No car is in the house’s driveway, only gravel dampened by rain. The living room is minimalistic, with a white leather couch backed against the wall and an old-fashioned clock hanging above it. The busted door does not close. The vehicles outside zoom over the wet asphalt, and it sounds like you are standing on the sidewalk of a busy street. Past the living room, about four families, including Angel’s, share the four-bedroom, one-story house. Each family is struggling to stay afloat. The house is far from what people envision when they think of Miami’s beaches and high rises. Yet it symbolizes Miami’s foundation — immigration.
Angel, whose last name has been omitted due to his immigration status, is a long way from home and struggling to find a job as an engineer. He was born in Güiria, Venezuela, a small coastal city. At a young age, Angel left for the Navy, studying in a military school for two years to become a mechanic, working on merchant ships that operated under the Venezuelan national flag.
In 2016, Angel worked in the prosperous Venezuelan petroleum industry at Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), assisting tankers and cargo ships in docking. Angel had a relatively successful career as a mechanic, earning one of the higher wages in the industry. His position as second in command for each shift afforded him the privilege of extra time off.
Now, he sits in a room with only a couch and table, reminiscing how his family traversed Central America and five U.S. states.
From riding atop train cars to passing through jungles. From witnessing governmental corruption to evading immigration police and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Angel clasps his hands together, leans forward, and begins to speak.
Editor’s note: Angel’s quotes have been translated from Spanish to English.
Angel’s story begins in 2016. Venezuela’s economy heavily relied on oil. When the oil prices plunged from $100 per barrel in 2014 to $30 per barrel in early 2016, Venezuela fell into an economic and political free fall, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. By 2016, inflation ballooned by 255%. Even with the salary increases, Angel’s wage could not keep up with inflation, and he left Venezuela for Guayaquil, Ecuador.
In Ecuador, he obtained a Visa Unasur. The visa allowed him to establish residency in the country, but the additional cost of transferring his credentials prevented him from working as an engineer. Angel learned how to make air fresheners and sold them at stoplights. Afterward, he found a job at a factory producing plastic bags and making deliveries in the afternoons.
He worked 12-hour shifts six days a week, making $700 to $800 monthly. He would pay for rent, care for his eldest child, and send money to his family in Venezuela. If money was left over, he would place it in his savings.
Slowly, a rise in gang violence and delinquency in Guayaquil began to spook Angel.
Many of his coworkers were robbed or killed. Angel stopped working at night. Money tightened, and unable to make ends meet, he returned to Venezuela. But the situation in Venezuela was worse.
“In Venezuela, it wasn’t only crime,” Angel said. “It was the need, the wage. There is nothing. There is food, but it’s too expensive… nothing is left for transportation and expenses for the kid. You don’t have any money left over.”
After just two months, on June 25, 2021, Angel had to leave his homeland once again. This time, he brought his mother, wife and 1-year-old. Together, the family headed to Neococli and Capurgana in Colombia, looking for small boats to take them to Panama.
The boats provide fast routes and save migrants lots of time and the danger of passing through the Darien Gap. But the boat fare was too expensive, and they needed to save money for the rigorous journey ahead.
The Darien Gap
The family walked from Colombia to Panama through the Darien Gap, a very humid environment, constantly drizzling with cold fog. In the dense jungle, many people slip on the mud and injure themselves, often forcing the group to slow down. Sometimes, migrants have to leave people behind. Adding to the danger, the disease in the jungle is unpredictable, constantly attacking migrants’ immune systems.
Early in the crossing, Angel’s mother, Maribel, hurt her knee, slowing down his family’s pace and forcing them to search for flatter routes. Still, after 13 days of traversing the jungle, Angel’s family finally crossed.
“It was difficult,” Angel said. He leans forward with his elbows resting on his thighs, his eyes drifting back and forth as he remembers the experience. “There were times I didn’t want to continue anymore. I slipped on the mud a lot. My kid was nervous, crying every time I fell.”
Angel’s 1-year-old son, Santi, developed a fever on the third day. Angel’s wife, Maria, is a nurse and would give him medicine, but without antibiotics, Santi’s temperature would rise again.
“I had him in front of me, like a kangaroo,” Angel said as he gestured to the baby on his chest; his eyes seemed worried as he spoke. “He’s very hyperactive, and I joke with him. We’d laugh together, and he would scratch me, and I would tickle him. That day, he didn’t even raise his hand.”
Angel wouldn’t let his son fall asleep, with Santi’s fever reaching over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). “At times, I would cry. I even criticized myself,” said Angel. In these moments, he would question why he ever decided to pass through the Darien Gap. Along the route, they found a group who lent them antibiotics, and Santi soon partially recuperated.
The Darien Gap poses grave threats, like “The Mountain of Death.” The mountain took the family three hours to climb, and the mud made gaining a firm step impossible, adding to the energy drain.
“Climbing, you can at least catch yourself when you fall,” Angel said, “But on the descent, who is going to catch you?”
Navigating the mountain, Angel caught a weird odor while passing along a river. As the smell became more pungent, he turned around and saw a skeleton with its hands slacked to the side, the body partially filled with rotting flesh. Another time, Angel saw a dead body floating through a river that many people used as a water source.
But despite the difficulty, the family eventually made it to the first camp.
Crossing Central America
Doctors gave Santi water and diagnosed him with a urinary tract infection and fever.
