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Julia with her son Huli, boyfriend and local youth caseworker. 

The story that I am about to relate could well have been a contemporary adaptation of Dickens, yet I feel that even Dickens would have been impressed at the amount of adversity that I am about to tell. There is no exaggeration. I have even omitted parts, but that doesn’t make this story less brutal.

A little empathy is needed to understand this story. You would have to be a monster not to feel some compassion. This is a story of a poor Guatemalan family who escaped the brutality of their own country’s oppression and soul-crushing poverty to only find more heartache in the middle of Ohio.

I work locally as an interpreter and when I first met Huli at his school on the westside of Columbus back in 2017, he was a 10-year-old from Guatemala who was having nightmares. Not the nightmares most of us have sometimes. His nightmares were bloody and horrible and full of violence, impacting his school performance, his relationships, and himself.

At that time Huli spoke Mam, a Guatemalan indigenous language, as his first language and just a little Spanish. His English was non-existent despite being born in the US. This made him feel isolated – it is sad to witness a 10-year-old kid struggle to communicate with the world which surrounds him. 

What he told me about his life was not entirely clear due to the language barrier. Back then, him and his mother were living in a homeless shelter and he was being bullied by other boys. Despite being an American, his life here and his experiences have convinced him he needs to return to his family’s roots. 

“I really want to return to Guatemala because my dream is to plant a lot of trees and crops on our land, that will be so pretty,” said Huli recently to this Free Press reporter.

Some migrations or migration caravans from Central America to the US have been the result of political and economic upheavals in their home country. The causes are various.

Sometimes, these migratory waves are in the aftermath of the US’s need for Latin America as a supplier of cheap raw materials. To do so, the US has not hesitated to corrupt and overthrow governments, intervene militarily, finance the instability of the region, and impose unfavorable trade conditions, and even exporting (via deportation) gangs created in US prisons.

What’s more, America’s insatiable hunger for cocaine has thrown fuel on the migration crisis.

Simply put, these migrants are seeking better living conditions and security in the US. But once here, they are marginalized, they face poverty, inequity, unjustified xenophobia and outright racism.

As for policy, there has been no effort to generate reasonable and integrated solutions for this migratory crisis. And the US is partly to blame.The US has preferred to treat the immigration population inhumanely, alternating mistreatment and deportations with extreme labor exploitation, indifference and invisibility.

This is also a story of an indigenous, literally dirt-poor mother on her own from rural Guatemala and her journey, with children in tow, to America. It is these mothers from Central America who are most vulnerable, living an unimaginable nightmare crossing Mexico to find peace in America where they are shunned, exploited and not welcomed by many.

Julia, Huli’s mother, was sold as a slave twice in her life. The first time her parents sold her when she was a child, as they did with some of her brothers and sisters, to work at homes of the rich. Decades later, the 41-year-old Julia is still looking for lost siblings scattered throughout Central America.

The rich Guatemalan family Julia was sold to was the “Apar’s”, not the family’s real name. She was sold a second time – this time as Mr. Apar’s wife.

Julia had worked for years selling Guatemalan “chuchitos,” a tamale made of corn flour dough wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husks, stuffed with chicken, pork and some vegetables. Julia had managed to save a small sum of money from her sales and wanted to buy land to farm. But Mr. Apar demanded money so he could travel to the United States, with the promise to return for her. 

At that time, Julia had two surviving children, Mónica and Ronaldo. Her third son, Hugo David, had been killed by Julia’s mother-in-law when she struck him on the head. She also miscarried after Mr. Apar’s brother kicked her in the stomach. In both cases, the Guatemalan justice system did nothing to defend Julia.

After taking Julia’s money and traveling to the US, Mr. Apar never returned for her. She never heard from him, either.

At this time, immigration policies in the US had already undergone major changes due to 9/11. This led to the tightening of immigration control and an increase in the border controls. These stricter measures failed to stop migration, however. It only made it more dangerous, making migrants more dependent on “coyotes” and their mafias who profit from the industry of human smuggling.

This situation has resulted in tens of thousands of reported and unreported cases of sexual abuse, and human trafficking. An unknown number of migrants have simply disappeared, with the number possibly also in the tens of thousands. The US population and government rarely contemplate or discuss this part of the immigration problem, in part due to the very American habit of ignoring suffering they do not want to see.

In 2005, Julia, after growing tired of waiting, went in search of her Mr. Apar. Community networks and in-laws gave her clues to follow, and she found him in Iowa. She achieved all of this despite her illiteracy, demonstrating her strength and determination.

