On the day I was set to interview Lopez, I thought back to the first time we’d met when he and his mother came to our office to register for English classes. I remembered his mother’s warm smile, and Lopez’s gentle chuckle when the van’s chair lift stopped working, keeping him suspended in midair. I remembered how kind they both were and how I’d hoped to get to meet them again.
The day of our interview, months later, Lopez joins our Zoom meeting and turns on his camera. The sunlight streams in from a nearby window, falling onto Lopez’s baseball cap. He looks up at the camera from beneath a swirling blue Dodgers logo on the underside of the brim. He’s sporting short black hair and a goatee, and the same easy demeaner he held while waiting on that broken chair lift.
Lopez came to the United States a little over a year ago from Guatemala, where he lived with his mother, two sisters, nieces, and nephews. When he left, his mother and one sister came with him – they still live together here in Richmond. But his other sister and her children stayed behind.
“We came here to have a better life,” Lopez says. “I was being persecuted in Guatemala.” He’d reported gang activity to the police, and from that moment forward he was repeatedly harassed by the gang members. “They shot at me and slit my tires,” he says. One day after getting off work with the telephone company he and some friends had come home to have dinner. Members of the gang found him and shot him.
“The best thing about being here is the peace that I experience,”
The shot damaged his spine, and from that moment forward Lopez has been confined to a wheelchair. He expresses his gratitude to now be here in the United States, and to no longer have to worry about his safety. “The best thing about being here is the peace that I experience,” he says. “Because I wasn’t safe back home.”
Our conversation touches on other aspects of his life in Guatemala. His favorite musician is the Guatemalan singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona, who he first heard on the radio. Lopez played drums back home – “a very beautiful instrument.” He also loved to cook, although he hasn’t done so much since his injury. But his passion is palpable as his eyes widen while talking about his favorite food. “Pepián,” a stew made with chicken and vegetables. Guatemalan food remains his favorite. Really, his only: “I still haven’t gotten used to the food here,” he says with a laugh.
But there are two themes that Lopez continues to come back to throughout our conversation: his injury, and his family. Everything he shares is filtered through the lens of what he’s been through, and what he left behind to find safety here. “There are lots of things I miss,” Lopez says, “but overall the worst thing is being apart from my family. My nieces and nephews are very fond of me. I was with them ever since they were born. I’m highly attached to them, that’s why I miss them so much.”
Back home, before his injury, Lopez was an attentive, present uncle. He would take his nieces and nephews out shopping, and for walks down the street. When he got hurt and began using his wheelchair they would attend his wheelchair basketball, watching him play and to cheering him on from the sidelines.
Up to now, Lopez has shared his story calmly and matter-of-factly. But when he tells me about life with his nieces and nephews, the time they would spend together, he stops. He looks away, takes a deep breath, and rubs his eyes before trying again. And stopping again. Without looking at the camera he takes a shaky breath, wipes his tears, and says “I would tell them how much I miss them, and I would tell them I love them.”
Like all refugees and immigrants, resettling in a new country was a challenging experience for Lopez. “The main thing I wish people knew is what a long and complicated process it is to come to the United States,” he says. “I spent 1 year and 3 months just getting here. And there are so many interviews with different government agencies and officials.” But now that he’s here, Lopez is spending his time improving his English and attending physical therapy. “The language has been the worst thing since coming here,” he says sheepishly with a soft chuckle. “But I’m beginning to play sports again,” he says. “In Guatemala I played fútbol, and wheelchair basketball. I had the opportunity to choose a new sport here – now I play tennis.” Tennis is his favorite sport to play at the moment, but he watches a lot of baseball and fútbol on TV. His favorite teams? “The Dodgers,” he shares, confirming the swirling script above his forehead. “And Barcelona” he says with reverence.
We end our conversation looking to the future – both near and far. “Today is Mother’s Day in Guatemala,” he says, “and we usually celebrate that. This afternoon I’ll talk to my nieces and nephews, and I’ll just be hanging out here at the house. But I dream about having my whole family in the United States.”