On the road to The Other Side

Magdalena García is a fellow Cuban refugee and a Presbyterian minister who performed an act of kindness I’ll never forget when my mom died twelve years ago. She organized and conducted a beautiful memorial service at her church in Chicago, with music, flowers and a moving eulogy, after the Roman Catholic parish to which I thought I belonged had brushed off my request.

Magdalena’s husband Augusto is from Ecuador and entered illegally through Tijuana more than 30 years ago, eventually settling in Chicago, where he became a newsman at one of the local Spanish-language television stations, then went into real estate—and unemployment after the 2008 economic crash. They adopted a baby boy from an orphanage in Ecuador and named him Miguel. All have gone through some good and less-good times and no one can question that to the last one, the three have become an asset to the U.S. as members of that immense, and forever maligned, organization called the American Melting Pot.

Her own family history, religious convictions and concern for people in need have led Magdalena to follow news about immigration. Two weeks ago she alerted friends on her Facebook page to the latest immigrant crisis brewing along the Texas border. Since October an estimated 47,000 unaccompanied children mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, had arrived in addition to God knows how many adults. The reaction by the Obama administration to the emergency, which had been percolating for months, was improvised and chaotic, something the Republicans quickly, and not totally without justification, complained about.

Headed for the promised land: Dionis García Palma (l.) and Gerson Andrés Palomo.

Back at our ranch, Félix the gardener—an oracle on everything from the incomprehensible World Cup ranking system to the local fauna and flora—said he’d heard about the wave of Central American immigrants headed for that mythical-sounding but very real place known in Mexico as “El Otro Lado” or The Other Side.

Sure, he said as if it were universal knowledge, for months there’s been a stream of Guatemalans and Hondurans immigrants trekking through San Miguel and heading north. They tend to congregate at the railroad station, since so many ride the trains, hobo-style. Stew and I remember having seen small groups of young men asking for money from drivers who slowed down to cross the railroad tracks, but we hadn’t made the migrant connection.

After church on Sunday Stew and I headed for the train station to verify Félix’ story. That’s where we met Gerson Andrés Palomo, 25, and his friend Dionis García Palma, also in his twenties. They were both from Honduras’ squalid capital of Tegucigalpa and had been traveling on foot, catching rides aboard cars, trucks or trains, or by bus when the money allowed—first out of Honduras, then through Guatemala and so far two-thirds of the way through Mexico—for the past thirty-seven days. Gerson said he’d run into many families with small children along the way. Dionis predicted he and Gerson would reach the U.S. border in three or four days, a wildly optimistic estimate.

Indeed, Stew Googled some rough estimates and came up with a distance of about 1,500 highway miles from Tegucigalpa to San Miguel, and another 515 more miles to McAllen, Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border, for a total of more than 2,000 miles before these guys even lay eyes on American soil. As reference points, figure that Chicago is about 750 miles by car from New York, and Dallas 239 miles from Houston.

Gerson, the most talkative of the pair, was reed-thin and the deep lines and scraggly beard on his exhausted face made him look far older than twenty-five. His naturally cinnamon complexion was darkened further by the road grime he’d collected during his trip. What did he carry in his backpack? He showed me a blanket, a pair of pants, some crackers and a bottle of water.

Three years ago Gerson actually reached the U.S. but was promptly arrested and sent back to Honduras. He didn’t sound daunted by the nearly Sisyphean odds against ever reaching the U.S. again, much less getting in, finding a job and settling somewhere. His only contact in the U.S, an iffy one, is a cousin in New Orleans who is supposed to come and pick him up as soon as he arrives safely on The Other Side.

By now Gerson must have noticed the incredulity crossing my face, so he showered me with details to convince me of his story. This time he entered Mexico through Tapachula, he said, a town in the Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala. The first attempt to enter the U.S. three years ago took him to Eagle Pass, Texas, by the Rio Grande. This time he could have paid a smuggler US$7,000 to take him from Honduras to the American border, and another $700 to someone to actually get him across. But he didn’t have such money plus he’d heard that many of the smugglers’ clients were assaulted and robbed. So he’s doing it on his own, financing his trip mostly with some money he’d saved plus panhandling and free food.

