card. She needed money to survive and to help pay for the family’s debts.
She bought a fake social security number and green card for about $175. Her first job was working for a fast-food restaurant, where she got paid $6 an hour. Eventually she went to work for a cleaning company, where she was told she’d be paid $7 an hour but ended up only getting $5 an hour.
“I felt so desperate, I needed five jobs to be able to send the money owed, plus the money I still owed to my cousin for the coyote,” she says.
Eventually, she met and married an Anglo in California and got pregnant. The computer company her husband worked for closed its office there, but offered him a job in Colorado, so they moved and have been here for about four years. They live with their child in a small apartment, where they pay about $650 monthly. Magdalena works between 30 and 37 hours a week in a restaurant that pays her $10 an hour, with no health or vacation benefits. She likes the work and, while she says she thinks the owner and one of the managers treat her well, she also thinks one of the other managers is racist and slights her. She’s also noticed that an Anglo woman who started on the same day she did is being trained in other areas of the restaurant, and they’ve increased that woman’s pay by $4 an hour. Whenever she has asked about the possibility of being similarly trained, she’s told she’s still not ready.
Magdelena aspires to one day become a documented citizen and is constantly afraid of the prospect of being deported. She has seen Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) take one undocumented immigrant away at the restaurant. And she’s fearful of being noticed by any police officer — the prospect of being deported and thus separated from her child is a constant worry. She pays taxes through work and files federal and state tax returns every year with her husband. One day she’d like to be able to attend a university where she can learn other languages.
Jovita’s life in the land of opportunity has been more challenging.
Her first job in the United States was watching a child, for which she was paid $5 a day. The Venezuelan parents of the child then told her she also had to clean their house for the same amount of money, and she did that for six months. When Jovita finally told the couple she was quitting they refused to pay her for that week.
After she left that job, she enrolled in a class for adults and learned English. A woman who also attended classes there offered her a job cleaning offices, and they both cleaned office buildings and learned English together. She then met an Anglo who told her he wanted to learn Spanish. They dated for a while, and she eventually got pregnant by him. Three months into her pregnancy, she learned that he was married with three children. When she confronted him in the supermarket with his wife, he told his wife he didn’t know Jovita, said he was incapable of going out with someone like her, and ridiculed her.
When her son was born, she moved to Colorado. A friend invited her to move in with her, and that’s where she still lives.
“My son is now 13 years old,” writes Jovita. “I have my own housecleaning business, and I speak English well. It’s not perfect like I’d like it to be, but now I can defend myself from people who make fun of me. But my son has also suffered a lot of discrimination in his school, not just from his classmates but also from some of his teachers, who think they’re superior. But I don’t keep quiet about it. I report injustices to the principal.
“I don’t understand how people can say that we come to this country to take [Anglo] jobs when in the streets you find Anglos asking for money, and I wonder why,” Jovita says. “If they have government support and they’re taken care of, I think it’s unfair that those of us who work and don’t receive any such assistance are treated as if we’re vermin or criminals, like some people have told me.”
In her free time, Jovita likes to go to the movies with her son, read, play and help at school functions.
“I have taught my son that we’re all equal,” writes Jovita, “regardless of skin color or what language a person speaks.”
Like Magdalena, she does most of her shopping at Walmart or where there are sales.
“I try to help my son understand that money isn’t that important; in other words, that it doesn’t matter what brand of clothes or shoes his friends wear, they all cover them the same,” Jovita says. “I think often about giving my son a high level of education so that he may earn a better living than I do and so that he can help people.
“I’d like for him to become a lawyer,” she concludes. “What interests me, and what I want to make of my life, is directly connected to his, as is the future of this country.”