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Santa Cruz, Mexico 1998

She was ready to finally cross the border. She had faced a series of unsuccessful attempts, but this night felt different than all the other nights she had spent in Mexico. The coyote who she entrusted with her safety led her through the night to begin her journey. That is where she faced what changed her life forever.

Miami, Florida 2018

Mariana, who asked that her name be changed for the purpose of anonymity, was born to an affluent family in Bolivia. She has made the U.S. her home and has worked to become a legal citizen for 38 years, during which she has maintained employment at multiple different jobs to support her family. Their names have also been changed for this story.

The United States 1980

Mariana entered the U.S. on a student visa at 19, where she studied accounting at Texas University for three and a half years. She loved her new life and felt that she had a promising future. Upon on the completion of her degree, Mariana returned to Bolivia where she met Samuel, her current husband.

Her parents disapproved of Samuel, sparking a downward spiral of conflict with her family. She returned to the States on her student visa, which had not yet expired, where she and Samuel lived as undocumented immigrants. Her departure from Bolivia accompanied by her commitment to Samuel resulted in the estrangement of her family. 

“My parents didn’t speak to me for years,” Mariana said.

She and Samuel settled in Virginia, where he attended school to learn English, while she worked various jobs. Because of her illegal status, Mariana’s employment prospects were limited. She consulted with many attorneys, but the promises made to her were consistently broken.

Once Samuel completed school in Virginia, the couple relocated to Miami, Florida, where she said she expected to have a better chance at legal status. Unfortunately, this move did not fulfill her expectations. Her husband enrolled at Florida International University, then transferred to Miami Dade College for financial reasons. While Samuel attended school, Mariana worked to pay his tuition, while trying to move forward with her immigration status.

“In Miami, I tried to get different attorneys, but unfortunately the attorneys lie to you just to get money out of you,” Mariana said. “They always tell us, ‘yeah, it’s gonna come. Just wait,’ but it never did.”  

Mariana said filing for legal status is a lengthy and discouraging process. She spoke of the heinous ways in which immigration officers treat undocumented immigrants. After years of trying, Mariana grew tired of the same rhetoric.

“These people in immigration offices really scare you,” Mariana said. “I remember one time when I had to go to the interview, the person who attended us in immigration was like…wow. He was so rude, really mean, and I almost peed in my pants because of his rudeness.”

After giving birth to her first child and another on the way, Mariana could not afford to continue paying for her husband’s school at Miami Dade College, so he dropped out to work and help with their children.

All the money she earned from her jobs was going toward the attorneys’ fees, and the little money she had left went toward the only food she and her husband could afford to eat; rice and bacon. Numerous broken promises and $24,000 later, Mariana stopped trying to gain legal documentation in the U.S.

Once Mariana decided to stop seeing attorneys, she came to terms with her illegal status in the U.S. and sought employment to be able to support her family. Over time, she developed her own catering business, worked in an auto shop, ran a small nursery from her home and opened a restaurant using her business partner’s name.

Living an undocumented life is unimaginable to those who are not living this experience, she said. People treat you differently, and her encounters with police officers are typically unpleasant, she said.

“When I first got here, I remember police officers were so rude to Spanish people, and I experienced that a couple of times when they pulled us over,” Mariana recalled. “They were really, really, really rude, to the point where they were screaming at us for no reason, and I just felt like crying; which I did. That was my only tool to cope.”

Despite all the unpleasant encounters with law enforcement, employers and the general public, she still worked to support her family. While working at the auto body shop, Mariana was the best employee and made a steady salary.

Then Mariana’s father died in Bolivia.

“That changed my life drastically,” she said. She felt an obligation to return to Bolivia to see her family.

She briefly considered moving back to Bolivia as she grew increasingly discouraged by the lack of growth in her career. Her employers took advantage of her illegal status and took more money than they agreed they would. While running her own restaurant, her business partner slowly began taking more money from the business, until Mariana was essentially left with nothing and made the decision to close down the restaurant.

This abuse from employers followed her at every job, prompting her decision to return to Bolivia with her children leaving Samuel behind in the U.S. They agreed that if she saw a promising future, he would join them. She was then 37, marking the 15th year since leaving Bolivia. 

Cochabamba, Bolivia 1998

Upon arrival, her family’s unwelcoming attitude toward Mariana shocked her.

“Going to Bolivia was the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my entire life,” she said.

Her relationship with her mother was compromised, and she immediately felt uncomfortable by her presence.

“The day I arrived, I felt like a stranger,” Mariana said. “I didn’t grow up with my sister and my brothers, who were all in Bolivia. I tried to get along with them, but my father’s inheritance was in between us. So, everyone was skeptical why I went, and they were all telling me to go back to the States because that was my place now.”

Lawsuits were being filed regarding her father’s inheritance, and Mariana did not understand the chaos that she returned to. Her family had completely shut her out. She decided to go to the banks that were suing her father with the intention of gaining a better understanding of the situation.

