From the man in the dumpster in Marfa

As told to (and translated from Spanish by) Debbie Nathan. 

Two weeks ago, Marfa first responders rushed to the scene of an accident in the alley between the Hotel St. George and Stripes — a Guatemalan migrant, seeking warmth and shelter in a dumpster in the alley, had been seriously injured when the driver of a garbage disposal truck making the rounds unknowingly fed him to the truck’s compactor. Afterwards, The Big Bend Sentinel was able to locate the man at the El Paso hospital where he received treatment, and the man was willing to share his story. Journalist Debbie Nathan interviewed him in the hospital and later in Juarez. His name has been withheld to protect his identity. Nathan has also launched a Gofundme to raise money for the man at https://gofund.me/958be490.

After I got crushed in the trash compactor in Marfa and was moved to the hospital in El Paso, the doctors who operated on me kept saying, “My God, it’s a miracle you’re alive!” 

It was a miracle. But even before the trash compactor, I had moments in the desert when I felt I might not make it. 

I’m from a small town in the mountains of western Guatemala. I’m 29 years old and have a wife and four young children. My family grows snow peas and sweet peas. These are not traditional for us. What happened was, an American company came in about ten years ago and started contracting with local farmers to grow these new crops for export to the rest of the world. After a while they gave us a new kind of seed. At first it yielded a good harvest. We are poor people but my mom was able to cover our adobe house with plaster. We live in three bedrooms with three families: my parents, my brother and his wife and two kids, and my wife and four children ages 8, 7, 6 and 1. Even with the improvements to the house, we were still very crowded. 

After a couple of years the pea crops seemed to have depleted the land, which was barely producing. We were getting poorer. I was making between $25 and $55 a week, and my parents weren’t doing much better. I kept thinking: how am I going to buy land for my children, pay for their schooling, give them enough to eat and help my parents? The last straw came when my dad wanted to buy a baby pig so we could start raising pigs, but realized we couldn’t even afford the cement and wood it would take to make a pigpen. 

I decided to pay a smuggler and go to the United States. 

The smuggler I paid uses a route that goes through Mexico by bus then into the United States on foot from Ojinaga. He charged me 120 thousand quetzals. That’s about $17,000 in U.S. dollars. It was a loan and we signed away my father’s house and farmland as collateral. The conditions were that if we didn’t repay the loan in six months, my dad would forfeit the property. My plan was to go to the San Diego area and start working to pay off the debt in installments.

I got to Ojinaga and we crossed to Texas near Highway 90. It was nighttime, and we were ten migrants including myself. We’d only walked a little way when suddenly we ran into three Border Patrol agents. “Drop your backpacks!” they said. “Hands over your heads!”

I didn’t know what to do, but I figured, “If I run, two things can happen. If the agents catch me, then the other nine of us will get away; and if the agents chase the other nine, then I’ll be free.” As it turned out, they chased me a little but I broke away and they didn’t catch me. I think they got the others. But there I was after the chase, all by myself. I hid for a few hours and heard helicopters and drones overhead. I also saw this Border Patrol agent behind some barbed wire, but he didn’t see me. 

I spent all night like that, hiding under brush. The next day, I walked and hid, walked and hid. I ate the one apple I had with me in my little chest pack, and I drank half of my one bottle of Gatorade. By day two, I’d gone through the second half. I had no food or drink left.

I kept walking at night. I picked out a star in the sky and just tried to follow it. I was getting weak from hunger and dehydrated from no water. I just tried to keep going. I am a Catholic and I take my faith seriously. I spent 24/7 out there in total desert, by myself, singing hymns to God. It was so cold at night –– I was freezing! I didn’t know if I’d survive. I made a video on my phone for my wife.

Finally, on the third night, I saw lights. I turned on my phone’s map function and realized I was outside a town called Marfa. That’s where the smuggler’s driver was supposed to pick me and the other nine people up. I called the smuggler. “I’m in Marfa!” I said. “Come get me!” 

“How many of you are there?” 

“Just me. I’m the only one who made it.” 

“Forget it,” he said. “There aren’t enough of you to make it worth the risk.”  

So now I was stuck. All by myself. Exhausted. Thirsty. Starving.

I started circling around the outskirts of Marfa on these little ranches, trying to figure out what to do. I went near town and saw people walking on the street. I was scared of them though. They were all white.  

I finally found a faucet outside a hotel or motel, and drank some water. There was a gas station where a Latina woman was selling tacos. I told her “Look, I’m not going to lie. You can tell my situation. I’m starving. Can you please help me? I have no money.”

She gave me tacos, and more water. She apologized that she couldn’t give me a place to sleep. She said she had children and couldn’t risk getting arrested. 

On the fifth day I thought to myself, “I’m going to wait one more night to see if the smuggler’s driver shows up. If not, tomorrow morning I’ll just turn myself in.” I saw a dumpster behind the Hotel St. George and decided to sleep in it. This was about 10 p.m. I climbed in and covered myself with boxes. My plan was to sleep there till early morning and leave before I attracted attention.

 I had just woken up the next morning when I heard a horrible noise and felt my body being grabbed and crushed by a garbage compactor. I heard the sound of one of my leg bones being pulverized, and felt it crunching. It was the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me. I was certain I was being killed. 

I screamed and next thing I knew, the man driving the compactor did something to it and I fell out of the machine. I told him I was okay and wanted to go. He said I needed an ambulance. I argued with him. Then I passed out. When I came to, medical people were working over me. Then I got flown to a hospital in El Paso. 

The doctors there put a rod in my left leg. For a couple of days I was in bad pain. I couldn’t sleep — every time I closed my eyes I saw the compactor and heard the sound of my leg being crushed. I was also worried that Border Patrol agents would come to the hospital and take me. 

My cousin was working in another state and he and his boss drove down to get me. The doctors told me I needed to stay many more days to recover. But the two guys insisted I go with them so I did. They had no idea there were checkpoints on the highways, and we were stopped. I ended up getting expelled from El Paso, back over a bridge to Mexico, on foot—even though I had a walker from the hospital, and everyone could see I could barely move. When I got to Ciudad Juarez, there was no one at the foot of the bridge to help. I was stranded on the street for the rest of the night.

I’m in a hotel now, in bed, trying to recover. My family in Guatemala wants me to come back home, but if we can’t pay the smuggler the $17,000 within six months, he’ll take our house and farmland. If that happens, I guess we’ll live with neighbors or be homeless. I’m still hoping I can get back to the U.S. legally.

I have a lot of intense memories now. The memories of Marfa are mostly terrible. But one good thing I remember is the woman who gave me the tacos. If I could talk to her I would tell her what God says: that the good deeds we humans do once for the least of those among us, He will do the same for us forever, in Eternity.

And to the man who was operating the trash compactor that crushed me: He seemed to feel so guilty about being the driver! I feel bad for his feeling of guilt. I would like to tell this man that it was not his doing. Sir, I have terrible needs in my life. But Sir, my terrible needs are not your fault.