Leticia Romo Bueno is shoved into a van. The door slams shut. Inside, it is hot and dark. Romo Bueno sits in nervous silence. The van starts to move. Romo Bueno bounces hard against the metal as the tires bump along the gravel shoulder before pulling onto the paved highway. The subtle roar of road noise fills the cramped space and, for a moment, quiets Romo Bueno’s inner terror. She thinks of her parents and worries that she may never see them again. They sacrificed so much to get her this close to safety. This last part, the hardest, means relying on human traffickers known colloquially as coyotes. The van, and Romo Bueno, are headed to the United States.
Romo Bueno is from a small fishing village on the western coast of Mexico. They survive by harvesting seafood, namely shrimp, clams and fish. The work is hard and the hours are long. Pay is minimal and arbitrary. “At the end of the day you’d turn in what you collected and sometimes you’d get paid the full amount or sometimes you’d get half or maybe nothing at all,” said Romo Bueno. “These companies are basically stealing from you, but you have to survive, so you take what they give you.”
Romo Bueno started working around the same time she started school. The then-six-year-old would go to class before spending hours digging up clams or netting shrimp. The schedule wasn’t fixed and Romo Bueno would often begin her day at three in the morning. “The workday very much depended on the tides,” she said.
The oldest of three siblings, Romo Bueno also had the responsibility of looking after her younger brother and sister. “I used to take my brother with me to school,” she said. “He was only one at the time and couldn’t go out in the water with my parents, so he went with me — I think I was eight.”
School in Romo Bueno’s corner of the world was a room. “There were maybe 15 kids and one teacher,” she said. “The teachers were young and didn’t get paid so they wouldn’t come every day.” The education system may have been piecemeal but that doesn’t mean Romo Bueno and others didn’t take it seriously. “My parents always stressed to us the value of getting an education,” she said. “Neither one of them went to college.”
Drug cartels found their way to Romo Bueno’s community. “Our small town became a kind of port for drug shipments,” she said. Residents were often forced to work for the cartel under threat of violence. “They tried to force my dad into bringing a shipment of marijuana into Tijuana and he refused,” said Romo Bueno. “They threatened to hurt his family.”
Romo Bueno and her family fled, first to Tijuana for a year before ultimately settling in California. The cost of paying a coyote was steep and meant the family couldn’t go together. Romo Bueno’s father went first followed by her mother. “My dad gave them [the coyotes] the amount of money they originally agreed to but then they wanted more,” said Romo Bueno. “They held her for two weeks before they let her go.”
The traffickers also held Romo Bueno captive for two weeks. She didn’t sleep much and was given little food or water. “It was the most terrifying time of my life,” she said.
Romo Bueno estimates roughly 300 people lived in her village. The size meant people developed close relationships and came to depend on each other. There was one drawback. “Our town was so small that you didn’t develop the social skills that are necessary to live in a bigger place,” she said.
Life in the United States proved difficult, at least initially. “I was going through all the regular teenage stuff in a different country with a different language,” said Romo Bueno. “It’s like being born again, but you’re not eased into it like a baby who’s learning to crawl or walk, you’re just thrown in there.”
Romo Bueno and her family spent that first year in the U.S. living with grandparents. Romo Bueno’s parents and siblings eventually moved north to Washington to look for work, but she remained behind. “My grandpa got sick a lot and so I stayed behind to help my grandma care for him,” she said. Romo Bueno’s grandparents eventually relocated to a 55-and-over community. “I couldn’t go with them, so I moved in with my boyfriend,” she said.
The boyfriend cut Romo Bueno off from her family. He also physically abused her. “My parents had no idea what was going on or where I was or where to look for me,” she said. The boyfriend controlled nearly every aspect of Romo Bueno’s life including where she could go and who she could communicate with. “He still let me go to school,” said Romo Bueno.
School provided an opportunity for escape, literally. Romo Bueno had been suffering abuse at the hands of her boyfriend for nearly two years when she caught a break. “A friend knew what was going on and gave me money for a bus ticket,” said Romo Bueno. “So, one day my boyfriend dropped me off at school and after he left, I went to the bus station.”
Interrupting the Narrative
Struggle is part of everyone’s life. No one makes it to the end without some degree of pain, disappointment, setback or failure. At this point in the narrative Romo Bueno is 16, maybe 17. She is so young and has already endured so much.
