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A spirit that is not afraid

From El Salvador to Alabama: An Auburn woman and her family's odyssey

Andrea came to America in 2008, escaping violence and poverty in Central America, to ensure her daughter's survival. Ten years later, the family has made Auburn its home.

Blood streaked across the El Salvadoran dirt as a ceramic pitcher struck the face of Andrea’s mother. Her father, wielding a broken handle, screamed at the 6-year-old girl. She was next.

That afternoon, as the mother and daughter treated one another’s wounds, they packed a cardboard box with everything they owned.

Andrea’s mother gathered her and her brother, delivering a solemn message.

“Children, we leave today,” their mother told them.

The family left because of their father and because gangs controlling the streets normalized violent crime. The near-anarchy stemmed from a deadly Civil War in the 1980s, one made longer by American involvement.

El Salvador was war-ravaged as government-led forces and left-wing revolutionaries battled for control. Around 75,000 people died in the Salvadoran Civil War.

Five percent of the violence reported to the United Nations in interviews was committed by revolutionaries, while 85 percent would later be attributed to the military-led government.

The administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan provided more than $4 billion in military and economic aid to the Salvadoran government in an effort to squash the leftist uprising.

In a country marked by extreme economic inequality, the left-wing revolutionaries were fighting to overthrow the generals and oligarchs that had been ruling for decades.

During the ongoing Cold War, El Salvador’s government had been considered “friendly” to the U.S.

Atrocities and massacres meant many children, women and soldiers fled the country to seek refuge in the United States.

Many of the refugees were given protection temporarily. While in the U.S., Salvadoran immigrants created the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Los Angeles to protect themselves from other, more-established gangs.

But in the ‘90s, President Bill Clinton let their protected status expire.

With no legal protection in the U.S., thousands of male refugees — many of whom once raised arms in battle and others who became hardened on the streets of U.S. cities embroiled in gang violence — returned home, and so did the Mara Salvatrucha. That same gang, now known as MS-13, committed much of the violence from which Andrea and her family fled.

Conflicting attachments to her father and her native country swarmed Andrea’s mind just as the Lempa River, which separates El Salvador from Guatemala, swamped her up to the hips.

The children’s small bodies struggled against the gentlest of rustles in the water while their mother hurried them along. Upon arrival, Andrea said she noticed no discrepancies between violence in El Salvador and Guatemala, and she experienced the cruel mistreatment so common among those stepping foot in a foreign land.

“They made fun of us for the way we talked, they bullied us endlessly, and they hit us repeatedly,” Andrea said. “I would try to hit back sometimes.”

The belittling, based on their Salvadoran accent, was a constant concern for her family as they began making Guatemala home.

At 17, after living her childhood in the humid, jungle-covered land of Guatemala, Andrea got a boyfriend and became pregnant. During her pregnancy, her boyfriend became abusive. She said he hit her one day after he complained she wasn’t making food for him after work.

After seeing the abuse her mother endured from her father, Andrea decided to leave, still pregnant, and go back with her mother to raise her daughter. Soon after, Andrea said, her ex-boyfriend joined a gang, along with thousands of other Salvadorans during the years of the Clinton administration.

The same gangs that initially formed to survive the battle-torn streets spread into a Guatemala marked by extreme poverty across the otherwise rich, tropical terrain. Andrea’s brother was recruited into a gang, and the financial responsibilities were thrust atop her 20-year-old shoulders.

The Guatemalan quetzals in her pocket could not pay for her daughter’s school, for her clothes nor for their food. On Feb. 28, 2008, Andrea looked at her starving daughter — now six, the same age she had been when her family left El Salvador — and could not bear to see her sick from starvation.

“On the third day without food, I told my daughter I must leave, and she cried,” Andrea said. “I left at 2 a.m. that night because my family needed money, they needed food.”

Her destination: America.

Andrea looked at her sleeping daughter one last time, resting before her body would wake ache for nutrition. In two years she promised her daughter she would be back with enough money to send her to first grade and hush the growls of her stomach. The few quetzals jingled in Andrea’s bag as the trek, destined to end in Auburn, Alabama, commenced.

