As a young boy in Guadalajara, Mexico, Joaquín Barreto always dreamed of a life in the United States. But the Watsonville resident never imagined his immigrant story would be the topic of a book, let alone one that he himself would write.
On Saturday, July 21, the Carl M. Luck Memorial Library in San Juan Bautista will host a book talk featuring Barreto, who will read from his memoir El Otro Lado/The Other Side: An Immigrant Story. The free event takes place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“I wanted to improve the quality of my life, and I was curious,” Barreto said in a recent phone interview with BenitoLink about immigrating to the United States in 1989.
After evading Border Patrol agents and spending hours packed in a van with others seeking a better future, Barreto, then 18 years old, made his way to Santa Cruz, where he quickly learned that the American television ads and Hollywood movies he watched as a child were not his reality.
He writes in El Otro Lado that the world outside his aunt’s small apartment was foreign and unwelcoming.
Slowly, things turned around for the unemployed and lonely teenager.
Barreto worked several jobs, including one at an area convalescent hospital where he earned certification as a nursing assistant. His English improved. He even found romance. His American Dream, it seemed, was coming true.
That is, until the day he was exposed as a undocumented immigrant, an event that led to his unraveling.
Barreto was fired from the hospital. Days consuming alcohol and doing drugs ensued. A tryst resulted in an embarrassing diagnosis of pubic lice.
Burdened with feelings of guilt and shame, Barreto avoided phone calls to Guadalajara.
“It was an eye opener,” he said of the firing, adding that he decided one day to work harder and to continue his education.
His efforts paid off.
He became a mental health aide for Santa Cruz County. And after earning his GED certificate, he began taking classes at Cabrillo College. Marriage and parenthood followed.
But once again, Barreto hit rock bottom.
An affair with a co-worker led to divorce and limited time with his children.
Lost and confused, he decided to connect with his indigenous roots and attended a sweat lodge ceremony where the intense heat provided clarity.
“There’s a moment when we all feel hopeless and detached,” Barreto said. “Healing is about learning to accept and forgive yourself. We must have faith and hope.”
The antidote for his suffering came in the form of an English assignment requiring Barreto to write about his childhood memories.
Engrossed by Barreto’s telling of days spent learning music from his father and the summers at his grandparents’ home in Apulco, the English instructor encouraged him to continue writing, especially about his immigrant story.
Wanting to hone his work, Barreto joined a local writer’s group, where others, including his future book editor, offered feedback and support.
He doubted that anyone would want to read a published account of his experiences.
“I never considered writing a book,” he admitted. “It seemed impossible.”
Amid the ongoing immigration debate, El Otro Lado debuted last September.
With editions in both English and Spanish, Barreto believes his self-published book can add to the public discourse on the issue and inspire other immigrants to write about their lives.
“It’s an opportunity for me to share that not all people who immigrate [to the U.S.] try to exploit the system, and I want to encourage others to tell their stories,” Barreto said.
Library Auxiliary president and San Juan Bautista resident Anthony Pesqueira told BenitoLink that Barreto’s book talk is part of his organization’s efforts to showcase the work of local authors. It’s also an opportunity to draw more people into the small community library. He added that this weekend’s event is one that can educate immigrants and non-immigrants alike.
Pesqueira said, “People will be better informed about the immigrant experience and the laws and rules” of the immigration process.
After the release of his book, Barreto was gripped with fear. He thought his U.S. citizenship would be revoked for past transgressions, including his decision to sprint from Tijuana into California in the dead of night nearly 30 years ago.
But as copies of El Otro Lado sold from Santa Cruz area bookstores, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents never knocked on Barreto’s door or visited his workplace.
On Saturday, Barreto plans on sharing this part of his story, but only to impress upon attendees that “Immigrants want what others want for themselves and their families. They want an umbrella of happiness.”
For more information, contact the Carl M. Luck Memorial Library at (831) 623-4687 or email [email protected]