Black and white image of a young girl behind a fence

By: Nick Santangelo

To grab hold of her dreams, Liliana Velasquez first had to reach through her nightmares. Fleeing violence and poverty, Velasquez left her home of Guatemala at just 14 and headed through Mexico towards the United States. Along the way, she was robbed at gunpoint by narcos, arrested by Federales and spent four months in a detention center near Phoenix. When she was apprehended by Federales, Velasquez even organized 30 of her fellow migrants in convincing the arresting agents to let them go.

Those are just a few of the harrowing experiences Velasquez survived along the way. She's since received her green card and graduated from a U.S. high school and is now attending college for nursing. Last Wednesday, she visited the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) to share her story—now a book titled Sueños y Pesadillas, or Dreams and Nightmares—with Spanish students in Anderson Hall's Women's Studies Lounge.

"This is my story," Velasquez told a standing-room-only audience. "And it is the story of more than 247,000 other young people who fled their countries and were captured by immigration."

Velasquez's journey began when she asked her sister if she could borrow some money for shoes. Fearing, accurately, that she wanted them to leave town, her sister at first denied her. But Velasquez eventually convinced her to buy the shoes. Three days later, she put them on and set off for America. Today, she keeps those shoes in her closet as a reminder of what she went through.

Now I have a future, and I know my life is going to change

Velasquez spent part of her journey packed into freight trains with thousands of other migrants attempting to make it across the border. But most of the expedition was spent on foot in those sneakers. After somehow surviving and continuing on after her encounters with the narcos and Federales, Velasquez crossed into Arizona and sought out a "coyote," a person who works as a guide for migrants.

photo of Liliana Velasquez speaking to students

Velasquez was "very scared" of this long-haired, tattooed man, but his looks were deceiving. She recalls him being "very nice" and helping her find her way. But U.S. Immigration eventually caught her in the desert and sent her to the detention center she'd spend four months at. From there, she was sent to Philadelphia to stay with a foster family who only took her in to get money from the government. They only fed Velasquez rice and beans and treated her poorly during her year with them.

Finally, though, she convinced a judge that her home was too unsafe for her to return to and was granted a green card. She was then placed with what she calls the family of her dreams.

"Now I have a future, and I know my life is going to change," she said, recalling the moment the judge awarded her the green card.

But things were still far from easy. She was thrown into 10th grade and had to catch up without being able to fully read, write or speak English. One CLA student was dying to know how Velasquez managed to answer test questions in school.

"Sometimes I would just leave it blank," said Velasquez to much laughter from the room.

Today, Velasquez feels like she's "living the American dream." In Guatemala, she explained, most schools only have one classroom. Women and children are often abused or grow up in need because their husbands/fathers can't support them. And because the village she grew up in had no police, crime was a constant threat. By contrast, Velasquez told a CLA student she now feels "safe" in the U.S.

Another student wanted to know how long Velasquez spent thinking things over before making her "crazy decision" to leave her family and country and come here. Her answer? None at all. She just did it. Thankfully, she's been able to speak with and visit her family since her journey ended and them know "how important they are" to her.

Finally, a student asked how Velasquez feels about today's refugee migrants and their struggles. She's saddened by their hardships, but she wants them to remember their roots and their family. Most of all, Velasquez encourages them not to give up.

"I hope that my story encourages them to continue on."