Claudio walked over the border into Texas in 1981. He was alone, and didn't have a smuggler. It was easier in those days for Salvadorans fleeing the civil war to come to the US. He called his mother's cousin in Chicago from a pay phone in Brownsville; Cousin Armando wired enough money for a motel room for the night, and a bus ticket. The trip north in the old Greyhound was a luxury ride compared to bus travel in El Salvador, but Claudio did not notice. He didn't notice the quiet green countryside, the absence of soldiers patrolling the roads with automatic rifles, or the sleepy small towns along the Greyhound's milk-run route. He was working on a poem.
When the bus pulled into the station in Chicago, Armando was there to meet him and take him to his North Side apartment. Claudio was distant with Armando and his wife and children. Armando thought he was war-shocked, and the family made allowances for his coldness. Claudio had been a student at the national university and he was one of the student-poets who published an anti-government magazine. He had been arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, but his businessman father bribed the officer in charge of the prison for Claudio's release. He had to leave the country. His father paid someone to take him as far as the Mexican border with the US.
It was December in Chicago, and Claudio thought he was in hell. The trees looked dead, the old apartment was cold and rat-infested, and the sidewalks were ice-covered. No one walked. There seemed to be no life in streets, no place to be but huddled inside. Armando's family was not literary; they watched TV in the few hours they were not working or sleeping.
Armando found Claudio a job in the same banquet hall where he worked as a waiter, but Claudio dropped too many trays and spilled too much food and drink on the banqueters. He was fired after a week. Armando couldn't imagine another job that Claudio could do. He was too absent-minded to be a waiter, too clumsy to be a dishwasher, too slow to be a janitor. He was skinny and lank-haired, and shivered all the time, even in a heavy overcoat. He didn't look strong enough for anything other than a desk job. Armando suggested English classes, but Claudio refused. It would interfere with his poetry, he said.
Armando waited three months before telling Claudio that he would have to start paying for a share of the rent and food. “I can help you find a job,” Armando said, “but once I do, you have to keep it.” Armando's friend owned a shoe store that served mainly recent Latino immigrants to the North Side. Claudio worked stocking the shelves, taking out the trash, sweeping, unloading boxes. The owner kept him on because he knew he was a poet, and made allowances for his frequent inattention.
Claudio did keep the job, but he was never promoted. He refused to speak English, or even attempt to learn it. He was keeping his head clear of the new language and culture, waiting for the war in El Salvador to end so he could go back. He won asylum status in the US, and became a permanent resident. He wrote poetry in the first year or so, but then his inspiration dried up. He paid rent to his cousin, and kept to himself in his own room. Years went by, and the war ended in 1991. He thought of going back, but his father had died, and his mother and sister fled to Mexico and decided to stay.
Claudio has never found a home in the United States. He no longer has a home in El Salvador either. Unlike many immigrants, Claudio did not come in hopes of fulfilling his dreams. He fled to the US because he had no other option. He was physically tortured in El Salvador and now lives another kind of torture in the US. Despite having legal status, he remains an alien, a poet with no outlet, a man without a home.