UNC Latino Beat Writer
the Durham VOICE
EDITOR’S NOTE: Out of respect for privacy, the names in this story have been changed.
Upon entering Sarita’s home, a visitor immediately feels a welcoming warm air dance from the toes to the face, relaxing the mind. Using her elbow, Sarita’s sister-in-law opens the back porch’s screen door while nonchalantly balancing a clapping baby and a pink-rimmed baby bottle in her hands. Dressed in hot pink shorts and a light pink top with matching buttons, the “preciosa de la casa” (“precious-one of the house”), as the baby’s mother and aunt call her, giggles as the door swings in the breeze behind her.
This Durham family’s love and laughter blankets their past heartache. Six months ago, and about 12 years before that, screams and cries would have instead reverberated against the windows of the quaint house.
“In those three days, we experienced everything,” 37-year-old Sarita said. “We experienced heat, we experienced cold, we experienced rain, we experienced the near death of someone.” Sarita is referring to August 1998, when she and 19 other Latinos risked their lives and illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
Each with a couple “latas” or cans of tuna and beans, a few pieces of bread and only two gallons of water, they began as strangers from cities all over Central America. Sarita hails from Zacatecas, one of the Mexico’s 31 states.
“We were only allowed to drink water twice each day,” said Sarita. “We knew that if we each finished our water, we may not be able to survive. My friend kept checking on me, saying, ‘don’t drink too much water, you’ll regret it later.’ I could not help it. When he was not looking, I drank the water anyways.”
“It must have been like a horror movie,” said Sarita’s sister-in-law, Ana, as she rocked her daughter Alison, the ‘preciosa de la casa,’ to sleep.
Sarita said her faith allowed her to put one foot in front of the other on the hot, lonely journey. “I knew God would lead us to a place with water,” she said.
Sure enough, their clothes and tongues were drenched with rain one night. They managed to use a knife to cut in half the plastic containers that had been long emptied by their parched throats. The containers caught rain water, allowing Sarita and a few other lucky voyagers a couple more drops of water for the last day of their walk. “Rain water tastes really different, really bad. But we were desperate.”
Although the rain cured their thirst problem, it was the culprit of a much bigger problem.
Soaking the skin after a day of walking in unbearable heat, the rain caused the youngest immigrant to develop hypothermia, a condition that was unimaginable to the 15-year-old a few hours ago when he was trudging along under the vomit-inducing sun. The boy was headed to Florida, leaving behind a baby and a wife.
“He kept screaming for help, but his cries were lost in the depths of the desert,” said Sarita. “His uncle thought he was going to die, and none of us knew what to do. But we were not going to let him go.” His uncle was only 20 years old.
The group of Latinos, now bonded by the experience, took the rain-saturated clothes off their backs and lay on the desert ground. Those who had them, put on dry clothes. The shivering young man was placed on top of the warm bodies. The rest of the group lay on top of the teenager, sandwiching him with body heat, Sarita said.
“Eventually, he fainted. After we held him and hugged him like this, he regained consciousness. The following day, he was able to walk,” she said.
All 20 immigrants arrived safely in Tucson, Arizona, starving and dehydrated. They then separated to cities across America. Sarita said she still does not know if they are alive and safe today, but thinks of them often.
Sarita and her travel companions each paid $2,000 to a “coyote,” who took charge of all the traveling details. He led the group across the dessert, bought their plane tickets and arranged all travel plans.
She said the main reason why immigrants put themselves through this danger is for the better work opportunities that the U.S. offers. “I was told over and over about how there were so many jobs in the U.S., and when I got here, I found a job working in a restaurant without any problems.”
Sarita said that if she would have made the journey today, she does not think she would have found a job as easily. “When I first got here [13 years ago] there were not as many Latinos here. Now, if you try to find a job, every place will tell you they’re not hiring. There are so many more of us now and no place to work.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute, North Carolina is one of the five states with the largest percent growth of total population of children with immigration parents between 2000 and 2009. The growth comes mainly from word of mouth, as evident in Sarita’s case.
Despite these statistics, immigrants are still flooding the more typical states, such as Arizona and Texas.
Sarita’s brother, also from Zacatecas, stopped his immigration journey in Texas. In December 2010, he accidentally fell 200 feet from the bleachers in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Sarita said the accident was really hard for the entire family. “He was transferred to the hospital by a helicopter ambulance. He lost a kidney, it gave him diabetes, he had to have a metal rod put in his waist. He was in a coma.”
He eventually came out of the coma. Completely relieved, Sarita said she was looking forward to seeing her healthy brother when he would visit her in Durham.
Sarita’s brother arrived on a Saturday morning in March. Two days later, Sarita faced a situation that she said was worse than crossing the border.
“It was really early. I was working,” she said. “Ana was taking my daughters to school. Other people were sleeping. There was a knock on the door. My brother, who remember was visiting us, opened the door. It was the immigration police.”
Immigration police asked her brother if a man he had never heard of lived in the house. Sarita’s brother told them he was just visiting his sister. Sarita said the man the police was looking for lived in her house before she did. Immigration police asked to see Sarita’s brother’s documents. Undocumented, he only had empty pockets to show.
“They deported him in a second. Just like that. They were not even looking for him. He was only visiting. He’s safe in Mexico now, but we’re really sad and angry about this,” said Sarita, fighting back tears.
She said the situation was not fair. “He can’t even argue his Cowboys Stadium case. He had a lawyer and everything. We need to do something about this. He’s a good person who only wants the best for his family.”
An advocate of the DREAM Act, Sarita is disappointed in the way Latinos are treated by the American government. “We have hope that there will soon be justice in the laws for Latinos,” she said. “I don’t know if this is actually going to happen, though. We hope that families will be united once again and we will not have to separate in order to survive.
Sarita has two daughters, one in fourth grade and one in sixth. “I would have the same dreams for my girls whether we live in Mexico or America. There are just more opportunities here in the U.S,” said Sarita. She tries to incorporate both American and Mexican culture into her American-born children’s lives. “They’re Mexican-American. This is their country, too, even if it’s not mine.”
Despite everything she has been through, Sarita is gracious.“I want to say thank you to this country, which has done many things for my family and I,” she said. “Yes, sometimes, we all give thanks for being able to be here in this country. No, it’s not our country, but we’re so lucky to be here.”