Juan Machuca was a new father running from the “poverty and violence” in Mexico toward a new life in the United States when he began his journey to Waxahachie over three decades ago.
It then took four attempts at naturalization, a couple dozen border crossings and 35 years for Machuca to feel at ease in his new home country. The 55-year-old, who denounced his ties to Mexico and was sworn in as a full-fledged citizen just after 9 a.m. on Dec. 27, has also now lived in the U.S. longer than his native land.
He has been a resident of Waxahachie for 32 of those years.
As Machuca attempted to verbalize the emotions that overcame him just after he recited Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America in December, Machuca looked to his eldest son, Johnny, 32, to translate.
“It felt so good,” Machuca said from a seat at his son's dining room table. “It was beautiful. I got goosebumps.”
Machuca was raised in Guanajuato, Mexico; a place where he claims “everyone is poor. My father even took me out of school when I was 12 so that I could take care of the cows. It was either that or get a job.”
Guanajuato was not a place Machuca cared to raise a family, either. The burning desire for a better life led to his first attempt at immigrating into the U.S. — the first time of many — through Tijuana and into southern California in 1984.
Two months later, Machuca moved to Oregon. He then resided in Washington six months after the first move, eventually working around the northwest as a harvester.
Following the growing season, Machuca returned to Mexico for about two months before re-entering the U.S. again — this time by swimming across the Rio Grande — near El Paso in 1985. It was the first of about 20 attempts to cross via the water border; with most of those resulting in him turning around and swimming back into Mexico, away from border patrol agents on the opposite bank.
“It wasn’t too difficult because I knew how to swim,” said Machuca of crossing the 60-foot-wide river. “The first two times I crossed it was at night. The other times, about 20 of them, were during the day.”
He explained the initial plan after each successful crossing and once in El Paso was to make his way to Fort Worth.
“Crossing into El Paso there were quite a few trains,” Machuca recalled after crossing in 1985. “I got onto one that everyone thought was going to Fort Worth but it went to California. When the train passed through Phoenix, Arizona, there was a chance to get off, but I didn’t know anyone there.”
Machuca expressed that he “was just happy to be in America” and even happier to be riding along with about 30 other immigrants on a train carrying brand new vehicles, most with keys still in the ignition. It was the first time for Machuca to travel in style, yet the trek was far from comfortable.
“The metal of the train was so cold that it would stick to you, especially when your clothes are wet after crossing the river,” Machuca said. “[…] For me, riding on the train was the hardest part. It is cold and you have nothing more than what you had on you. We were terrified to turn on the cars and someone to find us.”
He explained the travelers sat inside the vehicles as the train rolled on toward California. They even attempted to keep the windows of the cars from fogging by breathing into their shirts, explaining that the train cars were checked at various points and a fogged window would notify police that someone was on board.
Machuca also recalled times when he and others became so dehydrated that they attempted to drink water from the radiator of the vehicles in transport. He then demonstrated how they would soak their shirts in the radiators and then suck the water out of the fabric.
Three days after mistakenly arriving in California, Machuca rode with a friend from somewhere in The Sunshine State back to Oregon, where he worked for six months harvesting strawberries, cucumbers and “Christmas trees.”
It was then back to Mexico for another three-month stay before crossing the Texas border for the second time. His temporary residence was in Eagle Pass, a small town north of Laredo.
Machuca, his father, Rodolfo, and friend, Salvador, regularly traveled between Eagle Pass, Del Rio and Piedras Negras, Mexico for the ensuing “one month and five days.” He recalled the three lived on the streets, sold newspapers and often bathed in the Rio Grande. They even worked for a short time for a traveling circus that had stopped in Del Rio.
The reason for the extended stay near the border, Machuca explained, was because immigration officers kept catching the trio as they attempted to land a ride on one of the trains headed toward Fort Worth.
When asked if he ever thought that his days in the U.S. were numbered or that he might have to one day return to Mexico for good, Machuca shook his head and confidently said in plain English, “No.”
“At that time, I already had my mind set to bring my family from Mexico to here,” he added.
Machuca was 22 years old when he paid a coyote $1,000 to drive him from Del Rio to Waxahachie in 1987 where he was to live with several friends met while working the fields in Oregon a few years prior.
“That was cheap,” Machuca said. He recalled it would’ve been “only $600” to go to San Antonio instead of Waxahachie. But his friends were not in San Antonio.
Once in Waxahachie, Machuca and his Oregonian friends went to work for a mushroom farm on what is now known as Mushroom Road off of U.S. Highway 77 near Butcher Road. He also credits the company, which he can no longer remember the name of, for greatly assisting in him obtaining a full green card about a decade later.
With a steady job in Waxahachie, it was then that Machuca began his three-decade journey to naturalization.
Oddly enough, the process to legalization began in the same state where Machuca first entered illegally — California. He credited a forged green card delivered from California to be the document that was vital to him planting roots in Waxahachie. It allowed him to work, legally-ish.
About nine years later, in 1996, Machuca received his first and only temporary green card, which was a placeholder until he finished all of the governmental requirements needed to obtain a full green card. He noted those stipulations to include several pages of paperwork and about 40 hours of U.S. history.
Machuca was finally awarded his green card about two months after submitting the necessary documents.
Because the card was only valid for 10 years, he repeated the process in 2006 and 2016, both times having to send a money order in the range of $700 to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to complete the registration. Unlike some who reapply, Machuca explained that he ensured that he began the application process early enough that he did not have to return to Mexico while waiting on approval for a new green card.
Machuca also made it quite clear that his first preference was not to settle for a green card. He desperately desired to become a U.S. citizen and studied to do so quite often, only to fall short of that ambition three times.
The first time Machuca was asked for his ID and was sent home when he could not produce it. The second time he failed because his spoken English was not good enough. And the third failed attempt came after he could not pass the written portion of the naturalization process.
Because of those failed attempts, Machuca waited until July 2018 to re-apply for U.S. citizenship, as he was finally passed the minimum-age requirement (55) to take the test in Spanish. He also paid an additional fee to have a translator take the verbal test with him on Saturday, Dec. 1 at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Irving.
“It took maybe 10 minutes,” Machuca said. “She told me it would be 10 questions, but I only had to take five.”
He recalled the first question being “what are your rights related to the first amendment?” He was then asked, “What is the last day to file your taxes? What are the branches of the U.S. government? What is the chain of command if the president dies? What is the capital of Texas?”
The last day to file taxes, Machuca assured with a laugh, is April 15.
He received his official U.S citizenship paperwork on Dec. 27 while wearing a Dallas Mavericks "Fan For Life" t-shirt, somewhat symbolic of his commitment to his new home country. It was indeed his day of days.
“If you are a just resident the government can take your rights away,” said Machuca of the monumental occasion. “But as a citizen, they can’t send me back to Mexico.”
“My family is here.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith