Louis
I’m 29 years old and I’m an automechanic. I’m an American citizen now, but I was born in El Salvador in the capital city of San Salvador. And lived in a neighborhood called Soyapango. I came to the United States in 1989 when I was 14, through Guatemala and Mexico and came to live in Brooklyn, New York on the South Side of Williamsburg. After that I lived in Puerto Rico for seven years before coming back. I’m married and have two kids.

What was it like being in El Salvador back in the 80’s?
It was bad, like wow. Everywhere there were guns and the guerillas and the army were shooting at each other. But more innocent people, the women, the children, people going to work, they were dying. The guerillas needed food and money to pay for their ammunition and and clothes and everything else. So every three or four days they used to go the city. They’d go to the bank and they’d take money. And they’d go to the stores and buy things there with the money they stole. They stole from the government not from the people. Because they knew that the people had nothing to do with it and they didn’t want to hurt them. The government was the one hurting the people.

The age that I have, I feel like I’m 50 in my brain because of everything I had to live and everything I’ve been through.

Why did you come to the United States?
You come because you need a better way of life. Because in our country we don’t have that. We have crime. And at the time that I came here there was a big war and everybody was killing each other. Like in Colombia now - the guerillas and the government. And the war lasted twelve years. The leader, Duarte, wanted to be like Castro in Cuba or Chaves in Venezuela. He wanted us to be communists. And our country, they didn’t want to have nothing to do with the United States.

The only thing that the guerillas were doing wrong was they wanted us all to think the same way. You’re either with us or you’re against us. The guerillas came to my house. And they told my father – I was at that time 13 – and they wanted me to go and train with them so that I could be a guerilla with them so that I could go to fight against the government. And my father told them, why? He’s only a little kid. And they said, that’s why. Because we can train him good and he can be a good fighter for our cause. And my father said we don’t have our own choice about what to do with our kids? And they said, no you don’t have no choice.

Did they make any threats?
They said if you don’t give us what we want, all your family will die. So my father told them, okay, can you give me a week to talk to my son and my two girls and my wife? And they said, it’s not negotiable. He has to come with us. And everybody started crying. My father, my mother, my two sisters…

And they grabbed me by my right arm. And they started dragging me out of my house. And my father got a shotgun he had and cocked it. And then six of them came in and they pointed guns at his head.

And then, a higher ranking guerilla came – he called himself a lieutenant -- and said, what’s going on, what’s the problem? And my father told him, I’m just asking for a little bit of time, like a week to talk about this with my family. It’s not to decide because we have no choice. So either you agree or we all die. And then my father turned the shotgun and put it against my head. And he said, you want my son, look I’m just asking for one week.

So the lieutenant said, okay, you have a week. Next Monday we’ll be back.

You remember it was a Monday?
That shit is in my head like it was just yesterday.

So then what?
Then they left and my father called me to one of the rooms in the house and he explained to me what was going on, because I was terrified. I was shaking. I didn’t understand why they were doing this. He told me all about the government and the guerillas. I told my father, yeah papa, I want to go. I don’t want you and my sisters to get hurt.

The next day we all got together to talk about this. And my father said, I made a decision. We’re going away. For now we’re going to the other side of the city to your aunt’s house in Apopa where no one knows us. But just for a few months because they’ll find us.

After that we moved around from place to place for seven or eight months. During that time my mom came to the United States illegally. They caught her at the border but because she was from El Salvador they let her stay and gave her a temporary work permit. From LA, she flew to New York and now she lives in Puerto Rico.

How about you and your sisters and your father?
My sisters got married during the time we were moving around. And they made their own lives. So then the only ones in danger were me and my dad, but mostly me because everywhere we went the guerillas wanted to take me. My mom decided I should come to New York, even though it was risky to come over here without the green card. She sent my dad $2000 for me to make the trip. She spoke to me, and told me to wait for a few weeks so she could get me another $500 for to have in my pocket.

But I didn’t want to wait.

I told her, don’t worry, if you can send me $200, I’ll leave right now. And my dad, said, no wait until she sends you the money because even $500 isn’t enough for that trip. But I was hot-headed and I said, if I don’t leave this week, I won’t go. She sent me the $200 and the next day I left. There was already a trip organized and if I hadn’t gone then, I would have had to wait another month.

What was the trip like?
I left with three pairs of underwear, pants, and socks; and one pair of shoes and that’s all I was carrying. No ID. No nothing. They required that. I don’t know why because at least if you die on the way they know who you are they can inform your family. But that’s the way it was. But that’s why so many people die and noone ever knows what happened to them. They just bury them and then it’s nothing. Like you’re an animal. Or even worse than an animal because at least they have tags that say who they are. And I know the government in Mexico knows this and they don’t do anything about it.

Anyway, there were 20 other people with me. And the more people, the harder it is to go to the United States. That’s why I think a lot of people don’t make it. Because immigration is always watching and bigger groups are easier to spot. It’s also easier to travel with smaller groups because with larger groups it’s harder to feed everyone. Sometimes we didn’t eat for two or even three days. Or shower. Because the coyotes - that's what the guides are called - don’t want to spend all that money.

In each state in Mexico they had different people to hide us and give us food. But sometimes our coyote didn’t give them enough money to feed us. Even when we ate, we would only eat maybe once a day. In fact, if you could eat once a day - two tortillas, one egg and water - that was good. These were poor people we stayed with; and they didn’t even have enough money to eat themselves.

That’s why my mom had told me to wait a few more weeks. Because if I had more money, then I could give the people money to buy food at least for me and maybe for them. By Guatemala – I haven’t told you about that - my money was already gone and I still had to go through Mexico.

