Dreams and Nightmares: Sueños y Pesadillas

June, 2017



By telling my story, I feel at peace, unburdened. Everything that was on my mind, all of my suffering and all of my dreams—my destiny—now are kept safe in this book.

–Liliana Vesásquez

In the last five years, over 200,000 minors have fled their countries in Central America and Mexico and traveled north without their families, only to be caught by immigration at the U.S. Border. Liliana Velásquez is one of them. Every American should read her memoir, Dreams and Nightmares / Sueños y Pesadillas.

When she was fourteen years old, Liliana fled horrific violence and poverty in Guatemala and headed out alone for the United States. On her trip through Mexico she was robbed by narcos, rode the boxcars of La Bestia, and organized thirty of her fellow Central American bus passengers to convince the Federales who had arrested them to allow them to continue on their way. Finally, she made it to the U.S. border, and headed out across the Sonoran Desert, where she encountered death and was caught by Immigration. After four months in a detention center, she was placed in foster care while the courts decided whether to deport her. She spent a year in a horrendous foster situation and eventually landed on her feet with a family that loves and protects her. After having to recount her story of abuse several times, the judge determined it was too dangerous for her to return home and finally granted her a green card. She just graduated from high school and received two scholarships to go to college, where she plans to study nursing.  She also works to support her family back home.

Each year since 2013, an average of 50,000 such unaccompanied children such as Liliana have been arrested at the U.S. Border. Why do they come, these legions of children who risk robbery or rape or death along their tortuous journey through Central America and Mexico, are at the mercy of smugglers, who have heard stories of bodies baking in the Sonoran Desert, who know that many will be caught at the U.S. border and sent back home? What drives them to leave their communities and families and head north by themselves, carrying a small backpack and faith that they will find their way, that they will survive? The conventional wisdom is that these children come to the United States primarily for economic reasons. But when they tell their stories, the answer becomes much more complicated. In fact, many are fleeing violence in their communities, perpetrated by gangs and narcotics rings and vestiges of civil wars. Many flee insufferable violence in their families. Others leave because they live in a level of poverty unimaginable in the United States. This is not simply an issue of immigrants seeking economic opportunity—it is a refugee issue, of people fleeing their homeland because it is no longer safe or viable to live there. They are fleeing to survive. This is a humanitarian crisis.

What happens to these children once they are apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection? First, they are assigned the legal status of UAC: Unaccompanied Alien Child—a minor under eighteen, traveling alone, who enters the United States without legal papers. Then they are placed in detention, and their case is taken up by the Department of Health and Human Services while the immigration courts decide whether to deport them to their home country. They remain in detention—often for months–until a family member in the U.S. is found, or until they temporarily are placed with a foster family, as was Liliana.

Eventually these children go before an Immigration judge, who has three options: (1) deport the child back to their home country; (2) grant the child asylum because she faces prosecution and severe danger if returned to her homeland; and (3) grant Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) because she has been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both of her parents. Unlike other civil court proceedings involving American youth or adults accused of crimes, undocumented children have no right to a lawyer—they are expected to represent themselves in immigration court. Undocumented and unaccompanied minors can only get a lawyer if they can pay for it, or have the support of immigration rights organizations or pro bono lawyers. Only one out of three of these children ultimately has legal representation–the rest must fend for themselves when they show up in court.

So, this is the scenario: a poor, often uneducated, child who speaks no English faces off in court against a trained U.S. government prosecutor who uses the arcane and complex immigration laws to demand her deportation. Having no right to an attorney has predictable outcomes: 85% of children with no legal representation end up being deported. 73% of children who have a lawyer obtain asylee or SIJS status and are allowed to remain in the United States.

Liliana’s story is uniquely hers, but it is also the story of tens of thousands of children who have fled violence and poverty in their home country to make a safer life in the United States.  In this time when the issue of undocumented immigrants is causing great divisions within our country, much is written about them; but little is told by them in their own voice. Liliana’s story needs to be part of our national conversation.

Liliana, age 13

Liliana, age 13

Below are excerpts from the last two chapters of Dreams and Nightmares / Sueños y Pesadillas:


When we entered the desert, I said to God, I want to get to the United States, I don’t want to go back. I felt a great sadness because I had left my family, and they didn’t know where I was; but I had a lot of faith to continue on, to follow my path. The eight people I was travelling with were all strangers to me—I had just met them two days before in the village of Altar, on the Mexican side of the border.

It was five in the afternoon, and we had walked in the desert for hours. Finally, we came to a ravine where we could hide. Wilmer, our coyote, explained that we shouldn’t look up, because there were cameras that could spot the reflection of our eyes. We ate and rested for two or three hours, and when it got dark, we continued walking. There were no stars or a moon, and we couldn’t use a flashlight. It was dangerous because there were so many ravines full of thorny cactuses and snakes. I fell two times. Finally it was daybreak—twenty-four hours without sleep. I felt tired, but we were really making progress. We kept on walking in the morning. We climbed over a short fence made of barbed wire; then we came to another big fence, six feet high—the border. It wasn’t hard to get over it because there was an opening. I crossed into the United States the twentieth of January—sixteen days after I walked out of my village of Villaflor, in Guatemala, and headed north alone. There wasn’t time to celebrate our arrival to the United States—we had to worry about surviving and avoiding Immigration. I didn’t think about my family, about anything, I had to focus on myself, on being strong.  Nothing else mattered.

From there, we had to run really fast. My backpack weighed too much because I was carrying a gallon of water and some bottles of Gatorade and it was full of food and clothes.  At noon we stopped for a while to rest and eat, and each person looked for a place to hide in the shade. From where I was sitting among the thorns of a nopal cactus, I saw a skeleton of a dead person—it was really old and didn’t have any flesh, there were only bones. I had never seen a dead person, and it gave me a chill. At that moment I understood the reality—that one can die in the desert. But when one comes into the desert, she can’t be worried about dying, she can only think about surviving, where she is going to get to.

desert clothes

The clothes Liliana was wearing when she was caught in the desert

After two hours, we continued walking, then my bottle of water was punctured by a thorn and I lost most of my water. After that, other people shared their water with me. And I was still carrying a bottle of Gatorade in my backpack.

We continued walking and running that night, our second night in the desert. I was totally exhausted—we couldn’t sleep for fear that la migra might catch us. We didn’t talk among ourselves, we had to walk in silence. Finally we rested for two hours during the night, but I didn’t have anything to protect me from the cold. We ate—I had beans with tortillas, an apple and yogurt. At sunrise we started running really fast again. I was happy, because now another night had gone by and everything was going along OK.

Suddenly I heard a noise—somebody walking really close-by. And the sound of people talking on a radio. Immigration! We all ran in different directions. I tried to stick with Wilmer, because he had a lot of experience, but for some reason we got separated and I was alone. I hid under a cactus, and two police dressed like soldiers found me. One put a pistol to my head and said, “Move it!” I panicked, I was terrified. But I didn’t cry.

Then some other police caught three more of us, but the coyote and three other people got away. They arrested us and bound our hands behind us with handcuffs. I didn’t understand what they were saying because they only spoke English. They took everything out of our backpacks to see what we had brought, then they threw all of our belongings into a trashcan and returned our empty packs to us. But I had kept my Bible in my sweater, nobody saw it. I was wearing two pairs of pants and my shoes, and I grabbed another pair of pants and hid it underneath my sweater. So, I was able to keep all of my things, except my food.

They pushed us around, they treated us badly. They forced us to walk really fast for an hour to get to the Border Patrol cars. I was walking handcuffed and full of cactus thorns. We were really thirsty—I didn’t have water anymore, after having walked through the desert. I was sweating and trembling and my mouth tasted bitter, but the police didn’t give us any water.

That moment was very difficult for me. I was terrified and I felt like all of my dreams had ended—they were going to send me back. I felt a coldness, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I tried to calm down and I said to God, Only you know what is going to happen to me. I am in your hands. I felt completely alone.

It began to rain. It was like a miracle. For me that cloudburst was a sign from God that he was listening to me, and that I was going to stay in the United States.

Then they locked us up in the police van.

I was fourteen years old.


I Got Rid of My Fear

When I was fourteen, I decided to come to the United States alone. I told myself, I’m going to get rid of all of my fear, if I never strive, I won’t accomplish my dream. When I made that decision, I was ready for anything. What was going to happen to me wasn’t important, because many things had already happened there in Guatemala. I made that decision out of desperation, out of the anger I always had, from seeing my mother and father suffering, from seeing parents in my village who didn’t care for their children, from seeing the violence within families and between neighbors—from seeing my poor country. And, as I suffered some of that, I decided to go far away without fear. When I came here I did many things that I couldn’t imagine, without knowing anything. I didn’t have a plan, like where I was going, who I was going to meet up with or stay with, if I had anything to eat or a place to sleep, or where I was going to get money. I didn’t think about those things. I only told myself, I’m going! I didn’t know what I was doing–it was insanity and bravery at the same time.

Now I’m not alone. I thank the people who have showed me what I am like, because I had never realized how other people see me. Many people have encouraged me. They tell me, “You are a very strong person, you have struggled and overcome so much. You are very humble, very friendly, and intelligent at the same time. You inspire me.” I am beginning to believe it.

And, yes—I got rid of my fear.

Fulfilling My Dreams

In Guatemala, I wanted to go to school and continue my studies, but I wasn’t able to. I wanted to be someone and overcome what had happened to me, and I decided to make a different life. I didn’t want to get married and have children, like the other young girls in Guatemala, and I had to escape the violence there. My dreams were to live with my brothers in North Carolina and work and help my mom and my sisters.

Liliana's house in Guatemala

Liliana’s house in Guatemala

When they captured me at the border, I felt like my dream had ended. I said to myself, If they deport me, I don’t know what will become of me—I will be destroyed if I return to Guatemala. When I was caught, destiny took me down another path beyond my imagination and changed my life. I came to the United States only to work and be with my brothers. I had no hopes of living with a foster family that would love me, I had no hopes of continuing with my studies and living like a regular girl, of having papers, of having more freedom and respect and opportunities, of not suffering from violence, or of finding so many people who would help me.

Thinking about the future, I am going to keep on fighting and taking advantage of the opportunities that I have. Right now, I’m only focused on my present goals. Eventually, I want to go to a university and study nursing. I will be the first person in my family who has graduated from high school and gone on to the university—who has a career.

This hasn’t been easy, it has cost me a lot. In one sense, I’m achieving the American Dream, but a part of me—the part that I love the most—I left in Guatemala. I’m separated from my family there, from the place that I was born. I’ve had to get used to a completely different culture and to new people and have had to determine my own path. It’s been hard, but it’s worth it.

Finally, I Have Told My Story

Since I was a thirteen-year-old girl, I have wanted to tell my story. When I cried in my house in Guatemala, I imagined that the house was a witness to my suffering, and that someday it would testify about what had happened to me. I wanted to express everything that I felt—how I cried because of the separation of my parents, or the abuse and torment that I experienced, and my lack of education. I didn’t think about including my dreams in my story—I only thought about the ways I suffered.

When I came to the United States I forgot about the idea of telling my story. Afterwards, in Philadelphia, I listened to the stories of other young people who came here, like Marcelo and Domingo and others from La Puerta Abierta, and that encouraged me a lot—I have a story like what they’re telling. I decided that I had to tell my story. It was very important to me, because there are many people who can’t express themselves, who don’t have the opportunity to tell their story, who have suffered like me. It is my story, but it’s also the story of all the others who have come to this country.

Also, I’m telling my story for the people here in the United States who don’t know anything about the life of immigrants—the poverty and violence and lack of opportunities in our countries, and the risks that we take to come to the United States in order to have a better life and help our families. They can’t imagine how we live here, how we suffer, how we try to get ahead and struggle by the sweat of our brow to get what we want. I hope that people who aren’t immigrants see the great difference between their life and the life of immigrants—that they reflect a bit and change their attitude. They haven’t suffered from hunger, they haven’t suffered rape or abuse, they have opportunities to get an education, they don’t live in fear of being arrested and deported. We immigrants came to fulfill our dreams—I want them to understand our dreams.

Possibly when other immigrants read my story, they will become sad because they will remember their own story and suffering. I hope they are inspired, too, and feel very proud—Wow! Look at all that we went through, how we have struggled, what we have achieved! I hope that my story encourages them to continue onward and to have patience and faith to achieve their dreams. Also, I want them to not forget where they came from—their roots—and to never forget their families.

Since I left my home in Guatemala, I have come across many good people on the way, people who helped me. My life has been difficult, but there were many people who I really trusted, who wanted to know who I was, who told me, “I know you.” They gave me a lot of encouragement to continue on. They showed me what I was like, and I began to realize, Maybe I’m not such a bad person. They were like family. They began to change my life. I’m telling my story for them, too.

Finally, I am telling my story so that my family in Guatemala knows how important they are to me—I will never forget them, I always miss them. Every day I think about them, how they are suffering there and how I can help them.

By telling my story, I feel at peace, unburdened. Everything that was on my mind, all of my suffering and all of my dreams—my destiny—now are kept safe in this book. 


Mark Lyons met with Liliana over forty-five times and recorded, edited and translated her story.  Dreams and Nightmares / Sueños y Pesadillas is in Spanish and English. Read about his work with her here.

Copyright New City Community Press. Published by Parlor Press LLC, Anderson, South Carolina. Also available on Amazon.

Teacher’s Guide available at  [Teaching the Journey tab)


Mark Lyons

Mark Lyons is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in their work with teens and adult learners in summer workshops, computer courses and ESL classes. Participants write stories or interview others about their immigrant experience, record, edit and mix their stories, and create short audio stories. He also does workshops with teachers on doing community oral histories. He is the co-editor of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English. He developed a theater piece from the stories in the book, which was performed by local people at the Border Book Festival in New Mexico.

He has worked in the Latino community for the last twenty five years, as a health worker and community organizer. For eight years he was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety  issues such as pesticides, field sanitation, housing, drinking water, HIV/AIDS and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a provider and health planner.

Mark’s collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, was published by Wild River Books in 2014. It was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and the J.P. McGrath Memorial Award from Whetstone Magazine. In addition, one of Mark’s stories was performed at the Writing Aloud Literary Series at the Interact Theater in Philadelphia.

Liliana Velasquez

Liliana Velásquez was born in Villaflor, Guatemala. After fleeing to the United States, she eventually ended up living in foster care in the Philadelphia area. She just graduated from high school and received two scholarships to go to community college, where her goal is to become a nurse. Dreams and Nightmares / Sueños y Pesadillas is her first book. She continues to do workshops in schools and conferences, teaching about her own experience in the context of social justice for all immigrants.