Family reunites in Guatemala after months apart
Goodbye to the school bus that rumbles past on weekday mornings. Kayla Ramirez follows it with her eyes today from her aunt's front lawn in Monroe, N.C.
On this August morning, she will be taking a different trip.
Goodbye to her cousins, whom she played with all summer while passports were processed and her Aunt Silvia waited to ask for time off work. Silvia had hoped that Kayla's mother, Deysi Ramirez, might change her mind about this day, this journey.
Deysi would not.
Five months have passed since Deysi was stopped in Monroe for a traffic violation. Three months have passed since she was deported for failing to follow through on U.S. asylum paperwork.
More than once, she contemplated crossing the border illegally to be back with her three children and Ray, her partner of 10 years. Instead, they decided 5-year-old Sandy, 9-year-old Sammy and 11-year-old Kayla would move to Guatemala.
All of the children are U.S. citizens.
Goodbye to their lives here.
They ride to the airport with their aunt, an uncle and their father, who dreaded this day. Ray dreamed the night before that he, not his sister, would accompany the children to Guatemala. But he is an illegal immigrant from Mexico, still trying to save money here, unwilling to leave and face the risk of return to the U.S.
At Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, he unloads 10 suitcases. Eight are over the 50-pound limit, so he and Silvia move clothes and food from bag to bag. Left behind are jeans, shoes and Cinnamon Toasters cereal. The coffee maker and microwave will make the trip.
Near the gate, Ray's phone rings. Deysi. He tells her to take care of the children. He tells her again. "You're taking my entire life," he says.
The plane is boarding. The children stand.
Goodbye to their father.
Ray walks slowly to them. A lift-and-squeeze for little Sandy, a hug for Sammy, a long embrace for Kayla. "Take care of your mom," he tells her.
He watches them down the walkway to the airplane.
He watches the walkway until the last passenger has boarded.
He walks to a window, 30 feet high, and watches the jet idle, then back away from the gate, then head toward the runway. When the plane rolls out of sight, he steps left to catch another glimpse, then another, and again, until he finally runs out of windows.
The children yelp as the plane takes off. It's the first time Sandy and Sammy have flown, and Sammy asks if someone can close the window shade because he's afraid.
Kayla talks to a man in the next seat. He tells her his daughter is a lawyer in San Juan Sacatepequez, a town near the village where Kayla will live.
Kayla likes that a woman near her new home has become a professional.
Two days ago, Kayla asked a school librarian if there were any books on Guatemala. There weren't. She was hoping to learn about schools there and what jobs she could do to help her mom.
The flight lasts three hours and 20 minutes.
Outside Aeropuerto Internacional La Aurora, Silvia and the children scan the crowd for Deysi, who waves her hand wildly at the sight of her family. Sammy runs for her and tackles her. Then Sandy. Then Kayla. A cluster of arms and kisses.
Deysi steps back and looks at Kayla, whom she hasn't seen in five months.
She notices Kayla's eyebrows, which have been shaped into little arches.
Kayla proudly says she did them herself. Deysi tells her she's not old enough for that.
The children climb onto a rickety pickup that Deysi has rented. They chug through Guatemala City's thick smoke, stopping to buy chips and drinks. When Deysi finishes her Coca-Cola, she throws the can out of the truck.
"Mommy!" Kayla says. "You're littering! That's not cool!"
"That's why my country's so dirty," Deysi says.
"My country's clean," Kayla says. "If you litter, you have to pay."
After almost two hours, the truck arrives in Comunidad de Ruiz and lurches into Deysi's yard. Argelia, her mother, stands on the porch wearing a bright turquoise dress.
"Abue!" the children shout.
Dinner that night is a celebration - and a splurge: fried chicken, rice, salad and cake. When Deysi throws chicken bones to two skinny dogs, Kayla makes a face. When Kayla asks where she can put her leftovers, Deysi points to the yard. Kayla wanders until she finds an empty water pail, then dumps in her napkin and bones. She doesn't understand she's supposed to throw garbage down the cliff behind the house.
After dinner, Deysi picks up Sandy and plays with her. "Little princess," she says. Kayla watches from a corner, tears in her eyes, and listens to her MP3 player. Her Guatemalan relatives are curious about it. Is it a radio?
No, Kayla explains, you download songs from the Internet.
Deysi laughs. "There's no Internet here," she says. Natanael, her brother, offers hope. His friend works part time at an Internet cafe.
As Deysi unpacks suitcases that night, Kayla asks if she is staying in Guatemala for only a year.
"Not longer?" Deysi says.
"Until I'm 18?" Kayla asks.
Deysi keeps unpacking and finds gifts for everyone. Her 4-year-old niece gets Sandy's old clothes. Her brother gets new soccer cleats. Her mother gets new shoes and a microwave, which she learns to use.
Deysi's children have one request - they want to sleep with their mother that night.
At first, life in Guatemala is about little adjustments and big adventures.
Roosters crow at night, and bus horns blare at 4:30 a.m. Schoolchildren appear at 7, carrying small logs so their teachers can light a fire and heat their atol, a corn-based drink.
The adventures come courtesy of Deysi, who spends more than she can afford to fill her children's first days in Guatemala with activities. The zoo. A trip to the historic ruins. A shopping trip in Guatemala City. All punctuated by her loud laugh and generous hugs.
