gunshot silenced the music of moving carts—people chattering, dogs barking: a regular workday in Guatemala City. As if some faraway god had pressed pause on his celestial remote, the wind stopped blowing and the witnesses paused. Shock and misunderstanding turned them to statues.
Unpleased by their apparent apathy, another gun vomited a bullet from its steel insides. Then the fickle god hit play: Sandals slapped the ground, and the rubber soles of sneakers flew—this eruption of irregular, cacophonic chaos regulated by moans of pain.
Had the volume been turned up all the way, he would’ve heard the sound of blood seeping from youthful skin and the lonesome tears of sleep-deprived eyes hitting the soft dirt. But all Edgar Lopez, MCAS ’21, heard was his heart pounding. Hiding in the bathroom from what he had seen, violence obscuring his vision at 15 years old.
The drumming of his heart and the ringing of the gunshots in his head were soon evicted by an internal scream.
Me tengo que salir de aquí.
hen Lopez was 14 years old, his father told him he couldn’t go to school anymore. He’d known the day was coming—the elder Lopez had dropped out of school after first grade.
“If your parents can’t provide for you, you work for yourself,” Lopez said. “Just because they didn’t go to school, it’s harder for them to get a job … We blame them without actually knowing them.”
Edgar grew up in an small agricultural community 5 miles from Guatemala City, the capital of a predominantly poor and corrupt country, peeled away and discarded on the fringes with no political power and the designation “indigenous.” For the rich, laws evaporated in the humid, forested air, and the fickleness of law enforcement allowed bribery and money laundering to reign.
At 14, Lopez put down his pencil and set to work harvesting coffee and plantains on a nearby farm in San Marcos. So the kid with no toys toiled in the field, regularly lifting 70 to 80 pounds. When night finally fell, he and his fellow workers found only the respite of a wooden floor—splinters penetrating their sleep.
Fueled by the gurgling of their empty stomachs, he and his fellow employees engaged in grueling physical labor without much nourishment, as his employers would rarely feed them.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”"Me tengo que salir de aquí." ” cite=”Edgar Lopez, MCAS ’21” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]
“I didn’t know I was being exploited,” Lopez said. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is fair. I’m poor—this is what I deserve.’”
Soon enough, he followed job availability and left home at age 15 to work in a grocery store in the capital. He worked from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, managing the place in the absence of its owner—a significant upgrade from the physical labor his body had become accustomed to. But the store wasn’t paradise. He worked long hours, facing discrimination because of his race, as the constant influx of customers from Guatemala City felt superior to him because he was indigenous. In Guatemala, poverty affects 21.8 percent of the indigenous population, as opposed to 7.4 percent of the urban population.
“I wasn’t good enough for the people in the capital,” Lopez said.
Lopez also felt the presence of gang violence, groups of youths who often came to the store to harass, steal from, and threaten him. Given that the bus station was nearby and there were lots of other stores around, Lopez received a lot of this unwanted excitement. He spent his lonely hours at the store wondering if he should join them to avoid their malevolence. They would force people to pay what they called “la renta,” in order to escape their bullets.
“If you don’t pay them money, they would kill you,” Lopez said.
Lopez’s boss was a well-respected businessman, and he assured Lopez he would be protected. For a while, Lopez stood behind his register, soothed by these promises.
His boss’s sons and nephews sat on the steps outside of the store to make sure nothing went wrong. But after the day armed men appeared from out of nowhere and shot two of Lopez’s coworkers, the sons and nephews scattered and never came back. But, trapped by his poverty, Lopez had to stay. He hid in the bathroom for a while and called the ambulance for the victims, and his boss to let him know what had happened. Then, Lopez drank a glass of water and went to his little bed above the bathroom of the store. Business as usual, he resumed his work the next day with an unshakable sense of reality and his tentative place in it—he looked death in the eyes and only then realized how closely it had been trailing him all of his life.
“I thought ‘What should I do? I might be the next victim,’” Lopez said.“There was fear in me, every single day waking up, you know, ‘Am I going to make it today or not?’”
He began to work with one eye over his shoulder, rarely feeling safe and always feeling desperate. At the tender age of 15, he went to sleep every night praying a gunshot wound was not waiting for him just beyond the protection of his thin sheets.
“There wasn’t really an option for me. Where am I going to go?” Lopez would ask himself. “If I go back home, I’m not going to have anything.”
hough his mind was blank when he hid in the bathroom from the gunshots, every day after, his brain replayed the choreography of the shooters, and it put dancing dreams of America in his head—as he had just been hit with the realization that there was a slim chance he would live much longer if he stayed in Guatemala City.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”“I didn’t know I was being exploited. I thought, ‘Okay, this is fair. I’m poor—this is what I deserve.’”” cite=”Edgar Lopez, MCAS ’21” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]
So he asked around to see who could tell him how to get to the United States.
He found people that knew people, and eventually found the “coyotes,” whose hair was gray with the experience of smuggling bodies into the United States for years.
He called his father on the store’s phone to tell him about his plan—his hopeful dream of escaping a constant fear. Lopez’s desires were brushed off with a generational hopelessness, as he told his son, “Kids don’t work there—they probably go to school. That’s not the case for you.” If Edgar made it to America, he said, he would be digging up tomatoes.
But the younger Lopez had cousins living in Florida who urged him to immigrate to the United States. He could make something of his life, they said—get a job, buy a house, and give a real chance to his future family, instead of grandfathering them into the unrelenting grip of poverty in Central America.
He set up meetings, nervous about the sacrifice he was flirting with: giving away all of his money for the hardest, most uncertain passage of his life. Though he had nothing to his name, finding a way to pay for his journey was going to be the easy part compared with the marathon of misery he was subjecting himself to. On top of embarking on the harsh, physically demanding journey, he would have to leave his friends, his family, and Guatemala with the assumption that he would never see them again.
Nevertheless, Lopez set a date. He began saving and taking loans from his extended family, with a wildly optimistic promise to return the money plus interest. In total, he paid 40,000 quetzales (around $5,000 at the time) for the trip, which would take him through Mexico to the States. He also carried extra money to pay off Mexican police, who, instead of jailing those attempting to cross, would play a game of “give me all you have or I’ll put you behind bars.”
“Leaving doesn’t mean you’re going to be safe,” Lopez said.
He spent two miserable weeks on a train to reach the Mexican border, drenched in sweat from 90-degree days and the other 39 passengers squeezed in the car beside him. But for every mile the train went, the closer he got to America, the freer he felt. The suffocation of his past eased. When Lopez stepped off the train, it was hard for him not to think that he had made it.
With New Mexico in his sights, Lopez felt the shivers of a primordial manifest destiny. Only the Rio Grande stood between Mexico and the leviathan—where he needed to go.
Lopez and his crew of 25 set out to cross the river by boat. But just as they grew used to the water slapping the bottom of their carriage, they heard the blood-curdling buzz of a helicopter approaching overhead. Lopez felt himself jump in his seat—but was glued to it by the stories of immigrants before him casting themselves overboard and drowning, having been intoxicated by the singing of Border Patrol nearby.
“They don’t even know how to swim,” Lopez said, bracing himself.
He held his breath as the boat continued across the river. The helicopter was still overhead when they reached the shore of the United States—so Lopez ran and hid under a tree, dirt being his first taste of the American dream. He pushed himself further and further into the ground, wanting it to open up and take him in—anything to keep him from being seen.
“I just started praying, that was the only thing I could do at the time,” Lopez said.“I thought, ‘I’m done.’”
The helicopter hum waned to a whisper, then stilled to silent. The crouching Lopez stood again and reconvened with his group. The presence of the helicopter meant more security could be nearby, and that meant a higher risk of getting caught. So they did the last thing anyone wanted: They turned around and crossed back to Mexico.
opez watched New Mexico fade, becoming only a mirage as he returned to the stifling heat of the old one. But later that day, the crew made another successful crossing—this time without garnering attention. At last, Lopez stood stable on American soil, but the relief that swept through his body was replaced by an icy tremor: He would now have to cross the desert.
“You walk in the desert, you are by yourself,” Lopez said.
He trod sand for three days and three nights. Possibilities of death were everywhere. Would it be the slow chokehold of dehydration or the gnawing groan of hunger? Would the unrelenting elements take him or would it be the prick of a bullet? The only thoughts going through Lopez’s headache-infested mind were “I want to get there,” and “Will I ever see my family again?”
[aesop_gallery id=”7215″ revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]
“I was walking through the desert like a zombie,” Lopez said.
In the desert, he explained, you must forget your instincts and abandon your humanness. And to survive, you must reject fight-or-flight responses. Should border patrol show up, the smart thing to do is stay quiet and move slowly—you must give in to counterintuition. Even as Lopez’s brain screamed “RUN,” he had to program his body not to listen. If the border patrol showed up, everyone would move with a partner and meet in predetermined places. Basically, the buddy system with high stakes.
“You better walk slow and not step on any sticks,” Lopez said.
If you scatter in the desert, you end up alone and could die. So the boy who had become accustomed to solitude at the age of 14, saying “I’m the type of guy who doesn’t rely on anything, I do my thing,” had to stick his legs in the dust of the desert—willingly and momentarily trapping himself.
“How do you split up in the desert? Where are you going to go?” Lopez asked.
The trip required precision and cohesion, and eventually things fell apart. A woman in Lopez’s party lost the ability to walk, her legs swelling in protest of the monstrous desert. When she could walk on no more, the group took a break. The leader of the expedition, who was transporting drugs, offered her some, but she declined. He turned back to the group, and asked them if they wanted to leave her alone to her fate, as her fallible body made their futures hazy. She had become a liability, putting all of their heads on the chopping block.
“My mouth is dry—I just imagine water pouring in my mouth,” Lopez had said, his tongue dry as the parched earth—he craved one of the cow troughs they would excitedly drink from—the few sparkling jewels of respite in the tremendous sea of beige.
The 25 thirsting strangers, who only pressed their hearts together at night to keep warm, would not move on without her.
“How can you sleep in the middle of nowhere?” Lopez said.
One man from the group took up the mass of her body upon his shoulders, carrying her until she could walk again, and the group moved on without condemning one of their own to death.
They strode on. They slept by day and walked by night, avoiding the eager shotguns of rogue ranch owners and the damning bracelets of Border Patrol. Salty and worn, they finally made it a mile (as Edgar describes it, the distance from Main Campus to Newton) from the car that would deliver them from the desert. But they were behind schedule, and if they didn’t meet the car precisely at the moment they had arranged, they would never see what they had walked so far to reach, only decisive skid marks on the road.
Lopez’s body was so empty, he could’ve floated into the clouds. But his legs drew on something deep within him as the hot desert wind whipped his face, and he landed in the car.
“I was shaking the whole time,” Lopez said.
Dirt and a smile of disbelief on his face, he rode on.
The elation of safety blurred the long car ride from the middle of New Mexico to Arizona, where he would wait for someone (an American working with the group) to transport him to Houston, then Florida. Euphoria corrupted the smells of bodies that had been through the scourging and testing of the wilderness. Crammed in the backseat of a van, face pressed to the window, all Lopez had to do now was tell his family he had made it.
“[Guatemalans] know Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee,” Lopez said. “At some point I thought the U.S. was just Florida.”
In Florida, Lopez felt his exoskeleton of loneliness melt away in the embrace of his relatives. The initial excitement of the land of the free and the brave wore off quickly though, as Lopez felt a familiar rumble in his stomach and couldn’t find a job. He needed a Social Security number. Without it, no one would hire him. He couldn’t even pick tomatoes like his dad promised him he would.
Lopez had not been in America long, and his ignorance of the country made him stand out. While driving with his cousin, they were pulled over by a cop, and he was asked for something called an ID.
“Show me your ID,” the policeman said.
Lopez was confounded. The policeman called an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officer.
“Tienes un ID?”
“Qué es un ID?” Lopez said.
“You’ll have to come with me,” the ICE officer said.
Lopez was taken into custody. When he didn’t talk, fear leaving him dumb, officials told him he would be back in Guatemala in six hours. So, with everything on the line once again, he recalled the thirst of hours that turned into days without water, and looking across the rushing Rio Grande, and he decided to pour out his story.
“There’s a story portrayed in the news that’s not accurate … it’s incomplete,” Lopez said.
The officials told him that because he was a minor, he could go to court and plead his case for staying, and see if he could get a Green Card (which he received in 2016). Holding up in a shelter in Miami, there was a 50/50 chance for him to be able to stay, which looked even dimmer given he had no one to sponsor his residence in the states, his cousins being too young and too poor to take on the burden.
“[The narratives in the news] hurt my heart,” Lopez said. “I wish they knew how is the process … Like I said, we blame first without knowing the story … It’s the only way for people to save themselves.”
Lopez took up a new burden: the blame of a thousand Americans. He was illegal and alien, an illegal alien. He went to court, and thanks to his social workers, America gave him a chance through the Ascentria program. Lopez was set up with a family in western Massachusetts.
