October 14, 2009

A family’s fall from grace

I was a bit early on Tuesday morning for my appointment with Don Rafael. To avoid arriving early, I sat in a nearby park and reflected on my upcoming interviews with Don Rafael and his wife. I had already interviewed their daughter, Katy, so knew a bit about their story. Katy had told me that the whole family had been deported when she was just fifteen years old. She also had told me that her uncle had called immigration and reported them. That seemed a bit of an unlikely story, but not impossible.

I was anxious to meet Katy’s parents. She had painted a picture of them as honorable, honest, hardworking people whose bad luck had led to their return to Guatemala and consequent financial demise. As Katy was only fifteen when her parents were deported, it is conceivable that they omitted a few details in recounting what had happened. Since they don’t like to talk about what happened to them, because of the pain, she likely still doesn’t know the full story.

It is not my place to unearth the “real story.” Thank goodness, because, I am not sure what the real story might be, nor whether it is a good idea for Katy to know it. It is my job to create a safe space where Katy’s parents feel comfortable telling me their version of why they were deported from the US nine years ago.

It is also not my place to judge their actions or inactions. It is my place to listen with respect, compassion, and humility to their stories. Taking a few minutes to reflect on this before the interview helped me to prepare for what I was about to hear.

I met Don Rafael in his hardware shop. He came across as a very pleasant and open man, who did not hesitate to share his story with me. When I told him I am writing a book on people who have been deported to the US, the first thing he wished to clarify is that he did not enter the US illegally. Don Rafael had been traveling to the US on a multiple-entry visa for years before he decided to settle there.

To say he decided to settle in the US is a bit of an exaggeration. Rather, he was forced to flee from Guatemala because he was a witness to a political assassination in 1989. Don Rafael went to the house of one of his professors from the University to pay a visit. This professor was left-leaning, and was a potential candidate in the upcoming elections. When Don Rafael arrived at the professor’s house, he and the professor accompanied his sons to the corner to take their bus to school. As they were walking back to the house, armed gunmen came out of a parked vehicle and began to shoot at the professor. The men ran in separate directions. Don Rafael managed to escape, but not without seeing the men who shot and killed the professor. The killers found out who Don Rafael was and began to look for him in order to kill him. It was under these circumstances that Don Rafael fled the country and entered the US. His wife and two daughters came shortly afterward.

Once in the United States, Don Rafael applied for political asylum. As he was waiting for his application to be processed, he was advised not to work. They survived on their savings for over a year, before ending up on the streets, homeless. This was quite a fall from grace, as this family was quite well-off in Guatemala. Both Don Rafael and his wife, Mariluna, had attended prestigious schools in Guatemala, lived in wealthy neighborhoods, and were from upper class families.

Eventually, Don Rafael was able to find a business partner and started up a business. As such, technically, he was not employed, but simply conducting business in the US. Years later, Don Rafael’s plea for asylum was denied on the basis of lack of sufficient supporting evidence. His lawyer told him he would appeal the case, and Don Rafael and his family continued their life in the US, slowly becoming more and more successful.

After about 13 years in the US, Don Rafael finally achieved the American Dream. He bought a house for his family, a very nice abode in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He and his wife bought all new furniture and appliances for the house and were in the process of decorating it to their tastes when their worst nightmare came to fruition.

Don Rafael’s success was based on his business doing touch-up paint work for cars. He had the business for just over a year, and it was doing very well. His brother, it turns out, was in the same business, and had taught the trade to Don Rafael. Although his brother was tremendously well off, he resented the fact that Don Rafael had opened a business in the same area as him, and vowed to revenge him.

Don Rafael’s brother was friends with the then-Governor of Louisiana and was able to pull some strings to ensure that immigration agents found out about Don Rafael’s denied application for asylum. For this reason, immigration agents came to their house, and ordered the family deported.

Nine years later, this family still suffers tremendously from what happened to them. Katy was never able to finish high school, as she did not have the proper papers to register in Guatemala. Don Rafael was never able to get a job in Guatemala, as potential employers said he was too old and overqualified. When they first arrived, they survived on their credit cards from the US and the good will of their family in Guatemala. Today, nine years later, they have enough money to eat and keep a roof over their head. But, the pain they carry in their hearts has not disappeared.

When I left their house, after a delicious meal with Doña Mariluna, it was clear to me why Katy has so much respect and esteem for her parents. Over lunch, Doña Mariluna told me that, after losing nearly all of her material possessions first in Guatemala, and then in the United States, she has learned not to value material goods as much. And, having lived on the goodwill of others both in the United States and in Guatemala, she has developed real compassion for the poor in Guatemala, something quite rare among Latin American elites.

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