By Matthew Rodriguez
Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor
After learning about her students’ endeavors for a better life, Teresa Garcia has nothing but praise for her pupils.
“They’re the most resilient kids I know,” said Garcia, a teacher at Blair High School in Pasadena. “You’d be surprised with some of the things that they’ve been through. And yet they still come (to school) and give it their best.”
Garcia is one of several teachers at the International Academy at Blair High School. For 12 years, the academy has mentored hundreds of students, all of whom were new immigrants and needed help adjusting to their new home.
The students come from all over the world, from China to Croatia, but most are from Central America. Currently, they have about 150 students, but many of the teachers expect that number to increase as immigration rises this year.
According to the monthly report by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in the first four months of 2021, border patrol agents apprehended over 531,000 migrants at the southern border. To compare, in fiscal year 2020, CBP encountered 458,088 migrants. In April 2021, CBP detained the most migrants so far this year: 178,622. In April 2020, CBP detained 17,106.
Over 200,000 of the migrants are children. Some eventually end up in Pasadena at the International Academy, where they continue their education and learn English. Many of these students embark on these harrowing journeys for a chance at a better life. They left behind their home country and said goodbye to their family, friends and everything they’ve ever known.
State of siege
When his brother died, Hilario Rodriguez, then 13, decided to travel from Guatemala to the United States to provide for his family.
He left his family and went on this journey alone. Unaccompanied minors are somewhat uncommon. According to the CBP, they account for about 8% or over 65,000 migrants apprehended at the southern border so far this fiscal year.
Among many other things, Rodriguez’s father taught him the places and people to avoid.
“The other thing he (taught) was don’t think like a kid,” Rodriguez recalled. “Don’t think like a kid, think like an adult.”
Rodriguez grew up in Tajumulco, a small town near the Guatemala-Mexico border. In 2015, he immigrated to the U.S. to earn enough money to move his family out of Tajumulco.
Throughout the town’s history, they have been in constant conflict with a neighboring town, Ixchiguán. The conflict only escalated when the cartels began operating in the region.
“The majority of the time they were fighting,” Rodriguez said. “In 2014, there was fighting for seven months. It was scary all the time.”
The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) used the two cities to wage a proxy war.
In 2017, two years after Rodriguez left, Guatemalan officials declared a “state of siege” in Tajumulco and Ixchiguán as the violence came to head. Rodriguez could do nothing as his family sheltered in place to avoid the violence.
As Rodriguez continued his schooling at the academy, he often worked a few jobs on the side. After school, he’d work long hours as a busboy at restaurants, hoping to save enough money to move his family out of Tajumulco. Now he’s working in construction, doing anything from plumbing to installing drywall.
“I always try to help them by sending money,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez remembers the exact day that he earned enough money to move his family out of Tajumulco: Sept. 20, 2019.
Rodriguez is grateful for the help that the teachers at the academy gave him, but with a new house in Guatemala, he knows he wants to return to his family.
“It’s too difficult to move them here,” Rodriguez said. “It’s more expensive than (just) sending money to them in Guatemala.”
For as long as Arlington Pacheco could remember, he just wanted to make his parents proud.
“I know to focus on my studies and make them proud,” Pacheco said.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Guatemala, Pacheco returned to the U.S. to study and hopefully become an engineer. He wanted to get a better education and learn English so he could eventually make more money.
According to the World Bank, while Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America, it has the fifth-lowest GDP per capita in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Pacheco left for America and eventually found himself at the International Academy. He knew the consequences of his decision to leave Guatemala. While he still video chats and occasionally visits his parents, he still misses their presence when they are apart.
“I always go see them, I went to see them for vacation on spring break,” Pacheco said. “I know they are always thinking about me so I know they care.”
The pandemic made the situation worse, as fears of contracting the virus loomed overhead. Pacheco was far away from the one thing that he held dear to his heart: his parents.
“They’re everything to me,” Pacheco said. “I wish they could be here with me, but they are not…I wish I could hug them right now, but I can’t.”
However, even on his loneliest days, Pacheco stayed determined to carve his path in America. He eventually wants to go to school in Minnesota.
At 14 years old, Kimberly Aguilar didn’t understand why her parents wanted to leave El Salvador.
“I didn’t want to go,” said Aguilar, who is now 17. “I didn’t even want to begin the journey. I didn’t want to come to the U.S., I couldn’t understand how this would be a better opportunity.”
She bickered with her parents before finally giving in after seeing gang violence ravage towns across El Salvador.
El Salvador has the highest homicide rates in the entire world. According to World Population Review, the homicide rate currently sits at 82.84 per 100,000 residents – a dramatic drop from its peak of over 100 homicides per 100,000 residents one year before Aguilar attempted her first border crossing.
At first, Aguilar’s father left by himself to blaze a trail and after a few months, the rest of the family followed. Unfortunately, they were caught by the Mexican immigration authorities and sent back to El Salvador. They eventually received asylum in Mexico, but still wanted to go to the U.S.
After a few months, they tried and succeeded to get to the Mexican-American border; however, the family had to make a difficult decision.
“They had told him that if both parents came, they wouldn’t allow (my brother) to come,” Aguilar said. “But if it was just my mom and us, they would allow us to cross.”
Her father decided to stay behind and allow his family to cross the border into the U.S. He still lives in Mexico and occasionally talks to his daughter over the phone.
Aguilar has been in the U.S. for two years, but still misses the subtleties of El Salvador and her father, who still resides in Mexico.
“I miss my family and the food,” Aguilar said. “There’s El Salvadorean food here, but it doesn’t taste the same.”