Then, they gave him the medication to recuperate. Now in Panama, Angel paid for a bus to take them to the Costa Rica border. Angel then rented a tow truck to drive from the frontier to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, and then to the Nicaraguan border.
In Nicaragua, the large influx of migrants heading north creates a black market of smugglers who, for a fee, take migrants through mountains or routes without heavy policing.
Though the hills are less humid, they are difficult to cross. Afterward, they spent 40 minutes in a small boat that took them to a northern sector of Nicaragua. From there, they walked in a line, following the smugglers until they reached the capital of Honduras. Honduras was similar to Nicaragua because of its smuggling market. Angel often paid these fees to avoid immigration.
Sometimes, to receive a permit to cross, he would need papers.
In these cases, people would illegally sell the permits for higher rates. “There are people that dedicate themselves to that,” Angel said. “For example, if the permit costs $30, I would buy it for $60.” With the unexpected costs of the journey, money had run dry. “With the $5,000 I brought, I didn’t make it,” Angel said. He had to borrow $2,800 from his uncle in Venezuela.
Once again, they reserved seats on a bus and headed to the Honduras-Guatemala border. After disembarking in a nearby city, they walked for five hours to traverse the frontier.
Once in Guatemala, they paid $150 per person to mount a small car to arrive at a bus station. The ride was short, about 15 minutes, according to Angel. The family then rode another bus to the capital and took another bus from Guatemala City to the border of Mexico.
The Train of Death and Rio Bravo
Mexico was a challenging stretch for Angel. He solicited immigration visas, forcing them to stay in the country for three months. But Angel needed to reach the United States. A stranger tipped Angel to turn himself in to immigration and be granted a visa to leave the country through any border.
So Angel turned himself in to Mexican immigration in Tapachula at around 9 a.m. and was released at around 11 p.m. with a permit. But to Angel’s dismay, the pass forced them to stay in Tapachula for 30 days.
Angel and his family left Tapachula illegally by bus for San Pedro. Before every control point, they would dismount the bus and pass through the mountains to dodge officials. Then, they caught another bus and repeated the process.
Angel turned himself in to immigration in San Pedro and received a pass to leave Mexico through any frontier as long as he went within 20 days. Now near the U.S.-Mexico border, and with this newly minted pass, Angel continued his journey to Monterrey.
“When we were leaving Monterrey to head to Monclova, they (immigration officials) told me the pass was invalid,” Angel said.“They ripped mine, my wife’s and my mom’s.” The officials then sent his family back to Tapachula. Angel digitalized the pass beforehand and reprinted it in Tapachula, yet he still paid a monetary and physical price.
To go from San Pedro to Monterrey to Monclova, Angel spent $175 per person and lost the money when they sent him back.
Angel’s family again had to avoid the legal route until they reached Moncloa, the final stretch of the journey through Mexico.
The family, battered from the journey, went to a train station. The train they used is nicknamed “El Tren de la Muerte” or “La Bestia,” which translates to “The Train of Death” or “The Beast.”
“It’s dangerous,” said Angel. “You have to climb the train and sit atop the train cars with the baby…There is a part where you have to pass through a jungle and you have to be aware of the branches.” First, when the train was hardly moving, they pushed up Angel’s mother, who still had a hurt knee. Then he and his wife boarded next. Fortunately, the train’s slow start allowed them to climb up on time. At each of the 12 control points, they would have to jump off, hide in the mountains and return to the train when it was setting off again until they reached Piedras Negras, near the border.
“We set off at 12 at night and arrived at three in the morning,” Angel said about crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. “Where the train left us, we had to walk two hours and a half to the Rio Bravo. It had been raining for three days and the crossing was terrible.”
Finding a home in the U.S.
Through the river, they crossed to Eagle Pass, Texas. United States immigration halted them, asking what zone they were heading to, and Angel answered Miami. An acquaintance invited him to live with him while he set up. A nearby church then sponsored the bus ticket.
“I was texting making sure I could stay with him,” Angel said, “telling him the $150 I had was for food, and he assured me he would receive me.”
When Angel and his family arrived in Miami, the acquaintance ghosted them.
They were stranded at the bus station and wandered Miami with little money left. They reached the Camillus House, a Miami-based organization to help the homeless, but Camillus House told them they would each have to sleep in separate areas and could only stay for a single night.
They continued wandering, and Angel and his family settled in a nearby park for eight days, where the security guard left the bathroom doors unlocked. During the day, Angel would look for work.
Through the rain, poor sleep, and stress, Santi caught a fever again, but without money, they could do nothing. Through conversations, Angel received the contact information of a nearby church that helped nurse Santi back to health and lent Angel a place to stay, giving him a month’s rent.
In the fall of 2022, Angel made nearly $600 monthly and spent $525 on rent, with $75 remaining for food. He was underworked for his level of expertise, finding menial jobs and building people’s docks. He was previously offered many jobs in the CocoWalk harbor, but his lack of documentation blocked the opportunities.
As the interview finished, Santi cried inside the house as he woke up from a nap. At the same time, a friend walked in, asking Angel to help him with his car. Angel carried Santi outside as he spoke to the friend.
Angel moved on to detailing on cars and boats, a far cry from working as a mechanical engineer. Forever motivated by his family, Angel said he hopes his modest company gains a reputation and builds a loyal customer base.