The Invisible Girl

15 years ago, Maria arrived in Houston, one more troubled illegal from one more troubled country. Then, to most of the world, she simply disappeared.

Ever since that day in 1981 when she rode a grimy bus into Houston, a 12-year-old dispatched to support her family back in Guatemala, Maria has been almost invisible. Granted, Maria, who asks not to reveal her full name, sought at least part of her anonymity. She was illegal, and for someone without papers, a low profile can be helpful. Too, disappearing into the shadows allowed her respite from the political violence that had killed her father in Guatemala, and gave her the opportunity to work undisturbed as a nanny for her young cousins.

Sometimes, though, she wished someone would notice her: specifically, her uncle and aunt. The tios, as Maria refers to them in her timid, babyish voice, paid her $50 a week as a live-in babysitter for their children. But they never sent Maria to school, seldom allowed her contact with the outside world and, worst of all, didn't tell her about a one-time amnesty program that, in 1986, could have made her a legal resident of the United States. It wasn't that they didn't know about it -- her aunt and uncle successfully gained amnesty for both themselves and their children. But somehow, for some reason, they didn't include Maria in their petition.

Now, a decade and a half after she arrived in America, a figure of authority is finally paying Maria some heed. It's the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which wants to deport her. If Maria goes, they say, she'll have the option of taking her American-born children back to the village where her father was murdered or leaving them here with her husband.

Maria's story is one that causes those who work with undocumented immigrants to wince, both because it's so extreme and because it touches on immigration problems that aren't extreme at all. It's not simply a tale of one person's missed opportunities; it's also a reminder of how easily those opportunities can be lost. After a lifetime of violence in one country and exploitation in another, it seems pretty clear who's the victim in this hard-luck immigration saga. What's harder to identify is the villain.

"My aunt says that when kids have been born in the United States, they're different," Maria says, proudly watching her two preschoolers scale the furniture and offer each other high fives in their southwest Houston apartment. "They're bold, they're active, they love to talk. And they're so intelligent!"

What she doesn't say is how different she was as a girl. Intelligent she might have been, but growing up in a Guatemalan town on the border of El Salvador, Maria's main concerns were keeping her head down and avoiding the massacres, bombings and rapes that defined life in her region. The town where Maria grew up was one of the most notorious zones of conflict between the Guatemalan army and local guerrillas. Maria had learned to detest both sides even before she was six, and the army forcibly recruited her father.

By the time his one-year term was over, the bloodshed in their village began to paralyze daily life, so Maria's father moved his impoverished family to Guatemala City. There, everybody worked: the five children sold hot dogs from little carts, and Maria, who was in third grade, also bought and cooked corn on the cob to sell between classes. Then, when she was 12, Maria's father went back to their village to deliver some farming equipment. A few days later, the family received news: Maria's father had been murdered by guerrillas. To this day, Maria doesn't know, or won't tell, the details.

But she and her family were terrified. "I'd seen so many terrible things in my childhood. I'd seen so many killings," she says. "A panic came over me, a fear of being in Guatemala." To this day, that fear seems to have marked her character. She talks in a hushed voice, as if always afraid of being overheard. Her movements are timid and unassuming. "When there's a massacre, the guerrillas find the oldest person in the family to find out what they know," she remembers. "Everyone in the pueblo was afraid."

She also came to fear starvation. For a few months, her family lived off the stock that had been bought for their business. Then they became destitute. It was around that time that Maria's aunt, the sister of her father, called from Houston.

We are going to help you, she said. She and her husband had been in the United States seven months, and although they were illegal, they had already found work doing menial labor. Maria's father had always asked them to look out for her, her aunt said, and they would. They would wire bus fare to Maria in Guatemala, and Maria could come live with them in Houston, where it was safe. And she could even earn money to send home.

In a way, Maria says now, her aunt and uncle did their best by her. After all, she couldn't expect them to treat her like a daughter. She was just a niece. And though she was only 12, and maybe in need of some parental affection, well, life was tough for everybody at the apartment on Briar Grove Road. Working as a laborer, Maria's uncle could only manage a one-bedroom apartment; her aunt's salary as a domestic helped only a little. At night, her uncle and aunt shared the bedroom with their two sons. Maria slept in the living room.

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