The following story was originally narrated by Claudia Gonzalez Arevalo. Details have been filled in for clarity.
My name is Claudia Gonzalez Arevalo. I’m from El Salvador. I came here in 1993 to the United States. I’m an immigrant. This is my story.
I am the first person coming from my family. The first. No parents, no family in this country (when I came). I came here through Mexico. I passed three different frontiers: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. I didn’t have documents when I came here as an immigrant. I traveled by train, but not a passenger train, on the outside (of the train). They called it “La Bestia”. La Bestia is the monster, the big monster. Many people came through La Bestia. It was very scary, because I didn’t have any money, and my reason for coming to the United States is that my mom, she had many economic problems in my country. She almost lost the house. I was very young, like 15 at the time. I tried to help my mom by working different jobs in El Salvador, like the markets and different businesses in El Salvador, but it wasn’t much money. I made a decision that I needed to do something. I needed to move to a different country to try to help my family. I had one big brother and one big sister, and they were students in El Salvador. I was also a student in El Salvador before I had my baby. When I had my baby, I was only 14 years old. My first boyfriend in El Salvador didn’t support me or the baby. I tried to support my son and my mom, but there was no future in El Salvador. I needed to do something and go to a different country and work hard to help my family. When I made the decision to come to the United States, I said to my mom, “Mom, please, take my baby”. She said no. She tried to protect me. She was scared, and she thought I was too young. She thought about how she was the adult, and I was the baby, and I’m not supposed to make a decision to go to a different country. She was very scared, so she told me no. So, I asked my big brother, “Can you please take my baby?”. He (my baby) was only 13 months. And my brother said, “You want to try?”. Yes, I said. I want to try. So, my brother took my baby. I had a little business in El Salvador. I sold my business. Somebody paid me 10,000 colones (El Salvadorian currency at the time), and I used 7,000 colones for my mom, and I took 3,000.
I was supposed to come with two friends. My destination was supposed to be Chicago. And in Mexico, I lost my friends. We were coming for the train, and the police from Mexico were following the train. We were running, and we got separated. I had given my 3,000 colones to my friends, and they were supposed to change the money for pesos (Mexican currency). And then I didn’t see my friends anymore. So, I didn’t have any money, no house, no food. We had paid for a motel in Mexico for one night. So, the lady at the motel asked me if I was paying for another night. I said I don’t have the money to pay for another night. She said it would be easier for me to go back to El Salvador. “Your friends are not here. You have no money, no food. You need to go back to El Salvador”. I said no. She asked me if I wanted to work for 1-2 weeks. She said she would pay me 10 pesos. She paid me and gave me food, and then I continued my travel. I passed all of Mexico and ran out of money because it was too many days walking. I had to ask people in different houses to give me food for free. And the people they helped me. They gave me food. The Mexican people helped many people everyday. And they never say no, we don’t have food. They always give food. People had gone for 3 or 4 days without eating. It was very hard. So, I made the decision to stop walking. I was very tired, but I didn’t want to ride on the outside of a train anymore. Outside the train was very dangerous. I saw two people die. We had waited for the train for 3 days without sleeping or eating. Everyone was very tired. Two guys from Honduras were sleeping, and I tried to wake them up three times. One of them let go of the train, and he tried to get help from someone else, and he took his friend’s hands, and both of them fell and died. It was so scary. My limbs and body were shaking. I said I don’t want to ride the outside of the train anymore. I had already done it about five times, but after seeing that, it affected me, and I said I don’t want to do it anymore. So, I stayed in Mexico and worked in this place to wash tobacco leaves and dry the leaves. It made my body itch. I worked for 15 days, and the boss, he paid me, and I took the money and took a train one more time, but this time inside the train.
I went to the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and I tried three times, different ways, to go to the U.S. My first time, I came through Houston, and I passed the Rio Grande. I tried two times to pass the Rio Grande. The first time the water was just above my knees, and it was very easy, but we were sent back. My second time, the water was up to my chest, and you couldn’t swim due to the current under the water. The current is too strong. If you try to swim, the current would take you away. You have to walk and brace yourself with each step. All the people are following you with a rope tied around your waist for others to hold onto. We tried to cross the Rio Grande for two days, but it was impossible to cross. The second time I passed through the desert. There are many problems in the desert If you don’t have water. It’s really hot and very dry. And there are many animals, like snakes and scorpions. It was impossible to cross. My last time I went through Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego, California. We came in by car, with 10-11 people inside a small Honda Accord. There were helicopters coming and shining a light on the car and following the car. The driver parked the car, and everybody ran in different ways. I was running too. Always, I was running. I passed into San Diego, and went to Los Angeles.
