Pancho is currently detained at the McHenry County Jail in IllinoisI hope that this letter finds you all in good health and good spirits. I’d like to present the following as a personal testimony and true story of my first-hand account of a displaced immigrant of a third world civil war.
I came to this country as a 5 year old. My family and I left everything behind. I remember as kids we cried because we were not allowed to bring even a single toy. You see, we left in secret defiance of an armed paramilitary group that controlled the community with terror. To avoid suspicion we had to leave with the pretext of going to church one Sunday morning. My parents had been threatened that the whole family would die if they did not collaborate to sell drugs out of the family home.
It was customary for armed men dressed in military attire to barge in any house and do as they pleased, taking what they wanted and terrorizing the community into placating their power. These were men who murdered, raped, and committed atrocities with impunity. Defying these people did not merely mean a guaranteed death but an example that would be made out of you for the community to witness. Torture was commonplace and worked efficiently to keep everyone cooperative.
Turning to the police for help was virtual suicide as the authorities were known for collaborating with these groups. The war in Columbia against left-wing Marxist rebels created these groups who were committing 80% of human rights violations with impunity.
Needless to say, trapped in the middle of this civil war, our best option was to disappear. It was either die or become a participant in the evil that controlled everyday life. When I think back, I admire my parents’ decision and bravery.
We came to the U.S. in 1999 and since we had nothing but the clothes on our backs, our living conditions would be considered below poverty level in this country. Have you ever worn a sweater as pants?? Our living arrangement was a 7-person household crammed into a one bedroom apartment in the city’s overpopulated, poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Leaving a terrible destiny behind, we inherited the debris left behind by the worst society has to offer. An environment infected with the plague of gangs, drugs, poverty, and violence replaced a similar plight of servitude to paramilitary armed groups.
When slaves were forced to come to this country their culture, roots, and family tree was forever lost. Religion, language, and even last names were taken from them. I would never compare the suffering of the slaves to anything in the world; but to understand the plight of their predecessors is something I have understood and accepted in my reality.
If you met me today you would never guess that I am Colombian. I don’t know much about my culture at all and my Spanish accent is bizarrely Mexican. I have unconsciously through the years adapted to the world around me and today I write this from behind a cell door. The defense mechanisms I developed to cope with childhood traumas and everyday life had molded me.
Gang literature was the only thing that gave me hope. I felt that it was my only family at one point. I had been expelled from school three times and incarcerated 11 times.
Everything I learned came from three sources: streets, jails, and books.
As hard as I tried to climb out of the hole I dug for myself I always slipped backwards into my old ways. Mentally enslaved, trapped in a cycle of maladaptive thoughts and habits, a product of my environment. It is nature for a young mind to seek survival at all costs when it fends for itself. The animal kingdom proves witness to this regularly. As a kid I was diagnosed several times with various mental/emotional disorders but never treated. I believe these stem from childhood traumas.
At school I was always different from everyone else and my life at home was chaotic and traumatic. Contemplating suicide from the time I was eight. My father worked but proceeded to abuse us in every way and abandoned the family when I was about 13; taking with him any money he saved up. My mother worked two jobs a day and my older brother went to prison shortly after. This stage of my life was when I desperately sought acceptance and a place to belong. Even though my life was disastrous before then, this is when my legal problems began and my life went into a downward spiral.
Many years have passed since then and the story you read now is not finished. I have recently earned my G.E.D. and four college credits in prison and I wish to get into a career in psychology. I still struggle today with the demons of my past. I continue to use Rational Emotional Behavioral Therapy as my only psychiatric help. I am seeking God but I know I am still confused.
I have a million plans for my future but only God decides how these last chapters are concluded. I felt it necessary to tell my story, not just to alleviate the pain but so that maybe if I cannot finish it someone will finish it for me.
One day if my life is a success I wish to finish this story but as of now I am merely another inmate who is lost in the system; one foot in jail the other on death’s door. If this story does not have a happy ending I will be just another stereotype of what life has been accepted to be like around me; but if I make it out I hope this story can inspire people one day.
“Pancho” (my childhood nickname)
To learn more about immigration detention and to join CIVIC’s movement to close immigrant prisons, visit endisolation.org.