Guatemalan's plea to her son: `flee'. `The Army was going to take me; guerrillas wanted to take me, too.'
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. — When political killings in Guatemala were increasing in 1981, Jos'e Luis's mother told him to try to flee the country and go north. He was 13, a ripe age for recruitment by the Army and the guerrillas in Guatemala.
Though alone, he reached the United States, crawling through a rat-infested sewer pipe at night at the border. He joined several thousand other Kanjobal Indians, Mayans from Guatemala, now living illegally in the US.
His story is similar to the one portrayed in the movie El Norte, which is based on the flight of two Kanjobal Indians to the United States.
Jos'e Luis has applied for political asylum, wary of returning while political violence and killings continue. He is also eager to continue his education, something he could do not at home.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has denied him permission to stay, but an attorney has appealed that decision for him.
But Jos'e Luis, who now speaks English, has an INS work permit and washes dishes and makes salads in Manero's restaurant in West Palm Beach after school and on weekends. He lives here with an American family.
Concerned for the safety of his family still in Guatemala, he requested that his last name be withheld. He is from San Miguel, in the province of Huehuetenango, an area where the military and guerrillas have clashed many times in recent years.
Here are excerpts from a one-hour Monitor interview with Jos'e Luis.
I am an Indian Mayan from Guatemala. I want to say something about the massacre that occurred (in July 1981, in Coya, a village near his).
About 10 a.m. in the morning the Army arrived, surrounding that village. The Army started shooting at the people and after a half an hour, a plane arrived and that plane was throwing bombs upon the people.
About 100 people were killed. When the Army left that village, people from other villages came to help take the dead bodies to the cemetery. My Mom told me about this. She saw it.
Oxfam, an international relief organization, reports that the Army killed 150 people at Coya, including women, children, and old people.
The major points in Jos'e Luis's story are consistent with reports from adult Guatemalan Indians who have come to the US and with reports by human rights groups in the US.
After that massacre the Army arrived in San Miguel and it stayed there for a long time, about a month or perhaps more.
When the Army left San Miguel, the guerrillas arrived. And they killed four females and the people had to take those bodies to the cemetery. After that, many more massacres occurred.
The guerrillas were fighting against the government because the Indians were treated unjustly. They were paid $3 a day, and they had to work very hard to get the $3.
When the guerrillas started, many Indians joined them because they were treated unjustly. They thought that was the way to get some money and better payment, but unfortunately, they didn't get anything good.
The guerrillas accused the people of (supporting) the soliders, but they did not. And the soldiers accused the people of being guerrillas, and they were not. I had to leave because the Army was going to take me with them and the guerrillas wanted to take me, too. I was 13.
He got a passport, then took buses through Mexico to Tijuana, Mexico.
In that town I found a coyote (a person who guides people illegally into the US for a fee).
He told me I had to pay $300. I called a friend of mine who was living in Los Angeles, Calif., and she helped me to pay the coyote.
He took me to a sewer line in Mexico. I had to crawl through that sewer line under the border. (He says it took him about 15 minutes).
I crawled on my hands and knees. There was water in it. There were rats and mosquitoes and other animals that I did not recognize because I had no light. There were many rats. They bit me, but they didn't do anything serious.
I was afraid, but I wanted to arrive in the US; I had to face anything to cross. I did not want to stay in my country any more. There are too many problems.
The coyote was waiting for me in the US and he took me to a road. When it was dark we had to cross a river, not a very big river, just about to the chest.
(Later) I had to completely bury myself in garbage (in a dump) so I would not be detected by immigration (agents) nearby.
After another four hours of waiting under a tree, the coyote returned with a car. He put Jos'e Luis and several other Guatemalans in the trunk and drove them to Los Angeles, where he moved into his aunt's apartment.
A week later he flew to Florida, a trip paid for by other Guatemalans. Until last year he worked as a farm laborer. Then an American family began helping him.
Now I'm going to school. I am very glad, and, of course, I study very hard because I appreciate school.
This is my first year in high school. I'm 17 years old now. After graduation I want to go to college. And after four years of college I want to go to law school so I can become a laywer and help my people who have come to this country because of persecution.
(Guatemalans in the US) are doing well, better than they were in Guatemala. They are making enough money to feed their families.
(But) they are losing their traditions. They leave home at 6 (a.m.) to work and get home about 7 p.m. They are very tired and they do not want to do anything. That's how they are losing traditions.
Most of them are farm workers, a few are carpenters. Most of the women work. There are very few families here . . . most are men. Their wives are in Guatemala but they are trying to bring their families because they tell me that their families are having problems in Guatemala with the Army and the guerrillas. They are afraid they will be killed, and, of course, it is very sad when you lose a member of your family.
His mother recently called from Guatemala, advising him not to return because the military is again recruiting young Indians.
If the situation of the war stops, I would like to go home, but if the situation gets worse, I would like to stay in this country.
Next: Is it safe for Guatemalan refugees to go home?