It had already been three and a half months without speaking to my family in El Salvador. My family was very scared. They thought about maybe I had passed away or something. I didn’t have any friends or family in L.A. Nobody was waiting for me. I was hungry, and my clothes were very dirty. I looked like a homeless person. There were many things in my hair (leaves, pieces of trees). I had not showered for a long time. We had been walking through the Rio Grande and the desert for many days. In L.A., I stayed under a bridge by the Rio Grande. The people didn’t look at me. There was a lady who exercised everyday by the bridge. I looked at the lady, and she looked pretty. In El Salvador, I had never seen white people with blue eyes and white skin. It was my first time seeing people who looked like this. I couldn’t stop looking at the lady. Maybe I scared the lady because I’m looking at her and I looked like a homeless person. She was running everyday in the morning, and she saw me for three days. On the second day, she asked me if I needed something to eat and drink. She asked if I had family. She tried to help me, but I didn’t understand. She used hand signals to ask me if I was hungry. And I said yes. She said to wait for her and she would be back. She went to her house and got me food and new clothes, and she told me I needed to shower. She told me to follow her to her home. All of this was with signals because I couldn’t understand what she said. She took me to her house. It was a big, beautiful house. She used a paper and pen to draw a “Papi” and “Mom” to ask if I had a family. I said no, only in El Salvador. She told me I needed to work if I want to live in the U.S. She looked in the grocery markets to help me find a job. I finished work my first day in the grocery, and the lady waited for me outside. She said if I wanted to come to her home to sleep and stay, it was no problem. She gave me the garage with a carpet on the floor, and she let me use the bathroom inside. I think about her, and I think that she is an angel, because she didn’t know me, and I didn’t know her. And she helped me. I don’t know why. She had a big heart.
She had two little kids, one was 6 years old and one was 4. The little girl, she spoke to me, and said, “Oh, Miss Claudia”. They were my little teachers. They taught me English. The lady told me that she and her husband were working, and she asked if I wanted to work part-time in her home after finishing at the grocery to look after her kids. I am a very good cook, and she and her husband liked my Spanish food. I tried to pay something because they helped me too much. The lady told me that I needed to go to school, and I wanted to go. She told me to take a basic English course. The little kids gave me books to teach me words. They were my first teachers. We would watch TV, and they would explain it to me. I never went to a school, just took an English course. I continued to work and saved money. After a year, I took a new job and moved into a different house after the little kids started going to school. My friend in California told me we needed to go to a different state to make more money. So, we moved to Virginia where she had family. And her family had a job ready for my friend. She started working in a restaurant, and she helped me start working too after a couple of months. I liked working in the restaurant. I worked for 25 years in the restaurant. When I moved to Virginia, I saved money everyday. I worked 7 days a week saving money. And I was helping my mom. One day, she called me, and she said, “Ok Claudia, if we don’t pay, the bank will take the house.” I asked her how much she needed to pay. She said almost $5,000. $5,000 at that time was too much money. I told my mom not to worry about it, because I’ve been saving money. And I paid the money to the bank, and I helped my mom in El Salvador.
I applied for a temporary work permit for the first time in 2001. I only had my temporary work card for 3 months when my father passed away, and I went to immigration in Baltimore, and I asked for a special permit to go to El Salvador and come back legally, not as an immigrant anymore. I had my temporary work permit and my social security. They gave me the permits, and they called it parole. So, I could return to El Salvador for 16 days. I saw my mom one more time. She had waited 8 years to see me. She was so happy. My son was very happy too. He said, “Mommy, did you come to pick me up?” I said, “No baby, I need to go back to the United States.” When I came back through United States immigration, they told me I couldn’t leave the U.S. again for 10 years. So, my second time to return to El Salvador was in 2012. The first time my mom had waited 8 years to see me, and the second time she waited 11 years to see me again because of the immigration problem. So, I waited and continued to work.
My kids grew up here. My second kid is 23 years old right now. But the father of my first son, he came to the United States, and he married somebody. And this lady, she had permanent residence, so she helped give my ex permanent residence, and he helped my son to get it too. My first son came here when he was 13 years old. I waited 13 years to see him one more time. It was very hard. This lady also helped me get my permanent residence. I had residence for 5 years, and I started studying the questions for citizenship. I was ready for my citizenship. I didn’t want to wait anymore. Some people are scared about the test, and they wait too long. They wait 10 years or 20 years. I didn’t want to wait too long. I was a student everyday for 6 months. I was working and learning everyday while I was working. The test was easy for me, because I was a student for a long time. So, it was no problem. Like 5 minutes. The test was reading and writing. But for my personal questions, they asked too many personal questions. And everybody else had an interview of 25 minutes, but my interview was two hours and 15 minutes. The immigration person asked me, “Why do you have four kids with four different last names, and your husband has a different last name too?”. And my lawyer was angry, and she said he shouldn’t ask questions like that. My lawyer tried to help me. But the interview lasted two hours and 15 minutes. (Claudia ultimately did receive her permanent U.S. citizenship in February 2022).
I’ve helped my sister and my brothers in El Salvador. They have kids too. I paid for college in El Salvador for my brother and sister. And my sister asked me to help her come to the United States. So, I paid $5,000 to help my sister. A man picked up my sister in El Salvador, but he lost her in Mexico. And he took my money. So, I needed to pay $5,000 more to someone else. I paid it one more time. When my sister came here, I already had an apartment and a job for her. And we worked together, and we helped more family, like my brother and my niece. Now, my niece is a doctor in El Salvador, and my second niece is an architect. My sister married a man in 2000. My niece was born here, and she goes to a university in Pennsylvania. She is studying art. My sister has a landscaping company. She has a very different story than mine.
My family and friends don’t have too much money in El Salvador. I always help many families there. Whenever I have a little more money after paying bills, I help my friends in El Salvador. One lady I was friends with in middle school, and I sent her $75 to help, and now she has a big business! And she said thank you to me because she can’t save money like this. Some businesses in El Salvador pay only $7-8 per day for all day, and people get one day off a month. And sometimes they don’t want a day off. They just want to keep working to keep making money. My mom and I have a big market place in El Salvador now. Our six employees can now support their families. And my sister’s employees support their families here and their families in Guatemala.
I say thank you to God for everything. It’s too much. God loves me too much.