“I Risked My Life Because I Didn’t Know”

Lucy Gellman | July 4th, 2019

“I Risked My Life Because I Didn’t Know”

Culture & Community  |  Immigration  |  Unidad Latina en Acción


Hazel Mencos: “We have rights, but this country violate those rights. I risked my life because I didn’t know.”  Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Hazel Mencos nearly lost her life coming to the United States from Guatemala. Now, she’s telling her story with the goal of righting the narrative on undocumented immigrants—and making sure no child has to endure what she did.

Mencos told that story Wednesday morning in the basement of First & Summerfield United Methodist Church, where she meets with members of Unidad Latina en Acción each week and visits with Nelson Pinos during his stay in sanctuary.

Five years after her harrowing journey to the United States and just one month after graduating from high school, she is speaking out (as she has many times before) because she sees her own story in today’s headlines about the crisis at the border and can use her voice to help. Mencos, like many Central American child migrants, has survived a dash through the desert, separation from her family, detention in an “ice box,” and discrimination from border officials.

“All these things that is happening right now, for me it’s very hard to see it,” she said. “Because I know that we are risking our lives. I didn’t know [then] because I was a child. But the adults know.”

Mencos’ immigration story began in 2014, right around the time that the U.S. experienced a massive influx of child migrants from Guatemala, many fleeing gang violence and drug activity in their hometowns. At the time, Mencos was 13 years old and living with her older sister and extended family in Escuintla, a mid-sized city in the south of the country. Her mother, fleeing sexual violence, had immigrated years earlier, when Mencos was just five.

“It was hard for me, because I miss her too much,” Mencos said. “Every Mother’s Day or something in the school … it was sad for me every year. Christmas day and the New Year, I’d just tell her, ‘I want to see you again.’ I was little, and I didn’t know how she came here. I didn’t know about how hard it was.”

Mencos’ father died in 2012. In 2014, her aunt told her that the two of them were going to make the journey to the border, and eventually to where her mother was living in Connecticut. It did not matter that across the border in the U.S., then-president Barack Obama had already been named the deporter-in-chief: Mencos’ aunt was ready to risk her life for the chance at a better one.

From Escuintla, Mencos got on a bus that took them—and tens of other immigrants—through the country and into Mexico. Along the way, she recalled, a coyote gave people on the bus updates and directions: where they were, where they would be staying, what they would eat that day.

“In the first day or second, I was so excited,” Mencos recalled. “I was going to see my mother—it was a feeling I had never experienced since I was little. I didn’t think about my sister, nobody. Just my mother. My mother, my mother.”

At first, she said, the journey seemed like it would be easy. When the bus reached Mexico, she and other passengers got off and spent the night in a small town, taken in by a Mexican family who gave them a place to sleep in exchange for fare that they had paid in advance. In the morning, the group got onto another bus that drove all day, then dropped them in another town. It became a pattern as they made their way towards the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although she believed that Mexico was dangerous because of drug trafficking—Mencos had heard as much from her family—“I didn’t see anything about it.” What she did see, instead, were Mexican police officers who walked onto the bus day after day, rubbing up against women and stealing cash off several of the passengers onboard. She recalled listening to a coyote who told her to pretend to be asleep, to avoid being touched inappropriately.

“One time the police stop the bus and touch everyone, and get the money from everyone,” she recalled. “Just because I was asleep, they didn’t touch me. It was the first thing that I feel scared. Very scared. We are not safe.”

She began chronicling the names of cities that she passed. When the bus reached Tampico, she knew they were drawing close. When it passed a marker for Reynosa, which shares a border with the Texas city of McAllen, it seemed like a sign. In Reynosa, she stayed in a home with her aunt and fellow travelers from Guatemala or Honduras.

For two weeks, they were instructed to stay inside. The coyote left them. And for the second time in the trip, Mencos could feel fear rising up in her.

“I was crying every day,” she recalled. “I was afraid every day. I didn’t know where I am … I was in a bad environment in that area.”

There was a point when the group learned they were going to go to the border that night. When the sun had gone down, somebody gave them a signal. The group walked what Mencos estimated were miles to the Rio Grande river, and a raft that looked impossibly small.

Mencos heard people talking about safety. There was no way that raft could fit all of them, they insisted. If anyone fell off, the creatures in the river would eat them. Mencos recalled the fear she felt while crossing, because she knew she could not swim.

