June 14, 2019

Be Our Guest / Tim Winn

Teen’s tragic death a reminder that some family histories are similar

Tim WinnRecently, I read the story of Juan de Leon Gutierrez, a 16-year old boy from Guatemala who died after making the journey to the United States from his home country.

Juan decided to come to the U.S. and try to work to support his family back home which has been living on one meal a day due to a devastating drought that has kept farming to a detrimental minimal. Here is a boy who had enough watching his family suffer, who decided to do something about it, but who ultimately suffered the loss of both his childhood and his life.

The story is a sad tale that, unfortunately, is more common than we would like to think in our modern world. But it also hits closer to home for me and is a familiar story.

I come from a big family, as many of us do a generation or two ago, and some of us in the family have been interested in our genealogy. But also like many other families who have deep roots in the rural areas of this country, it can be difficult to discover family lineage when fathers and mothers died young back then, severing our ability to have questions about the past answered.

One day my family was talking about our family history, and we asked my grandpa where his family came from. His family, like many in the Hoosier State, came up to Indiana from areas of Kentucky and Tennessee. We pressed him and clarified that we knew he came from Tennessee, but wanted to know where his “ancestors” came from? He said with a straight face and a definitive tone, “Tennessee,” as if to say, what kind of a dumb question is that?

For him, not only does such a question not interest him much, but he also grew up not knowing any of his grandparents. And he lost his father as a small boy. He grew up in the rich culture of Appalachia, in an area that more closely resembles the conditions of places like Guatemala than it does the rest of the United States.

Despite our failed efforts that day at discovering our family history “pre-Tennessee,” it did invoke some great stories from grandpa that I will cherish, one of which leads me back to Juan.

My grandpa sometimes describes how poor he was as a boy, mentioning it only by accident. The family gleans traces of it from the stories he tells, and then we knit together a fuller picture of how difficult his young life must have been.

For instance, he describes that, for Christmas, the seven children being raised by his widowed mother would sometimes receive an orange for their present.

Grandpa will occasionally, though, tell a more direct story. At the young age of 14, after watching his mother day in and day out dish the children all of whatever meal could be created from what little they had and taking no portion for herself, he decided he could no longer stand by and watch his mother go without food.

Clearly there were too many mouths to feed, his young adolescent mind reasoned. And so he saw the choice in front of him that if he left, his mother would be able to feed herself. So, one night he set out and hitchhiked his way to Indiana looking for work to send money back home. And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is the story of both my grandpa and of Juan, separated by time and distance but connected by the too often lived experience of suffering.

Many of us in the United States could probably look to our not-too-distant relatives to recall similar stories of struggle, of resilience, and of a determination to create a better life for our families. Too often, we have a case of amnesia and forget such past struggles, thinking that we cannot relate to them.

But such stories are important to remember. This familiar struggle still exists in the world today; it just might be in someone else’s family this time.

So, let us look on stories like Juan’s with compassion and a sense of responsibility to work toward a future where children do not have to leave their homes so that there is one less mouth to feed.

(Tim Winn is director of Immigration Legal Services for Catholic Charities Indianapolis.)

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