The story of Severino, or Seve, as he wishes to be called. I met Seve while wondering around the market seeing what might develop, who I might strike up a conversation with, what I might learn and practice my muy malo, or very bad, Spanish! Seve is now about 42 and is a successful fruit and vegetable vendor in the market of Teotitlan del Valle, a quite famous pueblo in which just about everyone weaves carpets and other textiles.
We struck up a conversation in Spanish for awhile when I discovered that he spoke excellent English. That is unusual for this pueblo in which practically no-one speaks English, which is why I am here. We made a nice connection, it seemed, and I returned in the next several days to continue to interact. He seemed quite ready to do so in his relaxed manner in between customers. It was a genuinely positive connection and I could see and feel a great soul standing before me. The trust built and his story began to unfold in an open, easy and flowing manner.
It all began when at 15 years of age, which would be about 27 years ago, Seve paid a Coyote $200 to get him to and across the U.S. Mexican border. For those of you who might not know, a Coyote is a ‘entrepreneur’ who sees an opportunity to provide a wanted service and make some good money. He transports people to the border, gets them across and collects a fee which now, I am told, is in the neighborhood of $8,000 to $10,000 per person. A hefty sum and perhaps an indication of the deep desire for potentially better opportunities and a better life,
Last year I discovered what a Coyote is while walking through a pueblo about a half hours bus ride from Antigua. I was walking down an unpaved street with a woman from that pueblo who was helping me with my language study. The houses were very simple dwellings except for one which stood out quite remarkably because of its unusual 3 to 4 story size and design. Obviously out of place. I asked Ligda about it and she said it is the home of a Coyote and then proceeded to educate me!
When Seve got across the border, which he said was very easy, he walked to the nearest road with only the clothes on his back and no money in his pocket. He hitchhiked a ride to the nearest city in Southern California where he was introduced to some other Mexican people.
Seve found a construction job almost immediately while living with his friends for the next 7 years. After that time living with his Mexican friends, he told his friends that he was leaving them and moving into a more integrated basically gringo community. He wanted to learn more and integrate into the larger community. So he did just that with his spirit of discovery, curiosity and understanding. It worked out very well for him and he found acceptance and support among the community for which he expresses gratefulness to this day. He continued at that same job for the same gringo boss for the next 20 years. No welfare, no pubic assistance, always paid his taxes and did his best to be a contributing member of society. In a little while he saved up enough money to buy a car, a used Edsel hatchback (I want it!!). Seve never had a drivers license in the entire time he lived in the States and he had no ID except for his Mexican passport. When he bought his car he needed to have his name on the title. So he took the title to the DMV to have this done. The person helping him asked for some ID and Seve told him quite honestly he had none. Nothing except his passport, but he needed some kind of US ID. He asked the DMV person what he would recommend. He then remembered that he had an ID which the university issued him as a student. His boss sent him to school to learn English and while there he got a degree in graphic design which he then used for designing projects for his boss. He showed this ID to DMV and the gentleman said that was sufficient because it had all the necessary information on it. The DMV made no inquiry about his illegal status.
Seve got his title but the next hurdle was insurance. In speaking with an insurance agent to acquire liability insurance, the agent asked to see his drivers license which of course was needed to get insurance. Again the story. No license. Now what? He asked the agent what he might do. What were the options. Getting a drivers license, as an illegal at that time, was out of the question. It would identify him as an illegal and he’d be on his way back to Mexico.. Well, the insurance agent was creative and asked him if he had a friend with a license. He did. The agent suggested that if his friend agreed he could bring in his friend’s license, they would make a copy of it for Seve to carry and put the insurance in his friend’s name. Of course, in case of an accident, his friend would be liable. The friend agreed and simply said to please drive carefully. So everything was taken care of….except for the drivers license.
For the rest of the time in the States, he drove without a license, mostly for his boss’s business, around 7 States where their work took them. Seve says when you are in a country, if you are a decent person, you do your best to obey the laws and be a good citizen which he always aspired to do. About two weeks after getting his car situation in order, he was stopped by a police officer for doing something like crossing a yellow line while making a left turn. Of course, the officer asked for the usual information all of which he had except for a drivers license. So the officer did what the law apparently required at that time and impounded the car for 30 days. No mention of illegal. After 30 days, Seve went to court, paid a fine and reclaimed his car. He had no more infractions for the rest of his time in the States, and no brushes with the law for any other reason.
Seve worked hard for his boss who taught him the ins and outs of the trade. He was intelligent, sharp and learned quickly. He soon was promoted to crew supervisor and designer of their projects. His boss apparently was a great support, paid for and sent him to university, included him in social events at his house, BBQs, wherever he could. I asked him if at any point he pursued a work visa or the path to citizenship. Again, he wasn’t legal so this would have brought him to the attention eventually of immigration so his only real option was to continue as he was realizing he was always at risk. He said this didn’t really worry him and he wasn’t afraid. He simply accepted the risk.
Clearly his gringo boss very much valued him, took him under his wings and helped him out as much as was reasonable. When it came time for him to retire, Seve wasn’t sure what that would mean for his position in the company. He wondered if his boss would put in a good word for him with the new owners of the business. His boss said he was too qualified and skilled at this point to work for someone else and needed to start his own business. He said he’d help him navigate the process of a business application, get his license and any other hoops to jump through. He did. For the last 7 years of his time in the US, Seve ran his own very successful construction business.
I asked him how this all ended. He said that the building inspector arranged to come on a certain day to inspect and approve the project so far. So Seve told his crew to take the day off (one might say a stroke of luck for them, many of whom were also illegal) which he would spend with the inspector. After the inspector, whom he knew, completed the inspection and passed the project, Seve was sitting there going over his notes when an immigration officer arrived on the scene. Apparently one of the neighbors of the construction site called Immigration and reported that a number of Mexican or possible illegals were working on the construction site next door.
