El Camino

Madeline Lisaius - Ecuador


November 20, 2013

So there’s this book called “Wild.” It found it’s way to me through another fellow; to her I owe much thanks. The author, Sheryl Strayed, discusses her 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (a path that transverses the western U.S. mountain ranges between Mexico and Canada) with no backpacking experience prior. The memoir chronicles not just her agonizing journey with horribly beaten feet and an extraordinarily heavy pack, but also her fight to find forgiveness for both herself and her family. Throughout the text treads a central theme: hardship can yield healing.

What has stuck with me after reading, among other things, is that there is a certain sense of pride in completing the Pacific Crest Trail. Like the Appalachian Trail (and many, many other just as worthy paths), the PCT is the highlight of many guidebooks and hiking communities, is a common term in nearby REI’s and outdoor stores, and is celebrated as a feat of struggle and strength. I highlight these features of the PCT because another very different trek has come to my attention lately.

Here in my community, I have met many, many people who have a family member in the United States. And I’ve yet to meet someone who has a family member who has immigrated legally*. What I didn’t begin to realize until a fellow Global Citizen Year fellow’s visa application to Brazil was rejected this August under a reciprocal visa process (Brazil consulates treat United States applicants as United States consulates treat Brazilian applicants) is that it is ridiculously hard to get a U.S. visa. Own assets that can be affirmed by a bank? Have family members legally in the United States? Posess a letter of invitation from a current citizen? If you can answer yes to all three, the chance of getting a visa is somewhat higher. If not, the other options are very complicated.

The trek to become an “illegal” immigrant, from what I’ve gathered, is one of extreme will and hardship. While each journey is different, I will recount that of my sister, María**.  Throughout colegio, or high school, María worked to save so that the day after she turned 18, she could leave for the United States; the coyotes seldom take underage hopeful immigrants north. After paying her coyote a little over $15,000 USD, María took a flight to Mexico City, from where she began to travel on foot north towards the boarder. Little money to spare, unknown people and land, and no security. But actually making it to the border began the hardest part of the journey.

For her thousands of hard earned dollars, the coyote only promised to “do his best.” If the final river crossing had too strong a current, too bad. The coyote tried. If she become too dehydrated or sick with a foreign infection, too bad. The coyote tried. If she was caught or killed, too bad. The coyote tried.

But she made it. María made it.

Unfortunately, though, because of her illegal “status,” María enjoys almost none of the rights prided by the United Sates: minimum wage, living standards, public services, and so much more. But more than money or rights, she lost her ability to go home when she crossed the boarder. Without passport or ID, María would be forced to take a long, dangerous, and expensive trip south to cross the border illegally again before returning to Ecuador and her mom. But as a single parent with two young daughters that she can’t leave behind, this option essentially doesn’t exist. María has sacrificed so, so much.

When papi first told me María’s story, I was shocked. She immigrated illegally? Should I tell someone? Is this really the reality of what it means to be an immigrant? But time has helped me see more of the picture. I talk to María on the phone with my mami every week or so, and I help the older daughter practice her English over the crackling transcontinental calls. María describes hot pizzas with bubbling cheese and spiced acidic tomato sauce, and I try my best to describe the crunch of cuy (guinea pig) skin, rich with aho and manteca de color. María is just as “American” as I am. But because of how nation’s boarders were drawn at some point, artificially defining people as American or Ecuadorian rather than as humans, María is defined as “illegal.”

In my eyes, María’s trek still continues. And unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, the hardships of “illegal” immigrants must remain secret due to the nature of the journey. I once saw these trails and extreme summits and backpacking as truly incredible and worthy of the most respect, which they are. But now I realize that those guide books and hiking communities and public celebration of the hike are luxuries.  I wonder, what treks and journeys have been going around me all this time that I haven’t acknowledged with the reverence  that they deserve?

*I have met people with family members who have immigrated legally since originally writing this blog.

** Name changed for privacy reasons.

Madeline Lisaius