The banks offered her money as a settlement option, which she considered. Before she could decide, however, the banks contacted her family’s attorney, who relayed to her mother what Mariana had done.

This led to a misunderstanding with her family, which resulted in even more conflict. Her mother threatened her, and her brother physically assaulted her. Her cousins heard about the family feud and attempted to harm her, but she says she successfully fought them off.

“They were all thinking I was doing something just to challenge them and to ruin them,” Mariana said. “I told them they could’ve prevented all of this, and [asked] if they were in my shoes, what would they do?”

Mariana decided against the settlement and realized her options in Bolivia were nothing short of grim. The distance negatively affected Mariana’s marriage, and they considered divorce. Samuel stopped sending her money and her mother cut her off financially, so Mariana was forced to work various jobs in Bolivia to support her two children.

“There was a point where I was attacked by my whole family and I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to talk to, just my kids,” she said. “So, I decided to go back to the States, and with that decision, I went through hell.”

Mariana’s son, Felipe, who was 12 at the time, witnessed all the struggles she faced in Bolivia. She recalls him crying with her as she attempted to work through their next steps.

“Mama, your brothers are not helping you, your mama is not helping you, daddy is not helping us, let’s go back to the States,” he said. “You’re not gonna work. I’m going to work for you. I don’t want you to do anything. This is not a life for us.”

After receiving money from one of her brothers who reconciled with her, she acquired new passports for her kids, who were both born in the U.S., and for herself, but under a different name.

Santa Cruz, Mexico 1998

Mariana and her kids traveled to Santa Cruz, Mexico, where they parted. Her kids returned to the U.S. to live with Samuel, while she stayed and received her visa through someone else’s name to cross the border. She stayed in Mexico, where she says everything changed for her.

Mariana sought the help of coyotes to assist with the journey to the border, but she said it always came at a cost. They took advantage of the people who needed their help.

She tried to cross the border on foot but was unsuccessful, and after one attempt, was caught and sent to a border detention facility referred to as hieleras, the Spanish word for icebox.

“It was so freezing there, the coldest place I’ve ever been in,” Mariana said. “They treat you like you’re roaches.”

She was released and remained in Mexico for one month while she planned her next attempt at a crossing.

“I went to the coyotes and asked them for help to get me across,” she said. “There was one coyote there who I saw was looking at me in a different way. He told me he was taking me to help me get across.”

Fighting tears, Mariana recalls the traumatic moments during her journey when she was assaulted by the coyotes who were intended to see her through to the border safely. “It ended up like…he raped me. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything. At that point, I asked myself if living was worth it, and if being alive was worth it for me. I was alone.”

Shortly after, another coyote tried to rape her, but Mariana fought him off and said “If you touch me, I’ll kill you. He saw I really meant it, and he left me alone. It wasn’t going to happen to me again.”

She then says she managed to get across the border, and just went on with her life. When she returned home, she and Samuel began divorce proceedings, but then reconciled and stayed together.

She has always been afraid to tell Samuel and her kids about her sexual assault, as she feels they would reject her.

“It was a terrible experience. It’s always there in the back of your mind. Sometimes when I’m watching a movie it comes to my head. I can’t get it out. You’re the second person I’ve ever told this to. No one in my family knows,” Mariana said.

Miami, Florida 2018

Fast forward to today, Mariana is 57. 20 years have passed from when her journey first began in Mexico. She remains undocumented. 

To this day, she is still trying to gain legal documentation, however, attorneys remain pessimistic after hearing that she crossed the border with fake documents. She is self-employed and earns a steady salary. Her son Felipe, now 32, has dedicated his life to staying with Mariana and helping her with daily needs. He lives with her and drives her wherever she needs to go (she doesn’t have a driver’s license).

“I can’t do much, but I can be with you. I’ll be your legs and your eyes through everything,” he said to her.

Her younger son is studying at the University of Michigan, and Samuel finally received a green card. Mariana remains the only person in her family who is undocumented.

“I know it’s hard for people to live in someone else’s shoes and to identify with someone else’s pain,” Mariana said. “That is why I’m telling my story. So other people can try to see another perspective, another life.”

She says the main thing that has helped her through her difficult life all these years has been Church of Christ.

“It gave me desire to live and to do things I never thought to do,” she said. “It gave me peace and nice feelings that I never had before.”

Every day remains uncertain for Mariana, and at any moment, the life she built here in the U.S. can be taken away.

“It bothers me that I cannot complete my legalization here,” Mariana said. “I’ve tried for 38 years, and for some reason, it won’t go through. I would tell people right now, if you’re in your country, stay there. Don’t come to suffer. To the people who are already here, live your life and there is a lot of help here to be a better person. Take one more step to becoming a better person every day.”

In the meantime, she said, she hopes she’ll eventually acquire legal status.

“I don’t know what can happen to me tomorrow based on my status. I’m always trying to stay positive, but it is hard. I don’t know when the end of it will be.”

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