The Golden Cage "you’re surrounded by the riches, by something good, but it doesn’t stop being a prison."

Curvy roads lead up to the trailer park behind two old factories. It’s a cold March in northern Ohio, but there are still kids playing outside. Drivers have to be careful not to run anyone or any cat over. Plastic is stapled and nailed to the windows to block the wind coming into the trailer homes. Each trailer is a different color, some are bright, others dull, but they all resemble the multicolored homes in Mexico. Most of the people living in these trailers are Hispanic, most of them are undocumented.

I lived in this neighborhood until I was seven. My parents had their first home in Ohio here and I fed my first stray cat. The stray cats of the town are cornered in this part and left alone. No one acknowledges them unless they’re in their sight. Ever since I was little, these cats have lived side-by-side with most of the people who still live in the neighborhood.

As I walk up the stairs of one of the homes, I hear loud corridos escaping from inside. I open the door to their closed porch where La Virgen Maria greets me. She stands in the middle of an embedded cross on the wall surrounded by Catholic saints and butterflies. To her right, there’s a smaller version of her, and to her left, an even smaller icon of her. Beneath is a red, white and green tablecloth with fake plants surrounding the entire alter that takes up most of the wall. Around the alter, there are multiple Dryvit Sandblast containers.

The music is louder as I get near the door, which has a big photo of La Virgen Maria, a smaller sized photo of her on the left and a palm cross crookedly placed above the bigger photo. A man opens the door and greets me. Behind me, a woman comes in from outside and says hello in Spanish. The man immediately turns off the music while the woman goes down the hall and makes her children come out to the living room.

It’s a custom many Hispanics, especially Mexicans are used to doing. When guests arrive, everyone needs to be out of their rooms to greet them. Two girls and a boy walk out of the hall, the boy is holding a bag of Cheetos Puffs. He looks over and asks in Spanish, “Do you want one?” The dad scolds the boy, “Dale mijo, no se dice ‘quieres uno,’ se da.” Translation: Give her son, you don’t say, ‘do you want one’ you give. Then he turns to the oldest girl telling her to give me a bottle of water. He turns his radio back on singing along as his wife puts their groceries away.

The *Padillas, like many of the families in the trailer park, are undocumented but their children were born in the U.S. According to a study done by the Migration Policy Institute, of an estimated 5.1 million U.S. children who are under the age of 18 with at least one undocumented parent, 79 percent of those children are U.S. citizens. Marie Jose and Roberto Padillas' children, Ronaldo, Teresa and Elvia make up part of the 79 percent of those children and 7 percent of all U.S. children.

Elvia is a curly-haired, talkative 3-year-old. Everything is slurred when she speaks, weaving Spanish and English making it extra difficult to understand what she’s saying. She does what she wants and lives like a queen. Everyone lives in her world and if she doesn’t like someone, she doesn’t include them. Lucky for me, I’ve been personally invited.

“Elsa or Anna?”

She’s trying to brush my hair with the pointed part of a Rubik’s Cube Stand. I don’t understand what she’s asking at first until she repeats it a second time. She has stickers of the Frozen characters plastered all over a drawer. I assume she wants me to pick a hairstyle. She tugs at my hair asking for a third time with a louder voice. I finally say Elsa before she rips my hair out.

Her brother Ronaldo is happy he’s not the target today. There’s a six-year difference between them and they act like any young siblings. Elvia slaps him, he tells his parents, they laugh and she’s an angel. He’s carefree. Especially when he runs around the small living room kicking a soccer ball, despite his parents scolding him. He’s hyper and can’t seem to sit down unless he’s playing on his tablet. He tries reading a book and only lasts about five minutes.

Unlike her brother, Teresa is an 8-year-old who spends all her time reading and making sure her younger sister is taken care of. She watches over her and when Ronaldo steps out of line, she tells him to leave Elvia alone. She’s shy but welcoming. Despite everything her family has been through, she keeps a smile on her face.

