He is on a bus, 10 rows back, against the window, looking out at the same old landscape while his wife sits next to him with the electric bill in her hand. It is folded so they can't see the numbers, but they both know what it says. Two hundred twenty quetzales. Thirty dollars. And they are wondering: How can this be?
An acre of land, a three-room house, an outhouse, a few pieces of lopsided furniture, a wood-burning stove, a pot of black beans, two pigs, a goat, a chicken, a duck, four sheep, and a dog that bites -- these are the possessions of Jose Morales. The day before, he'd had five ducks, but his wife Lena sold four of them so they would have money for the bus and some food. Twenty-six cents. That's the cost of the bus to the town of Joyabaj, where they hope to see the mayor. Two dollars and sixty cents. That's what the electric bill should be. Sin dinero. No money, no money, no money. That's what their life is about.
Thirty-five years old, Morales loves his wife and five children and worries for their future. They include the 10-year-old child in the middle, Maria Elisa, whose constant cough and mysterious red eyes had brought him to a pay phone six weeks earlier so he could find out how she was feeling. It was October and Morales was far from home, an illegal immigrant in Virginia, just outside of Richmond, in the parking lot of a convenience store. He was about to pick up the receiver when the police moved in on him, and now the man they thought could be the Washington-area sniper is back in Guatemala, jammed in a bus against a wife who wishes for a car, anxious over children who wouldn't mind more food, passing the beautiful trees of Guatemala, and the soaring mountains, and the cascading bougainvillea, and the blue sky that will stay blue until next May. The same old.
The bus is a school bus that, like him, once worked in the United States until it was banished and sent south. Painted now in bright colors, it bounces wildly over a bump in the road. The bus, as usual, is packed. Everyone laughs. Not him.
A Measure of Hope
What comes next in a life? That is the guiding question for Morales, and if there is a dread attached to the question now, before, when he was still invisible, it was asked with a measure of hope.
The village he is from, Estanzuela, barely qualifies as even that. Here, in the center, is the church. Here, in front of the church, is the field where people come to sell the food they grow, except no one buys much because no one has much money. Here, spreading over hills and fields, are the little stucco and mud houses of a thousand or so people. Morales's house, neither the biggest nor the smallest, the best nor the worst, is across a field and down a hill and up another hill from the church, in a field of stripped corn stalks and marigolds. Next door is the house where he was born, in a room warmed by the steam from water boiling on a fire. Here is his mother, small and grayed; here is the school his father wouldn't let him attend; here is the spot where he last saw his father, who, drunk again, went off to the town of Zacualpa, where in the midst of a sudden hailstorm he was found sprawled on one of the streets, swollen and dead.
Morales, at that point, was 28 and used to the rhythms of an existence his father had introduced him to when Morales was a boy. Instead of school, he went with his father for months at a time to the coast, where they would work on the coffee plantations or, worse, in the sugar cane fields. Morales cannot read and cannot write, but he knows all about the smell of a cane field doused in diesel fuel, and the low drumming sound of a field afire, and the sight of a sky-high curtain of smoke, and the feel of uncurling a hand after a day of swinging a machete.
At the coast, he slept near his father and a hundred other workers on a dirt floor; at home he bathed in river water; and somewhere in his travels from one place to the other he became aware of the United States. First of all, according to the talk, it had jobs. Even better, they were jobs where a person could sit down. More and more men from the village left for the United States, found work and began sending back money -- including an older brother of Morales who ended up in Providence, R.I.
Three years ago, Morales recalls, he said to Lena, "I don't want to go to the coast anymore."
This was his moment of hope.
"We thought about it together," Lena says. "We saw the people who came back from the United States and bought a car and built a store."
They didn't know any specifics. Morales phoned his older brother. Not much work in Providence, the brother cautioned. But he gave Morales the name of the person who had smuggled him into the United States and told him how much money the man would want to be paid.
"Treinta mil," Morales says, repeating what his brother told him.
Four thousand dollars.
Who in Estanzuela would have $4,000?
"We looked, and couldn't find anyone," Lena says. A year went by. Another. "Then we told my sister."
"Ten percent," the sister said, suggesting an interest rate for repayment. Not per year, but per month.
"Yes," Lena said.
