September 29, 2009

A Tattooed Deportee

This afternoon, I ventured downtown to meet Jose Carlos for an interview. We met at his brother’s office, where there was an empty room quiet enough to do the interview. We sat down, I told him about the project, and Jose Carlos agreed to tell me his story.

Jose Carlos went to the United States as a preschooler. He lived with his father for one year in Los Angeles, and then moved to live with his mother in Houston a year later. Jose Carlos and his mother both had temporary permits to live in the US and arrived via airplane. In Houston, Jose Carlos went to Kindergarten through eighth grade in Southwest Houston, a primarily black and Latino community. When he went to high school, his family moved to North Houston, to a whiter, more affluent community.

In North Houston, Jose Carlos had a diverse group of friends, mostly Asian and Latino. He finished high school, but began getting into trouble while he was in high school. He was picked up by the police for small amounts of marijuana on one occasion and for riding in a stolen car on another occasion. He told me he didn’t join any gangs, but enjoyed going out and having fun, and that this got him into trouble.

Jose Carlos is good at drawing, and became a tattoo artist. He was able to make a decent living with that. Since he was working for himself, Jose Carlos didn’t think to renew his work visa when it expired.

One evening, shortly after he turned 21, Jose Carlos left a party with his girlfriend. He had been drinking, yet decided to drive home. He got into an accident, and was sentenced to six months in the county jail. When he was released from the county jail, immigration agents came to pick him up, and he went to immigration detention.

In immigration detention, Jose Carlos planned to fight his deportation case. He had been in the US for eighteen years. He was 22, and had been there since he was four. His parents are both legal permanent residents, and he thought he would have a case. However, to win, he needed a lawyer. And, Jose Carlos didn’t have the money – nearly $10,000 – that the lawyer wanted. So, in 2005, Jose Carlos agreed to be deported to the country he left when he was four years old.

Although Jose Carlos had few ties in Guatemala, he did have a brother in Guatemala City who had come back from the US of his own accord a few years before. He also had cousins and other family members who helped him find a place and a job.

Jose Carlos got a job delivering boxes, and then a job at a bar where his English skills were an asset. After a few months in the capital, he headed to Panajachel – a prime tourist destination in Guatemala. There, with his English skills, he was able to find work in a bar and did okay for himself. He traveled around Guatemala a bit, getting to know the country that he now calls home.

At the moment, Jose Carlos is back in Guatemala City, where he works in a call center. He makes about US $500 a week, answering calls for a major US company. It’s enough to pay the bills down here, but not enough to have the lifestyle he had in the US.

Jose Carlos told me he is happy to be back in Guatemala. He has been back for four years, and doesn’t wish to go back to the US. He recalls people in the US being materialistic and superfluous, and having a sense of entitlement that you don’t find in Guatemala. I asked him for an example. He pointed out that, in Guatemala, you can see a man picking his nose with his fingers on the bus, not caring what others might think. Or, people hanging out the door of a bus. “Here,” he said, “you can do what you want, and nobody gives a fuck.”

I asked Jose Carlos how people treat him here. Looking at him, it is fairly obvious that he grew up in the US – his demeanor, his clothes, his walk, and his tattoos give it away. With his urban gear and tattoos, Guatemalans are likely to presume he is a gangbanger. He told me that the police stop him here for no reason. When they do, he shows them his national ID, his work ID, and tells them he is coming home from work. They frisk him, and then let him go. He is okay with that. He admits he has more rights in the US – that the police wouldn’t kill him there, although they could here. But, so long as he stays on the right side of the law, he thinks he will be okay.

I asked him how other Guatemalans see him, does he cover up his tattoos? He told me he used to, but that he doesn’t any more. People are often scared of him, but he says he can’t do anything about that. Women clutch their purses; people cross the street. They see his tattoos and presume he is a bad person. He says his tattoos provide him with a certain level of protection in what can be a dangerous city. People are scared of him.

Jose Carlos is 26 years old and has his life ahead of him. He wants to travel around Latin America. He should be able to do this with his tattooing skills, but needs to get the money together to buy all of the equipment he will need. Returning to Guatemala was definitely a life-changing experience for Jose Carlos. As for what the future holds, only time will tell.

No comments:

Post a Comment