The risks are too great to take for themselves. The risks are not too great to take for their families.

The long trip North begins deep inside El Salvador

INTRODUCTION:  Thousands of Salvadorans, like other Latin Americans, are finding it necessary to migrate north.  A lack of job opportunities in their own country continues the cycle of poverty.  Hunger is a big motivator, and these people desire to work in order to feed their families.  To hear their stories is to get a chilling understanding of some of the realities they face.  Often they don’t make the decision to leave themselves; others make it for them.  It is a very weighty decision to leave the family.  The risks for personal safety are great.  Everyone has heard stories of those who were raped, robbed, maimed, or killed by gangs and drug cartels on the way.

Even if the migrant does make it into the U.S., first he needs to adjust to the draconian anti-immigration laws many of our states are enacting.  Adapting to another culture is never easy and is compounded if the migrant doesn’t know the language or has no family to support him.  Immigration authorities are on the hunt for migrants in order to deport them for no reason other than they “don’t belong.”

Following are true stories of 4 members of ONE FAMILY we heard of through interviews.  Some details such as the names and locations have been changed in order to protect them.

REASONS FOR LEAVING:  There are as many reasons for leaving a country as there are people.  Inevitably the dots connect around survival.  Here are the reasons for these persons leaving who we interviewed.  Never once, not even remotely, did we hear of a person who migrated for personal gain.  The reason surrounding the decision was always, always, and ALWAYS related to helping the family survive!

CECELIA chose to leave when she was only 17 because she was brave and strong and thought her chances of surviving along the way were good.  She wanted to help the family as a whole as well as provide for medical needs back home that otherwise would go unmet.

A couple of years later JUSTINE, aged 22, joined her sister Cecelia using the same coyote following the same route.  Her motivations were much the same as her sister’s.  She thought she could send more money home by moving in with her sister and sharing living expenses.

MARTA’S husband is an eccentric evangelical Christian who is waiting for God to provide for them and consequently refuses to work and provide for her and their children.  She wants their children to have good educations.  At 44 she was the oldest and heaviest of the sisters, and everyone was worried about how she would manage to make this difficult trip, since she is not in good physical condition.  But she was determined.

When the gangs in El Salvador tried to extort $1500 and threatened to kill someone in his family, STEPHEN knew he had to leave.  The gang threat was the determining factor in his case.


For CECELIA, JUSTINE, MARTA:  They used the same coyote and followed the same journey.  Half of the money was paid to the coyote when they left; the other half was paid when they reached their destination.  Along the way the coyote paid off the border patrols and immigration officials in each country.  The worst part was when they had to lie down in a small metal compartment attached under a tractor trailer built especially to hide immigrants to cross the borders.  They had to lie still for long periods of time without water or air.  They were, of course, out of sight, but it was extremely hot and tight quarters and impossible to breathe.  The police would tap on the compartment and say, “Do you want water?  We have water here.  Does anyone want water?” in an attempt to tease them out.  When they reached the Rio Grande, they were put in large truck inner tubes, four people per tube, and floated across the river.  The immigration police put them in jail and treated them like dogs saying, “Why do you ask me for water?  You had water in the Rio Grande; you had water in your country.  What are you doing here?”  Sometimes they were fed, sometimes not.  When they were released, it was under the condition that they could stay for up to one year.  The trek took 22 days.  Their father was frantic the entire time for each of them, and it eventually took a toll on his health.

For STEPHEN:  To try to save the expense of the coyote, he twice tried to migrate on his own.  Because he was too afraid to stay in El Salvador after the gangs threatened the family, the family gathered enough money to hire a coyote to get him out.  His journey was quite similar to his sisters.  There were robberies along the way and much running from authorities.  But he was not harmed or maimed on trains as others he heard about.  He, too, was imprisoned and later released.  He was the last sibling to join his three sisters.

Leaving a child behind is hard.


Originally it was friends of CECELIA who told her, “If you ever make it to the U.S., please know that you are welcome to stay with us for a month, and we will help you get established.” 

