By Damaris Fernandez, Features Editor
This story is part of a series called ‘La Esquina Latina’, dedicated to the stories, issues and opinions of the Hispanic community at BCC.
Think of the things that scared you when you were 13: asking someone out on a date, giving a speech in front of the class, asking your parents’ permission to sleep over a friend’s.
But Morelia, a BCC student and undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, had different fears growing up.
El Salvador consistently ranks among the most violent countries in the world. At the age of 13, Morelia had already worked as a food peddler on the streets and at a local pharmacy as stock clerk. She had started working when she was nine years old. She lived with her mom and her step-father, who she describes as an aggressive and temperamental man.
In middle school Morelia was harassed by a gang that threatened her life, so she packed a small backpack and headed North, leaving her family behind. According to U.S Customs and Border Protection data, she was one of 16,541 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in 2014.
Together with her father, she took a bus for nearly 10 hours from El Salvador to Guatemala, before parting ways. She journeyed for over a month, often traveling at night accompanied by strangers. “I was very afraid that something would happen to me, but I stayed strong,” she said.
Thirst was unbearable as they ran out of water, forcing her to drink from a river. However, they managed to stay alert to hide whenever they saw patrol police around. When they crossed the river between Guatemala and Mexico, they had to walk across a makeshift bridge made of planks, which terrified her.
Once they reached the US border, they were approached by the border patrol officials and she turned herself in. It is common for unaccompanied minors to surrender at the border. Because of a 1997 settlement, the government is legally required to release them to parents or relatives already in the U.S while they wait for their deportation hearing, even if those relatives are undocumented.
Morelia was taken to a Border Patrol Facility known as “la hielera” or “icebox,” where she was held under deplorable conditions. “I was there for eight days without eating, without taking a bath. I slept on the floor, and I was very cold. I could not see the daylight or the nightfall.” There were pregnant women and younger children than Morelia locked in these cold cells, and she felt sorry for them. Morelia recalls the days in la hielera as the worst part of her journey.
Border agents sometimes require immigrants to remove sweaters or other layers of clothing, purportedly for security before entering the holding cells. They are often given a piece of aluminium for blanket, and they do not always receive personal hygiene articles such as toothpaste or soap. After eight days locked in la hielera, Morelia was released to relatives in Hackensack, NJ.
Life in the U.S was a big difference from the start. Morelia was amazed by the new surroundings. Everything was so much larger, and the streets were cleaner. She attended Hackensack Middle School, where she did not feel welcome since she didn’t speak the language. It was quite hard for her to make friends until she mastered the language.
After a year living with her relatives, family coexistence started to tense. Morelia was sent to another home, this time to Union City where her aunt lives. She attended high school there for nearly half a year. Her relationship with the new family was not necessarily an improvement compared to the last; she used to sleep on a couch in the living room and she constantly received mistreatment from her aunt. Morelia was overwhelmed. The new life she had fought so hard to achieve was falling apart.
“The only thing I wanted was to commit suicide so I did not bother anyone else,” she recalled, “but there was something that stopped me and made me think. I was in the bathroom and I looked in the mirror and I said to myself I will not do this. I have a life ahead and I will fight for my goals.”
Morelia’s faith helped her persevere, and she met a family at church who grew fond of her and decided to adopt her. She moved into a new home in Ridgefield, this time for good. In the new community she was able to make friends since she had adapted to the language. And despite her initial alienation, she now considers America to be her home.
Today, Morelia is studying to become a kindergarten teacher. She has never received financial aid due to her illegal status, and she works two jobs to pay for tuition. Morelia has not seen her family in over six years, but she hopes to get her legal status in order and be able to travel and visit them. Looking back, she feels that her struggles were part of her journey, they are what led her here.
When she left El Salvador, her dad confronted her with a harsh choice, one that a 13-year old should never have to make. But she believes he was right about what he said the last time she saw him: “soon, my daughter, all this sacrifice will be worth it. You will have a better life.”