‘I knew I would be reunited with my father’
A sad and perilous journey
By DAVID MYERS
Southwest Kansas Register
Pablo sat smiling in his apartment on a Sunday, several hours yet to go before he would leave for work, while his son, Juan, wiped the sleep from his eyes, having just awakened following a late night at work.
Juan is 16 and four months into his new life in the United States. He is pleased with his new life, yet his tear-filled eyes belie a deep sadness for the home he was forced to leave behind in Guatemala. Sixteen is a tender age to leave one’s mother, not to mention eight siblings ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.
Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. Thirty-eight percent of the population is comprised of indigenous groups of Mayan descent, and of these, 73 percent live in poverty, 28 percent in extreme poverty.
Pablo, Juan’s father, saw no other choice to but to come to the land of opportunity to support his family. He hasn’t seen his wife and children in six years, but with his cell phone service, he speaks to them twice a day. One can guess that his smile was just a bit wider in recent weeks, after the arrival of his young son.
Like his father six years earlier, Juan traveled by bus across Mexico, which borders Guatemala to the north, without family, without friends, save those he made during the days and days of travel. Once at the U.S. border, the boy—like a multitude before him—began the long and arduous trek across the south, three days of fighting thirst, hunger, the hot sun, and the threat of being victimized.
Why didn’t he and his father go through the necessary channels in order to come to the United States with the proper documentation?
A century ago, immigrants lined up on Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, where they were asked 29 questions, including their name, occupation, and how much money they carried. (It was hoped by the U.S. government that they carried between $18 and $25, “enough to get them started.”) Those with visible health problems were sent to a hospital facility where they might stay for weeks or months. Outside the “registry room” stood what became known as the “kissing post,” where new arrivals were greeted by elated family and friends.
Approximately two percent of immigrants were turned away and deported due to having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, “or insanity.” The island became known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island,” due to those who were turned back after their long journey.
Back then, the preliminary documentation process took an average of about five hours. In 1907 alone, 1,004,756 immigrants were processed through Ellis Island.
Today, immigrating to the United States can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, and can take many years (more on this can be found at dcdiocese.org/register). One elderly man in Dodge City complained that he had been attempting to become a U.S. citizen for 18 years, and still has not received his papers.
U.S. Catholic Bishops have been among those offering a strong voice for comprehensive immigration reform, so that people like Pablo and Juan no longer have to risk their lives to feed their families, and so that women and children, such as those on a bus in Murietta, Calif., no longer have to face angry mobs. It’s not amnesty the bishops’ seek, but “a path to permanent residency which is achievable and verifiable.”
Through interpreter Sister Angela Erevia, MCDP, Director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Dodge City, Juan said shyly that he was never afraid during his long journey, although he was hungry and thirsty.
“I was not afraid because of my faith,” he said. “I knew I would be reunited with my father.”
Although he battles sadness at leaving his mother and siblings, he said the church community has brought him great comfort.
“We go with other Guatemalan families and pray together,” the 16-year-old said. “We comfort each other and support one another. We help each other in need.”
Bishop John Brungardt has been welcoming of the Guatemalans, serving as main celebrant at Masses celebrated partially in their native language of Quiché. Fathers Ted Skalsky, Wesley Schawe and Jim Dieker have also celebrated Masses for the Guatemalan community. According to Sister Angela, “The Guatemalans have great reverence for the bishop.”
When Juan was asked about his hobbies, he smiled broadly and said he enjoyed playing soccer back home.
“But it was different than here,” he said with his wide grin. “Back home we have to play in between trees.”
Juan’s father, Pablo, was a farm-worker back in Guatemala; his wife still serves as a cook. Pablo said that he has a deep appreciation to God for leading them to a peaceful home in southwest Kansas, where they are recognized as a viable part of the community.
“Whenever there is a celebration, the church is packed,” Pablo said. “We like a lot of music and clapping, a lot of prayer. Everybody has a talent, playing an instrument, singing.
“I walked the desert for two days,” Pablo added. “Without food and water, I sometimes felt dizzy. Jesus was in the desert for 40 days before he began his ministry.”
Pablo hopes to one day display his talent for “preaching,” which Sister Angela explained means “teaching” or sharing witness. Although he may not know it, Pablo’s hope answers the call of Pope John Paul II’s “New Evangelization,” in which he asked lay witnesses to come forward, and using their faith journey, share a message of Christ’s love. For Pablo, it will be quite a message indeed.