I should have believed him because immigrant stories like his are common. Eight years ago it was Félix’ turn to make a dash for the U.S. He remembers precisely when he took off from Sosnavar, his dirt-poor hometown about a mile from the ranch: Eight days after his eighteenth birthday. He crossed the Rio Grande on horseback and then, led by a coyote from Sosnavar, walked eight days before someone picked him up south of Austin and took him to Dallas where he ended up for two years, working in landscaping and construction. Homesick, he returned to Mexico only to make the trip to the U.S again a few a years later.

Garson blamed the hellhole violence in Tegucigalpa, orchestrated by drug traffickers and gangs, as the chief reason for wanting to go to the U.S., as well as the inability to find a job in his trade as a drywall hanger. Desperation makes daredevils out of the commonest of people like Gerson and Dionis.

He blamed the high unemployment on the government’s doubling of the minimum wage which instead of helping the poor, he said, led many employers to lay off workers to cut expenses.

Curiously, back in the U.S. Republicans also argue that raising the minimum wage will lead to reduced hiring or layoffs, though economic conditions in the two countries are vastly different. It was almost amusing hearing that argument from Gerson who in his disheveled condition didn’t look anything like a fat Republican.

His plan for settling in the U.S. is far-fetched, borderline delusional, but if the stars align properly it might work. The drywall hanging and taping trade in Chicago, for instance, is populated largely by Mexican immigrants most of whom get along without the nicety of immigration papers. Construction in Chicago is rebounding.

Yes! I can visualize a happy Gerson in Chicago hanging drywall, making decent money—and freezing his ass off.

After all, Magdalena arrived from Cuba penniless and so did her husband. Félix made the trip twice. And so did I and later so did my parents. And so did Stew’s parents who came from Norway, during the early 1900s, when his dad was only six years old. And so did my two cousins in Miami who arrived from Cuba about twelve years ago; now one of their sons is a pharmacist, the other a chemical engineer and an M.B.A. And so did the husband of yet another cousin of mine who entered the U.S. legally last fall and works as a laborer in construction in Austin, Texas, for $10.10 an hour, with more overtime than he can handle. (Under a Cubans-only clause in immigration laws, most immigrants from the island gain legal status as soon as they touch U.S. soil.)

If history is a good indicator, immigrants will keep on coming to the U.S, legally and illegally, and both the newcomers and the country will be stronger and richer for it. I have no doubts.

Reporters are not supposed to pay their sources, but as a defrocked journalist I dispensed with that injunction and gave Gerson $100 pesos (about US$8.50) at the end of our conversation, to tide him over to his next stop.

And as I left them, I silently prayed that as illegal and improbable as their odyssey might be the two of them make it safely to The Other Side.


6 thoughts on “On the road to The Other Side

  1. After our conversation a week ago Friday, I have had the travelers on my mind. Again remembering the young man I talked to in the parking lot in Celaya who hoped to get to Michigan. I did some checking. The homicide rate in Honduras is now 79 per 100,000 whereas Mexico is 13 per 100,000! A fellow blogger writes from La Ceiba and blames the current President who was financed by, guess who, the USA she says. When I had my construction company in Houston, almost all of my subs were Hispanic. The absolute hardest working two men who worked for me were from El Salvador. I think they could have built a pyramid – just the two of them. I drove them home one night as it was late and I knew they rode buses, four to be exact. They couldn't believe that I did so. They told me it took them three hours to get home each night and each morning to get to me where they worked 8-10 hours. Wish American workers had that dedication! I have a million stories…….all touch my heart! THANKS so much for sharing this one.


  2. A friend has sent me this link showing where the recent refugees from Central America are coming from. It appears that the refugees from Guatemala are fleeing economic problems, the ones from Honduras a leaving to escape the violence in the country.


  3. Oh my! Thanks for featuring me and my family in this entry. But more importantly, thanks for writing about this important topic, and for advocating on behalf of all immigrants. Keep writing!


  4. Anonymous

    Immigration is a problem to be solved, not an issue to be exploited. Mass movements of people like we are seeing don't happen without organization, financing and promotion. Somewhere there is an intellectual author of this movement. It is cruel and evil to take little kids and dump them penniless in 110 degree heat at some bus station. The facilities are over loaded and the health conditions are deplorable. I feel for those poor exploited people.Robert GillPhoenix, Arizona


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