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(The word "quetzales" sounds like kat-AL-iz. The pronunciation of this word illustrates the beautiful Mayan twist to the Spanish language, with apostrophes in strange places and lots of letters like j, k, q, x, and z. For example: K'umarcaaj, Iximché, Tzolkin, Mazatlàn. It's curious that the rarest letters in English are almost the most plentiful in Guatemalan.)

Mateo was so determined to come to America that he had no qualms about making the dangerous trip by himself. But the day before he was going to depart, his childhood friend Carlos came looking for him. Carlos had already tried unsuccessfully to leave Guatemala three times and had heard that Mateo was going to go. "Carlos came to watch me play soccer one day," Mateo said. "And I thought he was already gone to the USA. But he told me he couldn't make it. So I told him, 'Okay, well, let's go tomorrow. I'm leaving tomorrow.' And he said, 'Really? Okay, well, let's go.' "

And just like that, they went.

"We took a bus to the border," Mateo began, "near Unión Juárez, and we paid two pesos each for a little rowboat to cross into Chiapas, Mexico. You can get permission to cross the border, but it costs money and it takes time, so instead we decided to go and we just went. But when I saw the border, I'd heard it was different and everything, but I didn't really believe it. And then I saw how people live there, houses made of plastic and piles of metal and people lying in the streets. It was really different. The way they spoke, the way the people looked. I was, like, wow, this is such a strange place."

It was the first time Mateo had ventured more than a few hours from his hometown, and his plan was to travel thousands of miles more. So. What did Mateo bring with him for his odyssey?

"I had a map, a pencil, and a notepad," he said. "Two pairs of socks, shoes, two pairs of underwear, a T-shirt, and a button-down shirt. I still have the map and the shirt, because that was my shirt, you know, the one I wore to get here."

That's all Mateo had with him?

He laughed. "It's only supposed to take two or three days to cross Mexico, if you know how to do it," he said.

But Mateo and Carlos were in fact beginning an adventure that would last over three weeks.

"The first night in Mexico, we stayed in a nice hotel," Mateo said, "because at that time we thought we had plenty of money. We didn't know. So we thought, no problem. We changed our quetzals into pesos, and we had about 2200 pesos between us, and it seemed like a lot."

Their plan was to take buses and to have the various drivers drop them off before they'd reach immigration checkpoints. "We only wanted to travel during the day," Mateo told me. "So, like, 6:00 or 7:00 o'clock, that was it. We'd get a hotel and get off the street."

The first few nights, under the impression that their trip would be easy, they did a little sightseeing in the state of Oaxaca, staying in hotels near the beaches and enjoying the new surroundings. The first indication that things might get tough for them occurred on a bus in southern Oaxaca.

"Some federales stopped our bus and got on and started asking for papers," Mateo said. "And we didn't have any papers. So they made us get off the bus, just me and Carlos, and I was, like, 'Wow, dude, this is it. We're getting sent back home.' And the guy asked me where we were going, and I said, 'Oaxaca.' And he said, 'Oh, yeah?' And before this, I'd made sure to ask someone else on the bus about some places in Oaxaca. So I told the federale about this place in Oaxaca where we were going, and he said, 'Oh, really? Okay. Well, you guys are from Guatemala, right?' And I told him, 'No. We're from Chiapas.' And I told him the name of a little town in Chiapas. And he said, 'Oh, yeah? What dialect do they speak there?' And I just started laughing, because I didn't know. And he said, 'You're lying to me. You're going back home.' And then he said that he would do us a favor, and he'd let one of us free, but the other would have to go back home. And we said, 'No way. Either both of us stay, or we both go back home, but we're staying together.' And the guy was cool. He let us go. He didn't take any money. And he let us get back on the bus. I thought maybe somebody told them that two guys were on the bus from Guatemala. But then he saw that we weren't bad guys, so maybe that's why he let us go. I don't know."

Mateo and Carlos had a second run-in outside Mexico City, when federales again boarded their bus and asked for IDs. "They asked us some questions, and we told them we were from Mexico. But we have this word for money in Guatemala, pisto. But pisto in Mexico is tequila or cerveza. And I didn't know that. So the guy asked me how much pisto we had, because he was trying to catch me, and I said, 'I don't have a lot of pisto, I only have, like, this much.' And he was, like, 'You're lying to me! You're from Guatemala! You're chapin.' Because chapin is the word Mexicans use for people from Guatemala. And I just starting laughing again, because he caught me. So they said we had to pay them some money. I think we gave them, like, 300 pesos total, and then they let us go."

Their money was disappearing, and they were only a third of the way through Mexico. They needed to make a decision. "We didn't have enough money for the bus anymore," Mateo said, "so we decided to take the train, because it costs less. But the second-class train is unbelievable in Mexico. Really unsafe. There were no lights, and the seats were all broken, and there were bad people everywhere and dirt and water and stuff. It was really bad."

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gayle Aug. 6, 2008 @ 10:44 a.m.

Thank you for writing this story. Tho I doubt it can touch that "67%" of San Diegans' hearts. I didn't realize how hateful and uncompassionate my fellow citizens could be until I read, last year, U-T readers' responses about the mother returning to the States who died in the last fires. Mateo represents the backbone of who builds this country (and other countries), the best of humanity. An amazing international asset, that one; and I suspect most economic immigrants are like him. I hope you didn't catch too much grief from the intolerant ones among us for so beautifully illustrating one immigrant's difficult struggles and success. I wish I could send them on the same journeys so they can learn what it is to survive unbelievable odds, develop some empathy. I will never understand why such people are so hateful, and it's so lovely to read about others in your story being so decent, such as the cousin, and all the helpful people along Mateo's journey. Gives one hope.


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