At the age of 18 during my junior year at North Carolina State University, I embarked on the Walk of the Immigrants, a 5,328-mile walk across Latin America. I began the journey to raise awareness for immigration while fundraising for an elementary school in my mother’s hometown in Mexico. Reflecting on the current societal divides in our nation, I can’t help but recall a poignant story from my journey. I hope to share it with you.
It was a rainy afternoon in June when I arrived at a sandy town on the outskirts of the Nicaraguan border. During the days prior, I had been traveling with a coyote, a human smuggler hired to guide me across Latin America. After long hours trekking through the black sandy beaches of Costa Rica, we were exhausted and relieved to make it to our checkpoint. Arriving at the border town, we glanced around and saw aluminum shanties, a muddy baseball field, and a handful of vendors selling gallo pinto. In the distance, we spotted a pile of worn tires. Knowing that this would be our temporary resting place, we bought a few water bottles and settled in.
“You wait here. Another coyote will come pick you up in a few minutes,” said the coyote.
Without a second thought, I thanked him for his guidance and he continued on his way. As my tired shoulders leaned against the pile of old tires, I watched the day’s events unfold before me. A group of men taking turns sipping water, a young mother whispering to her twin children, and an elderly woman selling nacatamales. My eyelids grew heavy, and I fell into a deep slumber.
The allure of Latin America is that you can spend all day in a place and not realize the passage of time. I woke up to discover a setting sun, and no coyote to be found. Instantly, my heart began racing as I remembered my father’s warning: “No matter what country you find yourself in, never stay in a border town.” The political unrest and scarcity of resources reminded me of the darker side of travel. In that moment, I knew I needed to stay clear of harm.
Desperate for directions or safe shelter, I grabbed my belongings and hurried through the town. I passed a man sitting on the street corner, who laughed when I told him I was looking for a coyote. “We’re all waiting for coyotes,” he said. “We’re all heading north.”
“The last bus is leaving,” he said, pointing to a school bus in the distance, “and our coyotes won’t arrive until tomorrow.”
My chest grew heavy, as the gravity of my circumstances suddenly became clear.
In an instant, I grabbed my backpack and began sprinting toward the departing school bus. It appeared to be overflowing with men holding caged chickens, young children carrying cartons of eggs, and women with baskets of vegetables. Suddenly, I spotted two silver ladders gleamed in the sun, haphazardly attached to the back of the bus. Out of breath and barely catching up, I grabbed a ladder and hoisted myself onto the ledge.
A wave of relief washed over me with the cool night breeze. It didn’t matter where the bus was headed; all that mattered was that I was on my way.
The rickety bus accelerated slowly. 5 mph. 10 mph. 15 mph. Taking one last look at the border town, I spotted a figure approaching in the distance.
“Is this real? Am I hallucinating?”
I squinted, realizing that it was a young girl, barely a teenager, running frantically toward the school bus. Her small plastic sandals hit the ground with every sprint, her blue shirt flapping behind her. The most bewildering part of this was her expression; rather than fear or desperation, she was beaming ear to ear.
Before I knew it, she had taken a massive leap toward the bus, and landed on the ladder beside me. Staring up at me, she grinned and asked, “What’s your name?”
Astounded, I responded, “Uh…Saul.”
“Saul, where are you going?”
Exhausted and convinced she was a mere hallucination, I advised her, “I think it’s safer if you get off the bus. Why don’t you go home to your mom?”
She grinned even more. “Won’t you tell me where you’re going, Saul?”
“…I’m going to the United States.”
Her eyes widened with a sense of joy that only a child can exhibit. With a smile proudly displaying her missing front teeth, she exclaimed, “do you know Maria Juanita?!”
Well-aware of the countless Maria Juanitas in the world, my heart sank. Glancing at her innocent toothless smile, I struggled to find the appropriate words.
Calmly, I advised her, “I’m sure there are a million Maria Juanitas in the United States. You should get off the bus before you get hurt.”
I’ll never forget the striking image of this young girl. Her energy, her excitement, and her willingness to talk with a complete stranger on the back of a bus. It was almost as if, in this grand hallucination, she had jumped on the bus simply to ask me that question.
The wind rustled her hair as the bus picked up speed.
“Maria Juanita is my mother. She left to the United States ten years ago. If you meet her, can you tell her that I love her? And that we’re here, waiting for her.”
In the blink of an eye, she jumped down from the bus, and disappeared into the night. I’ve carried her story with me every day since.
For many people in America, the foreigners personified in the news can seem like distant figures, disconnected from our immediate communities. Although these lives exist miles away from our own, they matter. Their stories matter, and their narratives are inextricably intertwined with our own.
When we harness the power of personal narrative, we can reframe how we receive and respond to others’ stories. Above all, we can cultivate compassion, and harness a profoundly renewed capacity for empathy and love.