As the air conditioner hums steadily, Hedman, 23, and his roommate Fernando, 32, sit on a white-bedspread-covered couch in Brad Buxton’s second-story bedroom. As they do on most Saturday afternoons, the two men are spending one of their two days off taking English lessons from Buxton, a worker at The Hispanic Community. Clad in jeans and a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt, Hedman clutches the blue notebook that contains the day’s lesson plan, which asks him to describe his mother and father, who remain in his homeland of Honduras, in the town of Rio Lindo.
In many ways, he’s already living the life of a typical young Nashvillian. He spends his free time hanging out at the mall and surfing the Internetwhen he’s not in church, of course. But it’s his journey herea sometimes perilous trek that spanned several years and three countriesthat sets him apart from his fellow citizens.
With Buxton’s help as a translator, Hedman tells his story. “In Honduras, they just don’t have a good life there,” he says. “But my family wasn’t poor; we were middle class. My father was an electrician, and my mother was a homemaker. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment. By and large, people are happy in Honduras, but because there is little work, a lot of people spend their lives robbing others. I thought Tennessee would be a place to improve my economic situation, and it would be a more easygoing, tranquil life. I just thought the cities would be more beautiful to live in, and the houses and the women would be more beautiful. It’s pretty much the way I expected it to be.”
In 1995, the teenage Hedman was working in a clothing manufacturing plant, making about $81 a week. He decided to move here a year later, following the trail of his cousin Eber. But it took him a while. First, he had to finish high school, after which he moved to Mexico City and got a job working for a desk manufacturer.
“I moved to Tennessee after three years,” he says. “I asked around Mexico City and was told [the border town of] Reynosa was a good place to go if I was trying to get to America. I went there by myself and met Abraham Quintanilla, who was in his 30s, at the bus station. He was looking for someone to come to the U.S. with him, and he knew how to get to Houston. I trusted him because he invited me to stay with his family, who fed me for a week until we left. He looked like a decent person.
“We ate well before we left: beans, rice, and cheese. Then we went down to the Rio Bravo River. I took off my jeans and T-shirt and placed them in the small overnight bag that I was carrying, which only held a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. The water was up to our waist, and it took about seven minutes to cross the river, holding our bags over our heads. I wasn’t afraid to cross the river, but I was afraid that there might be immigration people on the other side.”
Once safely across, Hedman and his companion rested, then set out on foot. After a night and day of walking, they reached a bus station in a small Texas town and boarded a bus bound for Houston. “The lady driver said she would drop us off about four hours before Houston,” he recalls, “because immigration officials might stop the bus to examine the passengers’ documents. Everybody else on the bus was legal except us.
“We walked for about 15 minutes and then came upon a gas station, where we ran into another immigrant, from Monterrey, Mexico, and he walked to Houston with us. We walked two miles south of the road; the first day, we walked from 2 p.m. until 6 a.m. This was the worst experience, because there were coyotes and snakes. We came to a truck stop, where we spent the night.
“A man from Honduras came to the truck stop in a car looking for an illegal to take somewhere, but he couldn’t find him. He asked Abraham if any of us had family in the U.S., and Abraham said yes. The man said he would take us to Houston. He lived two hours from Houston, so we spent the night at his house, along with two other illegals. He was trying to charge each person $1,500 to get to Houston, but I didn’t tell him I didn’t have any money until I got there.”
Upon their arrival, discovering that the three immigrants couldn’t pay the hefty fee, the man locked them in a one-room apartment, letting them out only to go to the bathroom. “He kept us in there for 11 days, giving us only one egg, beans, and one can of soda a day,” Hedman remembers. “He warned us not to overpower him, and we were afraid he had a gun. I wasn’t really scared, but I was really hungry. I contacted my cousin Eber, who sent the man $600 to let me go.”
Hedman doesn’t know where the man dropped him offonly that it was “a place where they had a lot of minivans.” With only $40, he told a van driver that he wanted to go to Tennessee. “Ten people got in the van,” he remembers. “Three people got off in Atlanta, and six people got out in Dalton. They were charging everybody $280. I knew my cousin didn’t have the money, so I skipped out on them in Dalton when they got gas. I hid behind some apartments until they left. I came upon some children, and one of them was Mexican; he gave me $5 to buy a phone card. I called Eber, and he drove down and picked me up.”
Hedman moved in with his cousin and quickly adapted to life in Nashville. “It took about six weeks to find a job,” he says. “I had a friend working for Nashville Wire, and he helped me get a job there making $8 an hour. I haven’t had any trouble not speaking English. There was no job interview, and my friend, who is from Nicaragua, helped me with the application. There is nothing difficult for me. Even being illegal, it’s not that hard to find a job.
“I lived with my cousin, who works for a cabinet maker, in a two-bedroom apartment with four other people for nine months. I’ve been living in the Tennessee Apartments with Fernando and two other men for a year and a half. We share a two-bedroom apartment and split the $465 rent. For the last 16 months, I’ve worked for a steel company, where I drive a forklift and weigh iron for $10 an hour. I work nine to 14 hours a day, five days a week. I come in about 3 p.m. and go home about 4 a.m. It’s not hard, but I have to work quickly.”
Asked if he likes being here, Hedman responds with a definitive yes: “It’s twice as good here as it is back home. It’s better than I expected. I live better, eat better, dress better, and there’s better women. About every six weeks, I’ll send $160 to my family. Sometimes they’ll ask for it, sometimes I’ll just send it.
“Fernando and I don’t smoke or drink, and we go to the Pentecostal Hispanic Church of God. The other members let each other know where jobs are and keep us informed of any important immigration news, as well as word of any disasters in our home countries. When I’m not working, I like to watch soccer or go to the movies, which I think are expensive. We like to go to Opry Mills or Hickory Hollow. At the malls, we’re always scamming on women. We have Web TV, and I’ve chatted with a few women on the Internet. I called women who lived in Pennsylvania and Oregon, but I haven’t met anyone yet. I would like to get married to an American and live here.
“I would say I’m living the American dream. I would like to have a house, be legal, have a good job and a family, just live peacefully. I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me here: finding God, getting my license, finding a job. My best time will be when I find somebody to love.”
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