Written by Linda Rivera
Photos by William Camargo
Dust floods the air as the “millionaire” stomps down the street with a .22-caliber pistol in her hand, ready to shoot her husband. It’s a hot and humid day in June, in Tiquisate, Guatemala. Cleotilde “Coty” De León, 44, and her husband Efraín Estrada, 45, are known around town as the millionaires. They own a market, two restaurants, a pawnshop and the town’s only trash system.
Coty has just heard from her nosy neighbor that her husband is at the local bar with a waitress on his lap. This is the second mistress she has heard of this month. She has already lost count of the number of women she has caught him with. The entire town knows. She will not be humiliated again. Thankfully, her children are in school and the nannies and housekeepers are cooking and cleaning the house.
She opens the bar’s front door and sees her husband. The giggling waitress has her blouse halfway down her bulging breasts and her skirt is riding up his lap. She inhales.
The nosy neighbor was right. Efraín turns and sees his wife with a pistol in her hand. She exhales and shoots. Men duck under tables and the brave ones run out the door. Efraín and the waitress stand momentarily before they take off running.
Coty shoots and does not stop this time.
Next thing she knows she’s in a jail cell. There were no injuries or deaths. She never meant to kill them, otherwise, she would have — Coty just wanted to scare them. It was not the first time she used that pistol to break up one of his dates. She has sat in that same jail cell two other times.
With tears streaming down her face, she kisses her children goodbye and promises to see them again.
It is getting harder for Coty to shoot the floor and not the man who keeps breaking her heart. Coty sits in the dark cell and decides: enough is enough. That same day, Efraín pays bail and she is released. Days later, Coty decides she won’t ever go through that again. She’s leaving him. She’s leaving her businesses, nannies, housekeepers, family, those who owe her money, and worst of all, her children. She is going to America to build a new life. A life better for her children who otherwise won’t leave Tiquisate — their dreams are not to go to college or see the world, but to build a family. They look up to their father, but Coty will not have them grow up to emulate him.
In 1940, Coty’s mother left her and her eight siblings behind. She was also fed up with her husband’s numerous affairs. Coty, the eldest, dropped out of school to care for her father and younger siblings. Her daily routine consisted of making everyone breakfast at 5 a.m.; taking her siblings to school; shopping at the “mercado” for lunch and dinner ingredients; cleaning the house; walking to the river to hand wash their clothes; cooking lunch; picking up the children from school; serving everyone lunch; and washing dishes. Coty was twelve. She had no choice. She sacrificed her life, her dreams and her future, so her younger siblings could have theirs.
Thirty-two years later, Coty finally understands her mother’s decision to leave. Once again, Coty will sacrifice her life, but this time for her children.
Coty gathers the cash in her purse, stuffs her bra with gold jewelry, puts on a dress, another one on top, and then a third after that. She squeezes into a sweater and stuffs her pockets with clean underwear. With tears streaming down her face, she kisses her children goodbye and promises to see them again.
She walks to the bus stop with sweaty palms, boards and takes off to the Mexico-Guatemala border.
On the bus, Coty encounters a thief who befriends her, in hopes of stealing from her. However, she outsmarts him by ‘confiding’ in him that she is penniless and has already been robbed. The others on the bus aren’t as fortunate to outwit him.
The bus drops everyone off on the bridge connecting the two countries. Those who were robbed are forced to return home.
Coty walks over the bridge alone, aware of her surroundings. She flirts with a Mexican border patrol officer to let her into the country.
Although she awkwardly looks 20 pounds heavier, since she is wearing all of her clothes, her charm persuades him. In Mexico, she boards another bus and arrives at 5 a.m. in Tijuana a few days later. She hasn’t been able to sleep a wink.
An attractive woman, wearing a long coat and heels, approaches Coty and asks her where she is heading. The woman says she has just gotten off work.
Coty doesn’t trust her but she doesn’t know anyone else in the city. The woman invites her to sleep in her home and promises to help her once they rest.
Coty and the woman reach the apartment. The woman goes into her bedroom to sleep. The lights are off. Coty is lying on the sofa, uneasy. She gets up and sneaks out the front door to get a bit of fresh air, trying her best to not wake the woman.
A few minutes later, a woman peeking out from the crack of her front door grabs Coty’s attention.
Coty turns around. The woman, Bertha, sticks her little hand out and waves her in.
“What are you doing there?” Bertha whispers. “Why are you in her apartment?”
