Sunday, May 23, 1999

Illegal workers live life in shadows

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Enrique is a Mayan Indian who worked as a coffee farmer near San Marcos, Guatemala. Now he is a factory worker living illegally in Cincinnati.

        Thousands of immigrants, many of them living here quietly on the fringe of mainstream society, have made their way to the Tristate from Central American nations since the early 1990s. Roughly half of them are Guatemalan.

        And many of them are Mayans, like Enrique, from the San Marcos region. San Marcos was an especially bloody spot during the four-decade Guatemalan civil war.

        Entire villages of Mayan people were wiped out. Dozens of people from San Marcos now live in Cincinnati.

        Enrique — that is the man's middle name — agreed to an interview if he was not fully identified.

        He said could not find safety or enough work in his homeland to care for his family. Desperate, he came here for a job, paying thousands of dollars to smugglers who drove him here from Florida in the back of a van.

        In Guatemala, Enrique said, he supported an organization that fought for the rights of small farmers. He also said he was involved in a Canadian government program trying to improve and build schools in the Guatemalan countryside.

        These activities, Enrique said, made him a target of the nation's wealthiest land owners and what he called their hired guns, the Guatemalan army.

        Many men in his town and region were killed or taken by soldiers. They were some of the more than 200,000 deaths and disappearances in the country's 36-year civil war. The majority of victims were Mayans and civilians, according to a Guatemalan truth commission that investigated 42,000 of the killings and published its report in February.

        “I feared for my life and the safety of my family,” Enrique said through a translator.

        In 1996, he and his wife, Christina, three of their daughters, a young son and two of their grandchildren left Guatemala. They split up, and Enrique and Christina — both 47 — did not see each other for more than year, until they were reunited in Cincinnati. They left two daughters and two grandchildren behind.

        They learned of each other's whereabouts by talking on the telephone to family members in San Marcos.

        Enrique paid $5,000 to smugglers to get his family out, including transportation and counterfeit U.S. immigration documents. Demand has upped the price to $10,000 today, he said.

        They split up to ensure that at least one person from the family made it to the United States.

        “We did not have the opportunity to make money and eat in Guatemala,” said Yolanda, Enrique's 22-year-old daughter. “That is why we strived to get here. We need to make money and to send money home.”

        Enrique sends money to family members in Guatemala. Two of his daughters, ages 18 and 10, remain, as does Yolanda's daughter, Patricia, who is 5.

        “It was not safe to bring her then,” Yolanda said through tears as she displayed the girl's photograph. “I will go back, or I will send for her.”

        They came through the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. Bandits tried to rob them and chased them from town to town, they said.

        Thieves robbed and raped Yolanda.

        Enrique departed first from San Marcos. Then his daughters. His wife and their son, Bermer, who is now 7, left last and ended up in Canada with other Guatemalan immigrants.

        Enrique found his way to via van to Florida, where he worked as a migrant farmer picking tomatoes and cucumbers. It was while in Florida that he heard about Cincinnati from co-workers and friends. “People said it was a good place. There were jobs,” he said.

        While some other Hispanic immigrants have experienced discrimination here, Enrique said he and his family members have not.

        The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a main living area off a busy Cincinnati street. The five adults have found work in the same factory. A Hispanic neighbor took the little boy, Bermer, to a health clinic to get him immunized, but the boy doesn't attend school.

        They each make about $6 an hour in the factory. A day's wage for agricultural work in the San Marcos region is 10 quetzals (about $1.50).

        On Sunday morning, Enrique and his family attend worship services at a Pentecostal church. He is thankful to God and to the United States.

        “We came here to work, so we work. We work honestly so we can have something to eat,” he said as he tugged on a Chevy racing cap.

        He knows he could be forced to leave the United States at any time. He has not applied for individual amnesty because, he said, he is too busy working. He also said he fears that contact with the immigration system could lead to his deportation.

        If he's found by the INS, Enrique and his family would be deported, probably flown to the U.S.-Mexico border.

        “We just ask to pick up our stuff and go,” he said. “My big desire is to be reunited with my family. It is very hard to be apart from them. I hope the U.S. government will accept us. We would be grateful.”

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