“One day one of my children, he was about four years old, told me he was hungry. And I didn’t have anything to give him. That’s when I decided I had to do something.”
TREMONTON — Ana Cañenguez was 30 years old when she left her life of extreme poverty in El Salvador.
She had already been a mother for 15 years and was married to an abusive, alcoholic man. One of her children died from malnourishment. In 2003, she decided to save her remaining five children by going to the United States.
Desperate, Cañenguez called her brother in New York for help. She hired a human smuggler and joined a group of 40 others walking through Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. border.
From there, she walked across the Arizona desert by night and hid in the hills by day. With just a few tortillas, a jug of water and a backpack with a few personal things, she relied on thoughts of her family to keep going.
Three years later, her oldest son, then 18, made a similar trip after being threatened by gang violence in El Salvador.
But it would take much longer for Cañenguez to be reunited with her other children.
“I remember every day of those eight years,” she said through tears.
Now living with her children and grandchildren in Utah, Cañenguez fears she may be separated from her family again.
President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to take a hard line on illegal immigration, but his plans lack specifics. It’s not clear exactly how many people in Utah came to the country illegally and how many families his deportation plan might impact.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to interview requests from the Standard-Examiner and as of Tuesday, Jan. 17, had not provided deportation records the Standard-Examiner requested in November. However, some experts estimate there are about 100,000 undocumented immigrants in Utah (see accompanying story).
If Trump makes good on his promises to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, it will almost certainly tear Cañenguez’s family apart.
Her two youngest children and four grandchildren were born on U.S. soil, making them lawful citizens. They would likely stay behind. But her husband would be sent to his native Mexico while she and four of her boys would go to El Salvador — a country they barely know anymore and with a reputation as the murder capital of the world.
She hopes her story will help Utahns empathize with her family and others who made sacrifices to get here.
“I think the people of Utah don’t understand … It’s not an easy decision to come to this country,” she said in Spanish from the living room of her Tremonton townhouse while two of her children and three of her grandchildren chattered, played and made sandwiches in the kitchen. “Occasionally I’d like them to try to see what it’s like in our shoes.”
Cañenguez didn’t come straight to Utah after entering the country. She stayed in Arizona at first, working in a restaurant and sending money home.
But when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — the self-described “America's toughest sheriff” who has been accused of racial profiling and abuse of power — began cracking down on undocumented workers, she decided to get away.
“I didn’t know anything about the (immigration) system then,” she said. “Arpaio began to almost persecute us. ... I didn’t know how much power an organized community could have, so I left.”
Cañenguez and her new husband, Eusebio Granda, moved to Utah. He works at a Box Elder County welding company, and she used to work as a hotel housekeeper and now does child care from her home. The couple has two children together, ages 9 and 11.
Her four other El Salvador-born children joined Cañenguez and Granda in Utah in 2011, making the grueling journey across three borders and fleeing forced gang recruitment. Two of her children got through, but the two youngest boys, Mario and Erick, then 12 and 10, were caught in Mexico.
“That was really scary. It was like a prison,” said Mario, who’s now a senior at Bear River High School. “They treated everyone pretty bad.”
Cañenguez traveled to Mexico to negotiate with authorities and free her children. It took two months. From there, they crossed the U.S. border and walked through the Texas desert.
“I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t realize how dangerous it was. Now that I think about (it), thank God I’m alive,” Mario said. “I knew I had to be tough for my little brother and my mom. It seemed they wanted to give up.”
Cañenguez, Mario and Erick got lost and wandered through the desert for three days before Cañenguez summoned the Border Patrol for help.
“It was hard to make that call, but I was more afraid that we could have ended up dead,” she said.
That’s also where their latest struggle began.
Immigration agents let them travel to Utah but also began deportation proceedings for Cañenguez and four of her kids. The oldest, José, somehow flew under the radar.
Cañenguez remains in limbo to this day, not knowing when she could be ordered to leave. She must check in with ICE every six months.
In the meantime, Cañenguez has connected with other immigrant mothers like herself, mostly through social media. She now has a strong support group and participates in events to raise awareness about the plights of the immigrant community.
She’s a member of DREAMers' MOMS, a national group of mothers fighting for equality and dignity for their families. In September 2015, she marched 100 miles with 100 women, mostly Hispanic, to ask Pope Francis to deliver their message of compassion to politicians during his visit to Washington.
She wishes others would understand that people like her flee to the United States in search of security and a better future for their families.
“We're not ‘illegal.’ We don't have authorization, but we’re not illegal,” Cañenguez said. “We work. We'd like to be shown dignity. We’re here fighting for our families.”
When she took her story public, first at a 2012 event honoring her as Utah Head Start's Parent of the Year, it was difficult to out herself and her family and share their deeply personal story. But she said she did it for her children.
“I know the president-elect has power, but we, the immigrant community, have a lot of strength and great love for our families,” she said. “We've had to learn to be united — what unites us is the love and pain we feel and the idea that we could be separated.”
Although Trump has created a lot of uncertainty for her family and the broader immigrant community, Cañenguez said she’s not afraid.
She even has a message for the president-elect: “We're here. We're not afraid of politics, racism or hate. We are very organized … and we're willing to keep fighting.”