When the raft made it to the other side, Border Patrol was there, as if they had been lying in wait. Around her, Mencos saw mayhem: people ran back into the river, hurling themselves to the raft. She turned, jumped, and missed the boat. She felt the current take her under.

“I thought, wow, this is my end,” she said. And then a hand grabbed hers, tightly. Someone pulled her back into the raft.

“People was angry with me,” she recalled. “They tell me, ‘you have to stay there because you are a child, and they are going to send you with your mother.’ They knew the system in the country. But I was afraid. I came from a country where you don’t have to have confidence with anybody. I knew that the immigrations customers [officers] was a man. That it was night. If I stayed there, I don’t feel safe, because I knew that many womens was … sexual relations, you know.”

“I just follow my feeling,” she added. “Thank god.”

The next day, they got back in a bus and drove into the desert. They would have to ultimately get around la garita, someone explained—the checkpoint set up by Border Patrol. They walked in silence for hours. Hours became days. When someone called “look out!” or get down,” Mencos recalled, they would press themselves low to the ground and try not to breathe.

They didn’t eat. There was no water. At one point, Mencos had to leap over a canal and fell short, falling into the water below. The same person who had pulled her out of the Rio Grande scrambled down to save her. When she came back onto land, the group was running.

“I don’t know what is going on, but I was alive,” she said. “And we just run, run, run, run, run. I never run in my country. The adrenaline was too much for me … I was telling them ‘stop, please.’”

At some point—Mencos doesn’t remember how long it had been, and has no sense of how many miles she had travelled—was told to wait for a car. “It came to us, fast,” she recalled. Someone told her to get in the trunk. Before she climbed in—with three other men and her aunt—she looked at the driver.

“She looked like she was on drugs,” she recalled. She was terrified.

The car took them to a house where Mencos had a chance to sleep in her own bed, shower and wash her clothes. But the stop was just temporary, her aunt explained: they were waiting for the next step. And it came, with another bus. This time, Mencos recalled that “it was like a movie,” where the drivers carried walkie-talkies and wore masks over their faces. When it stopped in the desert—Mencos thinks they were outside of McAllen, on the U.S. side—they received one order. Run.

Mencos was exhausted. Her aunt, who had been suffering from back pain since before the start of their trip, was also struggling. Together, Mencos estimated that they walked 10 hours. She remembers feeling terrified that the group would be vulnerable to Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel known for kidnapping, extorting, raping, and killing migrants who were making their way to the U.S. from Central America.

At times, she recalled, the coyote—she calls him her friend, “even though I knew he was a bad man”—would grab her hand and tell her to keep walking, because it was the only way to reach her mother.

The group walked past a sign welcoming them to Texas. They climbed buildings and structures that had ladders, scurrying down as quickly as they could. They went over a mountain and down the other side. They found a water filter, and crowded around it. And then immigrations officials were surrounding them. People started to run. Mencos was ready to surrender. Then someone grabbed her hand.

“I was tired, and I did not know how to run,” she said. “He teach me how to run.”

When they stopped running, she had lost sight of her aunt. The group had fractured. With the few immigrants she was with, she walked along the highway. She remembers trying to hide until a car picked them up. When it did, they hadn’t driven far when Customs and Border Patrol officers showed up. In the car, someone told her to run. She didn’t move. Officials asked her to come with them.

“In that moment, I say, I’m tired,” she said. “I’m tired. I don’t want to run again. If they are going to deport me, I don’t care. I just want to be in a good environment. I don’t like this.”

Mencos arrived at an office at a border checkpoint—she thinks it was the same one she had been instructed to run around days earlier, in McAllen—and was placed in a room with an officer who spoke Spanish. She recalled him barking questions at her: what was her name? Where was her place of birth? How old was she? Did she have family in the United States?

“They looked, like, very bad,” she said. “They just see you with a disgusting face. And you’re like, just sad. Just sad. You don’t have voice there. You cannot say anything. You can say, ‘I need this,” but they don’t listen.”

That night, agents put her in a car, and drove for what Mencos remembers as “a very long time.” When they got out, she saw that they had arrived at the hieleras or “ice boxes,” short-term detention facilities that have been so named for their frigid, often life-threateningly cold temperatures and often hold migrants for much longer than a few days.

