Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Illegal Immigrant

A colectivo bus
The high winds of the Juan Rey barrio whipped through the air, rippling my heavy pull-over fleece as I huffed and puffed up the steep incline. Instinctively, I threw a look over my shoulder every five or six steps to watch out for potential muggers. I was in the No Man’s Land between Nueva Esperanza and my bus stop where anything could happen.

Nearly to the top, I spotted my bus slowly chugging along on the road running perpendicular to the one I was currently on. Sprinting the final fifty yards uphill, I managed to wave down the bus in time.

Gasping to catch my breath in the thin Andean air, I boarded the bus, saying “Buenas tardes” to the driver as I handed him the pesos for the fare.

When I turned to take a seat, the driver said, “¿Tu eres extranjero? (Are you a foreigner?)

“Si,” I replied, “Soy de los estados unidos.” (Yes, I am from the United States)

“¿Cuál parte?” he asked. (Which part?)

“California,” I said, “San Francisco.”

Much to my surprise, in relatively good English, the driver said, “I used to live in California!”

“No way,” I said.

“Come sit next to me!” the driver invited, “I need to practice my English.”

I figured what the hey and sat down in the passenger’s seat.

“My name is William,” he said, extending his hand to shake as he narrowly avoided running over a stray dog that had dared cross to paths with the colectivo bus.

“Mike,” I said, shaking his hand.

Over the next hour or so, I listened intently to William’s story of his life in the U.S., jotting down what he said like some kind of wanna-be journalist.

 William’s Story:

Medellin, Colombia
William was born in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. He spoke of Medellin as being a “magic city” with clean streets and having some of the most beautiful women in the world. His whole life, William was into martial arts and earned a black belt in more than one discipline.

In 2000, William secured a student visa and entered the United States to study martial arts at a special school in California and after securing tourist visas for his wife and two children, they joined him in California. As the days drew ever closer to William’s visa’s expiration date, he feared returning to Colombia, as it was facing escalated turbulence after the initiation of the United States’ controversial Plan Colombia campaign.

When his visa expired, in hopes of creating a better life for his wife and children, he decided to illegally stay in California, settling down in the San Fernando Valley and finding work as an apprentice electrician. His children began attending public school and soon their English skills surpassed their Spanish abilities.

San Fernando Valley, CA
In trying to make enough money to both support his family and send money to relatives in Colombia, William worked thirteen-hour days and was paid far less than what the typical American doing the same work received. His work brought him as far south as San Diego and as far north as San Francisco. In fact, he often worked in San Bruno, only two cities over from my hometown of Burlingame. One time, he met The Transporter star, Jason Stathom, while working at his home in Beverly Hills, CA. William avoided as much as possible going to San Diego because of the major immigration police checkpoints set up on the highways in that area. Luckily for him, he was never caught.

As the years went by, William continued to work hard, learned English, and saved more money than he could ever have hoped to in Colombia. But all the while, he lived in fear knowing that without legal documentation, he and his family could be uprooted and sent back to Colombia at any moment. William set his hopes on the talks about the U.S. Congress passing an amnesty law for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants; he thought that if he just held on a little bit longer, he and his family could become legal U.S. citizens and finally live with peace of mind in what they hoped would be their permanent home.

Jason Stathom
In 2007, when the economy went the way of Ben Affleck’s acting career, William had an increasingly more difficult time finding work. With construction projects screeching to a halt, firms were willing to work for pennies for the little work that remained. William found himself working even harder than before for significantly less, but he kept going in hopes that the U.S. government would soon make his dreams of citizenship a reality.

By the end of 2009, with the economy still in the gutter and the immigration amnesty bill way off the U.S. government’s priority table, William decided it was time to return home to Colombia, thus he moved his family to Bogotá.

Luckily, William had been able to save up enough money in the U.S. to purchase his own colectivo bus. Although he works heroically long hours driving the same route through southern Bogotá, unlike most colectivo drivers, he works for himself because he owns his own bus. If it weren’t for his time in the U.S., he never would have been able to afford his own bus, which today allows him to make a decent, honest living…  

Fourteen months after returning to Bogotá, he picked up a tall gringo from California in the least likely of places, a bona fide ghetto in southern Bogotá.

My life is random, what can I say?


  1. Amazing. I really love that kind of stories.

  2. Dude, loved the California connection; most of all the Ben Affleck analogy was hilarious... Looking forward to the next one man. Hope all is well and see you soon, Gringo!

  3. Thanks for the comments guys! Yeah, it was one of the craziest small world stories I've ever seen!

  4. Who could think you would find someone like him at that place?!
    Amazing story! Keep writing!