Sebastian Quinac immigrated from Guatemala in his 20s to flee the civil war and threats to his life. After time in California and New York, he settled in Tucson, Arizona where he has lived for the past two decades. He is now a U.S. citizen and works with the Guatemalan consulate to help migrant families navigate the American immigration system.
“One of my friends is a psychologist. And he said, if you go back to Guatemala, I’m sure you will be killed. If you stay here, you learn English and you will educate the gringos to tell them what’s going on in your country. So I stayed. I learned English. And then any time I see migrants cross and cry, with blisters on their feet, I feel I need to be with them because I know the journey.”
Sebastian explained his work with the Guatemalan consulate.
“I’ve been working with the Guatemalan consulate and other organizations with families, because they did not know what to do when they have a piece of paper from the border patrol. Since I have a little bit experience working with lawyers, I offer my help. That, that was the beginning of my experience. Sitting with families, individuals, calling their families, helping them to understand what the paper says, especially when they have their like appointment for a hearing. They didn’t know anything about that. A lot of the families, especially the Mayan from Guatemala, they don’t speak Spanish. They understood that here is your paper, now you are okay. Go. And they thought, well, okay, already we are legal. We don’t have to go to court.
That was my job, basically. So besides helping to understand their rights and their responsibilities to go to the court, my job also I went to interview the Guatemalans at the border patrol, the processing center at the border patrol. To tell them what to do and what they shouldn’t do. And then we call their family to let them know they are with the border patrol. And this is what will happen with them.
When they are told by ICE, you cannot come in the five years, like parole, you have to be in your country. If you come back before five years, you got a long time of punishment or sentences. And what happened. A lot of them said, I finished my five years in Guatemala, why I’m here again. So they did not understand after staying five years in their country, they have to go to the US embassy to get the visa so they can come back with the visa. But they understood after five years, you could come again undocumented and then they go to the jail again, or detention center.
No one explained them that process.
At this time, the consulates dedicate directly on protection. And the consulates make a report of everything that we do, like the jail detention center, hospital, death in the desert, they make a report. So the minister of exterior, they built different kinds of booklets, videos and other things to educate the community about how dangerous is to cross the border. If they want to do it, they know what the suffering is at the border and also when you are in already, if you don’t have the proper document. But when, when I interview my people at the border, some of them say, I want to come back. If I die in the desert, that’s fine for me. It’s better to die there than be kidnapped, tortured, and killed in my village.”
It’s better to die trying.
I asked Sebastian about his own journey to the United States.
“It’s like what’s going on now with the coyotes, crossing the border without document. It’s a long story. Because as I told you a little bit already, I worked for a program that we give a lot of workshops on leadership development for women, for campesinos and youth. About human rights, civil rights, land rights, and everything for a human being to live equally. And then, when Bishop Romero, Oscar Romero was killed, the violence, kidnappings, torture, massacre also began in Guatemala. So the program where I worked, suffer a lot. We lost three nuns, four teachers, and one priest. Another priest went to exile in the Philippines and other co-workers. They went to hide in someplace. And it’s a big group.
So my idea at that time, I’m not doing anything against the government, or I’m not the politician. I don’t want to go out to exile. And then the director of the program, he is a priest from California and he left all of us, no knew where he went. When we got the message, he is in San Francisco already.
At the time when I was arranging go to live with the guerillas, in the mountains.
But then the priest sent me a letter saying, if you want to risk your life crossing the border without a document, I help you to find a coyote. At the beginning I said, no, I don’t want to go. And then the situation became worse. That threat began against me and in that time from 9:00 PM to 3:00 PM, groups of death squad, they go out in the night and dressed in black, and they go terrorizing wherever, if you are a teacher or a union, or like me, a leader in the community,
A couple of times, I was at the corner where my house is, a small car with four people with the guns. They make two rounds around the corner where I live, so that made me make a decision. Okay. I’ll go. So I stopped thinking to go to the mountains.
I talked to my father when I saw the threat is coming. And he said, no son, stay here. You don’t go out and stay with us here. Nothing will happen. But he didn’t know what I feel.
So I talked to the priest and said, yes, please help me. He found a coyote. The first one I met at Mexico city, a lady, and I bought a passport and other documents. And then, when we arrived to Tijuana, the lady says, okay, now we want to see four kids, like four to six years old, playing football, right near the entrance to the border. And then you go with them, they will throw the ball to the other side of the chicken wire.
They throw the ball and she told me, you go with them. When they go to pick up the ball, they go under the fence. So I did. So that’s the way I crossed the border. And the lady, the coyote, when I finally jumped on the last fence, she was at the McDonald restaurant waiting for me. So we got in the car and went to San Clemente. They put something on me and then made me to read newspaper. We went through the checkpoint at the San Clemente California.”
Nobody ever questioned him.
After living for several years in California undocumented, Sebastian considered returning to Guatemala, but a friend convinced him to stay.
“One of my friends is a psychologist. And he said, your plan is good. But one thing I want to tell you, if you go back to Guatemala, I’m sure you will be killed. If you stay here, you learn English and you will educate the gringos to tell them what’s going on in your country. That changed my plan completely. So that’s why I stayed in the US.
So I stayed. I learned English. And then any time I see migrants cross and cry, with blisters on their feet or whatever, I feel I need to be with them because I know the journey.”
Eventually Sebastian married a U.S. citizen and he was able to change his own status. I asked him what it was like when he received his citizenship.
“It was sad.
Because now you’re not a citizen from your country. You are different, because I’m a US citizen, but at the same time, all my family’s in Guatemala. They still were suffering. And now I’m free. You are a citizen. I have the privilege. It’s happy. But at the same time, it’s sad.”
And I asked Sebastian about peace.
“Peace, it’s a good question. A lot of time, my wife and I come here at the fire and we stay silent and thinking about our past, present and the future and what we are doing here. And sometimes I do go in the back over there, just relax and have that contact with me and my surroundings. I like my plants and trees. That peace, there is no fear. And no one telling you what to do or immigration is coming or whatever, it’s behind you. When nothing is bothering your spirit, your mind, your feeling. That’s peace for me.”
-Does your family have an immigration story?
-What were the risks involved in that journey?
-Have you ever feared for your life in your community?
-What would it take to make you leave your home?
-How would you feel about giving up your citizenship in exchange for security?
-How are you giving back?