The caged bird thrives: Jorge’s flight from Guatemala

Eighteen-year-old Jorge works in a butcher shop in a market in Villa Canales, Guatemala. The sun shines on his homeland and on the market with people bustling to buy meat from his family’s kiosk and clothes, fruits and crafts from other vendors.

Suddenly a shot is fired. A bullet is sent straight through his chest and his T-shirt absorbs the blood from the wound.

Then the Evanston Township High School sophomore wakes up from the nightmare in his second-story bedroom in a house he has called home since November 2008.

“I used to have these dreams when I first came to the United States and when I started living in this house,” Jorge says. “But it’s gotten better.”

Though Jorge has not been in that market in more than four years, the memories still bleed into the new life he has settled into.

Jorge was born in a car in Guatemala City on Oct. 30, 1991, when his father and mother arrived at the hospital just a few minutes too late, he says. Jorge grew up in Villa Canales, a village just outside Guatemala City, and went to school until the fourth grade, when he decided he could do just fine in life with that part of a grammar school education.

“My father only went to school until the second grade and he owned a butcher shop,” Jorge says. “He made money and was able to do well.”

Jorge’s father gave him tough love and told his son that if he was not going to school, the then-10-year-old Jorge had to start work at the family-owned butcher shop. Happy to make money and learn his father’s trade, the son agreed.

After a few years, Jorge was managing the butcher shop and sensed that he was good at it. To this day, the business savvy teenager says the skills he learned then are still with him despite a harrowing journey away from home and acclimating to a foreign culture.

Jorge recalls the tragic beginning of his odyssey as if it were yesterday. But he doles out the details stoically in a heavy Guatemalan accent with the grace of a 40-year-old man, Spanish marbled into the conversation.

He begins by describing the day that changed his family’s comfortable life in Guatemala. His father, who earned a decent living to provide a good life for his wife, two sons and daughter, received a letter. The simple piece of paper assaulted the family’s livelihood, but after discernment, the head of the household decided he could pay the equivalent of $5,000 U.S. dollars an anonymous gang demanded if it guaranteed everyone’s safety. Jorge recalls that the family had no choice.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/JorgeReaction1.mp3|titles=Helpless feelings of a young Jorge] Jorge describes how he felt at the time.

The family thought the ordeal was over until they received a second letter six months later in which gang members demanded more money or the two sons would be kidnapped.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/JorgeReaction3.mp3|titles=With no other choice, the decision was made] Jorge explains how gut wrenching the choice was.

With his two sons’ lives in danger, Jorge’s father made arrangements for coyotes (guides) to take the two boys to Mexico and then cross over to the United States.

Pictured is the bible Jorge's mother gave to him the night before he left Guatemala. Jorge keeps the bible and several framed photos of his father and brother on the dresser in his bedroom in Evanston.

The night before the two left, the night of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Mexico game, as Jorge recalls, the two were called into a room by their mother, a very religious woman. She prayed over the two of them and gave them each a bible.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/JorgeMom1.mp3|titles=Saying goodbye] Jorge recalls that night.

The next morning Jorge was en route to Guatemala City with his brother and father. A few cars behind them, his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins followed them. He wondered what all the fuss was. “I’ll be back,” he remembers thinking. “I don’t want to go, this is my home and this is my family.”

Just an hour later, Jorge was on a bus bound for Mexico. He turned to his window and saw his father he had just hugged goodbye. His father tilted his cowboy hat over his head and he saw his father’s whole body tremble and shake.

Jorge recalls that was the first time he saw his father cry. It would turn out to be the last.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/JorgeReaction2.mp3|titles=Jorge’s last moments with his father]

At 14 years old, Jorge set out on what was to be a month-long journey through Guatemala and Mexico. Amid the worries of getting caught as an undocumented immigrant and the sadness of leaving his home, the journey was also an adventure.

