Desire, an 18 year old from Ajijic, Mexico, immigrated to the United States in 2012 to seek refuge from the drug war sweeping her hometown in western Mexico.
Desire, whose last name we are withholding because of concern about her family’s safety, described the takeover of her town — a tourist hotspot on the shores of Lake Chapala — as a horrific experience, where she says gang members would seek innocent people to kill, including some of her classmates.
“No one could go out after 7 p.m. because it was dangerous and [the gang members] could just pick you up off the street,” Desire said.
She said it got really bad when the cartel captured one of her close friends. After about a week, authorities found the body of her friend and others in trucks outside of her town.
“But it wasn’t just the bodies, they were dismembered and without the heads…they tortured them before they would kill them,” Desire said.
Her school held a meeting for parents, stating that there was really no way to ensure the safety of the students.
She says this was the breaking point for her stepfather. He decided to to pull his daughter out of school, as did several other families in Ajijic. Her family moved to Seattle the next week.
Desire’s step-father had some business ventures in Seattle, and already had a house there when they immigrated. She describes her first 24 hours in the United States as a miserable experience full of confusion, anger and sadness.
She recalls being scared of going to school, because she would have to take classes in English, and she would have to overcome cultural barriers of being in an American school. In addition, her new high school in Bellevue, Washington only had about seven students from Mexico in her graduating class, so she felt isolated and singled out.
“The [Mexican students] were different because they were born and raised here and it is different when you are born and raised [in America],” she said.
Since moving to Seattle two years ago, Desire was accepted to the University of Washington, where she is a freshman.
“I was going to come [to Seattle] anyways for college, I just happened to come here sooner than I imagined,” she said.
She frequently visits her family in Mexico, and spent this past summer in Ajijic, as violence has since settled down.
Listen: Desire describes her first day in the United States.
This story was produced in partnership with the First Days Project.
Editor’s note: This article was changed since publication to omit Desire’s last name, out of concern for the safety of her family.