And so it was that in late April the sister went to the market in Joyabaj and sold all 10 of her dairy cows, and on May 1 she gave the Moraleses 33,000 quetzales, and on May 15 Jose Morales said goodbye to his family, walked an hour to Zacualpa and got on a bus. Seven hours later he was in Cuatro Caminos, a town near the border, handing over 32,000 quetzales. After 20 days of bus rides and walking across desert, he was hanging onto an inner tube and kicking his way across the Rio Grande. Two days after that, he was in a town near Atlanta where he'd heard there was work. A month after that, he set off for Richmond because he'd been assured by a distant relative that the work in Richmond was steadier, and a week after that he was earning $8 an hour as a roofer.
The months went by. July, August and September. Up before sunrise. Work till sunset. Home was a two-bedroom apartment Morales shared with six other illegals. He slept on a patch of gray carpet in the smaller of the bedrooms, learned to cook tortillas on the electric stove, took walks past the nearby car dealership with the gigantic American flag, and went once a week to Ryan's Qwik Stop, where he would pay $5 for a phone card that allowed him a 30-minute call to a cell phone his family now had in Guatemala.
"Be careful. There's someone out there killing people," he was told one morning by the clerk, Aruna Subba, who'd immigrated from Nepal for a new life of standing behind a counter stacked with BC Headache Powder, and Dutch Masters cigars, and Chupa Chupas lollipops, and Horny Goat Weed aphrodisiac, and phone cards that brought in $1,000 in sales a week.
"Gracias," said Morales. Careful was a word he understood. For five months, he'd been moving through his days with averted eyes and as few conversations as possible. The invisible life: Of course he was lonely, but it also had its rewards. Already he had sent home several hundred dollars. Already Lena had bought four sheep, a goat and a used TV.
The Soldiers Came
More bumps in the road. More laughter on the bus. Morales whispers something to Lena and waves to a man across the aisle. He is Tomas Xirum, also of Estanzuela, whose own questions about what comes next rise and fall from a day 20 years ago when, as he remembers it, "I was 11," and "it was a Saturday," and "we were in our house resting when the soldiers came," and "my parents told them to come in," and "inside the house they started to shoot my family."
There are two events in the recent history of Estanzuela from which people take measure: The first is the 1976 earthquake that killed 23,000 people in Guatemala, and the second is the day six years later when the Guatemalan war between the army and leftist guerrillas came down the dirt road to the center of the village. It was in the middle of the long conflict's most brutal years, when the army was engaged in wholesale massacres of indigenous people. Estanzuela's turn began in Xirum's house, where soldiers killed his father, mother and three brothers. To this day, there is disagreement over the total number of victims in the town. Houses were burned, and no one can say for sure who was inside. One person in the village says 50 were killed, another says 48, another says 70.
Twenty years later, reminders are everywhere of the days when being careful might have saved a life.
In Estanzuela, the woods Morales walks through to get to the bus are where the villagers slept for years out of fear the army would return to their houses. "Each and every one of us was scared," says a resident named Miguel Macario.
In Zacualpa, the bus stops at a church that was occupied for three years by the army. "In these trees, they tied people alive and interrogated them," says the priest, Atilio Prandina, standing outside the rectory. He steps into a courtyard. "Here, they buried them up to their necks for three days to wear them down." He steps into a small, dark room. "Then they tortured them in here. I know they beat them. That they didn't let them eat. That after 10 days of not eating they asked if they wanted to eat and gave them a tortilla made of cardboard. They asked if they were thirsty and gave them water with paint in it." He leaves the room and walks over to a well. "Forty bodies," he says. He walks back toward the church. "They would grab children by their feet," he says, still astonished so many years later, "and swing their heads against trees."
According to Guatemala's Commission for Historical Clarification, 344 of the 669 massacres it investigated were in the state Morales lives in, Quiche. Two hundred thousand people are estimated to have been killed during the war, and every night Morales sleeps next to a woman who might be dreaming of one of them, her father.
"They shot him four times in the head," Morales says.
So in Richmond, when Aruna Subba told him someone was out there killing people, he simply thanked her and went on his way. Where wasn't someone killing people? He had no idea what was happening in Silver Spring, in Fairfax County, in Fredericksburg. An illiterate man doesn't read the papers; a working man who every night comes home exhausted and makes his own tortillas and cleans his dishes and washes his clothes doesn't watch much TV.
