One Guatemalan woman’s saga of exile

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This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Freedom Socialist.

I am an undocumented worker. I was trained as an accountant, a high school teacher and a psychologist, but that is another lifetime now.

In 1995, I left my house and two children in Guatemala and came to the United States on a visitor’s visa with my youngest child.

I had been radicalized in the ’70s by the poverty of Guatemala and a series of U.S.-supported military dictatorships. I was a teacher and worked in Guatemala City in support of the guerrilla movement. When my children were older, I joined one of the radical groups working to end the dictatorship.

This organization was careful to limit comrades’ knowledge of who was in each working group to one other person, so that if you were tortured you could only give up one name. Still when the government’s counterinsurgency campaign began, the death squads killed us off slowly, one-by-one. Friends, neighbors and family evaporated into thin air.

Because my father was a colonel in the Guatemalan army, I had some protection. But one month before my father died, someone tried to run down my daughter and me. We narrowly escaped and I knew it was a message: without my father’s protection, I and my children would be killed.

I arrived in the states in shock. Within three months, a relative in Guatemala was assassinated at work. There was no investigation. He simply joined 200,000 other men, women and children killed in a U.S.-funded war against “communism.”

I could have applied for asylum back then, but this required that I remain in the U.S. until I’d qualified. Sounds simple, but I was terrified that the children I left behind might need me in the meantime and I would be stuck here. So I did nothing when my visa ran out.

I started to look for any job I could find, mostly cleaning houses and nursing children and the sick and elderly. For two years, I worked for a newspaper. Sometimes I taught Spanish. I refused to use fake social security documents because I believed I had the right to work, an inalienable human right.

Fourteen years went by before I began to enjoy my life because the past held me in its grip. The war, the deaths, splitting up my family between two countries — it seemed all I had were memories and nightmares. I tried to block them out, but I couldn’t. My mind was in Guatemala for I still dreaded what might happen to my children who as adults became human rights activists.

Simultaneously, anti-immigrant fever spread across the U.S., feeding my old anxieties. The constant drumbeat against refugees from Central America pushed me into a paranoid state. Because of the history of my country, I dread being sent back as a criminal, with my hands and feet bound.

At times I wonder what will become of me, living between two countries. After a lifetime of work, I have no retirement income in either, and returning to Guatemala is impossible anyway. Femicide is rampant and economically and politically the country is sliding backward. In November, former General Otto Pérez Molina, a past member of the murderous intelligence service, was elected president.

My story is not mine alone. There are millions of hardworking immigrant women in the U.S. who every day face the loneliness, discrimination, violence and exploitation of being women of color workers without the protection of the law. Forced from our own countries by circumstances beyond our control, we are hounded by the Obama administration’s immigration police. But we are not blind.

We see that the poor people of this country are as bad off as we are and that everything is getting worse. Like other low-paid women, immigrant women are in the struggle and resisting, conscious that we must be part of bringing to birth a new day by creating unity among all workers, regardless of race or nationality.

Nowadays I sometimes go to the local Occupy encampment and listen to the speeches. It makes me happy because I feel it is the beginning of a big change, part of which must be holding the U.S. government and corporations accountable to the Guatemalan people for the decades-long injury they have done to us, our children and our children’s children. We immigrant women were victims; but now we are warriors, fighting — not just for ourselves — but for all poor and oppressed people. We demand vindication!

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