The Gangs Came to Our Village

Theresa, 17
NOTE: All the children’s names have been changed to protect their identities. NASP stories about children are not matched with their portraits.
Slide 1 of 3
1 / 3

Did we know them? No. Nothing like that. I only know people like me, they were ladinos (mixed-race)...strangers.

In Guatemala there are places where everyone is indigenous, Maya, and other places where people are ladino. They were outsiders from another area, not from my village. They only spoke Spanish. I don’t know that much Spanish, but I can speak a little, I can get by. So when they talked to me and I replied in Spanish they were happy and told me I was going to translate for them to other indigenous people who speak K’iché. The gangsters didn’t speak K’iché. They wanted me to go around with them and translate to the K’iché people because a lot of K’iché don’t speak Spanish… but I didn’t like that. We told them that we didn’t want to join with them. Because of that they got angry and started threatening us, attacking us, hitting us. They wanted us to ask for money, I don’t know what the word it… it’s like…yes, exactly: extortion. Yes, that’s what it is. That’s what they wanted. They were gangsters, they did bad things, they attacked people, asked for money.

I told them, “Why don’t you go look for other people, we are younger than you.” Because those guys were older. They’re tough men.

“We aren’t good for you,” I said.

“We’re not asking for your advice,” they said, “we are giving orders and you have to obey us.”

My father… my father was sad. I’m so happy my parents don’t live there anymore. They left the village, they escaped… because the gang found out that we fled.

“We know your children don’t live here anymore. Now we are going to kill you,” they said.

They were asking for 10,000 quetzales, I don’t know what that is in dollars ($1,302.00) but my dad didn’t have the money to pay it, that’s why they went to live in another place.

They told us what they were going to do to us, that we had to do what they said and report to them. That we had to respect and unite with them, but we didn’t want that. They grabbed us three times on the street. That’s why we made the decision to come here.

In the village I come from everyone works in the fields or in the mountains or at home. There’s only houses: no church, or central plaza, or police, or judge… for that you have to go to the town nearby. Where I lived there are only simple houses. Everyone wears the traditional clothes there (the handwoven dress worn by indigenous women).

The ladinos in the nearby town don’t wear those clothes like we do. I used to wear it when I lived there. The huipil (woven blouse) has adornments that shine, and the belt to hold the skirt has flowers sewn into it: it’s very colorful and shiny, not all black, like people wear in school here. The clothes that people wear in Oakland are very different. My clothes don’t exist here...they are so beautiful to me. They represent the K’iché people. When you go to another area, like Quetzaltenango or Copán, they each have their own design of clothing. That’s how it is: the clothing represents the pueblo.

Slide 2 of 3
  • "In the village I come from everyone works in the fields or in the mountains or at home." Image by Tomas Ayuso.
2 / 3

With Nothing

It’s not easy to get here… it’s very difficult… I lived it. I came here with my younger brother. No, no I didn’t come here with a coyote (smuggler), we came with others in a similar situation: without a coyote, with nothing. We came on the train with people who didn’t have the money to pay for a guide, we joined them. There were Guatemalans and Mexicans. The Mexicans know the route and that’s how we managed to get here, otherwise we would have gotten lost because Mexico is very big. It was my first time in Mexico, I got to know it on the journey.

When you ride the trains you never know when you will arrive. You wait all day hiding in the bushes, and when it comes you have to pay 5 pesos, if not, they don’t let you on. We climbed on top… yes, we rode on the top of the train… yes, outside. The train is big so there are a lot of people on board. There is a lot of fear because the train goes fast… it goes fast and you pass through dark tunnels and sometimes there are sticks and trees that grab your hair. And who can help you? No one. You are between life and death and only you can only save yourself… and so… It’s horrible.

The train leaves you in unknown places and you don’t know where you are and although I experienced it, it’s hard for me to live it for you, what it was like. It was very difficult. You have to get off the train quickly, you don’t get off slowly, patiently, you get off quickly because the train is moving. It’s very dangerous. When you get down from the train you start walking and ask people where you are, and tell them that you are trying to get to a place called Reynoso (sic: Reynosa, border town with the U.S.). You keep trying to get there, get there… We didn’t know anything, nothing, some people we met who were Mexican, they helped us, so that we didn’t get lost on the road, we followed them to the border and then we all got separated.

The freight train known as La Bestia hulks through Arriage in Southern Mexico.

Credit: Tomas Ayuso

I remember the night when we arrived to the border with the United States, to Reynoso, that was when we crossed the Rio Grande at 11 p.m. It was a huge river. We got to Texas. We walked and walked and then Immigration halted us. We wanted to escape because we thought they wouldn’t let us pass. But they shot off their guns into the sky and demanded, “What are you doing?” So we stopped. They asked us where we were from, our names, and then they sent us to a house where there were a lot of people like us: women, children, men. There were five small houses where all us were held. They left us there, we were there about a week until a Tuesday. You don’t have anything to eat, but that wasn’t important to me, what I felt was: now I’m safe, and I hope that they don’t deport me.

When Immigration grabbed me they asked, “Why did you come here?” I said, “I came here because of a threat, not for nothing but because gang members were threatening me.

“Explain it to me,” they said.

I explained, “They are asking us for a lot of money and telling us we have to be part of their gang, and we don’t want that. We hid from, they were looking for us, they said they would kill us and we want to live. We want to be safe. Not dead.”

“Did you know them?”

“No, they were strangers, ladinos, not my people.”

That’s why they didn’t deport us. My brother and I were so afraid they would send us back…

After that they sent us to a place called a Casa Hogar (shelter for unaccompanied minors) which was very clean and they gave us food, not like the other place where you were dying of hunger and didn’t have a place to sleep and you had to sleep on the floor.

The Most Important Thing

My older brothers are here, they’ve been here eight years. When we left Guatemala, we didn’t tell them anything because they had already told us the journey was very difficult. That there could be death, danger…that we could die on the road. They told us they didn’t want us to come. That we were still children. But we made the decision to come here to be safe.

When I got here it wasn’t easy to find a lawyer. I don’t work so I didn’t have money to pay for it, but my (older) brother helped, he paid for the lawyer. I’m so grateful to my lawyer who helped us stay here, but it wasn’t just her, it was… I don’t know what you call it? The person who works and decides if someone stays or doesn’t? I’m so grateful to her too, she did us the favor to let us stay and I won my case and I have the right to stay here. Now I’m safe. That’s the most important thing.

NOTE: All the children’s names have been changed to protect their identities. NASP stories about children are not matched with their portraits.

NOTE: All the children’s names have been changed to protect their identities. NASP stories about children are not matched with their portraits.


Ed Ntiri, Photographer

Tomas Ayuso, Photographer

Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Interviewer

Stay Connected with NASP

Sign up with your email to receive periodic newsletters and updates about NASP.

Want to Contribute?

Email us at if you would like to contribute, collaborate, or support the project.