HIGH LIFE : CROSSING RIVERS : Nicaraguan Youth Finds Coming to America an Adventure

Chris Bergerud, a senior at Dana Hills High School, is editor of the student newspaper, the Paper, and is the chapter leader of the school's Amnesty International club.

On Dec. 23, 1987, Luis Gutierrez said goodby to his home, his family and his country and headed for America.

With a few reminders of the first 16 years of his life stashed into a suitcase, Gutierrez kissed his mother, Violeta, knowing full well that he might never see her again.

A citizen of Nicaragua, Gutierrez was nearing the national draft age of 17. With the entire country enveloped by guerrilla warfare between the Sandinista government and the Contras, a U.S.-supported rebel group, it was clear that as soon as Gutierrez was drafted he would go to war.

“I did not want to fight for a government I don’t support,” Gutierrez said. “There’s a lot of people that are in disagreement with the government. (The Sandinistas) are communist, and we don’t want that.”


After the Nicaraguan government denied him a visa for travel to the United States, Gutierrez’s family found another way to get him here. He spent Christmas traveling in a van with six other hopeful refugees and arrived in Mexico a few days later. “The man who drove us to Mexico had a contract with the ‘coyote’ (a person who arranges illegal border crossings),” Gutierrez said.

This contract was an agreement to bring Gutierrez and the others into the United States at a cost of $2,000 per person, according to Gutierrez. He was to have been delivered to the door of his sister, Maritza, a U.S. citizen who lives with her husband in Laguna Niguel.

But the coyote didn’t keep his end of the bargain, and Gutierrez and the others were abandoned at the Mexican border.

At 9 on the night of Jan. 8, with his whole life behind him and a new world ahead of him in the darkness, a final barrier--perhaps more symbolic than dangerous--lay before him: the Rio Grande River.

“I was so nervous. I didn’t know if the Immigration Service would come or not. We could have been put in jail,” he recalled of his 20-foot swim to freedom. “It was a real hard experience.”

Once he slipped into the river, in the middle of a hail storm, any second thoughts were seconds too late.

The next day, Gutierrez called his sister to tell her that he was staying in a refugee home run by nuns in Brownsville, a city just inside the Texas border.

Maritza flew to his rescue. Without any official papers to prove their relationship, Maritza finally persuaded the nuns that she was, indeed, Gutierrez’s sister. They released him to her, but said that if the pair got stopped by immigration agents at the airport, they were on their own. And Gutierrez could be sent back to Nicaragua.

Standing in line at the airport, Maritza told her brother to say nothing in Spanish and to let her do all the talking. Immigration agents were present and did apprehend two illegal aliens in line immediately in front of the two. But that was as close a call as they would suffer.

Gutierrez has since lived with his sister and brother-in-law and attends Dana Hills High School. He has been granted political asylum in the United States but may not receive American citizenship for many years. If he returned to Nicaragua without U.S. citizenship, he would be forced into the army, he said.

“I can’t go back,” he said.

But a family reunion in Nicaragua is no longer necessary. Gutierrez’s mother has since come to live in the United States, leaving Nicaragua 2 months ago with a visa.

“Visas were given to older people who had property,” Maritza said. “They (the government) gave visas to people they believed would come back because of their property. My mother told them she owned a farm, but really it was my aunt’s.”

Maritza said her mother has spoken of returning to Nicaragua one day, but Gutierrez only remembers the harshness of life in his former homeland.

“The situation is really hard,” he said. “Everything is expensive. The food. The clothes. You work really hard, but you don’t get enough money to buy even those things.

“A teacher in Nicaragua makes about 5,000 cordadas (about 30 American dollars) per month. When a pound of cheese costs 100 cordadas, you can’t buy very much,” he said.

But Gutierrez is concentrating on the future, not dwelling on the past. Since he started classes at Dana Hills High last February, his main objective has been learning English.

By June, he had progressed so far in the English-as-a-Second-Language program that he was certain to be in regular English classes by the fall semester.

With an impressive hold on his new language, Gutierrez is maintaining a strong grade point average and expects to graduate in June.

He hopes to attend Saddleback College next fall. Beyond that he would like to transfer to a university and go into medicine.

“I think I can do it,” he said.

For Gutierrez, becoming a doctor is just another language to learn, another river to cross.

And nothing’s stopped him so far.