She was exhausted when she finally reached the U.S., but Cecelia dutifully called home to tell them she made it and to assuage their anxiety.  She was extremely fortunate in never having been raped or hurt physically along the way.  It took the last of the money given to the coyote for the three friends to travel secretly within the U.S. to her friend’s place.  That was no easy feat given that she did not know the language and that it was a considerable distance away.

Cecelia is bright and learned English quickly.  She got a job in a hotel as a housekeeper.  Her honesty also paid off.  Once she found a necklace that a patron left behind.  Quickly she caught their taxi before the couple left the hotel.  The woman gave Cecelia a $600 tip, explaining the necklace was worth $50,000.  She has since laughed about the incident saying that maybe if she had known the value of the necklace, she would have kept it and built a house in El Salvador.  But her parents reassured her that she made the right decision and did the honest thing.  This patron began recommending the hotel to others. 

Cecelia is extremely enthusiastic about her job and has been repeatedly promoted.  She has worked her way up to manager.  In addition to helping send money for her parents’ chronic medical expenses, she helped pay for the coyote to get Justine into the U.S.

She is a strong woman and needs to drive to work, so she has to drive illegally, since she is unable to get a proper driver’s license.  One time a policeman stopped her when a light in the car was out, and the policeman naturally asked to see her license.  Again, she was honest and explained, “I’m illegal.”  He asked why she was driving, and she told him, “I need to drive to get to work.  Your country will not give me legal papers so I can’t get a license without them.”  The police gave her a date to appear in court and the judge fined her $1,000, which she paid.  She continues to drive.  She is blonde and not prone to be stopped by the police because she does not appear Salvadoran from a distance. 

Cecelia is constantly afraid she will be deported.  She and her Costa Rican boyfriend have a son who was born in the U.S. and thus is a legal citizen.  She is afraid she and her boyfriend could both be deported and her son left behind.  The possibility creates constant fear and anxiety in her.  Her boyfriend wants to go to Costa Rica to live in five years.  Cecelia wants to return to El Salvador.  Their child is having trouble learning probably because of the bilingual situation in the house.

Two years after Cecelia became established in the U.S., JUSTINE traveled the same route using the same coyote and had exactly the same experiences by going to jail.  She joined her sister in the tiny apartment she lives in which is getting smaller by the day.  By this time their parents’ monthly medical bills of $400 for medications had now accumulated as well as hospital bills of $9,000, and there was no end in sight.  Justine’s boyfriend showed no interest in leaving El Salvador, so she left without him.  In the U.S. she became involved with another guy and has a child by him.  At first her boyfriend was the only wage earner.  He does building and has fantastic carpentry skills.  It took Justine five years to find a job.  Now she works in a restaurant.  Justine sends money back to El Salvador to help the parents and her grandparents.  One of Justine’s motivations for working so hard is to provide an education and give her child the things she never had as a child herself.  She wants her child to enjoy life and not have to struggle like she did.

MARTA grew tired waiting for her husband, the religious fanatic awaiting God’s help, to provide for her and their three children.  The rest of the family considered him lazy.  Even though they worried about Marta’s ability to negotiate the trip to the U.S., they knew she had little choice to provide for her children.  She begged the family to please support her wishes.  “I have the right to help educate my family,” she insisted.  Marta was herself illiterate, having grown up during the war unable to attend school.  Her family could not argue or deny Marta her noble motives despite her age and condition.  Her sisters already had a place waiting for her, which made it somewhat easier once she arrived.  Again, using the same trusted coyote, the family was confident in her safety.

Marta’s sisters thought she could get a job as a cook, which she had done in El Salvador.  Cooking is a gift of Marta’s.  She makes fabulous pupusas, the national Salvadoran favorite dish.  Marta got a job in a restaurant.  The owner was interested in introducing pupusas to the menu.  He asked her if she knew how to order the ingredients.  She now makes 100-150 pupusas a day.  They get many orders for them.  Since this specialty has become successful, Marta’s boss is extremely demanding of her time.  She works 7 AM to 10 PM on a regular basis and often until midnight or 1 AM on weekends and is not reimbursed when she works past her regular 10 PM closing time.  If she asks for extra compensation, the boss reminds her that she is illegal and she has no rights in the U.S.  She is treated with no respect, no dignity.

