This profile is from of a series of interviews conducted at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids, IA.
When I was a twelve year old boy I knew nothing about the phrase “banana republic” other than it was the name of popular clothing store found in malls. I didn’t know about the corrupt history of United Fruit Company or the U.S. government’s covert military support of brutal Central American dictators.
When Jacinto was a twelve year old boy he may not have known any more about the term “banana republic” than me, but he lived in Guatemala, a nation whose history epitomizes the concept. And he had seen enough to know he would have to leave there if he wanted a better future. So, at twelve years of age, in 2002, he set out alone on a journey to Iowa, in the very heart of the nation which for over half a century had devastated his own.
“Why Iowa?” I asked him. “Did you intend to come here, or did you end up here after traveling to other places?”
“No, just Iowa. I had a friend who was living here for a long time. I called him and asked him to help me.”
His parents did not want him to leave. “They asked me, ‘Why? Why do you want to leave us?'” Jacinto recounted. “But I want my future. My house. Because we’re poor. We don’t have anything except a little, little house. And I tried to come and work hard and save some money and send it to them to build a house. They had a house before, but during all the war in 1992, the soldiers shot up the house, and killed my uncle. That’s why I try to work, to work hard.”
Jacinto’s English is still far from perfect, but it has come a long way since he made that initial trip north. The journey took him almost two months, and at the time he knew no English. I asked him how he managed in the U.S. without knowing the language.
“I just moved my hands, shook my head, saying yes even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying. When I go shopping to WalMart, they say, ‘That’s twenty cents.’ I gave them like twenty bucks and just received my change. Or some days it was more than I was giving them, so they just say, ‘More,’ and moved their hands like this. So I just open my wallet and give them more. Yeah, it’s very, very hard.”
He arrived expecting to go out and get a job, but soon discovered it was illegal for a child to work in Iowa. Still, he needed to make money. He owed a lot for his traveling expenses and now had to pay for living arrangements and other necessities. He went to a Mexican restaurant, explained his situation, and they agreed to let him work in their kitchen, washing dishes.
“Were they fair to you?” I asked.
“I think so, because you know, I was little, and they didn’t know if I could even work, but I knew how to work.” Jacinto had already worked as a farm hand in Guatemala.
After two months, the friend who received him here in Iowa decided he missed his family too much and headed home to Guatemala. Jacinto stayed here, living in an apartment with several other immigrants, trying to earn his way.
He worked hard and saved enough money to build his parents a new home. His father traveled north to join him here for a while, but then went back to Guatemala to stay. Jacinto has yet to return. He has a wife and three children now, and he wants his kids to be educated here where they can build better lives for themselves.
Jacinto is in the process of attaining U.S. citizenship. Once that is complete he plans to return to Guatemala to visit family.
“Are there things you miss about Guatemala?”
“I miss everything,” he says.
“Is it better there now than when you left?”
“No, it’s not better, but if I get my citizenship, I will try to bring my family here if I could. But if I can’t do it, you know, just work hard and get my children through the university. And if I get my citizenship so I can buy a house here and live here. I’ll just go back and visit my dad and mom if they can’t come here.”
Like most immigrants to the United States, now that Jacinto is married with children, his main goal is to get his kids off to as good a start in life as possible. He’s willing to risk and sacrifice almost anything to make sure they can have what many native Iowan parents take for granted.
While I listened to Jacinto I reflected on how relatively simple it has been for my wife and I to provide the things our children need in order to thrive. It’s been easy enough that I get to spend more time than Jacinto thinking about all the things I want for myself beyond basic needs. I have goals for a life of creative, fulfilling work. I expect to live with plenty and have financial security in retirement. I hope to travel more and have enriching, entertaining experiences throughout my life. Thinking about this, I asked Jacinto what dreams he had for himself beyond taking care of his children.
“Oh, my dream is getting my GED and someday going to the university. I try to work hard on my English and work hard for my family too.”
He isn’t sure yet what he would study. All his life, he has worked hard just to provide for his family: parents, siblings, wife, and children. I got the sense that he hasn’t had the chance yet to think about much beyond that first priority.
With the help of staff and volunteers at the Catherine McAuley Center, Jacinto has made huge progress toward his goals of English proficiency and American citizenship. At the time of our interview, he hoped to be granted citizenship within a few months.
As I talked with Jacinto and later researched the history of relations between the U.S. and Guatemala, I was struck by the irony and complexity of it all. On the one hand, I felt proud of my community for being a place where Jacinto and other immigrants could find safety and prosperity. I know that this happens all over the United States, that people from around the world still come here to make a better life. More often than not, they find it.
On the other hand, if it weren’t for the U.S.’s destabilizing influence in places like Guatemala, Jacinto may not have felt the need to leave his parents and siblings. If it weren’t for CIA-installed corrupt dictators willing to sacrifice their people as near-slave labor for U.S. fruit companies, Jacinto might have been able to raise a family in his homeland with the same hope of giving his children a better life as he has here.
But the game of “What if?” can’t erase history. It remains as complicated and messy as it has always been. All we can do is learn from it, learn from people like Jacinto, and try to make better decisions moving forward.
Story by Courtney T Ball. Photos by Hannah White.