Every family has a story of its journey to the Central Valley. Those stories often occur in waves and sometimes have broad-sweeping titles: Gold Rush, Dust Bowl, Bracero Program.
Thursday, people gathered in a parking lot on Crows Landing Road in Modesto to pay homage to the stories that have become whispers because they concede illegal, risky, controversial and sometimes fatal acts.
Catalina Rivera, 74, shared hers:
Drenched in a cold December rain and packed into the trunk of a car with six other people, including two babies, Rivera was on her way to the promised land -- the United States -- in search of work and decent education for her children.
By the second day of her journey in 1987, Rivera had left her family in Michoacán, Mexico, paid $400 to a smuggler for safe passage, walked hours across the harsh moonlit strip between Mexico and the United States, and left her daughter Maribel Torres in San Ysidro because the 11-year-old was afraid to crawl into the trunk with everyone else.
Then, the car stopped under a bridge. The driver got out and left.
Rivera had heard of this. Illegal, or undocumented, immigrants pay smugglers to ensure their safe travel, but sometimes smugglers abandon their groups once they have received payment.
Trapped in the trunk of a car with babies wailing into the shallow darkness, fear permeated Rivera. Two hours later, another smuggler came upon the car and they finished their journey to Los Angeles.
Stories of illegal immigrants' dangerous and sometimes fatal passage into the United States were at the forefront of people's minds Thursday at the May Day rally. Participants also mourned families divided when Immigration and Customs Enforcement deport illegal immigrants who have children who are U.S. citizens.
About 300 people gathered in a parking lot on Crows Landing Road waving U.S. flags in one hand and Mexican flags in the other. Most were Latino. Some were white. Some were black. Some refused to be defined. All stood together in support of an easier way to citizenship for immigrants.
Participants believe immigration to the United States shouldn't be so dangerous and, when legal, shouldn't take so long.
"If you could make it over in a year, people might wait," said John X Mataka with The Nation of Islam.
The amount of time it takes for immigration papers to be processed varies depending on where immigrants are from. It can take more than a year for people in some areas of Mexico and Canada to get approval if they fill out all of the paperwork correctly.
"You don't tell someone who's hungry to wait until tomorrow," said participant Vanessa Ferrel.
Immigration activists say the cost of legal immigration can be prohibitive, especially for those who see immigration as a path to a better job. Last year, the cost of processing paperwork for a green card increased from less than $400 to more than $1,000.
Rivera is now a citizen. The money she earned from making tamales and cannery work paid her way.
Though her journey left her with an intense fear of enclosed spaces, she said it was worth it.
"You suffer, but you learn to value what you have," she said.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2382.