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An immigrant's story: Leimy Castillo and her brave journey to 'El Norte'

Liz Burleson / Red Dirt Report
Leimy Castillo (left) is hugged by her friend and employer Sandra Ceballos of Beatnix Cafe in Oklahoma City.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories Red Dirt Report is writing on immigrants and their often difficult journey to the United States.

OKLAHOMA CITY – When customers of Beatnix Café come in for a cup of coffee or a delicious sandwich – or just the relaxed and pleasant ambiance – they are likely to catch the eye of one of the café’s cooks – 23-year-old Leimy Castillo.

And behind those wide eyes and genuine smile lies a story. A story rife with difficulty and hardship – an immigrant’s story in the 21st century.

Life had been simple for Leimy, back in her hometown of San Marcos, Guatemala, a city several hours drive from the Pacific Ocean. She had worked in a clothing store there but she also knew that the social situation in San Marcos was not a good one. Gangs and poverty were far too common and so in her late teens she decided she would take a chance at finding a new life in the United States.

With a sister who was already married, Leimy was pretty much alone after her mother took a chance a few years earlier to come to the U.S. by paying a coyote (a smuggler of people, usually from Latin America) to bring her across the border and ultimately to Oklahoma City where she works as a housekeeper and restaurant worker.

Leimy, naturally, missed her mother. And her options were limited there in Guatemala – a country with a troubled political history and decades of U.S. meddling.

It’s regular citizens in Central America and Mexico, like Leimy Castillo, who are caught in the middle and who – out of desperation and a desire to improve their lot in life – make the arduous, dangerous journey north.

Sitting with Leimy and her boss, friend and translator, Mexican-American businesswoman Sandra Ceballos (Leimy tells me she is working on her English, which is shaky at the moment), she opens up to Red Dirt Report and shares her immigrant story.

“My Mom was here and I was living alone (in San Marcos),” she said, adding that while difficult, she made the decision to head to El Norte, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy. She tracked down the same coyote who had gotten her mother through Mexico and across the U.S. border and began her journey.

Speaking through Ceballos, Leimy says her trip from Guatemala to Oklahoma took 25 days.  

“She said she spent a lot of cold nights filled with hunger and abuse,” Sandra says, interpreting for Leimy.

Regarding the cost of the trip – paying the coyote – was difficult and ultimately required paying that person $8,000 to make the trip to her desired destination. But despite the hefty amount, accommodations were relatively nonexistent, save for being locked in rooms, sometimes with many men. Leimy recalls a young man – who would also make it to Oklahoma – who protected her from some of the predatory men traveling in their group or others they encountered along the way.

Traveling was simply by a vehicle or by walking. Ultimately, Leimy and her group of approximately 35 other Guatemalans crossed the border at Reynosa, Tamaulipas in Mexico and went on to McAllen, Texas and onward to Houston where Leimy’s mom paid the other half of the money due to the coyote.

“There were times when she thought she would go back, that she wouldn’t be able to do it, but the only thing that kept her going was her wanting to be reunited with her mom,” Sandra said.

Asked about being finally reunited with her mother and getting a chance at starting a new life in the United States, Leimy replies in Spanish by saying that she was “happy and overwhelmed to see her (mom) again because I knew my mom was not going to come back to Guatemala for a long time as she takes care of her (citizenship) status.”

“She was traumatized," Sandra said. "She had told me before what she went through in regards to the police and she had a bad experience. When she got here it took a long time for her to just leave the house where she was at. When she would go out she was always worried that someone was following her or the police was going to take her. She was just traumatized for a long time,” Sandra said of her friend.

Again, speaking through Sandra, she recalls people being kidnapped along the route to freedom. She thanks God she got through her ordeal alive and is with her mom and has a secure job cooking at Beatnix.

Right now, Leimy is a resident and eventually wants to become a U.S. citizen. She doesn’t want to live with that fear that they will send her back.

Asked about the current news reports of many immigrants from Central America coming across the border into the United States and many being demonized by bigots and right-wing reactionaries and ultimately sent back, Leimy said she feels for those people and has known their pain.

“It brings me a lot of sadness,” she says of the plight of fellow immigrants. “I understand a lot of them come to be reunited with their families and to look for a better life. To hear them being mistreated and treated like criminals and sent back … I know the struggle it takes to get to the border – no matter what country you are from – many will do it again if they are sent back. I am lucky and thank God I don’t have to go through that again.”

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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