EL XAB, Guatemala—Ask Heidi Sales what she wants most in this world, and she doesn’t hesitate: “To get to know my dad.”
Ten-year-old Heidi was just 6 months old in 2002 when her father left the village of el Xab in Retalhuleu, a state in western Guatemala, and made his way north. He crossed into the United States illegally and found work in California and, later, Chattanooga.
Tied to a stick that holds mosquito netting over her bed is a photo that Heidi keeps of her father, Benjamin Sales, in a yellow handcrafted frame with orange and green hearts around it. On the other side, there’s a picture in a heart-shaped frame of her mother, Surama Morales, who followed her husband across the border in 2004.
For five years, both parents worked in Chattanooga while Surama’s mother cared for the three children until Morales returned to Guatemala three years ago.
Heidi’s older sister, Karen, 13, understands why her parents left. In the United States, they could earn more money to build a better life for the family. They could pay for a nicer house and maybe even afford better education for her and her siblings.
“When people leave, they leave for necessity,” Karen said.
But Karen would much rather have her parents than the roof over her head, she said.
“You are left sad because you can’t feel their love,” she said in a quiet voice, sitting on her bed in el Xab.
She talks to her father on the phone, but, “It’s not the same having them here, in person,” she said.
She doesn’t remember much about her father. She can’t even remember when he left almost 10 years ago when she was 3.
“It’s very sad,” Benjamin Sales said from the East Lake home he rents with other Guatemalan immigrants. “You abandon your family with the goal of changing their lives a little bit, too.”
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When men and women immigrate illegally to the United States, they often leave much more than a town and a country. They leave fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters.
The children sometimes grow up not knowing their parents — and sometimes never seeing them again. In some cases, they come to resent the parent who isn’t there at Christmas or on their birthday or to tuck them in at night.
Children left behind can come to think of other relatives — aunts, uncles, grandparents — as more of a mother or father than their actual parents.
Parents earn enough money to send some back to their families, one of the main reasons they come to the United States in the first place. Yet some never return home, never again see their children or spouses. Some abandon their families to start new lives in the United States, find a new mate, have new families.
A weak economy in Guatemala and the lure of a better life in America have driven hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans across the border.
Every year, 120,000 Guatemalans leave their country, but only about 40,000 manage to make it to countries such as Mexico, Canada and the United States. Most of those are living in American cities.
And many of them don’t go back, according to a 2009 United Nations Children’s Fund report.
Initially, it was mainly men coming to America, to work and send money back to support their families. Today, although the vast majority of immigrants still are men, more women and families have started to migrate, said Erick Maldonado, Guatemalan vice minister for foreign relations.
Family disintegration is one of the negative effects of emigration, he said.
“It’s not the case anymore, as we conventionally understand it, that the father leaves the family,” Maldonado said from his office in Guatemala City, “but unfortunately we are seeing larger migrations of mothers, the ones in charge of taking care of the home.
“And in the absence of the father or mother, the children are often left with the grandparents or uncles who can give them the love they need but not necessarily have control over them,” he said.
Without parents, children can be lured into criminal activities or gangs, Maldonado said.
Guatemala has a serious crime problem. There are more than 400 gangs with about 14,000 members in Guatemala, among the highest numbers from all Central American countries, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report.
Other children will try to find a way to reunite with their parents in the United States, according to a U.N. Children’s Fund report about Guatemalan youth. They emigrate, often illegally and sometimes on their own, and expose themselves to the dangers of crossing the border.
Nearly half the youth migration from Guatemala to the United States is for family reunification, according to UNICEF.
The typical Guatemalan who migrates out of the country for work is about 10 years younger than in the past, between 16 and 35 years old compared to 25 and 45, according to UNICEF.
The promise of an American future also results in young Guatemalans abandoning their education, Maldonado said.
“For many minors, there’s no educational incentive because they know that, with or without education, they will go to the United States,” he said.
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Sales planned to work in California — where 34 percent of the Guatemalans in the United States live — for 10 years. But in Los Angeles, he frittered away his money on drugs and alcohol.
About to lose the piece of land in Guatemala her husband used as collateral for a loan to pay the smuggler to get him into America, Morales decided she, too, needed to migrate north. In 2004, she arrived in Chattanooga, where her husband later joined her. He pledged to change his ways.
“I promise you will be able to complete your studies and that your dreams will come true. I’m not going to drink anymore,” he told his oldest daughter, Karen, over the phone.
