Antonio Gomez of Geneva has been garnering considerable media attention lately. Radio, online and print outlets have touched on his remarkable story — and rightly so.
I have known the Gomez family for eight years. He and his wife, Evelyn, have two children and in fact, Evelyn was profiled in the “Bigger Picture” in 2012.
Antonio’s story is one of the more compelling ones I’ve heard in quite some time.
Now 41, he was born in Guatemala and raised in extreme poverty in a crime-ridden region. We are talking about routinely scrounging for food in Dumpsters. He became a member of a street gang as a teen with the philosophy that in order to survive, to mug is better than being mugged.
Guatemala suffered through a long civil war from 1960 to 1996. It was fought between the government and various leftist rebel groups supported chiefly by ethnic Mayan indigenous people and Latino peasants, who together, make up the rural poor. It is estimated that 200,000 people were killed or forcefully disappeared during the conflict.
From an early age, Gomez has shown a savviness and intelligence that belie his lack of formal education. One might say that along the way he also has been incredibly lucky ... or quite possibly was assisted by some divine intervention? You decide.
Divine intervention #1: At 15 and weighing about 80 pounds, Gomez joined his stepfather and others in an effort to flee to the United States. Just two walking hours away from the Mexico border, the group was robbed. Many guerrilla rebels and drug cartels had set up “checkpoints,” and the group had come across one of them.
With a .45-caliber gun at his head and a machete at his neck, Gomez gave up all his money, as did the others. Much of his he had borrowed. Nobody was killed. Using either his inner strength or just naiveté, Antonio actually asked the robbers for some of the money back so he could get back home. They all said no way, except one; he gave him 70,000 pesos. Sound like a lot? It was only $35. Combine that and the $3 he got from selling a necklace he was wearing to a pawn shop, and he was able to safely return to Jalapa, his hometown.
The kid always had good survival instincts. He set up a shoe shining business and would get up early to find a good tourist spot. He would work until 11:30 a.m. and then head to school. He was charging 35 cents a shine and making $10 to $15 a day, more than most general laborers were making in the then-Third World country.
The money went straight to his mom who was raising several children. His stepfather often was absent as he was going back and forth to the U.S., working on farms with other migrants.
Divine intervention #2: By 17, Gomez had a stable of base customers for his shoe shining business. One was a Mexican who owned a restaurant. He told Gomez that he was helping a group get to the U.S. After borrowing more money, enough to cover the “coyotes” leading the group, the various checkpoint payoffs, and food (about $2,000 total) Gomez would start his second attempt to get to the U.S..
This time a different and longer route was chosen. The group of a dozen headed out on Feb. 11, 1995, across Guatemala and up the east coast of Mexico. They not only walked but smartly paid extra to take luxury bus lines, which were not searched by Mexican police. The only possessions he carried with him were books, not to study but to use as props to appear to be a Mexican student.
The group made it safely to the border at the Rio Grand River in about 10 days. As we often see on the news, the trek across the river can be dangerous with vicious undertows and currents. But not on this day when, due to favorable weather conditions, the water only came up to his knees.
The group then hiked seven hours through the desert where they handed over money at various and expected checkpoints. At a predetermined spot, they waited for a pickup truck to arrive.
All of them were crammed into the cab portion of the vehicle, hiding low and silent as best they could. Gomez said it was torturous and one of the most painful experiences of his life.
Divine intervention #3: When the vehicle was arbitrarily stopped by Texas State Police who then called Border Patrol, Antonio thought his journey was at a sudden end. Amazingly, however, the cop waited two hours for Immigration to show up, and when they never did, he just let them all go.
Gomez continued with the group to Houston to a pre-planned safe house. He had no I.D., money or knowledge of the English language.
At the safe house, Gomez was given a plane ticket to Ft. Myers, Florida where he wound up on a zucchini farm previously worked by his stepdad. He worked from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily for $4.25 per hour but was paid for only 10 of those hours.
Gomez needed to make more money to pay off the debt he accumulated getting to the U.S., so he and his stepdad decided to head north.
They wound up next in Maryland picking strawberries and peaches. It was grueling labor that paid by piece work not by the hour. Again, it was difficult to make a good buck.
Tomorrow: How Gomez finds a home, a satisfying life and God while in Geneva.