After going by bus through Guatemala to the Mexican border in the company of a coyote who was a relative, Jorge and his brother crossed into the remote state of Chiapas in Mexico.

But there, the trip became dangerous. Jorge’s older brother was caught by Mexican Federal Police. Unable to leave him behind, Jorge approached the policeman and asked him to release his brother or the policeman would have to take him, too. The policeman refused but bargained and exchanged Jorge’s brother for every bit of money the two brothers carried.

The two were able to reconnect with their coyote  For one month, they walked through deserts in the summer heat, jumping trains, wading through water and fearing authorities but made it to the United States.

Within 10 minutes of crossing the border into the United States, a Border Patrol helicopter spotted the group. They were detained and escorted to the bridge into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

“When I was sent back to Mexico, I kept thinking, ‘I’m not going to make it, I want to go back to my country,’” Jorge says. “I didn’t know what to do. At that moment I didn’t want to try anymore…at the same time I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of my friends and family in Guatemala.”

Jorge remembered the coyote’s address in Nuevo Laredo and he and his brother made their way to their guide who took them in for a week and helped them cross in a different place into the United States. Finally, Jorge and his brother made it to Houston and took a bus to McHenry County.

Lucky for the brothers, one of their father’s ex-employees from the butcher shop had already made his journey two years prior to Jorge and was settled in McHenry County, outside Chicago. Jorge found a job at a restaurant and later with a fake Social Security Number he purchased, he worked at an auto-parts factory and finally a plastics factory.

Living in the house with more than half a dozen other undocumented immigrants, Jorge says he settled into working life quickly, always wanting to make money the way he did at the butcher shop. He heard from home a few times a week, but one day he received a call from home that changed his life.

“I was coming from the factory and got home around 3 in the morning because we went grocery shopping after work that night,” he said. “The phone was ringing at 9:30 the next morning and it was a friend of my father’s was crying.”

Jorge was informed that his mother and father were shot in broad daylight by gang members at their butcher shop. His mother was killed instantly and his father died a half hour later at the hospital.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Shamiraftershock.mp3|titles=Jorge’s reaction] Jorge recounts that he could not believe what he heard.

His father’s friend told Jorge not to return to Guatemala because his life was at stake. As he reflects back, he says, “everything happens for a reason,” and slips into Spanish to add he was like, “una ave, encerrada en una jaula” – like a bird, stuck in a cage.

It was this same feeling that motivated him to continue his education at a high school in McHenry. After being belittled for not knowing English at the plastics factory, Jorge’s anger made him hunger for something more.

“This is not for me,” he says. “I had to get better or find something better.”

Jorge and foster mother Stephanie Russell opt for a scoop of ice cream in their kitchen in Evanston.

He enrolled in the high school, showing up without knowing a word of English, without a transcript with his grades from Guatemala and without a birth certificate. Lucky for Jorge, that didn’t matter. But being out of school for so long and not knowing English, he did poorly in most of his classes that year.

His housemates in McHenry told him he would never get an education. “They always made fun of me,” he says in Spanish, jokingly.  And they made fun of him again when he said he was going to get a green card as per the suggestion of a friend who was helped by the National Immigrant Justice Center.

Jorge showed up to the NIJC office and presented his case. They told him they would get back to him. This is when his now foster father, Alan Lindquist, an attorney who does pro bono work for the NIJC, was first drawn to Jorge’s story.

“His story, it was just so dramatic,” Lindquist says. “It said that his parents had been murdered back in Guatemala and that he was living basically supporting himself and helping to support his (then)-10-year-oldsister back in Guatemala.”

Lindquist picked up the case but could not speak Spanish, so he brought his wife, Stephanie Russell, editor of a university alumni magazine, to translate for the affidavit interview. The two were enthralled with the then-17-year-old’s story.

Jorge was eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for children and minors who are orphaned, abused or abandoned, a status very similar to the cases of those who seek asylum.

“He was so well prepared,” Russell says. “He was able to eventually turn over his birth certificate and his parents’ death certificates.”

