WHEN MY FRIEND CARMEN walked in on her husband bedding a sixteen-year-old neighbor, she did what many self-respecting women would do: turned around, walked out, and kept on walking. From Honduras to the United States, a distance of more than 2,000 miles.
“Vé te!” her father said, agreeing with her decision. “Go! There’s nothing for you here. Nothing but more children your husband won’t support!”
Still, her decision was a heart-wrenching one. She left behind a baby three months old and still at breast; a son, three; and a daughter, five. She left all of them, crying, with her mother, after her father paid $7,000 to a “coyote” who promised to deliver her to the United States.
The women and children said goodbye in the chilly pre-dawn, while it was still dark outside. Standing together in the harsh glare of a bare bulb, they sobbed, not knowing when they would see each other again. But despite her despair and heartbreak, there was a kernel of defiant anger inside that gave Carmen courage. Nineteen years old, with three children, and already betrayed for a younger woman? She could see what the future would hold. She could kill her husband, or she could leave.
She was afraid to go alone with the strange coyote, however, so she convinced a girlfriend, Rosa, to come along for moral support. It was a good thing, because the coyote abandoned them the next morning after crossing the border into Guatemala. They woke up alone on the side of the road where they had camped. The coyote had taken all their money with him, leaving them with the clothing they wore and a small satchel that each of them carried.
They discussed returning home, but Carmen had already been shamed once and would not accept being shamed again—this time by her failure. So they traveled on alone, hiking slowly up into the Guatemala highlands, where each step grew increasingly difficult. The weight of the milk in her breasts, of the despair in her heart, of the knowledge of the crying babies at home made each step more difficult than the last. She cried every time her breasts engorged and there was no suckling baby to relieve the pressure. The tears enabled the milk to flow, spewing from her nipples in erratic circles, soiling her clothes and leaving her smelling as sour as she felt.
They had no money, so they washed strangers’ clothes or cleaned peasant houses for food. One night they found an abandoned shack in which to sleep, and it was the following morning that Carmen decided she would not force herself to her feet, preferring to lay there and die of wretchedness. Rosa went out in search of food—fallen mangoes and avocados, water from a stream—but Carmen would not eat.
After four days, a kindly neighbor woman forced her up and to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with profound anemia. The doctor told her to return to her parents in Honduras. “There’s nothing for you in Guatemala,” he said.
“There’s nothing for me in Honduras, either,” Carmen replied.
She returned to the abandoned shack but began to eat a little each day of the home-cooked meals the Guatemalan woman brought her. Eventually her strength returned, aided mostly by the physical resilience of youth, rather than the conscious decision of her mind and spirit. A nineteen-year-old is biologically programmed to live, not die, so, as her iron count was restored, her emotional strength returned, at least in part. In a week or two she was well enough to travel, and she and her friend pressed on into Mexico.
They traveled on country roads by day, and slept under trees and stars by night. They tried to sleep in shifts, so that one of them could always keep watch. Often, though, the watch-woman would also fall asleep, unable to keep her eyes open after walking all day. When that happened the two of them would awaken together in the morning, roused by the heat of the day, the voices of passing strangers, or the wet noses of curious dogs.
In Mexico they met a man who offered them a job in a hotel. They were elated, thinking they would wash dishes, make beds, or clean bathrooms with enough regularity to save sufficient money to carry them the rest of the way to California—maybe even by bus. Their hearts sank, however, when their instructions were to “go to the rooms and do whatever the guests want.” Carmen and Rosa looked at each other, watching the same stony defiance appear in each other’s eyes.
“We didn’t come all this way to be abused by strangers,” Carmen told her would-be employer. “If I want to lower myself that far, I’ll do it in my own country.” So instead of sleeping in a bed that night, clean and fed, they slept hungry on the ground again. Disappointment made the ground harder, the mosquitoes more unbearable, the night air more oppressive. But at least they were not slaves.
After that incident, they kept to themselves even more than usual—not trusting themselves to talk much with strangers, avoiding well-traveled roads where immigration agents and police might arrest them, traveling by day, sleeping on the ground at night, unable to bathe or change clothes or even eat with regularity.