Juan Lopez* trained for his trip to the United States like a man training for a marathon. His daughters watched as he got into shape and cried.
They knew that as soon as he felt fit enough, their father would start the long journey from their home in Honduras to the United States on foot.
Lopez is tall and thin with the patient and kind demeanor of someone in his profession. For most of his career, Lopez was a first-grade teacher in his small hometown of San Juan de Opoa. Most of the people in his town make their living as subsistence farmers -- growing beans, corn and sugar cane.
A desperate time
Two years ago, Lopez lost his job when the political party he was loyal to lost the election. A new party took power, and with it, countless people were replaced in their posts by people from the new party.
Lopez still gets upset when he talks about it.
"The parties are basically the same," he said through a translator. "They are doing the same thing my party did when they were in power."
For seven months, Lopez looked for work. His wife was pregnant and he had two daughters to support. Their savings dwindled, and Lopez was desperate.
His brother and two sisters were in the United States living in Miami and Georgia, and he had cousins who had settled in Steamboat Springs.
With $50 in his pocket, Lopez walked away from his home to find opportunity in the United States. His cousins told him there was work in Steamboat Springs -- more than 2,500 miles away.
A rigourous journey
He wore two changes of clothes -- two shirts and two pairs of pants, one on top of the other -- and carried nothing else so he wouldn't attract attention to himself. Before making it to the United States, Lopez had to cross illegally into Guatemala and again into Mexico. There are checkpoints along the highways of both countries to stop people coming north.
He couldn't stay in hotels in those countries, either, he said. They would ask for identification, and the authorities would be called.
He walked for 21 days and nights until he reached Coatzacoalcos in the Mexican state of Veracruz. He hid near some railroad tracks outside of a train yard and jumped onto a train heading north.
While he sat in the darkness of a cargo car, he thought he saw another person hidden behind a stack of pallets. Lopez was right to suspect that he wasn't the only one on the train. When the train was stopped and police began to board, Lopez jumped off and ran.
"I think 300 people jumped off that train with me," he said.
Lopez kept walking.
Lopez and many of the people making the same journey are kept alive by the kindness of strangers along the way. People leave food out or simply offer a "God bless you."
Lopez kept walking until he reached the town of Orizaba, where he stayed in a hostel and slept in the first bed since he had left home. For three days, he slept and treated himself to meals. He called his sister in Georgia, who wired him enough money for a bus to Mexico City.
He worked for a month in Mexico City, taking construction jobs to raise the money he would need to pay a smuggler to get him across the border into the United States.
He used some of the money to take a bus to Sonora and then he was on foot again. The closer you get to the border, the greater the danger of being caught, and Lopez had come too far to be sent back.
He walked for three days in the desert carrying a gallon of water until he reached an agreed upon meeting place where 26 other people were preparing to cross the border. The small Mexican town of Altar, population 16,000, is about 50 miles from the Arizona and Mexico border and is a popular staging point for migrants preparing to make the long trip across the Sonoran Desert.
In Altar, Lopez paid a smuggler $1,700 to get him across. The figure changes depending on how far you are going, Lopez said. His sister paid a coyote $6,000 to take her all the way from Honduras to Georgia. She is still paying it off, he said.
The coyote (a term often used to refer to smugglers) walked ahead of them and showed them where to cross. No one made it. They were driven to Nogales and taken across the border back to Mexico.
The next night, they tried again. The Border Patrol spotted the group and started chasing them on ATVs. They caught four people, including Lopez. The others were hidden nearby. Lopez knew where they were but refused to answer as the Border Patrol asked again and again, "Where are they?"
Lopez was returned to Nogales, Mexico, and he was on his own.
"A taxi driver (in Nogales) said he would take us to a hotel where they would help me," Lopez said.
He had 700 pesos left from his work in Mexico City (the equivalent of $70). Lopez shared a room with one of his fellow border crossers, but as he slept, the man stole his wallet and disappeared.
"I couldn't believe he would do something like that," Lopez said. "We were suffering through the same thing." Lopez went to the hotel owner and explained his predicament. Instead of helping him as the taxi driver had promised, the owner demanded $100.
Lopez called his cousin in Steamboat to wire the money.
"I hadn't eaten in two days," Lopez said. "I asked the owner if I could have some food. I told him that money was coming, but he just told me to f*** off."
The money arrived and Lopez went out into the streets of Nogales to find another coyote. The price of smuggling a person from Central America is far more expensive than smuggling someone from Mexico, because the former is already an illegal alien in Mexico. The risks are greater for the smuggler.
Lopez lied and told the coyote he was from Mexico, but once they were in the desert crossing near Agua Prieta, a Mexican town about 100 miles from Nogales, the coyote demanded to know the truth.
"I told him I was from Honduras," Lopez said. "I was afraid he was going to take me back to Mexico, but he didn't." He was taken to a house across the border in Douglas, Ariz. He was instructed to stay on the floor and move around the house on his belly. The windows were always left open at the house so no one would suspect it as a safe house for illegal immigrants.
"I fell asleep, and I would wake up every once in a while and see people around me doing drugs," Lopez said. When he woke up, the coyote demanded payment for the trip -- $1,000.
"I didn't have it," Lopez said. "I called my cousin in Steamboat to wire me the money, but he didn't believe the coyote would let me go even if he got the money. Instead, he sent his son to get me."
They agreed to meet at a gas station in Phoenix. Lopez waited with his captor in a car.
"He refused to feed me," he said. "He said they had already wasted enough money on food on me and didn't want to give me anymore."
It was July 2003 in Phoenix, and the heat in the car was almost unbearable, he said. "When the money finally arrived, it felt like they were doing a drug deal, except they were exchanging me for money."
Lopez slipped gratefully into the front seat of an air-conditioned car and enjoyed the ride to his new life in Colorado.
The hard part was over, he thought, but once he arrived in Steamboat, Lopez had a difficult time finding work. He was in Steamboat for three months before anyone would hire him.
He is shy by nature, but he also doesn't speak English. Unlike many illegal workers who buy fake documents in Denver, Lopez had no paperwork. His cousin was working around the clock and didn't have time to help him find a job.
"I went into a restaurant in downtown and asked for a job," he said. "They asked for my papers and when I said that I didn't have any, they sent me away." Finally, a job opened up in a restaurant where his cousin was working. Lopez jumped at the chance. Soon, one job led to another.
Lopez has been here for a year and a half. He works two dishwashing jobs, day and night shifts, seven days a week.
He is able to send almost everything he makes home to his family. His original plan was to work for five years, but it has been hard to be away from his wife and children. His third daughter was born while he was gone, and he has never seen her.
He plans to stay for two more years. He is saving money to buy a house in Honduras.
"As a teacher, I made in one month what I make here in one day," he said. "I'm saving enough money so I won't ever have to leave home again."
- His name was changed to protect his identity.