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Mateo had been calling home, collect, from a pay phone, every evening, and telling his family that things were fine and that Carlos and he were getting closer to their destination every day.

At first, that destination was supposed to be Miami or New York City, via the Laredo, Texas, border crossing. "I had friends from school in Miami and New York," Mateo said, "and I had their phone numbers in my pocket."

They took the train from Mexico City to Saltillo and had to get off more than once because the federales kept boarding the train. Along the way, they stayed overnight with some Good Samaritans they met, and after a few days they finally made it to the border of Texas, to Piedras Negras. They had no money left. Mateo bought one tamale, and they split it, and that was it. No more pisto. "But we were there," Mateo said. "We made it to the border."

The thing was, Mateo's contacts in Miami and New York City didn't answer the phone. He tried for two days to reach them, but they never called back. He and Carlos were staying in special houses provided by the church for wayward travelers along the Mexican side of the border. The church supplied simple meals for them as well. It was the only way they could eat.

Fifteen hundred miles, two weeks, but still, no answers from the States. And no money! It seemed that their epic trip might be dead at the border.

For the first time, hopelessness set in. The two young men finally discussed the possibility of giving up. After a few days, Mateo called home and asked for advice. "I told my brother, 'We're at the border, and just find somebody who can help us,' " Mateo said. "And my brother asked a girl he works with, and her brother lived in Tucson, Arizona, and we called him. And this guy asked us where we were, but we were so far away from him. And we told him we didn't have any money at all, so he couldn't really help us."

But then one of Mateo's brothers remembered a "cousin" in San Diego. "He's not really a cousin," Mateo told me, "but we say that in my country. He was, like, a close friend of my mother's sister when he lived in Guatemala, years ago. But the family knew him, and he was from my town, and now he lived in San Diego and maybe he would help us."

So Mateo's brother called the San Diego cousin and made sure he remembered who Mateo was, after so many years. Pedro not only remembered Mateo but was more than willing to help. He wired money, $200, to Piedras Negras and sent instructions on how to get to Tijuana by train, where Pedro could help Mateo and Carlos get across the border.

Great. Tijuana. Only 1500 more miles to go.

About a third of the way to Tijuana, in Chihuahua, Mateo's iron will began to show cracks. "In Chihuahua was where I was really over it," Mateo said. "I was, like, 'You know what, dude? I got to go back. I'm not going to make it.' We had no money, and I was so tired."

But then the northbound train showed up and they got on. They could do it. Only a few more days without food and with minimal water.

Except that there was one more snag in store for Carlos and Mateo. "On the train there were these guys from El Salvador," Mateo related, "and they had long hair and tattoos, and they were getting drunk. Six guys, and they came over to me and Carlos, and they started bothering us. They asked us if we wanted any beer, but I said no, we didn't drink. And this one guy says, 'No? You don't drink?' And then he pours his beer all over us, all over our faces and heads. And one guy grabbed Carlos around his neck, and we couldn't see anybody, because the train was totally dark. And they took us outside the train, in the outside-part between the cars, and the train was still moving, and they said they were going to drop us down there and kill us, and I was, like, 'Oh, man, we're going to die.' "

But then Carlos broke free and pushed the man who held him, and he and Mateo started running through the train with three of the bullies chasing after them. "And then we found this guy, this big, older guy, and he was, like, 'Hey, what's going on, guys?' And we told him these guys wanted to fight with us, and he told us to sit down and he made sure we were okay. He wouldn't let those other guys come near us. I don't know if he was a federale or what, but he was a big guy."

After three full weeks, Mateo and Carlos made it to Tijuana. "We called my cousin, Pedro, in San Diego, and he called his friend in Tijuana, and we got to sleep in a bed and eat some food. We stayed there in Tijuana for, like, three days, and then I got sick. I got so sick."

But the plans were in motion, and when Mateo was well enough, he and Carlos followed a guide, a "coyote," through the hills of northern Mexico into southern California.

"We walked for three days and three nights," Mateo said. "My cousin found us a guide and paid him $700 to cross us. Seven hundred dollars for me, and $700 for Carlos."

Mateo's family hadn't heard from him in ten days, and they were worried. But finally he called them and told them everything was all right. He and Carlos had made it to the land of the free.

Mateo and Carlos stayed with Mateo's cousin for a month, and Mateo began to learn English. "I talked to my aunt and my uncle and my father, and everybody told me the first thing was that I had to learn the language, and I had to obey the rules. And I remember my cousin said, 'If you want to come to this country to have a party, go back home. But if you want to come to this country to make money and be peaceful, then stay here, no problem." Mateo took classes all day for almost three months, at a language school in University Heights, and then he went out to look for a job.

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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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