At 16 years old, Lopez found that living with this new family was very different than his life in Guatemala. They were originally from Puerto Rico, and they valued education—Lopez credits his foster mom for getting him where he is today. But their culture was completely different, and Lopez was not used to the charisma and love that dominated his new home. His foster mom would hug him goodnight and kiss him good morning, showing him affection he had never had before.
“I felt uncomfortable—I don’t express how much I love them,” Lopez said.
In school, Lopez, who only spoke his native Spanish, was immediately faced with difficulties. Though it was instinct to blame himself when nobody wanted to do a project with him or he didn’t know what the American Civil War was, he came to realize he couldn’t do that. He needed to rewire his body against itself once again, like he had done in the desert. Once Lopez gave himself a chance, others did too.
At first, though, his inability to communicate with his fellow students was a border more divisive than any physical one. Even if someone was brave enough to approach his lunch table for one, they would have no common tongue to speak in. Lopez was learning English as fast as he could, and even started taking AP classes by his sophomore year, but soon found he would never truly master the language of the American teen.
“When I was 10 years old I was working in the fields, when you were 10 you were playing video games in your room, I can’t relate to you,” Lopez said.
Lopez couldn’t converse about Tom Brady or Call of Duty. Even when he did make friends (and he says he eventually made a lot), he couldn’t spend his downtime with them because he had none. Lopez worked multiple jobs to send money home to his parents so that his sisters could go to school.
“I didn’t want [my sisters] to go through the same thing I went through,” Lopez said.
Despite the odds, Lopez graduated and made it to one of the top universities in the United States: Boston College. Though many miles and oceans of difference lie between them, Lopez still stays in touch with his parents. But the silence of the New Mexican desert taught him the preciousness of words and the insufficiency of time. With his parents, Lopez never wastes a moment on small talk and never speaks of his hell of a journey to safety in citizenship, saying “even if I told them, they would never understand.” He turns every syllable into a lesson.
“We don’t talk like ‘hey how are you doing today,’ we talk like ‘this is what I’m learning today,’” Lopez said.
Lopez, who tentatively plans to major in applied psychology and human development, teaches his family what he has learned about human rights. He says in his Guatemala—where there is no access to opportunity for the poor—sexism, violence, and classism are ingrained due to lack of access to knowledge.
“I tell my parents … don’t hit my sister,” Lopez said. “When we hit a child we don’t think about the consequences.”
Lopez has to explain to his parents why hitting his sister is wrong, why she should go to school, and, that though they fight everyday just to put food on their plates, they have rights.
Though grateful for the opportunities he has in America, Lopez finds himself a round peg in a square hole in both America and Guatemala—he fits, but not completely. He went home over Spring Break and walked around town wearing Abercrombie and Fitch with his sisters who were dressed in traditional, indigenous clothing, and he found that he couldn’t hang out with his friends, because they were all married with kids of their own.
“I’m trying to find my place here, but when I went home I didn’t really fit in either,” Lopez said.
But Lopez was happy to return to his family and the food of his motherland. He was glad to be reminded of his identity, as being indigenous is important to him, and something he prides himself on, especially given the discrimination he faced working in the capital. Upon returning home, Lopez felt like he had proved everyone who ever doubted him wrong—especially those in the capital who thought he was not good enough. He felt overwhelmed by his own journey, and the vast amount of luck it took him to succeed.
“I felt like someone when I went back home,” Lopez said.
Lopez’s old grocery store in Guatemala City was five minutes away from the airport. Back then, he would look up, hearing the roaring of a plane piercing the sky, and think “One day I would love to be in one of those.” Now, he can proudly explain to tell his family and friends what it feels like to hurdle through the atmosphere at hundreds of miles an hour, above the clouds that shade the fields they work in, and near the sun that regulates their days.
Despite the pride and accomplishment that Lopez feels when he returns home, he is disheartened by the conversation surrounding immigration in the United States. Living a contradiction, Lopez doesn’t know quite how to correct what he calls incomplete stories about immigrants in the news.
“I think about, ‘How am I going to tell all these people that it’s not true?’” Lopez said.
He doesn’t know how to make people understand his story when it’s so hard to imagine. Lopez points out that no one walking past him on the Quad would ever be able to guess what he walked through just to get a chance.
“Some people even think that I’m rich, and I’m just like …” Lopez said, his sentence cut off by his own laughter. “Back at home for 16 years I only had two pairs of jeans … Here you go to my dorm and there’s a bunch of sneakers I never wear, and that’s wealth to me.”
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor