Paola Guzman, a recent Long Island Wins intern and student at Long Island University, interviewed her father, Douglas Mejia, about his journey from El Salvador to the United States and how he started his new life here. Mejia, a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holder, is one of thousands on Long Island protected by the program whose future now hangs in the balance.
A small living room in an old apartment in Inwood is constantly filled with Mejias. Either by extension or through association, the Mejia family somehow places you in their family with playful words and true family values.
My dad, Douglas Mejia, stands in the midst of the playful jeers and discourse. He’s loud and cheerful, exclaiming punchlines and laughing at his own “dad jokes.” His laugh-lines portray a man who lived a happy life, which is true, but he also had to fight for that happiness.
He’s a recipient of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which gives him legal status to reside in the United States, but the future is still uncertain as the decision to renew the program has not yet been made.
My dad grew up in Santa Lucia, El Salvador. Growing up, I heard about Santa Lucia and its magical qualities. Its church and the Virgin Mary that sits inside it, a trail that leads to the pilas—or natural baths built into stone—the fields, and the animals. I often wondered why we weren’t there, why my dad left such a wonderful place.
A normal childhood for my father was, “…go to school and work. Work in the fields, helping the family and then going to school.” He’s been working since he was 12 and hasn’t stopped since.
“In the ’80s everything was different. No one had Nintendo, we played with old tires and wooden toys attached to string,” he said.
“The house where I grew up was my grandfather’s. He built it and left it to my mother. We all grew up there. My family is huge: brothers, sisters, and cousins all lived there,” he said. “That house was big and pretty. I didn’t want to leave it.”
That house was the place where everyone met up every day. There were a few houses around, all owned by family. Santa Lucia is made up of Mejias; all the neighbors are family.
As a young child, my father had ambitious goals, but did not intend to make his way to the United States.
“We all wanted to go to school to be someone in life. I wanted to be a CEO.”
However, he grew up only to realize how impossible this was for Salvadorans, especially those from a poor family from the country side.
“I did not want to come to the United States. Everyone dreams of coming the United States, but I didn’t have hope, because I didn’t have money. Because to come to the United States legally, or illegally, it costs a lot of money,” my father said. “I had an uncle in the United States. Every time he visited El Salvador, he would bring things from America. He would send us photos. Our dream was to be like him, to have the things he had.”
He graduated high school, and a year later, just like that, my father would abandon his home at the age of 19 to follow his dreams in America.
In El Salvador, he didn’t see it possible to be able to realize his dreams.
“I couldn’t see myself being a homeowner, or having a new car.”
Even though these things are material, they carry a more profound meaning to my father. It means that his hard work somehow paid off.
So, unexpectedly, my father received the news that he could take out a loan for 20,000 colones, which would be about $8,000 at that time. However, before making a decision, he had one lament on his chest: his daughter.
Earlier that year, my father had a daughter with his then-girlfriend. Before even considering dropping everything and following his dreams, he made sure he did what he thought was the right thing. He asked his girlfriend to move in with him and move to the capital. For reasons determined by destiny, she decided that their relationship, and their daughter, would be better if they were not together. He decided to leave his daughter, in order to survive and provide for her.
He recounted the day he left his country was sad. His family—because the Mejias travel in clusters—left him at the bus terminal. He had his favorite backpack with him, which he purchased on a trip to Guatemala, blue Levis, and a T-shirt.
He remembers his mother borrowing money, so she could hide it in the seam of his pants to help him abroad. He also remembers how much he loved that backpack from Guatemala, and how sad it made him knowing that as soon as he got to the U.S., he would have to throw it away.
He was upset, but more excited and hopeful than anything else. A naturally charismatic man, he embarked on his journey full of hope instead of fear. And, in his hope and desire for a new life, came something unexpected out of a usually tragic journey: crossing the border is where my father and my mother met.
In recounting the story, here comes the blushing and awkward laughing from both of them. My father is now married to someone he loves very much and my mom, Sonia Guzman, is a successful and dedicated woman who works as a bookkeeper for a supermarket who gave her life to me. However, their romantic history is unusual and quite endearing.
My father, 19 at the time, courted my mom in the middle of the desert. This is the kind of man he is. In the midst of fear and chaos he still finds room for love and humor. My father is someone who does not let opportunities go and determinedly refuses to overlook the good in any situation.
And, for the next 20 years he remained the same. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1995, he began working immediately, grateful for and dedicated to any work he obtained. The next year, with my mother, he moved to New York where I was born in 1997. My father continued to work and even build a house in El Salvador, which is used by family there and is where he hopes to retire.
My father now 42 years old, isn’t much different from the 19 year old who left his country to follow his dreams. Today, he works as a bartender at a country club, but also owns a soccer field he rents out in El Salvador. He’s still charismatic, hopeful, and refuses to let darkness seep into his view of the world.
My father is hopeful that President Donald Trump will not terminate Salvadoran TPS. He is hopeful that he does not have to return to a place he no longer can call home. He is hopeful that he will not lose his job and his earnings, which he has worked so hard for. He is hopeful that he does not have to live on $5 a day, and start a new life due to a tragic turn in political moves powered by hate.
Paola, Thanks for sharing your Dad’s “Journey Story”. You sound so proud of him and what he has accomplished. People need to hear the story of immigrants who have given a part of what made their lives whole and happy to come to this country. Yes, many come for a better life but it is not a perfect life. They’ve left so much behind too.