Instructions lead to an isolated gas station near Bakersfield. The instructions? "Wait."
Three hours passed before a dark SUV pulled up. With only a red shirt on his back an emaciated Manuel steps out.
His father Santos was waiting to hug his son for the first time in 8 years.
“On the road, some would tell me, 'No, Border Patrol is going to get us,' that we would give up," Manuel said. "I said no, I'm not giving up, either border patrol gets me or I arrive. But giving up? No."
Six months would pass before we would see Manuel again.
If surviving the trip to America was Manuel's greatest accomplishment, learning to fit in quickly became his most pressing challenge.
At the Fresno Adult School, Manuel is starting from scratch, attending Mrs. Musso's English class twice a week. English, once a novelty in El Salvador is now his ticket in.
Before leaving El Salvador, Manuel spoke of the "American Dream." And he says he's seeing a mixed result.
“It’s not how I expected," Manuel said. "When you’re in your country people tell you that the United States is so beautiful, that there’s lots of money and such. But they didn’t tell me how hard it would be."
It's estimated that more than 2.5 million people in California are undocumented. On paper, their lives don't exist.
For Manuel, life is often lonely. He lives in a small apartment with his father Santos.
Finding work has proven to be a challenge, as his immigration status often gets in the way. A friend helped him get a job washing dishes -- it keeps him busy but seldom content.
Violin lessons have become Manuel’s only indulgence. But nearly every cent he makes goes toward a larger goal that remains unchanged.
"I want to save money, have my mom build her house, and however I can help my brothers,” he said.
Manuel’s dream is to make a difference in the life of his family left behind in El Salvador, he knows it will come at a price. The journey to America has already cost him nearly everything he owned. But through it all he found something once thought gone forever -- his father.
"It’s been worth it, because what I wanted was that he be here with me, and, well, I achieved my goal," Santos said. "They think you leave them because you don’t love them. but it’s not that way.”
Over 8 years of separation have left Santos and Manuel with plenty to talk about. But on some days, they just enjoy spending time together.
Life in America is far from easy, but for the father and son, it's finally a life spent together. Manuel now also has a new baby sister, and Santos is engaged.
Ultimately, leaving their homeland for the U.S. was a risk well worth it.
This is the third 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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