At one store, a saleswoman is impressed that Sandy speaks English and Spanish. Are you from the U.S. or Guatemala? she asks. Both, Sandy says.
Sandy has started crying several times a day, something she never did in Monroe. She is jealous of her three young cousins and doesn't like to share Deysi with them.
Her brother, Sammy, is withdrawn. He tells his mother he doesn't want to learn Spanish or go to school in Guatemala. He doesn't like rice and beans.
I am American, he says.
During the shopping trip in Guatemala City, he wants to spend the few dollars in his wallet on chips and drinks. Instead, he takes out the bills and hands them to a man with no legs sitting in a homemade wheelbarrow.
Deysi has picked a school for the children. Friends Forever High School is in San Juan Sacatepequez, a 15-minute bus ride from their village. It serves first grade through ninth in a small white building on a crumbly, muddy road.
Deysi takes her children to visit. On the way, she tells a friend that because of government policy regarding children coming from the U.S., Kayla might have to repeat fifth grade.
"No! No!" Kayla says. "Not fifth grade."
At Friends Forever, 48 elementary-grade students attend weekday classes. On Saturdays, 22 students attend grades 7-9. Most are boys who work weekdays to support their families.
The school combined its fifth and sixth grades this year because only one girl enrolled in sixth grade. Like Deysi, girls in rural Guatemala usually drop out as teenagers because they're expected to work.
Kayla sits in a math class, where 12-year-old Edgar Pirir struggles to solve a three-digit multiplication problem. Kayla whispers the answer to her mom.
She puts her head in her hands. In Monroe, she had been taking an advanced math class, learning prime factoring.
But Kayla is hopeful.
There are few students.
Maybe, she thinks, teachers will have more time to work with me.
Maybe, she thinks, I'll learn more.
In early September, Deysi's cell phone rings.
It's Ray, wondering how his family is doing, and why Deysi isn't calling as often.
Ray's sister, Silvia, had reported back from Guatemala about the living conditions the children face. Ray thinks his children will call him in a month, begging to come back. Still, he plans on sending money so Deysi's family can pay the equivalent of $750 to get running water.
Ray hopes to join them in Guatemala, but he's not sure when. If he saves enough money, he'll leave by December, then eventually move his family to Mexico and open a store to sell clothing and toys.
He knows Deysi might want to stay in Guatemala.
She's also said she might want to cross back into the U.S. next year.
If I leave to be with you and the children, Ray says, I'm not coming back to the U.S.
Make sure, he tells her, this is what you want.
In Guatemala, Deysi enjoys preparing meals and choosing clothes for Kayla.
She is still a girl, Deysi says, one who's very trusting of people. She has a lot to learn, her mother thinks.
That, Deysi says, is what her decision came down to - helping mold Kayla, helping her value and respect herself as she grows from a child to a young woman.
If they stay in Latin America, Deysi would like Kayla to return to the U.S. at 15 so she can finish high school and prepare for any career she chooses.
At 15, she'll be old enough to make her own decisions, to take responsibility for her mistakes.
But now, Kayla is always angry, always complaining.
There's nothing here, she says. There's nobody.
Deysi tells her to write, to read.
She wants to see her new friends in San Raymundo, a nearby town. She likes how they talk less and play more than her American friends. Deysi tells her she can't afford the daily bus trips. Kayla pouts.
Lately, it seems "No" has become Deysi's standard answer to her children's questions.
No, we can't afford to eat at a McDonald's or Pizza Hut this weekend, she tells Sammy.
No, we're not going to see your father now, she tells Sandy when they leave for El Peten in northern Guatemala to see relatives.
No, we're not going back to the United States.
Deysi wishes she had a different response.
She feels guilty about not following up on her asylum application. It was, she knows, an opportunity for a legal life in the U.S.
Still, she wonders why she was deported if she didn't harm anyone.
"The only thing I did," she says, "was work, help my family here, and give my children the best life I could."
In North Carolina, the yellow school bus still stops every morning in front of the house where Kayla used to wait.
Only her cousins board the bus now.
At school, her former classmates are learning about decimals and the difference between rocks and minerals.
Kayla will not be in school for the next three months. Classes in Guatemala resume in January.
She has been visiting her cousins in El Peten this month. One of them, 11-year-old Mirna, is excited about starting third grade next year. The girls have had fun bathing in a nearby river and running barefoot through the mud.
One night, Deysi tucks her daughter into bed. She sits next to Kayla and wishes her a good night.
I think living here will be really different, Kayla says.
Her eyes began to close.
I know, she tells her mother, this isn't what you wanted.
HOW THE OBSERVER REPORTED THE STORY
Charlotte Observer reporters spent four months with Kayla Ramirez and her family. The reporters attended school with Kayla, and interviewed her relatives, her teachers and principal, her mother Deysi's attorney, the arresting officer in Deysi's case, legal experts, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Reporters examined California and North Carolina arrest records, court documents and immigration records. No dialogue appears within quotation marks unless a Charlotte Observer reporter heard it. When scenes are reconstructed, reporters talked to all participants.
When a participant's thoughts or feelings are described, they are done with attribution to the memory of the participants.