And it was also hard because they didn’t want the authorities to know we were there. We couldn’t even go outside.

So, the coyote would drop us off and then disappear until they knew the checkpoints were clear or there was someone crooked he could pay off.

So tell us about Guatemala.
I was legal in Guatemala. I was feeling good there and I was spending that $200 like it was a million dollars. I had never had so much money in my hands. I was the rich man and I was inviting everyone to eat during the three days we were there. And we were also seeing the ladies. Then when our coyote came to take us to Mexico I only had like $20 left.

But I was thrown out of Mexico back to Guatemala three times before I finally made it through to the United States on the fourth time. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have anything to eat. I was down to around 90 pounds.

Three times you were thrown out of Mexico?
The first time in Mexico we made it all the way to Guadalajara. We would travel by bus, but at the checkpoints we would walk around or if there was someone to pay, we would go straight through. Finally, we were past all the checkpoints. But then there was another checkpoint that wasn’t supposed to be there. The coyote didn’t know who to talk to or pay to get us through. Finally there was a guy he found who he knew and who was crooked, but he wanted too much money and the coyote couldn’t pay. So he paid for his own freedom, but they put the rest of us - except for I think five who were able to run away – in jail. That was crazy.

How so?
They treated us like we were criminals or murderers or something. One day there was a big fight when they were lining us up to go into our cells, I was next to this big guy and I saw this man coming from my right with a knife, not running but fast, and I saw him stick a knife in the guy’s neck and he fell right on my leg. I fell down and I’m sitting there holding him, trying to stop the bleeding and a second guy comes up from the other side – I didn’t even see him coming - and he stabs the guy in the stomach again and again until the guards stopped him. He died.

I was in a cell with three guys, really bad people, sentenced for life for drugs and killing or something, and, let me tell you, I was scared. I didn’t know what they were going to do to me. Two of them wanted to rape me, but I was lucky that one of them, the boss of the other two, he liked me, he was cool, and he told them no, this is a little kid. You’re not going to do that. He protected me. I was lucky.

After seven or eight days they sent us to another jail that was way better – just for immigrants. They gave us rooms. They fed us. Let us shower. After about half a month - they were waiting for enough people to come so that they could send 50 or 60 of us all back together at once on a bus - they sent us back to Guatemala where we met up with our coyote at a hotel.

Well at least you got past the worst of it in one piece…
No, that first time in Mexico, that was the good one. It got even worse from there.

You’re kidding me.
Yeah, worse. Worse. Worse. Worse. I argued a lot with the coyote. He only cared about himself and money. A lot, a lot of other people couldn’t take it - they wanted to sleep, to eat good, and they went back to El Salvador to recover and then maybe try again. But I argued a lot with the coyote and finally he called my mom and told her he didn’t want to take me. She was worried about my safety,so she told him if he could get me through she would get him another $2000. So he was like, all right, but tell him to stop cursing and giving me trouble because he’s in my hands and I can do anything I want to him. And he did. He did anything he wanted with me.

How did you finally make it through?
On the fourth trip, the first coyote he passed me off to another coyote. He was bored with me and didn’t want to take his chances with me anymore. He thought I was bad luck. The second coyote was really nice to me. He bought me clothes, gave me food. He even took me to his house where he had two daughters and a wife. He was crazy to have a son and he wanted me to stay with him. He wanted to adopt me. He spoke to my mother about that but of course she said no. She wanted me over here with her and she was desperate to see me.

But he still helped me for two or three weeks, waiting for the right time. He knew everything about the business. He was actually a retired coyote and he knew all the best ways to take me. And he knew all the crooked police and he told them I was his son. That he’d helped my mom years ago when she crossed through Mexico and had sex with her. And he just found out about me. He told a really nice story. So nice that I even started to believe it.

I never would have made it without him. We drove in his car and stayed in the best hotels. We got to Tijuana, parked the car there and went across the border on foot. It was raining a lot and there was water up to my knees sometimes. In San Diego, he passed me off to a friend of his who got me false papers. He took me to the San Diego airport where I caught a plane to Los Angeles to avoid a checkpoint. He didn’t want to take any chances. From there I made it to New York.

How did you become a citizen?
Two years after I came here I met this woman, this beautiful woman, this excellent woman who changed my life forever. And we fell in love. We got married three years later and that’s how I became a citizen. Everything I do is for her. For her and my kids.

Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
9/11 I saw everybody uniting together. And for the first time in my life I saw everybody coming together and caring about each other and helping each other. And I thought that was great. And that was the first time I ever saw that.

And I love New York because that’s where I watched my wife give birth.

You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
I’m working all the time. I don’t have no days to kill. Living in the United States doesn’t mean I have everything. I have to work hard for it.

What advice would you give Bush as he embarks on his second term?
You haven’t been through what I’ve been through. If you had, this war in Iraq never would have started. You don’t know what it’s like to be hungry and to feel pain. You have your father and mother and your big house.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about people in other countries. But there were no WMDs and just caring about people or seeking revenge because Saddam tried to kill your father wasn’t enough to go to this war and spend all this money. You should use that money for the things we need here, like kids' education, and teaching parents how to be real parents. I’ve seen parents treat their kids like nothing. I think you should travel more to where really poor and hungry people are and see for yourself what’s going on in the world. Don’t just take advice from your advisors. See what’s really going on.

If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?
With all I’ve been through, believe me I don’t believe in God, I believe in myself.

Interview by Raphie Frank