Inside, Mencos recalled seeing inhumane conditions that have only more recently received coverage: humans packed together and sleeping on the floor, many without the aluminum blankets that they were supposed to have received. She was denied access to a blanket, then to a shower, for days. She was reunited with her aunt, only to learn that she was going to be deported.

At one point, she said, the hieleras were so overcrowded that she was moved to a different building, also shockingly cold. Around her, small kids cried out for their parents. Others tried to band together, including a woman that Mencos has kept in touch with, who would hug her every night and promise that they would get out of there.

Each day, she received a frozen burrito and a juice box, and sometimes a piece of bread with meat. She recalled guards in the facility who would tease kids with extra food, offering to give them a second burrito if they could list the number of states, then withholding it if they guessed 48 or 49 instead of 50.

“Like animals,” she said. “It was so humiliating … it is a time where, if you don’t have positive things to think, you are lost there.”

On Mother’s Day of 2014, Mencos begged a guard to let her call her mother. The memory stands out as one of her most bittersweet from that time, she said. Twice, she had already tried to reach her uncle, who was in the states with documentation, with no reply. When her mother picked up from somewhere in West Haven, Mencos’ heart soared. Her mother hadn’t heard from her for weeks. She hadn’t known if Mencos was alive. The two cried over the phone.

The days after that call were a blur, said Mencos. Only after a lice outbreak at the facility did she get to shower, for what was the first time in days. At some point, officials put her on a bus where she saw other kids, but was not allowed to talk to them. They took her to a home that she thinks was transitional housing or an emergency shelter, where she began to take English classes. On June 1, she got onto a plane—not taking her out of the country, but flying her to New York.

After almost a decade, she reunited with her mom in West Haven. The two started talking about getting her documents as soon as possible. So less than 24 hours after she had arrived, at the suggestion of a friend, the two attended their first ULA meeting in New Haven. She was shocked to see Luis Miguel Diaz Calel and Anabelia Maribel Diaz Hernandez—faces she recognized from the house.

ULA's founder, John Lugo, told her not to worry. There were more immigrants like her coming to New Haven. The group had helped with similar cases. If she continued coming to the meetings, she would be fine.

“In that moment, I said, ‘okay, this is my work,’” she said. “I start to help ULA a lot.”

In the years since, she has made immigrants rights her mission. After a judge ruled that she could stay in the United States with her mother in 2014, she paved her own road to citizenship with activism, testifying in Washington and in Hartford, while leading protests with ULA and Connecticut Students For A Dream around Connecticut and in Washington and New Jersey. In New Haven, she has been part of momentum behind a worker-owned pupuseria.

She became a permanent resident this year. That status, a step on the path to citizenship, grants her access to a social security number and the right to travel. But she said it’s a status she is conflicted about—because so many of her family members are still undocumented and cannot travel freely.

“I have the opportunity to not be afraid,” she said. “But this country always takes something from you. I know that tomorrow, they can take my family.”

Her own education has also been part of that path. After starting out at H.M. Bailey Middle School in West Haven, she enrolled in Wilbur Cross High School, which offered better Spanish language options. She threw herself into her studies and stayed for extracurricular options at the school. She stayed up late at night finishing homework and learning new English words and turns of phrase. She battled bath problems and long essays and won every time. In June of this year, she graduated with high honors. She plans to attend Gateway Community College in the fall.

“It was a good moment, but it was hard too,” she said. “Because I was sad. I miss so much my sister every day. I never came to talk with someone about my past, and it was hard to me ... I didn’t have the time to accept what is going on.”

For years after immigrating, she said that she struggled to sleep because night would bring memories of the hieleras, and of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials who had been so cruel to her along the way. She said those memories have become especially painful recently, as the Trump administration continues its crackdown on immigrants at the border, placing thousands of people in inhumane conditions each day.

“It’s hard for me to see this system,” she said. “This case, with children dying in the river—for me it’s very hard. Because we were children. I am not a mother. I am not an adult. But if I had the decision to get my children’s, I don’t [know if I would] take a risk. I know what is happening in our countries. We don’t have work. We don’t have nothing. But I say no … I don’t want to see more people cross the river and die there.”

“We have rights, but this country violate those rights,” she said. I risked my life because I didn’t know.”