In March 2003, when Elizabeth Gonzalez was 17, she paid a coyote $3000 to lead her across the Mexican border and into the United States.
Elizabeth was told that getting into the country would be simple — a fake ID would be provided. She was encouraged to dress up and to bring a suitcase filled with her things. Gonzalez left her home in Acapulco and traveled to the border town of Nogales, in Sonora, Mexico. From there, she would enter the United States.
Elizabeth had a plan: once safely across the border, the coyotes would bring her to Phoenix, Arizona, where her sister, Carla, a legal U.S. citizen who lived in Oxnard, California, would pick her up.
“The day I was to cross, the coyotes said, ‘Who told you that you were going to get a fake ID? You are going to sneak across like everyone else.’ My suitcase stayed with them.”
Elizabeth’s accent is thick, but her English is good. She retells her story from her sister’s dress shop, a block from the beach in Rosarito, Mexico. Intricately designed quinceañera dresses hang on the walls.
Elizabeth talks life in Rosarito and San Diego
Elizabeth says she was the only woman to cross in a group of five. It took three days to make it to Phoenix. At night, everyone stretched out in the desert. Elizabeth had a hard time sleeping. She tried to separate herself from the men, but she also wanted to be near them, because she was frightened.
In Arizona, the connection that was to take the group to Phoenix never showed up. The five immigrants were left in the desert to fend for themselves.
“One of the coyotes said he was going to walk and get the truck to drive us to Phoenix. [The others] told us to wait for him or go on our own and figure it out. They said, ‘Good luck,’ and gave us some water.”
Elizabeth waited a couple of days for the guy to come back with a truck. One of the men in her group told her that another coyote was leading 80 people from different places in Mexico. Some of the guys in that group, he said, wanted to abuse the girls. Elizabeth freaked out and took off on her own. While she was walking, a U.S. Border Patrol truck stopped and pulled up beside her. The agents asked where she was going.
“They said, ‘¿A donde vas?’ I told them I was walking to Oxnard to see family. I was hoping they’d send me back home to Mexico, but they told me I was free to go. I wished they had arrested me. I was starving and dirty. I wanted out of there. I wanted to cry. Everyone talks about the dream in the United States. When you get there, you discover that the dream doesn’t exist. I was disappointed.”
Not long after the Border Patrol stopped Elizabeth, a man driving by stopped and offered a ride. He spoke Spanish.
“He knew that the area was a place that illegals cross and get lost. He drives around and picks them up, feeds them, and puts them in contact with their families for cash. He steals them away from their coyotes to make money.”
The man took Elizabeth to his house. She met his wife. They gave her something to eat and allowed her to shower.
“I called my sister, and she was, like, ‘Where have you been? We’ve been so worried. Our mom is going to have a heart attack.’”
Carla, Elizabeth’s sister, made arrangements for the man to drive Elizabeth to Oxnard. She told him to feed Elizabeth and buy her clothes.
“It took 15 hours for him to drive me to Oxnard. He wouldn’t let me out of the car until he counted the $3000 he charged my sister to drive me there. At first he wanted $5000, but my sister talked him down.”
Once in Oxnard, Elizabeth started working at her sister’s dress shop.
“At first, I didn’t like it in the United States. I thought I was going to go to high school and all my dreams would come true.”
A few weeks after Elizabeth arrived in the United States, Carla started traveling. She left Elizabeth in charge of the store by herself for an entire month. Elizabeth did not speak English.
“[But] by the time Carla came back, I spoke English and could read it. She was, like, ‘How did you do it?’ Every time a customer would come in and talk to me, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, so I would cry and cry. I got a notebook. Every single word I would hear I would write down and ask Spanish-speakers what it meant and how to spell it in English. That’s how I started learning the words.”
Elizabeth recalls that one of her biggest struggles in the U.S. was dealing with other Latinos.
“It’s so sad, you see Latino people, your own Mexican people, and when you speak to them, they say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.’ I thought, You bitches. I knew they spoke Spanish. They used to laugh at me. I hated it.”
In 2004, a year after Elizabeth’s arrival, she and Carla got into a fight. Elizabeth then moved to Salt Lake City to live with her brother.
“In Utah, I got a Centura ID card, so I could open a bank account. My brother took me to a driving school. Using my IRS number and proof of my home address, I was able to get a legal ID that would last for ten years. After three months of driving school, I got a privilege card for driving. But I couldn’t get a real driver’s license because I don’t have a Social Security card. I bought my first car. With the Utah ID, I was able to travel within the United States. I went to Washington and Atlanta.”
After six months in Utah, Elizabeth moved back to California to manage a new dress shop that her sister had opened in Fullerton. A few weeks after her arrival, someone stole Elizabeth’s purse. That was the end of both her driving privilege card and the Utah ID.