"One person," he says of how many shooting victims he thought there had been as of Oct. 21, the day he was arrested. Two days before, the area's 13th victim had been shot at a Ponderosa Steakhouse north of Richmond, but he'd heard nothing about that shooting either, including news reports that a note had been found attached to a tree, the undisclosed contents of which had brought the attention of the sniper task force to a pay phone at Ryan's Qwik Stop and another phone at the Exxon across the street.
"There are three or four cops on the back side of the store," Aruna Subba remembers a customer telling her on Oct. 21 just after 8 a.m.
"I don't know anything about that," she said.
She looked at the Exxon across the street. A white van was at a pay phone. Something was going on.
Now, walking across her parking lot, came Morales.
And here came the police.
"I'm not doing anything," he remembers saying in Spanish as he was handcuffed. "I just wanted to make a call."
He was taken to the police station, where someone was calling him the sniper.
Next, he was standing before an immigration judge, agreeing to leave the country.
Next, he was on a chartered jet to Guatemala City.
Next, he was on a bus heading up toward the highlands of Quiche.
And then he was beginning the hour-long walk home to Estanzuela.
"I was so sad," he remembers.
He saw his cornfield. He saw his house. He saw his wife.
When she first heard he'd been caught by the police, she knew he was dead. That's what the police did. Her mother thought the same thing. "Like they killed your father," she said. "Your children will be left with nothing, too."
She was at the cistern, washing the breakfast dishes.
"Good morning," he said. "I've arrived."
Worse Than Before
"Well, this is what happened," he said to Lena the next day. "They caught me, just because I was making a phone call."
He didn't say much more than that -- and Lena didn't tell him that he had become the news of Estanzuela, that the first reports about his detention and that of a Mexican immigrant, who was also released, had been on TV, and that the neighbors with whom he had survived an earthquake and a war were referring to him now as "the sniper."
Soon enough, he found out.
"Look. There's the sniper. Here he comes," he heard people saying a few days later, when he felt clear-headed enough to leave his house and go for a walk.
"They look at me, and they laugh, and I feel bad," he says, describing what those first days were like.
At the mill, where his daughter, the one with the cough and the red eyes, takes the corn to be ground, the talk continued, this time directed at her.
"Have they come to take your father to jail?" they asked her a day after some Mormon missionaries were seen approaching the Morales house.
"No," she said. "My father is home."
"No, they've come to take him to jail," they insisted. "It's true. He kills people."
And Lena, meanwhile, was being referred to as la millonaria. The millionaire.
"They were saying it in a bad way," she says. " 'This woman's going to be a millionaire because now she's got money from the United States.' "
"It's envy," Morales says. "There are people here who were happy I got sent back."
They don't understand, Lena says. "We're worse off now than we were before."
If they don't pay back the money, Morales, says, "they'll take away my land and sell it."
" 'Now I have no cows,' " Lena says her sister keeps saying.
It's not even $4,000 they owe, they say, not at 10 percent interest per month. Now it's $7,000. Soon enough it'll be $10,000.
And they are people who, in order to ride a bus, which is now pulling into Joyabaj, had to sell some of their ducks.
"My friend Jose," says the mayor, Raul Perez, a longtime acquaintance, inviting the Moraleses into his office. He, too, saw the reports about Morales on TV and read about him in the paper. But he has known Morales for many years. "Just one of the common people who go to the United States to try to survive," is how he describes Morales. "The luck of the Latin wasn't with him in that moment," is how he describes what happened.
Lena, still holding the electric bill, explains why they have come. Perez, the mayor of 98,000 people, not including the 30,000 he estimates have left for the United States, picks up his phone, makes a call, writes a note, hands it to Lena -- and just like that the bill is no longer 220 quetzales, but back down to the usual 20.
Now he turns to Morales with a question.
"Jose," he says, "do you want to go back to the United States?"
There are so many questions that people struggle with. In Washington, people wonder how someone could shoot a woman at a gas station, and a man standing on bus steps, and a child outside a school. In Zacualpa, a priest wonders how someone can pick a child up by the feet and swing him into a tree. In Estanzuela, a woman wonders why she sold her cows.
Morales struggles, too. What will come next? That's what he wonders. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said before seeing the mayor. "Sometimes I get lost in my head thinking about it so much."
In this moment, though, he is not lost. He looks at the mayor. He knows the answer.
A Sunday morning in the remote village of Estanzuela, where recent history includes an earthquake, a massacre and the steady outflow of residents seeking work in the United States.Every Sunday, Belasario Rosales, 77, attends the farmers' market in Estanzuela. Buyers are rare.