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When Carlos, a young Guatemalan immigrant, heard that dozens of migrants were found dead in the back of an abandoned 18-wheeler in San Antonio, the story felt all too familiar.

Last Thursday, after waiting for police presence at the scene in Southwest San Antonio to clear, he traveled from Houston to place candles at the growing memorial and said a prayer. 

“They’re our migrant brothers [and sisters],” said Carlos in Spanish. The San Antonio Report is withholding his surname because he is undocumented. “They had a dream like we did when we came.” 

Carlos, 26, knows firsthand the risks of embarking on such a journey in search of a better life. In May 2019, he made his way to the United States from his home in Guatemala in a dangerous trek with dozens of other migrants, not unlike those whose lives ended shut inside the truck on June 27, a day where temperatures approached triple digits.

“They were coming [to the U.S.] and lost the battle,” said Carlos of the migrants, 19 of whom were Guatemalan. “They battled poverty, searched for alternatives.”

Winning the battle, Carlos said, is reaching the U.S. for a shot at the American Dream.

Twenty-two days separated his life in Guatemala from the American dream he desired. After paying a smuggler and saying goodbye to his family, Carlos rode hours a day crammed into various vehicles — mostly vans and pickup trucks, he said, before trekking for eight days on foot through the Sonoran Desert in Mexico and into Arizona. Carlos said he prayed constantly that he would survive.

Today, Carlos said he is living that American dream, working a job in Houston that pays him cash under the table, living in an apartment with friends and fellow migrants who made the same journey. He sends money home to his family every month and sees an upwardly mobile future for himself.

When he arrived here in 2019, Carlos joined 3.8 million Central American migrants living in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. He is one of a growing number of young Guatemalans abandoning rural areas of his country each year to make the journey north. According to the World Bank, that number has grown from 9,000 people migrating annually in the early 2000s from Guatemala to three times that in 2018, driven by what the bank called “an acute shortage of quality jobs.”

America via Facebook

Carlos said he left his indigenous community in the Alta Verapaz region because he couldn’t find work that would allow him to make ends meet and provide for his family, which includes his parents, six brothers and one sister.

Like many Guatemalans, Carlos traveled for the meager work he could find, working in the city of Cobán, about 20 miles from his hometown, selling fruits and vegetables. He earned about $7 a day, he said.

While working there, he watched many friends leave for the U.S. in search of work. When they made it, he said, they would communicate through Facebook, posting images of what looked to Carlos as if they were living a happier and freer life.

Things that Americans take for granted, such as paved roads and tall buildings, fascinated Carlos and made him yearn for the opportunities he saw through his friends’ social media posts. 

“I would keep working hard, but I always asked God, ‘God, I want to get there. I want to prosper, improve,'” he said. “I would see others who came here, worked hard, made better lives for their families and lived a much better life.”

Paying for a shot at freedom

Carlos’ dream to come to the U.S. became a possibility when through a friend he met a coyote, the term for a person who, for a price, transports groups of migrants across the southern border and into the U.S. Traveling in a group was safer than attempting the journey alone, the coyote told Carlos. “‘You could get kidnapped,” Carlos said he was told. “Anything could happen to you.”

Carlos and two friends paid the smuggler what they had, the equivalent of roughly $400 in U.S. dollars, with a promise from Carlos to work and pay back the total cost of his travel: $17,000.

Saying goodbye to his parents and siblings, Carlos said he understood it could be the last time he saw and spoke to them.

“I said, ‘Look, Dad, I’m going to the United States. … I’m not going to be like this my whole life,'” he said. “‘Money doesn’t go far. I want to do something.’”

The three young men joined a larger group making the journey. The coyote got them to the Guatemala-Mexico border, crowded into vans with no air conditioning in the summer heat. Several times, they switched vehicles.

At one point, a tire on the truck they were in blew out. The passengers were told to get out and hide, he said, so they hid in the fields along the road. Once the tire was changed and the coast was clear, they got back into the truck and continued the journey. 

They traveled for several days in this fashion, stopping periodically at places considered safe, often farms or ranches, where they could shower and eat a meal, which he said the group would share.

Along the way, more people joined, some with children. The coyote gave each migrant a special code only they would know. The coyote used those codes instead of names, Carlos said, to indicate who would get on which vehicle. If the individual didn’t answer the call of their code, the coyote assumed they had been lost and simply moved on.

Packed trucks, dangerous desert

The group avoided border patrol in Mexico by hiding in prickly brush, trees and tall grass as they waited for vehicles to pick them up. At one point, when a farm truck arrived, the migrants were told that they had only 30 seconds to get on the back of the truck or they would be left behind. 

Up to 70 people were packed into trucks and school buses, Carlos said. Some people would get claustrophobic and say they couldn’t breathe, he said. Many prayed.

People carry a cross made of balloons on Wednesday, June 29, to place at a memorial marking the site where dozens of people died in a tractor-trailer.
People carry a cross made of balloons on Wednesday, June 29, to place at a memorial marking the site where dozens of people died in a tractor-trailer. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“They sent me to the back [of the truck]. In the back, where only two people fit, they put five people, very uncomfortable. It didn’t feel good,” said Carlos. “The whole road, we came praying, asking God to help us and that everything would go well,” he said. 

Before entering the U.S., the group had to traverse a part of the Sonoran Desert known as the Gran Desierto de Altar, where hazards included thorny desert plants, snakes and extreme temperatures, along with prowling gang members, other traffickers and border patrols.

As he walked through the heat and tried to sleep through colder temperatures at night, Carlos understood his friend’s advice to bring a good pair of shoes. 

“It’s very ugly going through the desert. I got sick,” he said. At one point, the group ran out of food and were low on water. He recalled a woman so badly injured by a large thorn that she had to be carried. 

The group entered the U.S. on foot into Palomas, Arizona, with a “guía,” a person who guided them as they hid and dodged U.S. and Mexican border patrols. When they finally got into Arizona, the guía took eight of them, including Carlos, to Dallas. From there, he made his way to Houston.

“I didn’t even know where I wanted to go,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to get there. I was desperate from all the traveling.”

‘We went through the same thing’

Today, Carlos said he spends most of his time working for a moving company. Like many working people, he watches his money and worries about increases in rent and other goods.

He keeps in touch with his family, who use the money he sends each month to pay for his younger siblings’ school, fix up their home and help others when they can. He remains connected with some of those he traveled with, who have scattered across the country: Washington state, Atlanta and Dallas.

“It was worth it,” said Carlos. “First I say, thank God I’m here. Maybe the road was hard, but I’m here, working, helping my family.”

Carlos of Houston lights a candle on Wednesday, June 29, at a memorial marking the site where dozens of people died in a tractor-trailer.
Carlos of Houston lights a candle on Wednesday, June 29, at a memorial marking the site where dozens of people died in a tractor-trailer. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Every now and then, Carlos hears of friends or relatives of his friends who are coming to the U.S., and said he and his friends are always willing to help them.

“Like that experience we’ve lived, we all say, we went through the same thing,” he said. “We’ll help each other.”

Last week in San Antonio Carlos said he and his friends didn’t think they knew anyone who died, but they still felt compelled to pay their respects.

“I took white candles,” he said, “because they were souls who died during the battle.” 

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Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.