“My job was a piece of cake,” Lindquist agrees.

After Russell and Lindquist submitted Jorge’s affidavit to the Department of Children and Family Services, DCFS agreed to take the case and tried to find a foster home for Jorge.  When several living situations turned out to be less than ideal, Lindquist and Russell decided they wanted to be  the 17-year-old’s foster parents. Lindquist handed the case to another pro bono attorney from his law firm.

“It was so lucky,” Russell says. “We had already looked into the idea of adopting an older child from Latin America and were about halfway through the process. DCFS accepted all the classes we had taken at The Cradle in Evanston.”

So, a court judge approved the couple’s application to become foster parents. Two days before Thanksgiving in 2008, Jorge would moved into the Evanston house with Russell and Lindquist and their three King Charles Cavalier Spaniels.

Now, a year later, Jorge works as a caddy to send money, about $250-$450 a month, to his 12-year-old sister (who’s living with their aunt) in Villa Canales, and to pay his debts from borrowing money for his sister from his friend in McHenry.

“He has this sense of pride in providing for his sister,” Lindquist says.

“He’s almost like a father figure to her,” Russell agrees. “I’ve heard him on the phone with her and he calls her ‘mi amor’ (my love). It’s very sweet.”

Jorge says his sister has told him that she sees him as a father but Jorge doesn’t believe he has earned that title.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/avejaula.mp3|titles=Feeling like a caged bird] Jorge says in Spanish that he’s never picked her up from school, spent time with her, or eaten ice cream outside with her, and he hasn’t been there for her when she needed him most.

Now that Jorge lives in Evanston, he attends Evanston Township High School and has thrived, his teachers say. He has quite a bit of catching up to do academically but has risen to the top of his class in the majority of the core subjects.

“The fact that he came as an illegal immigrant didn’t stop him,” says World Languages teacher Laura Schuler. As someone who came to the United States from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant in 1980, the teacher is amazed by Jorge’s resilience.  “He’s a tremendous inspiration for me. Nothing stops him,” she says.

Jorge agrees. Nothing is going to keep him from earning what he truly wants, he says. Upon graduating ETHS, he hopes to earn a college degree in business or architecture.

Russell and Lindquist hope to visit Guatemala sometime this year to meet Jorge’s sister and perhaps begin the process of bringing her into their family.

“Stephanie and Alan are more than foster parents,” Jorge says. “Foster parents just give you food and shelter, but here, it’s different. I have love, they care for me.”

During the year Jorge has lived with Lindquist and Russell, the couple has said they have learned much from him. Aside from opening their eyes to a different culture, they have found that Jorge’s story has many connections with theirs.

The family in Evanston holds hands. The three say they have felt very connected to each other in the tragedy and triumphs of Jorge's story. The foster parents are proud to call him their son.

“We were in the car and he was talking about his parents,” Lindquist recalls. “And he said ‘I kind of think my parents are always here with me in spirit.’ I lost my mother a couple of years ago and I felt the same way about her. I found it striking that somebody from a completely different culture could have that kind of connection with me.”

While sometimes Jorge still feels as though he is  a “caged bird,” haunted by an unfortunate history, he has settled into the second part of his life, not quite a new one, he says.

“I learned to appreciate things,” he says in Spanish. “I learned to help someone when they lack something and really, just to do my best.”

(For safety reasons, “Jorge’s” real name is not used in this story.)

2 Responses to The caged bird thrives: Jorge’s flight from Guatemala

  1. I would like to say THANK YOU to
    1- Dr. Philip O’Connor
    2- SGT Patrick Haley

    I appreciate everything that you did for me and for my family and I’ll never forget it

    ZAK

  2. […] her mark on the world.  I saw the quote while reading a story that she recently wrote about the plight of immigrants in Chicago.  Several times this spring, she recalled a serendipitous meeting with “Jorge” a teenager from […]

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