Interviewed by Israel Salas-Rodriguez
Podcast by Leah Shaw
Carlos, an undocumented immigrant, told a harrowing story to Israel Salas-Rodriguez about his life in Mexico, his trips across the border and his life in the shadows in New York City. But the voices you hear are not his. Because of the Trump Administration’s aggressive anti-immigrant policies, rather than exposing Carlos to being rounded-up by ICE, Israel Salas-Rodriguez and Jasmine Toledo read his words.
Imagine yourself as a child growing up in a small village located in the state of Guerrero in southwest Mexico. Now imagine yourself living most of your childhood and teenage years without your parents at home, living in poverty, no food to eat, no money, and a house full of anger. That’s exactly how Carlos, a 32-year-old undocumented immigrant living in Brooklyn, grew up.
His village is home to less than 500 people; the community is filled with dirt, cracked streets, and mountains. A family’s income is limited to either farming, a 12-hour shift, which earns you less than ten dollars or receiving money sent by family members living in the United States.
Carlos now calls a two-story apartment building in Brooklyn home. His bedroom is well organized, his belongings are kept in order, his basketball sits on top of his bookshelf, and his marathon metals hanging from his TV. A baby size pair of his favorite Air Jordans sit on top of his bed, “I’ve never been able to find a pair my size, so I got these for my son in the future,” said Carlos, speaking in both English and Spanish. His room begins to darken at 6.30 p.m. and that’s when he began to speak on his experiences as an undocumented immigrant.
Growing up without a mother or father around can damage a child’s life; with four siblings and no money for food it was no surprise the tension in his house was full of anger. Carlos was raised by his grandmother, along with his four sisters. He was the only man in the house. He and his family struggled growing up, though he said his grandmother would always favor him over his sisters because he was the man of the house.
“Having a piece of bread in the house was a blessing, bread was for the wealthy so my grandmother would always give me more than my sisters because she said that men had to eat more to stay strong,” he said. This was one of the reasons he and his sisters never got along because of their grandmother’s favoritism.
“My family was never united. Physically we were together but spiritually I believe we were never in that concept of being united,” said Carlos. “Growing up was actually pretty tough for me. I guess it’s because I had a lot of struggles with a lot of things as a kid.”
The issues of poverty and low job opportunities leaves many Hispanic families from Central and South American with either of two options: attempting to cross the U.S-Mexico border or beginning a life of crime. With no financial stability and no support from his family Carlos looked north and saw the United States as the only escape from his struggles.
In 1996, Carlos crossed the U.S-Mexico border and entered the United States at the age of 18, leaving behind his grandmother and two of his sisters. “I think during that time it wasn’t difficult for me to abandon my family or my siblings, because during that time my parents were here and some of my sisters also,” he said. “But I believe because the situation I found myself in perhaps economically or emotionally, I think I was actually happy to leave that thing you’re supposed to call home.”
Crossing the border on your own as a teenager isn’t the best choice. Over the past 15 years the number of murders, kidnappings, and robberies on the U.S-Mexico border have skyrocketed. Gang and drug cartel members have taken advantage of the individuals attempting to enter the United States. Carlos himself experienced one of those moments. “It was really hard, I was really scared, and I remember a lot of things about that bad experience. We bumped into some cholos with guns and knives in their hands and they took everything from us,” he said. “They took all of our money and they made us take off all our clothes so they can get everything from us. It was a very bad experience for a kid.” Even the feeling of doing something illegal, like getting caught by border patrol, or starving throughout the journey puts fear in the heart of anybody that attempts to cross the border.
New York wasn’t exactly what Carlos envisioned once he arrived. He had a picture in his mind about what New York was like, which in his words he described it as, “heaven, the place where there was food, money, there was everything you can think of,” he said. Once in New York he was reunited with his parents and two sisters in Harlem. Coming from Mexico, the first thing on his mind was to work and make money, but no one ever told him he had to work 14 hours a day and only get paid nine dollars an hour as a dishwasher. That’s when the picture in Carlos’s mind completely shattered.
He experienced many things he never saw or thought about while living in New York, but perhaps the most shocking image to him was observing two women kissing in the middle of the street in the East Village of Manhattan. “Coming from a small village in Mexico, no one ever talks or hears about the gay community,” said Carlos.
His first 13 years in New York didn’t exactly bring him the happiness that he felt when he left his home in Mexico. Once his parents decided to go back to Mexico and one of his sisters moved out, he began to feel like he wanted to be back home in Mexico again. During that time he realized that he was in a state of depression, pure negativity and isolation took over his life. “After realizing I was depressed I think I did things that perhaps drowned me more into depression,” he said. “I went to the movie theaters alone, I went out to eat by myself, I exercised alone. I used to enjoy walking in the rain even crying in the process without feeling the warmth of my tears. I think after living with depression for so long I fell in love with the way it felt and at one point I enjoyed to cry, simply because I was accustomed to living that way.”
He decided he did have an option—returning to Mexico.
“Sometimes the thought of going back home crossed my mind, but at the same times when those memories popped up of how I grew up I would always walk away from making the decision of going back home,” he said. But after years of living with negativity and fighting with himself something in his mind clicked, and that feeling was telling him to return back to his village. Although he was undocumented, he decided that nothing would stop him from returning to that place he called home, and after 13 years Carlos returned to Mexico without legal status.
Tears are what first came out of him once he saw his parents and grandmother after all those years, the memories of his childhood came rushing through his mind. His intention was to return after one month, but his plan extended to over a year. When he finally returned to New York he came across his worst life experience while crossing the border.
The encounter came en route from Monterrey to Piedras Negras, in Mexico. While on the bus two men stopped the vehicle he was in and began asking for everyone’s identification. The two men approached Carlos and asked him if he was Mexican. The two men didn’t believe him once he said he was Mexican. When the men asked him for his ID, a wrong question asked by Carlos almost cost him his life, “If I’m identifying myself you should also identify yourself to me as a police officer or some type of official. In that moment when I told him that he took out a knife and put it against my throat and said, I ask the questions over here.” A response on Carlos behalf almost resulted in the last question he could have ever asked. The memory of that day is still on the back of his mind, “I could still feel the tip of the knife on my throat today.”
On April 2015, Carlos returned to New York, but before he arrived at New York he was locked inside a house for ten days in Texas along with several others undocumented immigrants. Everyone in the house was locked inside without being able to see the light of day. Two coyotes, made sure everyone stayed in the house feeding them four tortillas with two scrambled eggs for the whole day. After ten days, the coyote let Carlos go once his $7,000 fee was paid off. He paid an extra $2,000 to be driven from Texas to New York, and that’s where his story continues.
Carlos currently works in a small restaurant in the Village in Manhattan, where he works as a line cook. He hopes to one day become a U.S citizen so he can once again be reunited with his family and has dreams of attending culinary arts school. “I remember checking out some pages on the Internet and at the beginning of the application they asked for my social security that I don’t have. That’s when the dream crumbles and it’s difficult because you want to, but the situation doesn’t allow you to and that’s frustrating,” he said.
If there is one emotion Carlos has experienced to its maximum it would have to be fear. “Fear is something that teaches you how to be strong or it kills you. Sometimes one might say I am strong or I am smart. But in reality we don’t know our instinct as a human being,” he said. “I never experienced fear like I did a few years back. It was only in dreams, but in my dreams I saw horrifying things, even now when I start to think about them I would still be afraid. I believe by instinct or I don’t know if I really believe in God, but the only one that could’ve turned off my fears was God, with the help of God.”