Three days in a cramped bus, and three weeks in a hideout ranch in Sonora, Mexico, drained Andrea, her odyssey to America almost in its final chapter. At one point, she awoke in the borderline desert to frigid snow stretching across the vast landscape like the yucca cane back home in El Salvador.

“My teeth chattered so much,” Andrea said. “I thought they would chip away.”

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In April 2008, she made it to the U.S. Arizona’s desert welcomed Andrea’s first tired steps. A friend from Guatemala living in Savannah, Tennessee, came to pick her up, and the Salvadoran made her way south.

Andrea’s first job doing house cleaning barely provided any money for her to live on, let alone send back to her daughter. Her original plans to return crumbled as she decided she needed to stay longer than the two years she promised.

A friend got her a slightly higher paying job in Auburn cleaning, where she labored alongside other immigrants.

According to the American Immigration Council, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, undocumented immigrants in Alabama, like Andrea, paid an estimated $62.3 million in state and local taxes in 2014. Their contribution would rise to $80 million if they received legal status, the group says.

Many immigrants in the country send portions of their wages to their family back home.

In 2017, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, who represents Auburn in Congress, proposed taxing all wire transfers of money sent to more than 40 Latin-American countries, including Guatemala.

“[A]nyone who sends their money to countries that benefit from our porous borders and illegal immigration should be responsible for providing some of the funds needed to complete the wall [the proposed border wall between Mexico and the U.S.],” Rogers said at the time.

The bill has not passed.

In 2015, 3.5 percent of Alabama’s population were immigrants, and contrary to the thoughts of some, studies show immigration has not led to increased criminal activity.

“I don’t have any sympathy for immigrants that come in here committing crimes, but by and large, most immigrants are good people, and they pay taxes,” said Stephen M. NeSmith told The Plainsman.

NeSmith is an attorney and founder of NeSmith Immigration Attorneys located in Montgomery.

He represents immigrants in all kinds of cases in the South.

According to the Justice Quarterly Journal, immigrants commit fewer crimes on average than native-born Americans. Studies published in Elsevier Social Science Research show large cities and large towns, like Auburn, with a high influx of immigrants have lower crime rates on average than those with small immigrant populations.

In 2015, Andrea was steadily sending money back to her family from Auburn, but a call from her mother in Guatemala made her wish she were home for emotional support, — not just financial.

Her 13-year-old daughter was being hunted down by the same gang her brother had joined.

After borrowing money and saving her own, Andrea hired a guide, known as a ‘coyote,’ to bring her daughter to America. The once starving girl would later be reunited with her mother in the U.S.

Andrea’s daughter was granted temporary asylum in May 2015 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is awaiting a court date to update her status. Andrea said she is also attempting to secure legal residency.

Over 2,000 Guatemalans were granted asylum in 2015, according to the Department of Homeland Security, with most being younger than 17 years old. In 2015, 69,933 refugees were granted asylum, but the number fell steeply in 2017, with 53,716 refugees given asylum.

Sitting in the Auburn Public Library, Andrea’s fingernails were splattered with dry white flakes gummed on like glue. The splotches are from her current job with a painting company, and her daughter noticed them on her first day in Auburn.

The stained hands would steer the car to school for her daughter’s first day of class.

“As I was dropping her off and heard the loud students in the gym I thought, ‘Lord, how is she going to make it without speaking English?’ and remembered the days in Guatemala when people bullied me for my accent,” Andrea said with tears in her eyes.

Her daughter grabbed her hand and looked at her reassuringly.

“Don’t cry Mama, I’ll see what I can do,” Andrea’s daughter said.

After three years in the U.S., Andrea’s daughter is receiving good grades in school and is quickly becoming adept in English.

If her status is updated to permanent, her daughter said she would love nothing more than to become an Auburn University student and roll the same Auburn Oaks she saw her first day on The Plains.

Her dream, she said, is to join the U.S. Army so she can serve and protect the nation she hopes will someday become her permanent home.

“Mama, it’s pretty here,” Andrea’s daughter said looking at Auburn’s Oaks out of the window.

Editor’s Note: Because of her legal status, Andrea asked for her real name to be withheld from this article.

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