What Julia soon discovered was Mr. Apar had another woman in Iowa. Julia, not knowing where to go and without resources, in addition to the humiliating situation, agreed to be Apar’s cook, maid, and mistress.

Her sister-in-law who was visiting, convinced Julia to move to Nebraska. There Julia began working in a meatpacking plant with other undocumented immigrants. Her work was hard, but being a countrywoman, Julia was used to long days where the job was monotonous and backbreaking.

Her unrelenting work ethic soon won her a promotion to manager. She saved her earnings with plans to return to Guatemala and buy some land to farm. But then ICE raided the meat plant.

Incredibly, Julia’s terrible luck finally changed for the better if you consider successfully hiding from ICE in a barrel at the slaughterhouse good luck. She remained dead silent as hundreds of undocumented workers were arrested (soon to be deported).

As ICE rounded up her fellow undocumented friends who had worked unbearably hard to put food on American tables, Julia had an epiphany as she remained dead silent in the slaughterhouse barrel – the US wasn’t for her.

She was determined to return to Guatemala, but after the ICE trauma, Mr. Apar found her. He demanded a child from her. She did not know how to refuse and Huli was born in 2007. Despite the atrocities she suffered at the hands of his father, Julia always saw Huli as the most beautiful thing she had. 

Mr. Apar told her she could take care of the child, but that the child was his and that she had no claim to Huli.

Julia managed to return to Guatemala with Huli and she bought some land to cultivate, thanks to a government program which benefited farmers. She built a small farm and tried to make a quiet life with her children. But Mr. Apar returned to Guatemala looking for his “wife.”

When he finally found Julia he beat her unconscious. Julia believes it was an attempt to steal her little farm. She was in a coma for three days, but recovered. Again, no justice was served against Mr. Apar, who had succeeded in stealing her farm. Julia then decided to flee back to the US with her children.

This time when she tried to get across the border, she was seized by ICE agents but released wearing an ankle monitor. This is what the Department of Homeland Security has done with some migrants over the previous five years or so. There’s a lack of jail space for families, so they get, what Julia calls, the “shackle.” This was terribly shameful, she remembers. She was stigmatized as a criminal and ICE had her in its grip.

Julia was free, however, to move to Columbus. Here, where the migrant community stays low-key, she was soon deceived and exploited because she did not know how to read or write English. Someone who she thought was a landlord stole months of rent from her. Someone also stole the meager benefits her son is entitled to as a citizen of the US. She was not aware they even had these benefits until after they were stolen.

Three years have passed since I first met Huli on the westside of Columbus. He’s grown since then and no longer an easy target for bullies. He speaks three languages – English, Spanish and Mam. He is sharply intelligent with a quick-witted sense of humor.

Yet, while other children his age begin to think about their dreams for the future, he is still learning to survive and build an identity. Being a 13-year-old boy and the man of the house is challenging even for adult men. Luckily Ruben, a Mexican immigrant, has come into Julia’s life. Despite her fears toward men, they have managed to build a trusting relationship little by little.

Julia no longer wears the ICE “shackle,” although she has to report in daily and send a photo to ICE.

Julia learned last year Mr. Apar is refusing to return her land in Guatemala. Worse, he murdered Julia’s father in a macabre manner less than a year ago. It was incredible to see how strongly she faced that. She wanted to return once again to Guatemala to fight for her rights. But the people now around her, including a local social worker, convinced Julia not to, as that could have been the last episode of her life.

However, Julia may have to face that extreme violence, by choice or not. Julia is waiting for her last hearing to be deported. The US government has refused her request asylum. Her hearing has been delayed because of COVID-19.

Despite everything that has happened, Julia still has a glint in her eyes when she sees her son. She is also a person who is grateful. All she wants is to live in peace and be able to invite her friends to eat at her home.

It is sad to see how good people are crushed as they are caught up in the wrong time in history. By racism, unjustified hatred and the policies of a government that lacks real compassion.

Comprehensive immigration reform may someday (finally!) be a part of this country’s political agenda. When you fully process Julia and Huli’s Guatemala-to-America story, and so many others like it, immigration demands a solution and priority care.

Julia admits she has found some happiness in Columbus. She slowly realized there are people who care about her and Huli. But it is her role as Huli’s mother that brings her the most joy.

“In the past I believe that I had no value, but the last years in all this struggle I found what is my real value, and it’s huge,” said Julia in Spanish.