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Making the impossible possible: My journey from Guatemala to teaching in the classrooms of North Carolina

I was born in Guatemala and lived there for 15 years. I am the oldest of five children — four girls and one boy. My mother was a single mother who worked day and night to provide for her children as best as she could. I didn’t live with my mother until I was seven years old. I stayed with random family members or sitters since my mother had to work.

Life was very difficult for me and my siblings during our childhood. We all encountered verbal and physical abuse, not to mention all the house chores we were to do on a daily basis.

As the oldest child, my job was to care for my sisters and brother while our mother was working. I also did the cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping. My sisters will never forget the first time I made them scrambled eggs. I didn’t know I was supposed to let the eggs gel and “cook” before I served them. Yeah, they were a little runny!  

School? I went to school when I could and when my mom was home. I was always from school to school, from teachers to teachers. There might have been one or two school years I completed the year at the same school. You see, education is not a priority in Guatemala. Not because there’s no interest in education, but because survival takes a higher priority over education.

Photo Courtesy of Emily Francis

Third grade was the highest grade my mother and most of my relatives completed in Guatemala. On many occasions, I missed school in order to help my mother at the market to sell oranges, cauliflowers, or used clothes. But even though I missed a lot of school days, I was able to obtain my sixth grade diploma at the age of 14. I was very proud of this accomplishment. You see, this diploma is an honor to obtain in Guatemala. Its value is equivalent to obtaining a high school diploma here in the U.S.

The saddest part was not having my mother with me to celebrate this great accomplishment.

It was 1992, which was the year my mother gave me the news that she was leaving Guatemala to make a better way and life for us in the United States of America. I don’t think I can find the words to explain how her decision made me feel. The thought of being without my mother terrified me, but I knew it was best for all.

Once again, my siblings and I were divided. My second sister and I stayed with my dad, my third sister stayed with church friends, and my little sister and little brother stayed together with a recommended sitter. It was very difficult for us all to be apart from each other again, not to mention not having our mother with us.

You might think that my mother’s decision was crazy or perhaps cruel, like many people told me. But in the end, it was all worth it.

You see, my mother promised she would fight for us.

She promised to make the impossible possible for us.

I had school friends and people come up to me and say, “She’ll never come back!,” “She is going to forget about you once she makes her new life in the U.S.,” “You’re on your own now!” I didn’t believe any of these statements. I knew from the bottom of my heart how much my mother cared for us. We wrote each other constantly. We sent each other pictures and talked about our future together.

One year away from each other was all we could handle. We started sharing and noticing the abuse we were experiencing. I couldn’t bear the thought of my little sisters and brother going through the abuse I had experienced.

My mom was going to return to Guatemala when she found out what was happening. Yes, we needed our mother with us, but what about the sacrifice she made crossing the border? What about the sacrifice we all made for over a year? What about the plans we’ve made about a better future? There had to be another way, and there was.

My mom sent enough money to build a small shed in a neighbor’s backyard where we could all live together. I was going to be responsible for all the kids.

In a matter of days, at the age of 14, I became fully responsible and took guardianship of my three sisters and my baby brother.

We had what we needed to survive. We had food, clothes, and shelter, but we were kids who needed a mother. I needed my mother. 

And then someone asked my mother, “Why don’t you bring your kids here to the U.S.?”

At that moment the idea of bringing 5 kids alone from Guatemala to the United States seemed impossible. However, doors began to open and the plans to join my mother in the U.S. started becoming a reality!

New land

It was November of 1993 when we started packing the little bit we had to join my mother. My little sister and brother were lucky to make it to the U.S. in a month. Their dad was able to bring them without any problems. They were able to spend Christmas with our mother and new relatives.

The journey from Guatemala to the U.S. was different for me and my two younger sisters. My mother made arrangements for coyotes — smugglers — to bring us to the U.S.