Teresa and Ronaldo are aware of their parents’ situation. Marie Jose and Roberto don’t want to hide anything from their children in case they ever get taken away. Teresa and Ronaldo know their parents are undocumented.

Roberto left his hometown in Guanajuato on a Monday in March in 2003 and arrived at the border in Sonora, Mexico, Wednesday morning. He met a guy who worked for one of the local coyotes, a person who smuggles people across the border, and asked him where he was heading. The guy told him the details about where and when they would depart and how much it would be. There was a house set up for him to rest at before departure and he offered the best deal: there would be no walking through the desert.

On the first try of reaching Phoenix, Arizona, the car he was in was stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol and he was back where he started. Roberto went back to the same coyote and tried again. He rested and on Sunday, he was in the U.S.

Yo no sabía nada…yo no más vine a la voluntad de Dios.”—I didn’t know anything…I only came at the will of God.

He’s thankful he didn’t have to walk through the desert like many people who cross. He says he had it easy.

Marie Jose was 17 when she crossed the border with her cousin. She stayed at a hotel until a coyote came to pick them up and head to Arizona. From Sonora, they went over the border and touched U.S. soil only to run back after U.S. Border Patrol cars surrounded them. She ran and climbed the wall heading back to the hotel. She tried again but unlike her husband, she had to walk through the desert surviving on canned tuna, beans and cold flour tortillas. At one point, they ran out of water and had to drink groundwater, at another time, they were assaulted by thieves.

Many women who cross keep their money in their underwear in case they are assaulted. Marie Jose kept hers hidden inside a cut she made by the belt loops on her jeans. The men who assaulted them forced a woman to take her underwear off and were about to force Marie Jose to take hers off as well. She confronted them despite the coyotes telling her not to get aggressive because the men had guns. She wasn’t going to lose the money she earned. Along with her money, she kept two photo cards of Catholic saints, one of La Virgen de San Juan and one of La Virgen de Toribio. The other women had their savings stolen, but only Marie Jose’s wallet with two phone cards were taken.

Yo le pedí a Dios que no nos hicieran nada malo.”—I asked God for the men not to harm us.

The men who assaulted them didn’t just take their money, they stole something even more vital: water. They took all the men’s water but left the women with theirs. Marie Jose had to share the little water she had with her cousin and the other women shared theirs with the men traveling with them.

Along the way, one of the women, Norma, could not walk anymore and told everyone to leave her because she couldn’t go on. Marie Jose says she had to help her. Norma was crying because she didn’t think she could make it out. But, Marie Jose got through to her with a few words, “Si no lo quería hacer por ella, que lo hiciera por su hijo que dejo en México.”—If she didn’t want to do it for herself, she should do it for her son she left in México.

With the help of her cousin and another man, they all got out of the desert.

Yo le decía al Señor que me diera fortaleza para sacarla.”—I asked the Lord to give me strength to get her out.

Despite what she went through to make it to the U.S., Marie Jose says, “Fue muy difícil, pero no tan difícil como otras personas que sufren más que uno.”—It was very difficult, but not as difficult as other people who suffer more than one.

Roberto and Marie Jose met in the U.S. and they began a family. With the help of Marie Jose, Roberto says he settled down and left his vices. They continuously thank God and the Virgen Mary for helping them with their struggles. No matter how small or big of a blessing, they never leave the words, “Gracias a Dios”—Thanks to God, out of their mouths. They say they have a lot to be thankful for.

At Teresa’s fifth birthday party, she kept getting a fever that would come and go. This continued for several days until her parents ended up taking her to the hospital. After several exams and multiple doctor visits in different hospitals, Teresa was diagnosed at the Akron Children’s Hospital with a rare condition called hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH).

HLH is a disease where the body produces too many activated immune cells. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “This over activation of the immune system causes fever and damages the liver and spleen, resulting in enlargement of these organs.” HLH destroys blood-producing cells in the bone marrow and results in individuals having low numbers of red blood cells that reduces the number of platelets. This may cause the person affected easy bruising and abnormal bleeding.

Only one in 50,000 people are affected. Every case can have a high mortality rate. After diagnosis and without treatment, an individual affected has a median survival of less than 2 months to 6 months. With treatment, there is only a 21 to 26 percent chance of surviving five years. It has been four years since Teresa has received treatment. She will not be cleared from her condition until this fall, but her parents are hopeful.

Living almost two hours away from the Akron Children’s Hospital, the Padillas would travel in fear that they would be pulled over every time Teresa would have a check-up. That’s why Ronaldo would always go with his family. He never wanted to stay home with another family member whenever his parents and sister left for Akron. He tagged along being their lookout. He knew what could happen if his parents were pulled over.

Even now, Ronaldo is their lookout on their way to the grocery store. Or to the bank. Or the mall. Or when they go out to eat. As soon as he sees a cop, he makes sure to tell his dad.

In the middle of Elvia’s screams and while playing with his Rubik’s Cube, Ronaldo says, “We’re scared that the sheriff will pull over my mom and dad…we don’t know if they’re going to take them or not.”

It’s an everyday fear for them.

Roberto is the only one employed. He works for a construction company based out of Cleveland, so he has to travel a lot. His brother picks him up and they head to wherever their company sends them. Sometimes it’s two to three hours away. But when he leaves, Marie Jose always prays he comes back while he blesses his children with the sign of the cross.

Cuento las horas que llegue la tarde para regresarme. Y le pido a Dios que me deje llegar con bien todos los días…Solamente Dios sabe si voy a regresar a volver a verlos.”—I count the hours until it’s evening so I can come back. I ask God to allow me to return well every day…Only God knows if I’ll return to see them again.

Roberto says his children are the motivation behind him waking up from Monday to Saturday to go to work. He doesn’t want them to suffer the way he did when he was younger. He knows he has to leave his children to make ends meet and pay the bills, clothe them and provide what they need. But thanks to his job, he’s been able to renovate their trailer.

His boss allowed him to take the leftover Dryvit Sandblast that surround his alter. With that, he modernized his trailer helping the cold air stay out. A lot of the trailers have plastic stapled over their windows, but Roberto found a way to keep his family warm. He even made a third room that is attached to their trailer giving them more space.

It has taken him about five years renovating their trailer because he’s been working six days a week for the past 14 years. Even on his day off, he still works fixing his trailer to make it a better place to live. He even offers to make my dad an alter like the one he has, which he made sure to attach to his trailer when he first started renovating to thank her for everything.

Even on Sundays, there’s something he has to do. And for the last month and a half he’s been trying to do everything ahead of time so he has time to talk to me. He enjoys talking about his work and what he’s done despite it being hard and keeping him away from his family. On one Sunday afternoon, he makes me follow him outside of their home to show me what tools and resources he uses on his trailer.

Every Sunday, they always come back from Sam’s Club with two 40 packs of Member’s Mark water and two packs of the baby water bottles. They offer me a bottle and potato chips with Valentina hot sauce. I always say “yes” to the water and “no thank you” to the chips, but they always give me a plate minutes after I say it.

I’m taking photos of the family on a Sunday when I hear, “Quieres una patita de Puerco?”—Do you want pig’s feet? It’s extremely rude rejecting someone’s food in Mexico and my parents had taught me to always say yes when you’re offered a meal. Chips and hot sauce are different, but when you’re offered actual food, always say yes. On this day, I didn’t even get the word yes out of my mouth.

Roberto takes out a huge jar filled with pickled pig’s feet and places it on a plate. He salts it and takes down the two Valentina hot sauce they have and asks me which one I can handle. He says his kids can only eat the yellow labeled one, that’s the one I pick. He tells me he just had them made and they’re his favorite, and then he makes one for Teresa and one for Marie Jose.

They tell me how to eat it and to not be afraid of biting the bone. Marie Jose even shows me how to snap the feet and take the bone out. I get the hang of it and they keep asking if I want another one. They don’t treat me like a stranger and I feel comfortable in their home, even while I’m biting into a pickled pig’s feet.