The officer asked who was in charge and Seve said he is. Of course the officer asked extensive questions and ultimately said he’d have to take him in. Seve fully cooperated and answered the officer’s questions. He figured his day had come. While walking to the vehicle, the officer was rather apologetic and said he could see Seve was a good person, one who lived responsible and was a good citizen, not the opposite. He said he’d rather not take him in but had already called the office and reported he had one illegal person. Now he couldn’t appear there with empty hands. Seve said he felt very calm and at peace and told the office: “This is your job. I understand you are doing what you must do. Do it.”
When they got to the office, a supervisor questioned Seve at length and apparently was frustrated and angry because he couldn’t accept that he was Mexican despite his passport. He said anyone can get a fake passport made. The super found a card in Seve’s wallet from a Filipino restaurant and kept insisting he was Filipino and that he was lying. He also wouldn’t accept the clean record except for the one traffic violation, and insisted that he would find something and put him behind bars for two weeks. Seve encouraged him to thoroughly investigate his record for the last 20 years, his entire time in the States. The supervisor did just that. He checked local, state and federal records and found nothing. He had a difficult time with this and his anger escalated. Just couldn’t accept it. Seve says he wasn’t disturbed by all this because he knew he was clean as well as a model citizen despite his illegal entry into the U.S. He also knew he would be sent back to Mexico.
Eventually, the supervisor gave up and put him in another room with other folks who were illegals also rounded up that day. Sounds a bit like a Wild West cowboy story! Seve says he was given the option of going to court to plead his case based on his record but was told there was a 90% chance he’d be sent back anyway. His former boss offered to try to intervene but Seve declined knowing his boss would be fined upwards to $30,000 at that time for hiring someone who was in the country illegally and had no work permit. He did not want to put his boss in that position. So after all this, Seve and the others were put on a plane and bus to Tijuana.
With a bit of humor in his voice, Seve said he came into the country as a 15 year old with only the clothes on his back, and 20 years later was leaving the country with the clothes on his back and $100 in his pocket. He accepted that he was not permitted to withdraw thousands of dollars from his bank account that he had saved as well as losing a condo he was buying. I asked about how much he had saved in his account. I could see this was an uncomfortable question and he politely said he’d rather not go there. It has been the only somewhat uncomfortable part of our conversation about his story.
He has been back in Mexico for about 8 years now. Before leaving the States, he was told that if he came back to the States within 10 years and got caught, he would go to jail. During that time he could not apply for any kind of visa to return to the U.S. His 10 years have been up for some time now so I asked him if he had thought of applying for some kind of visa to go to the States. He said the process is very difficult and drawn out and even though he very much enjoyed his time there, and the kindness and helpfulness of the people as well as the amazing opportunities, he was quite content here an didn’t see himself as going through the long drawn out process. This of course raises lots of interesting questions.
He went on to say that it is possible to ‘expedite’ that process at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. I asked him how that process works . His response was that it involves money under the table, and he is not interested in that.
Seve speaks well of his experience in the U.S., even the immigration supervisor who obviously was not the most professional soul on the planet. He was just doing his job, he says. Seve seems to hold no ill will and all along accepted the possibility of being sent back to Mexico. I appreciated his willingness to be candid and speak openly without any sense of remorse or bitter feelings toward any part of that experience.
Another window into Seve. When he returned to Teotitlan from the States, he needed to earn some money to support himself and had nothing. He says he bought a bag of strawberries, divided them into smaller bags and thought he’d see if they would sell. So he stood outside the enclosed market here to sell them. They did, so the next day he bought several bags and repeated the process successfully. He kept growing his business this way and soon went to the pueblo committee and requested a space inside the market building where he now is doing very, very well selling veggies and fruits.
He has been able to purchase a car and truck, built a house suitable for him, and two pieces of land. I would think this gives us a mirror into the mind and abilities of Seve. You just can’t keep a good man down.
Now let me back up to the beginning because I wondered how a 15 year old came to Seve’s decision. And, furthermore, where were the parents in all this. So I asked him these questions. He said his parents recently had gone through a divorce and the kids mostly created their own way. So Seve decided to try getting to the U.S. and make a better life for himself. Quite gutsy and courageous, I’d say. I’d like to think it also says something about determination and vision.
Also, I understood better the way Seve processed his experience when we spoke some of his cosmology, his world view, the macrocosm. He sees the connection of all things. He sees how we create our lives, our present and future by our choices and thoughts both conscious and unconscious. He sees the teachers, the learning we are here to move toward to awaken, and seems to be at peace with the journey as well as where he, and each of us, is on the path. Seve is, I believe, a remarkable person who probably didn’t realize, as he spoke, how much of a teacher he was to this gringo standing with him.
Just to clarify that I’m conveying these stories with no desire to place a judgment one way or another on how such souls live their lives, decisions they make, risks they might have taken and perhaps the politics of that time or now. It is simply a story hopefully for me and each of us to perhaps reflect. I often wonder what I might do were I born into a similar culture, environment or situation. We don’t really know until we are in such a situation. Until then it’s just conjecture. However, being sort of a quiet introverted rebel myself, I doubt that I would lie down, roll over and die, but would put all the options on the table! I am well aware of the variety of response to such a question. I’m also aware there is a whole other level at which to reflect, to pay attention, to be mindful, to wipe the fog off the mirror. At some point in our reflections, we can go beyond a somewhat comfortable usual response and go to a new depth where before we might have feared to tread. That’s where the good stuff can begin to be born.
All of this is one of the most powerful reasons I love travel of this sort. I hope you enjoy the story.