So mid-November 1993, we were picked up by strangers we had never met, but trusted that they were taking us where we needed to go. We were very fortunate to be taken care of by the coyotes and their family. We were fed, had a comfortable place to sleep, and never needed anything. But we would wake up day after day for two months wondering if that was the day when we finally would see our mother. We traveled on land for several days. We rode cars, buses, trains, horses, and we also walked. We were desperate to see our mother. We were not allowed to communicate with mom or anyone. Meanwhile, my mother lived in panic day after day for two months not knowing where and/or how we were doing. The experience of traveling as unaccompanied minors is very stressful because we were unsure about what was going to happen.

Traveling through Mexico. Photo Courtesy of Emily Francis.

Finally, the day came when we were to board a plane in Mexico City and reunite with our mother. It was January 14, 1994. As you can see in this picture, we wore our best outfits including “our Mexican jackets” for our special day. 

Photo Courtesy of Emily Francis

Our plane arrived around noon. We made it to JFK International airport in New York City. We had been instructed to say that the gentleman who was bringing us was our dad and that we were coming to New York to visit family. We went through immigration, showed our passports, and were asked questions. They must have noticed I was not telling the truth because we were taken into a room for more questions.

My sisters began to cry, and I was panicking because we knew it was over when we saw authorities handcuffing the gentleman who was bringing us. They started asking more and more questions until we broke down and told them the truth. I told them my mother had paid people to bring us to be with her. I told them that we didn’t have any family in Guatemala to go back to and begged them to please not send us back. My little sisters would not stop crying. I couldn’t stop crying. They kept asking me where my mother lived and who was she staying with. I honestly told them I didn’t know where she lived and that I didn’t know how to contact her.

We were there for hours. We were confined 12 hours to be exact. Question after question is mostly what I remember.

We were tired. We were scared. We were hopeless.

Of course my mother did not show up because she knew that the moment she walked in, they would have taken her and immediately deport her and her children. My mother was in the U.S. with an illegal immigration status. It would have been over for all of us if she showed up to claim us.   

Suddenly I see two older ladies talking and yelling at the immigration agents. They seemed to be talking about us because they kept pointing at us. These two amazing ladies turned out to be my grandmother (mom’s mom) and her sister (mom’s aunt). I didn’t know them because they’ve lived in the U.S. and had little to no contact over the years with my mother.

These two ladies, as American citizens, fought for us and claimed our lives. They made sure immigration knew that sending us back was perhaps ending with our lives since there was no one to take care of us back home. After more hours of discussion, my grandmother ended up claiming my mother and her children as well. My grandmother made herself responsible for caring and providing for us. She also made available all the required paperwork to allow us to stay in the U.S. with a LEGAL immigration status. 

After pictures, fingerprints, and signatures, we walked out of the airport on a cold winter night and into a yellow NYC cab! That night we were able to hug and sleep with our mother after two years.

Finally, we were together. Finally, we were happy. 


The Editor’s Note

Emily’s journey to the United States is remarkable, but as she says, “Our journey was not even close to the experiences other unaccompanied minors go through to make to the U.S. My siblings and I were very fortunate to have made it through safely.”

Please watch Emily’s video about her journey:

In this article, “A Newcomer’s Journey,” you can read about Emily’s experiences as a high school student in the United States.

In this article, “Failure — My Detour To My Greatest Accomplishments,” how Emily went from high school dropout to Cabarrus County Teacher of the Year.

Photo Courtesy of Emily Francis.

In January 2018, People profiled Emily and how she is changing the lives of her students.

Later in 2018, Emily appeared on Ellen, and the Chobani Foundation honored Emily’s journey and work with a $100,000 donation to her school to support child nutrition.

Emily is a graduate of UNC Charlotte. Here is a beautiful article, “The Language of Hope,” about how Emily uses her experience in her work with “next generation of ESL students.”

On our trip to Mexico, Emily is helping Go Global NC lead 41 other teachers on a journey of their own, as she says, “to acquire a culturally diverse point of view and be able to learn new strategies and teaching methods to apply in their classroom with migrant students.”

Emily, thank you for your courage, your leadership, and your public service to our students, our schools, our state and our future.

Follow Emily and our trip in Mexico on Twitter @emilyfranESL.

Emily Francis

Emily Francis teaches ESL at Concord High School. She is the 2016 Cabarrus County Teacher of the Year.