Romo Bueno’s story is a hard one to tell for many reasons. First, there is the risk of engaging in “trauma porn” or the perceived act of peddling someone else’s lived experience as a way of marketing the university and its mission. Second, this relatively short piece does not begin to capture Romo Bueno as a person. The anecdotes in here are the bigger moments that serve to show the obstacles Romo Bueno faced in pursuit of education. Finally, it all feels like too much. It is staggering to think that one person dealt with all of this and more. There is a harsh subtext here, one rooted in an inequality that speaks to a reality for far too many. This inequality is constant, a steady drip slowly eroding the ground underneath one’s feet.
Stability in Romo Bueno’s case is elusive and ultimately fragile, but she didn’t stop trying to achieve it. After leaving California, Romo Bueno enrolled at Kent Meridian High School. “Only my freshman credits transferred,” she said. “I had to take online classes on top of my regular classes just to get caught up.”
Romo Bueno always excelled in the classroom. She received a Junior Achiever’s Scholarship from the College Success Foundation. The scholarship covered the cost of tuition at a university of Romo Bueno’s choosing. Things were still hard but there was less chaos and unpredictability. This relative peace didn’t last long.
Romo Bueno’s ex-boyfriend found out where she was living and drove up from California. “He tried to make me go with him,” she said. The pair got in a fight and Romo Bueno’s little brother called the police. The ex-boyfriend was arrested and ended up spending a year in jail.
A few months later, in March of Romo Bueno’s senior year in high school, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her father. He was later deported back to Mexico. Romo Bueno got a full-time job to help support the family. “We had to send my siblings to live with relatives in California,” she said. Romo Bueno and her mother fell behind on rent and were evicted from their apartment. “We were homeless for a little over a month until we found a studio we could afford.”
Romo Bueno put off going to college. There were bills to pay and as the oldest, the burden fell on her. She did enroll part-time at Bellevue College but would later withdraw. “I was pregnant and during the second trimester, complications developed and I was considered very high-risk,” she said.
A few years went by before Romo Bueno tried again. This time she enrolled at Green River College. She got pregnant with a second child but was able to continue her education. “I actually went into labor during the graduation ceremony,” said Romo Bueno. It should be noted that by this time Romo Bueno and all her family had received residency status. “My parents really wanted to see me up on that stage, so I made the decision to stay.”
Romo Bueno transferred to UW Tacoma to work on a degree in criminal justice. There were stops and starts along the way. “My son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of three and my daughter has a rare genetic disorder called Cohen Syndrome,” she said. For Romo Bueno, this meant taking breaks from school to care for her children or bringing one or both of her kids to class when proper care couldn’t be found. “My daughter had four surgeries during my time at UW Tacoma,” she said. “We would stay at the hospital for weeks and I would be driving down from Seattle Children’s Hospital every day to make it to class.”
As the spring 2020 academic quarter ends, Romo Bueno becomes the first in her extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins — to graduate from college. The feat is always something to applaud and celebrate. Finishing college is not easy but it’s fair to say Romo Bueno’s path had a few more hurdles. Romo Bueno is not sure what comes next. She wants to go to graduate school — eventually. For now, she would like to work with foster kids. “I want to have an impact on youth or disadvantaged communities,” she said.
I could keep going but I want to end with Leticia Romo Bueno’s own words. This is after all, her moment.
“If I’ve ever had something, it’s school. It’s the one thing that's always been consistent. And it’s just opened up so many doors for me. I can’t even begin to express how much of a difference it’s made in my life. I mean, if it wasn’t for the scholarships and awards that I received along the way, if I didn’t have that motivation, I don’t know where I would be.
“It’s almost like everything that we’ve done to get here, it’s been with the hope that we finish school, that we get educated. It’s like that dream they sell you that if you finish school, things are going to be better. I’m finishing school so that things get better. You can take anything else away, but you won’t be able to take that away. It’s here now and it’s mine. Especially with the life that I have, that I have nothing for myself. Everything belongs to my kids. I belong to them. They're everything I have. School, that’s mine.”
Members of the Class of 2021 can hold their heads high as survivors and achievers. Through pandemic and polemic, they have completed the next stage of their journeys through life. We present a sampling of their stories.