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Jeronimo Camposeco is vice president of El Sol and leader of a nonprofit Guatemalan support group called Corn Maya. He came to America in 1980, fleeing Guatemala's 36-year civil war. In 1982, the Catholic Church asked him to move from Pennsylvania to Indiantown to assist the immigrant population. Many of the immigrants come from isolated regions in the mountains of Guatemala, where they are considered indigenous. Their main language is not Spanish but either Kanjobal or one of 22 other dialects used by Guatemala's Indians. Camposeco was one of a handful of American residents in a position to understand them. He has been a U.S. citizen since 1999.
Camposeco is a big man with thick, black-rimmed glasses whose deep but quiet voice conveys a sense of gravitas, like a gentle giant. "Even after the war ended," he explains, "the situation in Guatemala continued. There are guerrilla fights. The paramilitary is still there, even with a peace treaty." Decades of corruption have kept the country in poverty, he says.
"We are called the corn people," Camposeco says. "It's the basis of our diet . Now, there is not enough land to feed our own people. Yes, they work in sugar cane, bananas, coffee. It's harvested by Indians, but it's not their bananas." Most farmland, he says, is controlled by large multinational corporations.
Anti-immigration groups pressure American politicians, Camposeco says, "which makes it hard for us [Guatemalans] to get any kind of legal status. Except a tourist visa — and those are only available to the very rich. As soon as they see us at the embassy, they say, 'No way.' "
It's not as though immigrants wouldn't prefer to live in the lush valleys of their home countries, Camposeco says. "Most people are feeling very bad that they have to be here. They are human beings who want to live decently and work decently." He sighs sadly. "Everybody loves animals. I guess not everybody loves humans."
Edmundo Rodriguez, 27, is vice president of the workers' group at El Sol. He has been in Jupiter for two years and three months now. It cost him $5,000 to get here from Guatemala, he says. Although it would be almost impossible to verify his story, similar tales of "coyotes" smuggling humans across the border have been so thoroughly reported that they seem almost cliché. According to Rodriguez, the practice continues, with as much grasping profiteering as ever.
Rodriguez, a happy-looking fellow who wears broken-in jeans and a T-shirt from Zion National Park, describes how he came to Jupiter in 2006: a saga involving several trucks, one boat, two near-captures, and a network of safehouses.
He began by paying a coyote $2,000 up-front. He was packed into a semi truck, with nonperishables in the main container as decoys and a secret compartment underneath where he lay with dozens of people, packed in like slaves during the Middle Passage. Along the way, they would stop at safehouses, where they would sometimes wait days. Coyotes communicated through a phone and radio network, warning one another when police were around, urging one another forward when they weren't.
One day, Rodriguez and his companions were ushered by boat. Another, they had to jump off a moving train. At one point, the group was divvied up into smaller trucks. During a 24-hour leg of the trip, they were given only two apples to eat — "and not the nice ones from Publix." In Mexico, Rodriguez's truck was stopped by a guard. Each of the eight immigrants had to pony up 2,000 pesos (about $200) in bribes.
With just his backpack, one change of clothes, and a gallon of water, Rodriguez says, he marched through the desert for five days and nights, seeing little more than sand and tumbleweed. "It's not like Tijuana," he says. No bridge. No big welcome sign. No donkeys painted like zebras. Guards crisscross the vast border area in SUVs.
At what Rodriguez suspects is the technical border, he says, is a fence — the kind used to corral cows, with posts and two lines of barbed wire.
"All you can see is lights" in the distance, he recalls.
Once the group made it to a hotel room in Arizona, Rodriguez paid the coyote the outstanding $3,000. The immigrants organized by destination — some were going to Florida, others to New Jersey. They waited for more Jupiter-bound arrivals and then set off for the Sunshine State in one nonstop drive.
When he first landed in Jupiter, Rodriguez lived with seven other people. Then he helped his aunt come over, and now he lives with her and another woman in an apartment where they get a good deal on rent. Police give him no trouble, and "the neighbors don't even talk to us," he says, except maybe to wave hello. He attributes the lack of communication to the language barrier.
Will he stay? "If I can find a wife," he laughs. That can be a problem: not too many eligible women around. But leisure isn't high on his list of priorities. "The United States is a good country. It's beautiful," Rodriguez says. But most of all, "It opens doors." His future children would be able to go to school. "Here, an 8-year-old knows computers better than me.