That was almost seven years ago, and he said he has not had a drink since.
Morales returned to Guatemala in 2008, six months after she was arrested during an immigration raid at Chattanooga’s Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant. Her father, her mother and children greeted her at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. The children ran toward their mother; she hugged them, and they cried.
At the airport, the children met their new sister, Sofia, now 4. She was born to Sales and Morales in Chattanooga. Morales was pregnant with her fifth child, Roselia, who was born seven months later. Sales is still living and working in Chattanooga and has never met Roselia.
He hopes to return to Guatemala next year, a decade after he left. By then, Sales thinks he’ll have saved enough money working at a chicken processing plant to pay off the loan his wife got to build her house in Guatemala and to put their children through school.
“I tell [my children] to be patient. We will see each other again soon,” he said.
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Cristian and Brian Monroy can vividly replay in their minds the last hours before their mother left.
Cristian, then 10, was playing soccer on the street of their neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Brian, then 6, watched cartoons on TV inside.
Their mother, Lubia del Cid, made dinner: fried plantains, refried beans and eggs. Then, around 5 p.m. someone came to the door. It was time to go, said the neighbor-turned-smuggler who was going to help del Cid to the United States.
It was Aug. 14, 2004.
“I told her not to go,” said Brian, now 13, “but she just said she was going to the United States so we could have a better life.”
After she climbed aboard a minibus heading north, Cristian, Brian and their father, Armando, sat at the kitchen table.
“The three of us were having dinner alone,” said Cristian, 17, “and as the night went on, you could feel the solitude.”
“It was very difficult for me,” Brian said inside the sparsely furnished three-bedroom home they once shared with their mother. “All of my classmates would go home to their moms; they would show them their grades. If I do something [I want] my mother to be there, something I do well or something I do wrong.”
Every Mother’s Day, Brian and his classmates read poems, danced and sang, all to honor moms. Brian had no one to give his cards or sing to. His mother is 1,400 miles away in Chattanooga.
“It’s very difficult,” a 38-year-old del Cid said as tears rolled down her cheeks. “When I left, my goal was to go back in two or three years, to do something here and go back to my children. But when three years came by, I thought, ‘How am I going to go back with nothing?’”
She felt she hadn’t earned enough money to help her family back in Guatemala.
And while del Cid was away, she bore two daughters — Chattanooga-born Ashley and Kemberly — whom her sons haven’t met, although they know about the girls.
She also has a 21-year-old son from another father who lives with her parents in a Guatemalan village.
Del Cid’s absence and her new family in Chattanooga strained relations with her sons in Guatemala. She’s estranged from the father of her boys in Guatemala City. Her children feel abandoned.
Cristian acknowledges that del Cid helps with school tuition and he understands life is difficult in the United States. But sometimes weeks go by before del Cid talks to her sons. The brothers now hardly mention the role their mother has played in their lives.
“One feels resentment because you say, ‘My mom’s over there; we don’t have her human warmth,’ but that’s how life is,” Cristian said. “What can you do?”
When del Cid left, she promised her sons a Nintendo, brand-name shoes, clothes, phones, computers, but she has not always delivered. She said she sent them a couple of boxes with clothes and has sent money for them to buy what they need.
“From my point of view, she told us that she wanted to go and make money, send us things and come back, but that’s not what happened. In my mind, I never said, ‘She won’t come back,’ but I never thought she would, either,” Cristian said.
“I know that in the United States you earn dollars, but at the same time it’s hard because they don’t just give anybody a job, especially [if they don’t speak English],” he added.
Del Cid also has learned that the “American Dream” is not what it seems.
“When you are in Guatemala and see the amount of money people send back, you think you are going to be able to do the same, but what you don’t realize is that sometimes people go hungry in order to send that money,” del Cid said from the Alton Park apartment she shares with her daughters.
Both del Cid and Morales were among 100 workers caught in the raid at the Pilgrim’s Pride in Chattanooga, but del Cid continues to fight her case.
Her daughter, Kemberly, 3, was born with Poland syndrome, which causes webbed fingers and weakened arm muscles, and she needs long-term medical care. Through a lawyer, del Cid was able to secure a work permit and is now working at Pilgrim’s Pride again.
She hopes she can one day return home, and that her children will forgive her.
“I will return one day and it will all be erased because I have a lot of faith in God and I know he is going to help me remove the bad image they have of me,” she said.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...