Risking It All, Part 2: Manuel Prepares to Join His Father

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR -- Desperation and violence in Central America are leading thousands to take the risk and head for an uncertain fate in the United States. Among them is 19-year-old Manuel, looking to escape the gang-ridden streets of El Salvador's capital, San Salvador.

In order to make it to California's Central Valley, Manuel knows it will take endurance, luck and above all strength. Three things he's learned on the not so soft mats of Mr. Marquez.

"It helps me carry on, to stay away from vices, it helps me to become stronger physically and mentally," said Manuel.

For some of Manuel's counterparts, their strength is clear to see. This karate gym has become the home of more than a few Olympic hopefuls. But for Manuel, his goal is neither the Olympics, nor is his strength obvious. To get the true measure of his character, you must rise with the roosters. His day starts before the sun is even up.

"I fight day-to-day to become better the next day," Manuel said. "It is very difficult. If you don't have money, you can't -- you can't carry on. You can't pay for your education, you can't pay for university."

He hopes a life in the United states will allow opportunity off-limits in San Salvador. But to get there, he'll need the man that walked out of his life when he was just 11 years old.

"Well, I felt a little bit bad, but at the same time I felt with satisfaction that I was going to be able to give them a better life, so they have a better future, so they don't suffer how I have," said Santos, Manuel's father.

Santos, who asked we not use his family's last name, is no stranger to a hard day's work. Since coming to Fresno, he's held three jobs -- including one fixing cars. All along his dream was to bring over Manuel, and at a price tag of around $10,000 it took him a while to save. But with every turn of his wrench, every back-breaking maneuver, thoughts of his son were never far away.

"What I want is that he comes here to study, that he gets better prepared," Santos said. "And I think things will go well for him because he's intelligent, polite... Well, what more can I say? He's my son." 

Back in San Salvador, Manuel is preparing for all he'll leave behind. His karate medals are his most prized possession, but like most things, they can't make the trip.

In just a few days he will set off with little more than the shirt on his back. His father's $10,000 has bought him a ticket on one of the wildest and most dangerous rides in the world. A human trafficker will take Manuel more than 1,500 miles through the jungles of El Salvador to the desert of northern Mexico. Assuming they survive, he will try to cross the us border, where hundreds of migrants die every year.

This is the second episode of a three-part series by Fresno reporter Jack Highberger, following one undocumented migrant's journey from El Salvador to the United States.

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