Marta worries about the gangs back in El Salvador trying to take advantage of her growing children without their mother there to guide and supervise them.  It is this situation that invites gangs to recruit children as members.  One of her children is now in high school, one at the university.  This worry has caused Marta to become ill attributing to a heart condition.  She is especially concerned about her daughter, who is quite shy.  The university-aged daughter was offered a chance to study in the U.S. but turned it down because of the stories she heard about how immigrants in the U.S. are treated.  She decided to stay in El Salvador and take her chances with the gangs. 

After STEPHEN arrived in the U.S., ten people were living in a tiny, tiny three-room apartment consisting of a combination living room/dining room, kitchen, and one bedroom.  His plan was originally to stay in the U.S. for two to three years and then return to live with other family members in El Salvador where he wants his own room and bathroom added to the family structure.  Now when he is asked when he is returning, he has many excuses, such as all the bills he has to pay.  Perhaps the American consumerism bug has bitten him.

This group of siblings pays $1600 a month for the apartment and is continuing to pay off those who helped arrange for the coyote for each of their four trips through the country to get to the U.S.  At $8,000 per trip multiplied by four, this is quite a debt.  Yet they are highly committed to send a large percentage of their earnings back to support their family in El Salvador.

The ten of them live in a tiny three-bedroom apartment like prisoners.  One sleeps on the couch; most sleep on the floors.  They arrange their work schedules so that there is always one adult at home at all times to watch over the children.  They do not trust the children to go to day care where they could be reported to authorities.  They stay inside the apartment.  Life consists of getting up at dawn and working until after dark, sometimes 16 hours a day and often seven days a week.  They have no rights, no benefits.  If a family member comes to visit, they are too afraid to go to the airport to pick up the person.  They are unable to attend worship services even though there is a church of their faith nearby.  Their bosses tell them, “Here in the States you work every day including Sundays or you don’t work.”  On the job they suffer racism mostly by the blacks as well as by other Hispanics.  There is no social life.  They have each other and ONLY each other.  Their world consists of work/apartment/work/apartment day in and day out.  Every time they walk outside their home, they find themselves looking over their shoulders fearful the authorities will discover and deport them leaving behind their American born children. 

If and when they choose to return to El Salvador, they face the same risks they did in crossing the borders and in the journey through Mexico in reverse.  As they get older, whether to return becomes a more weighty decision.

During times of crises, we rely on family for support.  When a family member dies and the family is scattered thousands of miles apart unable to gather to grieve, it is a break in family unity and community.  The heart-breaking news of the pending death of their father still came as a shock to these siblings in the U.S., even though deep inside all of them knew when they left El Salvador that they may never see their parents again.  At the point of the father’s last days in the hospital, he was too weak to speak on the phone.  During his funeral in El Salvador one of the remaining siblings held the cell phone out so that those in the States could hear the service.  Imagine the scene on the couch of ten wailing family members separated by thousands of miles unable to be embraced and comforted by those who could help ease their sorrow. 

These scenes and struggles are ones we Americans do not think about when we so quickly criticize and attack the migrants.

CONCLUSION:  After hearing hours and hours of interviews of stories about people who struggled to make the decision to migrate to the U.S., then struggled to reach the country, and continue to struggle each and every waking day they live here, I have to wonder how they manage to work so productively.  For some reason the average American seems to think that migrants in this country gain so much by living in the U.S.

On the contrary, the more I hear their stories of the dangers they face, the high cost to get here, the instability they live in each day, the inhumane treatment and racism they suffer, the lack of dignity and lack of respect they receive, the demands placed on them by employers, their disconnected families, their lost culture and identities, I wonder if many migrants feel they have lost more by living in the unwelcoming U.S. than they have gained economically.  Yet many still tolerate this Catch-22 lifestyle out of love for their families, their country, their culture; these resilient people feel a strong need to provide and support their families regardless of the risks and uncertainties.


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.