Thursday, August 29, 2013

Guatemala # 8 Miguel Scores Big, Then...

This post comes from Julia Gunther, 14, my granddaughter who proved to be very comfortable in Spanish during our ten days together in Guatemala.  This is the second of two posts on emigration from Guatemala to the United States.

How to Make Half a Million Dollars as an Illegal Immigrant: A Guide

During our time with Semilla Nueva, I spent one night sleeping in a farmer’s home with SN’s nutrition specialist, Anne Barkett. For her, this was routine; she spends most nights sleeping in a farmer’s home, but for me, it was a special treat in a cozy, family atmosphere.

You first come to a small, simple cement building with tile floors and a porch. Outside is a table, decorated with a flowered tablecloth. The surrounding area is covered with tarps to keep dry during the pounding rain of the wet season. There is a wood stove, clotheslines, dish racks, and a pilla (PI-ya). Pillas are cement structures with two basins, one filled with water, the other empty except for a drain. Plastic bowls float within them to scoop up water.  Hands and dishes are cleaned, then the water dumped into the empty basin to drain. It’s their sink. There is also a shower to bucket bathe and a bathroom.

This is Lydia’s house and it’s unusual in that she has a flush-toilet, not just a hole beneath the seat.  The whole place has the sense of being well lived in, a bit messy but everyone totally comfortable, casually hanging out. I was comfortable too, spending the evening with the kids, blowing bubbles and playing with a mostly deflated soccer ball.

It was reminiscent of my own childhood but in a completely different setting.  Lydia’s granddaughter, a 15 month old named Charlene, was the cutest kid ever. The chubby little toddler was constantly smiling and waddling around.  I also made friends with her cousin, a five-year-old named Daniel, and he was soon pulling me by the hand to play. Both are children of Lydia’s two daughters but neither has a father at home. 

Charlene and Daniel’s uncle also played with us. At age 14 he is of the same generation as his niece and nephew. As is typical in most of Latin America, he loves soccer and was only too happy to show off his skills to the gringas. He has two older brothers and two older sisters, 20 and 22, a total of five kids for Lydia. The 20 year old is just completing high school, only a couple years ahead of me in school and I’m 14. The difference between us was striking. She already has one child and is finishing high school at the same age I’ll finish college, which she won’t even get to start.  But as she is the only one of her siblings to have completed high school, this is a very proud moment for the family. 

After a meal of eggs, black beans, and tortillas, we found out who was the real outlier around here, her older brother, Miguel.

          Miguel recently returned from a roller coaster of experiences during ten years in the United States.  At 13 he started walking through Guatemala and Mexico to the US border. He hired a coyote (pronounced co-YO-te in Spanish) for about $3,000 and made it safely over the border. Walking through the desert he thought he was going to die at one point.  In fact, a few people in his group did die.

This dangerous attempt is not uncommon. Almost every member of a Guatemala family will try to make it across. They’re willing to pay pretty large amounts of money. If the person doesn’t make it, the money is lost. No refunds. In Miguel’s case, it paid off.

          At first, he worked somewhere in Georgia to pay off his debt to the coyote. He attended but never completed high school. Eventually, he made his way up to Kansas City, Missouri, where he had a low paying job, sending a little money home each month.

One weekend, a friend invited him to a horse race. Miguel had grown up taking care of his grandparents’ horses so he knew horses and agreed to go. He won $100 in a single bet. While the races were legal, the betting was not but that didn’t deter Miguel in the slightest.  Every weekend from then on, he loved going to the races and every weekend he bet. As it turned out, with his good eye he kept winning. Eventually, he saved enough to buy half of a horse with a friend which, in its first race, won $3,000.

 That wasn’t much considering it costs about $3,000 to maintain a horse. After that first race, his friend decided to sell Miguel his half because he lived in Denver and couldn’t visit very often. Miguel continued to enter races for himself and continued to pile up money, not only from winning but from betting on his horse. Together they traveled the country to illegal races. They took place, somehow, on the normal racetracks but Miguel couldn’t enter sanctioned events because officials checked the owner’s credentials which could get Miguel expelled from the country.  Although unofficial, the race stakes were not low. In one, Miguel won $125,000. From all of his races combined, he told us he made about $500,000.

          Then things took a turn for the worst. He lost three races in a row and $200,000. At the third, he was planning to compete in Florida but discovered somebody had tampered with his horse which was now sick and wasn’t going to be allowed to compete.

He then took his horse to an animal hospital and paid $5,000 to have him cured. As he left, he got a call from the government. His horse was going to be confiscated and then put down.  So he and a friend, who also had a horse confiscated, decided to say a last good-bye. However when they arrived, they decided to rescue the horses instead. So they stole a trailer and escaped. The story made the papers and there was a big search but neither the horses nor their owners were ever found.

After a few months of laying low in Texas, Miguel’s horse is now back racing in Kansas City while Miguel has returned to Guatemala.

          At the height of his success, Miguel lived a life of luxury. He bought a house and a car. One story that we couldn’t wrap our heads around was that he once spent $40,000 in 15 days. He decided to go on vacation to California and stayed at a ridiculously expensive hotel popular among celebrities. For breakfast he spent $125 and all that was served was scrambled eggs, the exact same thing as we had just eaten for dinner outside of a tiny house where five people sleep in the one room.

When asked for the reason of such lavish spending, his answer was simple: “I wanted to, and I could.” He told us that he had slept on the streets and lived the worst of the worst. He wanted a chance to experience the best of the best. To us it seemed crazy but having experienced extreme poverty he relished the experience of living like a king.
















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