Translated by Katrina Hassan
She observes her cracked fingertips because of so much cleaning chemical use. Her hands, used to working the land, have now cleaned restaurants and shopping centres for twenty four years. Originally from Camotán. Chiquimula, Guatemala, Tana left her traditional indigenous clothes behind and started wearing jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes. She belongs to the Maya Ch’orti people. Tana and another 15 girls from her community left together. Her village became a dry corridor, after decades of being fertile land that nourished the crops. There wasn’t any water nor food and this obligated Tana and many others emigrate. Some went to the capital, others went to Honduras, the more determined went to the USA. Some left with financial help from their relatives that were already there. Others left with nothing but the money for the ride to the capital and with faith in El Señor de Esquipulas to show them the way.
Tana left like most, with nothing but the shirt on her back. She is the eldest of 11 siblings. Her parents were farmworkers that worked that land until it stopped producing. Tana left at dawn one day when she was 16.
She told her parents she was going to the capital to work as a domestic employee. Her plan all along was to emigrate. There were 55 other people from Camotán and Jocotán and they all left together. Most were under the age of 18. They got from Tapachula all the way to Naco, Sonora by asking around and other migrants showing them the way. The got atop the Fly Train also known as the The Beast further South. When they passed Veracruz, they ate from the bags of food Las Patronas launched up to the top of the train. That was one of a few times that they actually ate anything on their journey. They managed with one gallon of water, a few oranges and some old bread that they bought in Tapachula.
The 55 people that left Camotán and Jocotán arrived to the other side of the Sonoran desert without much fanfare. Once in Arizona, families and coyotes arrived in cars to transport them to different parts of the country. Tana stayed in Arizona with the family of a friend from Jocotán. They gave her a place stay and found her a job. Ever since then, she lives in this community. People come and go from this motor home that they all rent. She has met people from all religions and regions of Mexico and Central America. There was even a guy from India and another from Mauritania that lived there with them. They only communicated with signs, since none them, nor Tana spoke English. They both stayed two months then took off to Chicago and New York. In the early hours, Tana works cleaning restaurants from 2am to 5am. At 7am she starts another job, cleaning a shopping center. She finishes at 6pm. Sometimes she works extra hours after the second job and only sleeps 3 hours those days. At 1:45am she is in the office in line with the other undocumented people about to get in vans to be taken to different workplaces. Those same vans pick them up afterwards. Tana works in a squad, just like she did when she was a farm workers in the mango fields of Chiquimula. She doesn’t own a car. Tana gets around by train or bus.
Tana never fails to send her remittances every Sunday after finishing in her first job. She has been doing this for 24 years; the same ritual. Her parents built a block house with her remittances. They added a patio and are now adding a second floor to the house. They built a store and a tank to store water when it is available. Her siblings were registered in school, none were left without education. She called home two months after leaving home from the United States. Educating her siblings was one of the conditions she made to send money home. Only three siblings are left to finish school. During these 24 years, Tana has not enjoyed an ice cream, let alone a day off. She works from Monday to Sunday. She buys her clothes from the thrift shop in order not to shorten the remittance money. Sometimes she goes to friend’s birthday parties but doesn’t stay long in order to get some sleep. She has never been to any parks, museums, pools, or cinemas. She has never left Phoenix, the city she lives in.
This day is Tana’s birthday. She wants to celebrate it for the first time. She doesn’t feel like working today. She asks herself what it would feel like to not go to work today. She wants to wear one of her dresses she would wear back in Camotán. Tana takes a deep breath, stretches her arms and gets the courage to use some of the remittance money. This is the first time in 24 years that she has done this. She has breakfast and after goes out to buy fabrics and sewing machine. She walks through the shopping center, takes in all the displays and can’t believe all that she sees, even though she has been cleaning this place for many years. It is lunchtime and she buys herself some Chinese food. She fancies an ice cream and buys a pistachio flavored one. She keeps walking and she sees a shoe store; one of many from the chain store she cleans. She enters and looks at the shoes. She has never bought herself new shoes. She always buys them second hand. She has never worn sandals. Tana sees them as a luxury and feels she has no right to them. After three hours of walking around through the store and fighting the guilt of not sending money home, she finally buys two pairs of shoes and one pair of sandals. When she is about to leave the shopping center, she spots the bicycle store. She says “why not?” and buys herself a bicycle. She gets on the bike and heads to the park to go round and round it until night falls.
Tana learned to ride a bicycle by practicing on a stationary bike in one of the places she cleans. It belongs to the owner of one of the restaurants. He had it in his office. When she saw the bicycle at the store she thought it wouldn’t be too hard to get the hang of it. If she was capable of crossing the desert, she could learn to ride a bike. Tana was excited with her purchase and with the spin she had on the bike. It gave her the sense of liberty. She looks at her cracked fingertips and thinks it would be a good idea to learn to drive a car. She could buy a car and permanently shorten the remittances therefore saving time and moving around easier. Maybe, for her next birthday, she will learn to make cherry pie, like the ones they sell in restaurants. She will be 40 next year. From now on, she will celebrate all of her birthdays.
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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado