In the spring of 2013, Antonio Sajvín Cúmes—a middle-aged man in Santa Catarina Palopó, Guatemala—began to disappear.
For several months, several times a week, he had been walking the same route: he’d leave Santa Catarina Palopó in the morning and follow the road that led high into the forest, thousands of feet above the glittering, volcano-ringed splendor of Lake Atitlán.
The journey took him hours: carrying a small knapsack, he walked past medium-sized villages, then small ones, then single shacks dotting the mountainside. As he climbed, he passed fields upon fields of onions and maize, tapestried into the landscape like richly colored cloth.
Every so often, Antonio would stop and look across the shimmering expanse of the water, squinting his eyes to try to make out structures on the far side of the lake. Sometimes, he’d hum a melody from his childhood, or sing a few bars of songs he’d heard on the radio: Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir la vida, la la la la…
Mostly, though, Antonio simply walked. His ascent was a steady, silent meditation: Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.
Now, Antonio was reaching the summit: the space between trees was growing smaller, and the air around him thickened and cooled. Soon, he found a clearing. He took another drink of water, then set down his pack against the thick trunk of a sycamore.
Antonio sat down. He drew his knees into his chest and closed his eyes. He breathed in, then out. In, then out. He was listening for the word of God.
At the same time, Antonio’s 17-year-old daughter Maribel was returning home from school, riding in the back of a dusty pickup truck. When the truck reached the big white church in Santa Catarina Palopó, Maribel whistled for the driver to stop. She motioned to the men squeezed into the hatchback with her, mostly agricultural workers in broad-brimmed hats and dusty jeans. They moved their legs to one side, allowing Maribel to quickly grab her backpack, arrange her long wrap skirt, and hop down onto the pavement. As she followed the road past the church and up the hill, nodding at the shopkeepers and bent-backed women with their gnarled walking sticks, Maribel wondered whether her father would be home.
For years, she’d cherished afternoons with her father. They’d sit side by side on the concrete floor next to the fire stove in their small tin-walled home. Antonio would help with her schoolwork—though Maribel seldom truly needed it—and they’d talk about politics and the law. Antonio was Maribel’s role model and closest friend; it was he who had scrimped and saved to send her to school. He believed gaining an education was the way to make an impression on the world.
These days, though, Maribel often came home to an empty house. Antonio had been disappearing more and more—recently, it was several times a week. Her mother was out selling scarves and purses on the street, and her sisters were at school and at work. But she didn’t know where her father had been going.
In Antonio’s absence, Maribel, her mother, and her sisters, Aracely, Ingrid, and Josefina, would pass the evenings together in anxious near-silence, the girls doing their homework on the concrete floor while María rolled tortillas and stirred a pot of black beans over an open fire.
Antonio did eventually come home, arriving later and later into the night. Maribel would hear him come in well after she and her sisters had gone to bed, packed tight together on a hard straw mattress. Her mother would wait up for him, and Maribel would hear them whispering furtively in Kaqchikel, the indigenous language her parents grew up speaking. Antonio would seldom answer her mother’s questions, Maribel had noticed; instead, he’d tell her to go to bed, then sit outside the bedroom’s closed curtain, quietly slurping the beans María had been keeping warm for hours. Then, with one eye half open, Maribel would watch her father take off his shirt and climb into bed beside her mother.
Sometimes, at that point, Maribel would fall asleep. Most nights, though, as her sisters and her mother snored, Maribel would lie awake, watching her father stare at the ceiling as the night gave way to morning.
I first met Antonio when I was doing research for an article among the Guatemalan diaspora in New York City. We soon became friends, drawn together by a fondness for literature and an interest in politics. We were an unlikely pair: me, a white woman in my thirties living in gentrified Brooklyn, born to abundant privilege, and him, a 56-year-old indigenous immigrant living on the borough’s southern tip, barely eking out a living as an undocumented laborer. We were both very lonely, each in our own ways. Spanish was the second language for both of us—I’d learned it in school and while teaching in Guatemala, and he’d learned it as a child when employers came from the capital to hire workers. We’d send each other links to articles we’d read, and would check up on the other when there were big events: snowstorms, holidays, or a particularly shocking news headline. Can you believe this, I’d text him, forwarding an article about Latin American corruption or Trump’s latest move. Of course I can, he’d write back, along with emojis of the Guatemalan flag.
I kept him current on the articles I was working on; he sent me narrated slideshows he made on his phone about the history of Santa Catarina Palopó and what it was like to be undocumented in New York. He told me about the nightmares he had, facing in his dreams what he’d witnessed on his journeys through the desert: men who were too weak to keep up with the group, left to die of thirst or be eaten by wolves; women raped and stabbed in front of wailing children. He’d had to make the trek three times. On the first two, he’d been deported at the border, thrown in freezing detention centers by border agents who seemed to compete with one another over who could be most cruel.
One of the first times we met for coffee, a few weeks after that first article was published, I remarked to Antonio that he had an extraordinary memory: he recalled minute details of his experiences, and relayed them with a sense of poetry. He beamed. In the future, he told me, he intended to write a memoir. He’d call it The Life of a Migrant, and it would have a central thesis: The American Dream is a lie. If it ever had existed, it certainly didn’t anymore. He wanted young men to read it—to understand that, more often than not, migrating was a grave mistake. When the time came to write it, he said, he wanted me to give it a read.
But Antonio would never get to write his memoir. He died of COVID-19 in April of 2020, a year and a half after we first met.
As I sat with the tragedy of Antonio’s death, I began to think of writing about his life. I could try, I thought, to tell the story of who he was and where he’d come from through the eyes of people who’d known him well. It was an awkward thing to consider, given the vast chasm between the realities of our lives. I knew that, as close as I’d come to feel to Antonio’s story, whatever I wrote would reflect an uncomfortable, unjust dynamic that had become familiar to me: people with little power experienced trauma, and I wrote about their suffering. Whatever I wrote would be different from what Antonio himself would have written, and it could never be enough. But still, I thought it could be something.
When Antonio was intubated, I became his family’s translator and their intermediary with the hospital. I found out later that Antonio had given my number to his friends, explaining that I was the person to call if he ever needed anything. I was surprised and moved; later, I realized I may have been the only English speaker, and perhaps the only American citizen, with whom he felt comfortable.
Throughout the month Antonio was in the ICU, I spoke with many of his family members—his children, his siblings, and his wife, María—but I spent the most time talking with his daughter Maribel. Whip-smart, thoughtful, and an avid reader of the news, she reminded me a lot of her father. When I asked Maribel if I could write about Antonio, she said yes. She asked her mother, then her sisters, and then her aunts and uncles, who lived in nearby villages. They all agreed.
And so Maribel and I began to talk. Mostly it was over the phone, but sometimes we turned on the video on WhatsApp. Sitting on my bed in my subterranean Brooklyn studio, I’d see her sitting on the mattress she shared with her sisters in her family’s small home in Santa Catarina Palopó. I talked with many other people who’d known Antonio—María, of course, and all of Antonio’s daughters, but also with his elderly father, with his longtime neighbor, with two men he’d lived with in Queens. But Maribel was the one I talked to most. Her descriptions were the most vivid, and she was the one most committed, it seemed, to documenting Antonio’s life in the medium he’d wanted to himself. She wanted to make sure that her father—his courage and determination, what he’d struggled with and why—wouldn’t be forgotten.
In one of our first conversations, Maribel recalled the moment that her father told her that he had decided to leave. The day he’d sat against the tree, after those weeks of unexplained disappearances, Antonio returned to Santa Catarina Palopó earlier than usual. He asked Maribel to fetch Ingrid from her house down the road, and then gathered his wife and his daughters together by the stove.
“He informed us he was going to take a journey,” Maribel told me. He told his family that he had been climbing the mountain to ask God whether now was the time to pursue the sueño americano. Smiling his wide, gold-toothed smile, he said that God had told him it was.
Antonio’s wife and daughters already knew he was in a particularly low place. Since he was a child, he’d dreamed of becoming a politician, correcting injustices and carrying his country toward a democratic future. But Antonio’s life had been nothing but a series of obstacles and disappointments, and lately he hadn’t even been able to find day jobs to put food on his family’s table. Nearing fifty, his body was beginning to fail him, and he hated himself for seeking consolation in alcohol, which he called “the drink.” Adding to that, Maribel told me, her father’s circumstances worsened when his ex-wife hired a witch to curse him with bad luck.
“He told us that he was going to leave everything, good and bad, behind—to begin a new chapter in his life,” Maribel said. Antonio was inspired by the stories of other men from Santa Catarina Palopó who’d hired coyotes to bring them to the United States. In el norte, they said, a hard worker could easily find a job that would pay in a few days what it took a month or more to earn in Guatemala. The most successful of them sent money back home to start small businesses and construct multi-story homes with ornate trellises and mirrored blue windows.
For years, Antonio passed those houses in town; more and more, he thought that the path those men had taken could also be the right one for him. He wanted to build a house for his family, maybe save enough money to start a business or even go to law school. But Antonio was propelled by other things, too: curiosity and political ideology and a sense of adventure. He wanted a chance to see America, a country he described to Maribel as a paragon of democracy, where minorities were protected and there was rule of law.
He’d trust in God to protect him and his family, and he’d return a different man. He’d come back to his beloved Santa Catarina Palopó a man who accomplished his goals and provided for his family, a man who could fight off the temptation of vices, which he felt closing in on him more and more.
Maribel had faith in her father. All her life, she had admired how he stood out among men in Santa Catarina Palopó: he was more thoughtful, worked harder, and was more knowledgeable about philosophy and history. Antonio was known for giving legal advice to help neighbors fight unjust landlords and employers; he could outthink the best of them. Men far less learned and intelligent than her father had returned from el norte with all they’d ever wanted; if they could accomplish their goals, Maribel had no doubt that her father could accomplish his.
That night, she hugged him, engulfing his stocky 5-foot frame. “Que vayas con Dios,” she told him.
A few days later, Antonio used the family home as collateral to take out a loan of $12,000—a sum of money greater than he’d earned in decades—to pay a coyote. He put together a small bag with his phone charger, a change of clothes, and a stack of bills to pay bribes to Mexican border agents. Before he left, he gave the rest of his clothes to his neighbors. Then he was on his way.
When Antonio and I first started meeting for coffee, there was a story he told me often. It took place in the 1980s, when Antonio was a young man. At the time, Guatemala’s Western Highlands, including Santa Catarina Palopó, were suffering the worst years of the country’s civil war. This period, referred to within Guatemala as the conflicto armado, had begun decades earlier. After a US-backed coup d’etat ousting the democratically-elected president and installing a far-right dictatorship in 1954, the Guatemalan military—backed financially and militarily by the United States—executed a campaign of terror in rural communities across the country, quashing rebel groups and murdering over one hundred thousand indigenous Maya.
At the time, Antonio was a patrullero who served on the town’s neighborhood watch, attempting to suppress any internal turmoil that might attract the attention of the federal army.
Antonio and his fellow patrulleros (including his father, Mariano) were good at their jobs. While soldiers had invaded nearby villages like Santiago Atitlán and San Andrés Semetabaj—torching homes to the ground, raping women and children, burying men alive—they’d thus far spared Santa Catarina Palopó. The town’s patrulleros intended to keep it that way.
One day, Antonio’s story went, a group of soldiers came to Santa Catarina Palopó’s town square, where they found Antonio talking with two other patrulleros. They pushed the young men into the back of a truck, blindfolded them, and drove them up the mountain.
At the top of the mountain, they came to a stop. They pulled Antonio and his friends out of the truck and removed their blindfolds. There, on a dusty plane overlooking the lake, the soldiers roughed the men into a circle. They informed them that they were planning to bomb Santa Catarina’s well, which would force its residents to make a choice: flee to one of the few towns soldiers were targeting, or die of thirst.
Antonio and his friends looked at each other in silence. After a moment, Antonio opened his mouth. If you leave us alone, he said, we won’t cause any trouble.
The soldiers looked at each other, grinned.
Please, Antonio continued. There are no rebels here. Think of our women and children.
The soldiers looked at each other, then nodded.
The leader looked straight in Antonio’s eyes. The corners of his lips turned upright, a terrifying imitation of a smile. Está bien.
Still maintaining eye contact with Antonio, he slowly pulled his machete out of its holster before turning to Antonio’s two companions. Then, one after the other, Antonio told me, the man sliced off their heads.
None of Antonio’s family members remember this happening—at least not any of those who are still living. His father, Mariano, remembers that Antonio was kidnapped, but other details from the time remain fuzzy. It very well could have happened, he says—his eldest son was so smart, he emphasizes, always so courageous—but the war was so long ago, and so much has happened since then.
But many of them recognize the story as an important part of the narrative Antonio told about himself. In his telling, he never figured out why the soldiers spared him, nor the well they’d threatened. But, he’d say, the incident turned him into a local hero. After the war, he was chosen to represent the entire province on a council of indigenous youth, setting him up well for a lifetime in politics.
At first, he’d tell me, things went according to plan. In his twenties, he served as Santa Catarina Palopó’s municipal secretary. But he became evasive when it came to what happened after that. After he died, I asked the people who knew him what had happened to his political ambitions. It seemed that, after the war, Antonio won election as municipal secretary, but then lost a string of subsequent ones, after which his career as a whole lost momentum. He spent the following decades jumping from one job to the next, always aware that he was just a week or two away from not being able to feed his family.
Antonio’s personal trajectory mirrors that of his country. By the war’s end, the progress Guatemala had made—choosing, via the first democratic election in Central America, a leader who championed progressive causes and indigenous rights—had been quashed. The US’s interference sent Guatemala into a downward spiral of violence, corruption, and oppression of Maya communities, planting the seeds of the conditions that now motivate tens of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans to attempt to cross its border every year. Among those who do make it, most manage only a sliver of what they’d envisioned—they might send money home, but the dream of a two-story house, a life free from poverty, remains out of reach. Most subsist in society’s shadows, often barely managing to survive.
By 2018, Antonio had been living in Queens for several years. He was working the night shift as a shelver at a grocery store in a section of South Richmond Hill where all the storefront signage was written in Punjabi. It was the only job he could find.
After he died, I went to the store. I walked the aisles, trying to imagine what it would have been like for him. Here was a man who grew up in a tiny town with no electricity, who’d grown up fishing in the river so that his family could eat. Then, here he was, in otherworldly midnight fluorescence, stocking shelf upon shelf with items he’d never heard of—not just items like blueberries and laundry detergent, which could be found everywhere in this newly adopted city, but also bhoonja and bhelpuri and frozen paratha. I imagined Antonio—all five feet of him, with his neatly combed hair and clean-shaven face—wearing a logo-emblazoned polo neatly tucked into belt-buckled jeans, scrutinizing jars of brightly-colored powders. I imagined him sneaking a taste of something that intrigued him, winking at a coworker who’d seen him. I imagined that he found all of it—Punjabi foods, Queens, New York City, America—just so endlessly interesting. That is, when he was able to ward off the loneliness.
At the time, Antonio lived with Manuel Lopez, a Kaqchikel man from a neighboring village who’d already lived in Queens for some time. Manuel told me that, in those early days, Antonio would call his family back in Santa Catarina Palopó every evening before heading off to work. He talked to them about New York, highlighting the things he knew his family would find most foreign. He told them about the subway that ran at all hours of the day and night ,and about his neighborhood, where there were people from all around the world. He told them about his landlords, Yiddish-speaking Jews who wore enormous round hats and long curly sideburns. Antonio told them he was learning Punjabi from his coworkers, and that he’d tried foods like dumplings and falafel.
At first, Maribel told me, his calls home were hopeful: he’d tell his family that, with the money he was earning, he’d pay off his debt in no time at all, and María would soon be the owner of a house with a patio and blue mirrored windows. And he’d tell them about his friendships with other migrants like Manuel, and the adventures they had on weekends—how they’d gone on a boat to the Statue of Liberty, and seen beggars dressed as furry monsters in Times Square. Newly arrived in America, Maribel said, her father didn’t focus on the horrors he’d so recently witnessed on his journey north: he was forward-looking, optimistic, confident that he’d finally found a way to escape the demons of his own and his country’s past, that he’d soon carve out his own slice of the fabled American Dream.
It didn’t take long for the adrenaline to wear off. Half a year in, the pressures of being poor and undocumented began to catch up to Antonio. The facade he presented to his family was losing its sheen. His boss at the grocery store was underpaying undocumented workers; they knew, having seen what had happened to others, that if they reported him he’d try to get them deported. Antonio left that job but struggled to find another. He spoke no English, had no work visa, and was passed over for physical labor in favor of younger, fitter men.
The greatest contributor to Antonio’s depression, though, was his increasing isolation. He was becoming more afraid to spend time outside of his apartment, worried, almost obsessively, that la migra would find and deport him before he’d paid off what he owed to the coyote—an amount which, due to the 25 percent monthly interest, was growing at an alarming rate. Antonio was terrified that his family’s home would be foreclosed on, and that he’d be forced to return to Guatemala in disgrace.
He spent his days reading the news online and making videos on his phone where he described life in Santa Catarina Palopó. His calls home began to reflect his desperation. “He’d tell us that it wasn’t easy,” Maribel said. “There was so much discrimination. People like him didn’t have any rights. He was…” She paused, swallowed. “He missed us so much. He was always sad.”
Antonio began to drink, heavily and often. He shared a cramped, green-walled room with Manuel in a two-bedroom apartment that was also home to a Mexican couple and their two small children. Manuel told me that he’d often come home to find Antonio swaying drunkenly in their bedroom, listening to saccharine pop from the ’80s and ’90s.
At first, Antonio was a happy, conciliatory drunk. But as time went on, alcohol pushed him deeper into the depths of a profound depression. It didn’t help that, unlike Antonio himself, Manuel increasingly seemed to be the embodiment of the American Dream: he’d paid off the money he owed to his smuggler and had bought several storefronts in his hometown, planning out a grocery franchise that would sustain his family far into the future. He’d already sent home enough money to build a blue-windowed home, complete with patios, for his wife.
Meanwhile, Antonio was still deep in debt. In the dead of night, he must have asked himself the question we all ask in the depths of our despair: What if all this is my fault?
Manuel told me that, by the end of 2019, Antonio often spent entire days in bed. In those days, Manuel would come home from work to find his roommate passed out, surrounded by dozens of empty beer cans. On the rare times when Antonio was still awake, he’d stumble over to Manuel. Sometimes he’d mumble something; other times, he would just fall into Manuel’s arms and sob.
In late March of 2020, Maribel was worried about her father. She knew that he hadn’t been feeling well—on his nightly calls, his voice had been raspy and weak, and he’d had to pause every few seconds to catch his breath. She’d been reading the news about how quickly COVID-19 was spreading in New York, and she urged him to go to the hospital to get tested.
No te preocupes, Antonio had assured her: if he got worse, he’d go. But he was trying to avoid that. Antonio had heard that ICE patrolled hospitals, and he suspected that the pandemic would lead to a record number of deportations. He was determined to stay in New York for another year, to finally pay off his debt and finish building the house for María. He’d already come so far—he just needed about $8,000 more. “Mija, nos veremos pronto,” he told his daughter.
Maribel tried to stay optimistic. She reminded herself that, more than anything else, her father was a survivor. He’d survived poverty, a civil war, a witch’s curse, and a journey through the desert. Compared to all that, this virus was nothing.
Then, one evening in late March, Antonio didn’t call. As the night wore on, Maribel became frantic. She checked her phone repeatedly; her WhatsApp messages remained unread. She tried to stay calm, telling herself that there must be a reasonable explanation. Probably his data had run out—he likely didn’t have the money to pay the bill. Or maybe it was raining in New York, preventing calls from going through—that happened often in Santa Catarina Palopó. She’d wait until tomorrow: if she still hadn’t heard from him, then she’d start to worry.
To her great relief, Antonio texted the next morning. He wrote that he’d passed out the night before, and his friend had brought him to the hospital. When he woke up, he’d found himself connected to an IV drip. Nurses were swarming around him, speaking rapidly in English.
His breath was too shallow to talk, he explained, which is why he hadn’t been able to call. Maribel started to cry. I’m fine, mija, Antonio typed, over and over. He was getting treatment in the city under the best medical care in the world, and his spirits were high.
Okay, Maribel said, choking back her fear. I believe you. And then she made him swear: Promise me you’ll come back home. It doesn’t matter if you’ve earned back the money, or if we ever finish building the house. What matters is that we’re together.
“Te prometo,” he told his daughter.
After he hung up, he texted her photos of himself sitting up in the hospital bed, grinning broadly and flashing the peace sign.
A few days later, I was lying in bed in Brooklyn, scrolling through Twitter, when I got a WhatsApp call from a number I didn’t recognize. I saw it had the +502 country code: Guatemala.
I pressed the green button. The voice on the other end was high and soft-spoken, speaking in Spanish. I immediately recognized the Kaqchikel accent.
“You don’t know me,” the voice began, slowly. “I live in Santa Catarina Palopó.” The voice paused. “I’m the daughter of Antonio Sajvín Cúmes.” It was Maribel. She explained that she had finally managed to get in touch with one of Antonio’s friends, who’d sent along my name and number.
I sat up quickly. I told her that I’d been trying to call Antonio for weeks, but that he wasn’t responding to my texts or Facebook messages. “How is he?” I asked.
She paused for a long moment, then explained that the last time she’d spoken to him he was in a hospital in New York, but she didn’t know which one. He had el virus, she said, and she needed help finding him.
The next morning, after calling several hospitals in the area, I found Antonio. He was in a hospital in south Brooklyn, in a medically-induced coma.
I called Maribel back, and gave her the hospital’s phone number. She called back a few hours later, frustrated. She couldn’t figure out how to reach anyone: whenever she called, she got the same message, looping over and over in English. When I tried calling the number again, no one picked up. Instead, the same unhelpful message repeated on a loop; even the phrase “for Spanish, press 2” was in English.
Over the next several weeks, I became the intermediary between Antonio’s family and the hospital. I couldn’t go see him; the city was entirely shut down, and the hospital prohibited all visitors. Every night, I spoke to Dr. N, the soft-spoken resident who oversaw Antonio’s after-hours care. At the beginning, he explained the specifics of Antonio’s situation: how Antonio had had to be intubated when the virus spread to his lungs. How, weeks into his care, he now had pneumonia and an infected kidney.
I’d take notes and ask questions. When we hung up, I’d research the terms I didn’t know—acute interstitial nephritis, hypoxic brain injury—and enter them into Google Translate. Then I’d call Maribel and attempt to convey what I’d learned. Most nights, I could hear María crying in the background.
One night when we spoke, Maribel seemed slightly less burdened than she had before. I asked why her spirits seemed lighter.
“I realized something,” she said. I could hear her smile through the phone. “In the coma, my papá—he’s probably dreaming of us. He’s spending time with us. He’s probably happier than he’s been in years.”
After we hung up, I cried. It was the first time that I’d cried over Antonio—over his family, over his suffering, over the tragedy and the cruelty of his life.
This situation continued for weeks. When Dr. N brought up the question of extraordinary measures, I called his supervisor, angry. I’m not a medical translator, and I can’t get this wrong, I begged. Get his family a real translator; it’s the law, and it’s also the right and necessary thing to do. Eventually, the hospital arranged for a call between the supervising physician, a translator, and Maribel and María.
The next day, after the conversation with the translator, Maribel told me that she still didn’t really understand what was happening with her father. I asked whether the translator had explained the concept of extraordinary measures, which Dr. N had so painstakingly laid out to me. Maribel sounded confused. She sent me her recordings of the entire conversation—of what the doctor said, in English, and then what the translator said to them in Spanish. The versions overlapped somewhat, but not entirely. The translator, who—judging from the sounds in the background—seemed to be driving in traffic during the conversation, omitted several crucial pieces of information, including any mention of the DNR order that had been placed on Antonio’s record by default, or the fact that his family must be informed what that meant before deciding whether or not to remove it.
So my nightly calls continued. As time went on, the scope of our conversations grew: Maribel asked me about life in New York City, where she wanted to move one day, and her plans for her career. “I’m my father’s daughter,” she told me. “Of course I’m always making plans for the future.” We talked about US politics and the state of the pandemic. She told me how frustrated she was by the situation in Guatemala: despite a swift, comprehensive shutdown, the country was seeing a rise in cases, largely because it was accepting deportation flights from the United States. Toward the end of March, the province containing Santa Catarina Palopó had its first case: a Kaqchikel man who’d been deported from Mesa, Arizona.
Back in Brooklyn, Antonio’s condition wavered. At first, he seemed to be getting better; the doctor predicted that the respirator would be removed by the end of March. By mid-April, though, Antonio’s condition had taken an irretrievable turn for the worse. It became clear that, even if he were to survive, he’d be severely disabled, both physically and cognitively. After a long series of discussions, María and her daughters decided to place a DNR order. Then they asked to see their father one last time.
The next day, over WhatsApp, the attending physician made a video call. María had asked Antonio’s sisters, who lived in nearby villages, to come to her house. Together, they watched on Maribel’s tiny phone screen as the attending physician, his face obscured by a plastic shield and two layers of masks, walked through the blinding white halls of a hospital five thousand miles away. He entered Antonio’s room, then paused. He slowly turned his phone’s camera to Antonio.
María screamed. On the screen, her husband looked dead: his skin was thin and sallow, and a large plastic mask covered the mouth of his tracheal tube. Antonio’s sisters wailed.
Antonio died on April 18, 2020. Two weeks later, his body, along with those of dozens of others whose families couldn’t afford plots in a cemetery, was buried in an unmarked grave in the Bronx.
When I spoke with Maribel recently, she told me that she treasured our conversations because I was the last person she knew who had seen her father alive.
It was the fall of 2019, just a few months before Antonio got sick. I met him at a hamburger stand in Coney Island, near where he was living at the time. He’d moved just a few weeks before; his living situation in Jackson Heights had become untenable, and he’d found a room in south Brooklyn for $600 a month. At the time, I knew nothing about his struggles with alcohol. I didn’t know that he’d offered to leave the apartment he was sharing with Manuel and another Guatemalan man after falling months behind on rent, or that Manuel, exhausted by Antonio’s behavior and the lies he’d told—about how much he drank, about how he’d spent his rent money on beer—took his friend up on that offer.
I knew, though, that he was struggling; his mother had just died, and his grief was compounded by his inability to attend her funeral. He couldn’t find work, and he was worried about the winter months ahead. I gave him some information I had collected about food pantries in the area, as well as phone numbers of a few people who might know someone who was hiring. Antonio seemed deflated, dulled, but he was still himself—reflective, witty, up-to-date on headlines.
It was the late afternoon; the sun was setting, and the pastel neon lights of Coney Island shone bright against the sky. I watched the cars of the Cyclone rise and fall and rise again. Very faintly, in the distance, I could hear the riders’ screams.
I’d asked to interview Antonio for an article I was writing about mental health in the undocumented community. He told me about a man he’d worked with on a construction crew who’d hanged himself in his apartment; he’d been found just a few days before. Anguish was a subject that Antonio thought a lot about.
He spoke professorially. I wrote down what he said, verbatim:
The experience of a migrant here in the United States is to always be fighting against the current just to save one’s own life. When one feels isolated and depressed, practically the only thing one feels they can do is kill themselves—there’s no other exit.
At the root of these problems is debt, pressures from coyotes, pressure from family to send money because they have costs…It costs so much to find work, and what one can earn is not sufficient to cover all this. And people turn to alcoholism and drug addiction to forget all these miseries.
As he spoke, he seemed to reanimate—as dark as the subject was, being able to articulate the migrant experience seemed to bring him some version of joy. “The world here is not what the external world says it is,” he told me. “But to say this, one has to be here and learn from experience.”
After the interview, Antonio told me, again, the story of how he’d saved the well and the people of Santa Catarina Palopó during the Armed Conflict, how he’d been lauded across the province as a hero. And he told me how his courage had never been forgotten; just in the last few months, he said, he’d been getting calls from politicians back in Guatemala, asking him to come back and serve in Congress.
“Are you going to?” I asked.
“Claro,” he said, and laughed. He’d almost paid off his debt; he needed just $6,000 more, and then he’d return home to Santa Catarina Palopó, to his wife and daughters and the grandchildren he hadn’t yet met. He’d serve in Congress, applying the lessons he’d learned in the United States. He’d finally write The Life of a Migrant. This would all happen soon, he assured me. Maybe even in 2020.
In late April, María and her daughters held a Mayan funeral ceremony. In the unfinished first floor of the family’s home—the room that Antonio had been sending money for years to complete—they laid out pulique, a Mayan stew, next to bottles of Coke and a chicken they’d swung by its feet above their heads before conducting a ritual slaughter.
On a brightly woven tablecloth, they placed Antonio’s books next to a handful of photos. Here was a fit, adolescent Antonio, smiling and leaning against a truck in the early 1980s; here he was as a young father, surrounded by three laughing little girls.
Sitting on plastic chairs around the perimeter of the room, each person shared their most cherished memories of Antonio. They spoke about his intelligence, his loyalty. They spoke of his generosity, how he’d counseled his neighbors about dealing with the people who’d wronged them; and about how those neighbors now walked through town wearing the clothes Antonio had given them.
They spoke about Antonio’s ambitions, about his desire to write about his life so that others would learn its lessons. And then they spoke about how Guatemala, and then America, had failed Antonio. Later, privately, a few family members spoke softly to each other about the ways he’d failed others, and himself.
As the sun dipped lower in the sky, Antonio’s sisters began to leave. They needed to catch trucks back to their villages, and the government’s pandemic curfew was still in effect. They hugged María and her daughters. “Cuídense,” they said.
Then, as the curfew hour neared, Ingrid left for her house, and Aracely left for hers. The sun settled down into the bed of the lake. Before long it was dark. María and Josefina went to bed.
Maribel stayed there for hours. There, in the cold, dark room her father hadn’t been able to complete, Maribel cried for her father. She cried until her body felt weak.
Finally, slowly, Maribel walked up the stairs. She parted the bedroom curtain and crawled into bed next to Josefina. Eventually, fitfully, she drifted into sleep.
That night, Maribel dreamed of Antonio. She dreamed that he was back home, full of vigor and full of joy. They were sitting together in the basement of their home—a version of their home that was redone, complete. The floors gleamed; the windows sparkled. In her dream, Maribel was at peace, happy. And then, with a start, she woke up.