Antonio's Journey

His American dream cut short by a bullet, from El Salvador tries to sort out his new life here.

October 15, 2001|By Jaimee Rose | Jaimee Rose,SUN STAFF

He is used to small spaces. He is comfortable, now, with the way his legs curl into the stirrups of his wheelchair. He knows how to get it around the stiff corners of his basement room. Back up a little, turn. Back up some more, turn again.

He comes from a place that is smaller. "Muy chiquita," he says, pointing at El Salvador on a map. He lifts his hand, measuring the size of his country in the space between his forefinger and his thumb. His country is this big.

The job market there was small, so small that his family was almost always hungry. When Salvadorans think big, they think of America. And so did he.

It took 25-year-old Oscar Antonio Lopez-Sanchez two months to get to the United States. He borrowed money from his uncle in Columbia, and paid $5,000 to a coyote, an immigrant smuggler, to get him to America. His journey took him through El Salvador and Guatemala, slowly into Mexico, then over the invisible line into the vast Arizona desert. He slept in dirt, spent many days hungry, hid beneath the floorboards of a bus in a space the size of a coffin on his trek.

When he got here in 1997, joining thousands of other illegal immigrants in the country, things were good: He had a job, money, a moped to get him around Columbia. And then they weren't.

One cold night in February 2000, he was on his way home from a $5.25-an-hour job at Wendy's that was supporting him and seven relatives back home. Outside his apartment, he was shot and fell gravely wounded. The shooter fled without robbing him.

Antonio remembers that the bullet was warm when it pierced his right side, before stopping between two vertebrae. And then he remembers being in the smallest place of all. It was a tiny place deep inside his brain where there were no more brothers and sisters, there was no more El Salvador.

"I was feeling like I couldn't breathe," he says through an interpreter. "I was feeling I was dying."

The shooting left Antonio paralyzed from the chest down, unable to work, unable to get much help from his adopted country.

"I had a dream to come here and work, and go back and build a house," he says. "But, like it is, you have plans, and then God makes a decision."

Quiet waves of immigrants like Antonio sneak across borders in California, Arizona and Texas every year. More arrive on the West Coast, hidden in dank shipping containers. Here, they make their way quietly - picking up fake Social Security numbers for $100 on the black market in Washington, D.C., slipping into jobs washing dishes, framing houses, mowing lawns, sharing a room with as many as 10 others in a rented apartment.

They are most comfortable in the shadows, where the threat of deportation doesn't seem so harsh. Antonio lived quietly in this world, flipping hamburgers at Wendy's and renting a room from his uncle, until crime, the American ill, put a stop to his American Dream.

He was left to seek help from a government that considers him an outlaw. Illiterate in his native Spanish, he struggled to learn to read and write, to speak English and to adjust to life without the use of his legs.

He found himself lost in a bureaucracy of red tape, official forms, and secretaries who don't speak his language. His was a journey through a system from which he sought justice. But as an illegal immigrant, his rights were in question. As a non-English speaker, he was often confused and misunderstood.

In the days after the shooting, as he lay in a hospital bed, Antonio didn't know why he couldn't move his legs. The hospital staff had to search for a Spanish speaker before they could explain the paralysis to their patient.

Antonio, though, was thankful just to be alive. "When a person is dead, they can't talk, can't see," says Antonio, the son of a field worker whose mother died when he was a child. "Once you are dead, you don't see the pretty world."

His hefty hospital bill was covered by medical assistance, a government insurance program for the poor. Antonio's uncle took him home to Columbia and supported him, paying for his medication and housing him. The uncle, who did not want to be named for fear he may be targeted, is employed legally and supports his family on a restaurant worker's pay.

Shared history

Word of Antonio's plight spread through the Columbia community. Adriana Ramos Bock empathized with Antonio, his feelings of vulnerability and sense of loss. When she moved from Mexico to the United States in 1988 with her American husband, she too struggled with language and social acceptance in unfamiliar surroundings.

"I was a victim one time, too," says the 49-year-old Bock, who now works as an interpreter. "I decided I was not going to let Antonio have his case lost."

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