SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2007        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Eva D. Torres

What a Young Guatemalan Boy Taught Me About the American Dream

    In 2004, I started working as a case manager at a shelter for undocumented minors apprehended by immigration authorities.  As a case manager I had a caseload of 20 clients; one of my responsibilities was to help the clients either stay in the US with a family member or go back to their countries.  Since the first moment, I knew that this was going be a challenging job.  I’m also an immigrant and had to go through the process of adjusting to a new culture and learning to survive without my family. I wanted to use my experience and help young emigrants to smooth their transition.

    During the second week of my new job, we received a group of Guatemalan kids.  They looked very tired and they were wearing filthy clothes; they had a very bad smell, and were also wearing old dirty shoes. Some of the workers at the shelter were debating about interviewing them because of their bad smell. I offered to welcome them and also explained them the shelter rules.  I felt so sorry for them and looking at their sad faces almost made me cry, but I needed to remain strong.  One of those children ended up being my client.  His name was Octaviano, he was a 14 years old Guatemalan boy. He was very thin, had light skin and was about 4 feet tall.  I will never forget this client, he made me realize the importance of the job that I was doing. 

           A shelter for undocumented minors might be visualized as a jail by many people.  However, the shelter that I used to work at was a very nice and homey place to stay.  When a minor is first detained he/she is taken to a jail until there is an opening in one of the shelters.  When Octaviano and his friends arrived at the shelter, their eyes were wide open because they could not believe that they were going to stay at a place like that.  The big living room where we usually welcome all new clients has big and comfortable couches where they can sit and relax.  The room also has very nice murals of indigenous people holding flags from South America.

    Illegal immigration from Latin America to the United Stated has always been controversial. According to a research that I made, Guatemala is a very small country. It is also one of the poorest countries of Latin America. Guatemala is located south of México and has a high number of people immigrating to the US every day. The Civil War in Guatemala was an event that started the social revolution and it lasted more than 36 years.  This war ended with the signing of Peace Accords at the end of 1996.  Some progress was made but the majority of the Peace Accord commitments still remain unfulfilled.  Extreme poverty, social exclusion, inequality, and violence are some of the main problems faced by Guatemalans.

    The research of all this information was very important to me because it made me be more aware and understanding of the real reasons for massive immigration of people from third world countries to the US.  Many Guatemalans are forced to immigrate to the US because their daily lives are constantly dominated by fear and widespread aggression. The drug crime, robbery, human trafficking, gang and domestic violence destabilize countries like Guatemala.  The majority of Guatemalan immigrants come to the United States with the only purpose of working to be able to provide a better life for their families.      

    During my initial interview with Octaviano, he mentioned that he came to the US looking for a better future.  He stated that life in Guatemala is very hard, especially for illiterate people like him.  Octaviano was living in a small village with no access to electricity or potable services.  He stated that he had to work hard in the corn fields every day to be able to provide a little economic help to his family.  Tired of this situation, Octaviano spoke with his parents and decided that it will be better for him to emigrate and continue financially helping them.  This young boy traveled by himself carrying a bag full of dreams.  His journey was very dangerous because he had to hide in the back of trucks and did not eat for many days.  I was speechless, I could not believe that a young, innocent boy had to go trough all this sufferings, but the reality is, that this happens every single day to many people of all ages.

    Octaviano and his friends did not speak very good Spanish at that time.  They only spoke “mam” ( a dialect spoken in some villages of Guatemala).  At the shelter they were able to take Spanish classes and for the first time they were also able to write their names by themselves.  After a few days of being in the shelter, Octaviano told me that it was hard for him to believe that he was in a place like this and getting everything for free.  He was amazed that he did not have to work to pay for his food or education.  He was also very happy with the big swimming pool and the soccer field. I really enjoyed watching him and his friends playing and having a good time.

    Young Guatemalans like Octaviano, don’t have the privilege of being “white” (whiteness is privileged even in Guatemala) and  are forced to come to the US looking for a better future and the opportunity of living in a country that represents money, food, and education for them.  Coming from a third world country and only speaking a dialect made it harder.  I really appreciate the fact that the federal US government provides funds for this type of shelter, with friendly people, a nice environment, and the opportunity of being educated because I think that this great combination of services helps young undocumented people to ease their pain of being without their families in a total different country with different language and culture. 

    After being able to work and provide services for this type of population for five years I can conclude that Guatemalans are risking their lives to pursue the “American dream” or have access to some of the privileges afforded by life in a wealthy country.   I am more convinced than ever that regardless of their age or gender, all of the immigrants are labeled as criminals who come to the US to steal and commit all types of crimes.  Treating these people as criminals is an injustice that needs to end because nobody should have the power of stealing the hopes and dreams from immigrant people.  My job as a case manager has changed my mind about illegal immigrants and has also encouraged me to continue helping these poor people to start a new life. 

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