Coty tells her she doesn’t know anyone and is trying to cross over to the United States. “You’ll thank me for this one day. Come inside before she sees you.”
Once Coty walks in, Bertha tells her the woman’s apartment is a brothel.
“That woman picks up vulnerable women at a bus terminal, takes them to her apartment, and around noon a couple of men come to pick them up and take them only God knows where. I’ve never seen the women again. You have to be careful.”
Coty cannot believe what she is hearing. A week ago she was with her family, and today she is alone, having just walked out of a brothel by mere chance.
Bertha invites Coty to stay with her and her family. She has a spouse who works at a newspaper and two teenage children. She helps her find a job as a nanny and urges her to save enough for a “coyote” to smuggle her to the United States.
Coty works every day, with the exception of Sundays — careful not to cross paths with the woman who tried to sell her. For a month and a half, she saves enough money and can finally afford to cross over.
Coty hugs Bertha’s family goodbye, knowing she will never see them again, but is forever grateful.
When she meets with the coyote, she is instructed to braid her hair and put rags on.
By now, Coty has mastered the Mexican accent. He tells her to dig through the trash and find an empty bag. He gives her instructions and tells her he will wait for her on the other side. This is it.
Alone, she strolls by American patrol officers at the border, swinging her bag back and forth. She steps foot on American soil and her heart drops.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
Coty keeps walking.
The patrol officer stands up and is ready to go after her.
“¡¿Qué?!” Coty replies, looking angry and annoyed.
“¿A dónde va?” He translates the question. “¡Aquí a la tienda, nomás!” Coty responds, irritated as she continues swinging the bag. He believes she is only going to the corner store, and waves her along. The coyote, with a group of others, waits a few miles away. Together they run, jump over ditches and fences, with barely enough food or water to reach San Diego. Her children stay on her mind, giving her strength. Coty arrives in Los Angeles on the third day. She has never seen anything like L.A. America is more than she ever imagined. Her children will love it here.
As tears begin to cloud her vision of downtown, she thanks God for her safe arrival. Although she is the most tired, dirty and hungry she has been in her life, she is also happier than ever. She reaches into her dress for her pocketbook to find the phone number of an acquaintance, Magdalena.
Coty hopes Magdalena can help her get started.
Magdalena is thrilled to hear from Coty, and offers her a place in her home. Five other strangers live in the one-bedroom apartment and Coty is forced to pay for half the rent, half the groceries and do the cooking and cleaning. Two months later, she is a new person.
Just four months ago, she lived in her two-story, six-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-kitchen home, in the rich side of Tiquisate. She owned multiple cars, businesses and countless pieces of gold. Now she doesn’t even have a bed to sleep on and is living with strangers. However, she knows it is only temporary.
Coty rides the bus to Glendale because she hears it’s beautiful. She’s just been laid off from her temporary job at the grocery store. On the bus, the woman next to her, María, asks where she is going.
Coty answers, but María can tell she is worried.
María is about to respond when Coty interrupts her.
“I have no job! I’m illegal! I’ve left my family. I don’t speak English, and I’m running out of money!”
María clenches Coty’s hand. With tears in her eyes, she looks at María embarrassed.
Although she is a strong woman, Coty needed to vent to someone … anyone. María is silent for what feels like forever. Coty composes herself as María writes on the back of an old invoice. She hands it to her.
“I work for a doctor. He’s looking for someone to take care of his mother. I hope I see you there.”
María gets off at the next stop. Coty thinks of María as an angel, not only because of her biblical name, but because she is hired the next day.
Although anyone would presume she is miserable cleaning houses and carrying an invalid to the restroom a few times a day, she is content.
Coty has left Magdalena’s apartment and lives in a small room in her boss’ home. She smiles every day, making the most out of everything. She sends gifts and money to her children every month for a year.
For the next decade, Coty takes a plane once a year, visits her children for one to two weeks at a time and returns to the United States with the help of a coyote.
She crawls, runs, starves, jumps ditches and fences, risking her life, for the sake of seeing her children one more time.
On a hot day in the summer of 1982, Coty walks up the street to her old luxurious home in Tiquisate. She has returned, this time as a resident of the United States, to visit her children one last time.
Coty orders them to pack their bags; they’re going home — a home that may not be as comfortable as the one in Guatemala, but one where college, the world and bigger opportunities await; a home with her in it. A home that all the money in the world cannot buy.
Coty is now 84 and has traveled most of the world. Her children, and countless grandchildren, have graduated from college and lead successful, comfortable lives as U.S. citizens.