The following Sunday they greet me with a warm welcome as usual. They give me a bottle of water but this time, it’s a Pure Life water bottle instead of the usual Member’s Mark and they only have one package sitting on their floor.

Roberto tells me his brother called him and said there would be a roadblock somewhere in the county and if he didn’t have to leave, then he shouldn’t. He didn’t want to risk going to Sam’s Club 25 minutes away. He didn’t want to risk being caught without a driver’s license. He didn’t want to risk being deported over bottled water.

Marie Jose tells me, “El sueño Americano no es un sueño.”—The American Dream is not a dream.

Hazte cuente como si estuviéramos en una jaula de oro. Es una jaula. Sí, estamos en la riqueza, y estamos en algo bueno, pero no deja de ser prisión. Te sientes que estas en la cárcel. No puedes salir afuera, no puedes llevar a tus hijos a la mall, al parque. No los puedes llevar al zoológico y todo eso. ¿Porque? Por el miedo a la policía, la inmigración que nos encuentren.”—Just imagine that we’re in a golden cage. It’s a cage. Yes, you’re surrounded by the riches, by something good, but it doesn’t stop being a prison. You feel like you’re in jail. You can’t go out, you can’t take your kids to the mall, to the park. You can’t take them to the zoo or anything like that. Why? Because the fear of police and immigration finding you.

A question I’ve asked my parents, my aunts, my uncles and now, to these people who have shared their life and their struggles with me for the past month and a half: Was it worth it?

Marie Jose hesitates and stays quiet for a couple of seconds and then says, “Si valió la pena porque tengo a mis hijos. Pero a la ves, no.”—Yes, it was worth it because I have my kids. But at the same time, no.

She tells me about the people you start missing and the people you don’t get a chance to say goodbye too. She says people die while you’re away and there’s nothing you can do. There’s no way of going back without risking never getting back into the U.S.

She tells me, “Aquí si me gusta, pero aquí siempre sales con miedo.”—I like it here, but you always go out in fear.”

Marie Jose experiences racism in the town she lives in. She feels unwanted eyes on her and hears racial slurs. She wants to fight back but she knows she can’t. She knows she is at a disadvantage, “Estamos en un país que no es de nosotros.”—We are in a country that is not ours.

She says that after Donald Trump took office, she feels and experiences more racism. Roberto agrees and says that even before he became president, he declared his hate for Hispanics.

He says, “Él es el mero principal que está dándole luz verde a toda la gente que estaba calmada, que eran racistas pero no lo declararan tan abiertamente…La gente dice, ‘pues si el presidente es el que esta insinuando que seamos racista con las demás gentes, pues vamos a hacerlo.’”—He’s the main guy who’s giving a green light to people who were hidden racists…“People will say, ‘well if the president is insinuating we be racist to other people, then let’s do it.”

They express their feelings about Trump and the things he has said about Mexicans, like calling them rapists and criminals. But despite the hate they feel the president has for them, Roberto says, “No siento nada por él pero coraje en la forma que se expresa de nosotros. Pero no le deseo nada malo porque solamente Dios sabe.”—I feel nothing for him but anger towards the way he expresses himself about us. But I don’t wish anything bad for him because only God knows.

Teresa and Ronaldo try to outsmart each other when we talk about Donald Trump. Teresa tells me about the wall he wants to build and when Ronaldo talks over her, she whispers to me and says, “I know more.”

I take her word after Ronaldo says, “He’s old, like 98-years-old. Why would he date a 25-year-old?”

“I wish he had never won,” Teresa says.

We sit in Teresa’s and Elvia’s room. The room their father renovated purple, just for them. They tell me they don’t want to stay by themselves. They tell me they don’t want to go to Mexico because Ronaldo doesn’t like beans and neither does Elvia. Elvia sits by us trying to get my attention by talking about Donald. She's talking about Donald Duck and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

*All names have been changed.

Created By
Itzel León
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