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The long journey home

Killed in a Brighton car accident, Fredy Zepeda was buried by the family he tried to lift from poverty but hadn’t seen for years

'I want to see him. I don't know him. Even if it's this way, I am going to meet him,'' said Brandon Zepeda, 9, at his father's funeral in Guatemala. "I want to see him. I don't know him. Even if it's this way, I am going to meet him,'' said Brandon Zepeda, 9, at his father's funeral in Guatemala. (Maisie Crow for The Boston Globe)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / August 2, 2009

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ATESCATEMPA, Guatemala - The shiny black hearse taking Fredy Zepeda home drove for hours, whisking his body past coffee plantations and cornfields, past a sea of tin-roofed houses, past clusters of women scrubbing clothes by a river.

As the car turned onto a muddy road in his hometown Wednesday, dozens of mourners stood in the sweltering sun. Nobody here had seen him for nine years, since he embarked on a harrowing journey over the Mexican border to work illegally in Boston.

It had taken days - and thousands of dollars - to bring him home to rest in a village that he had tried to escape, to be mourned by a family that depended on him desperately but did not know him well anymore - or at all. And when he died last month after an alleged hit-and-run on a Brighton street as he loaded his 1-year-old son in his car, Zepeda left behind relatives in the United States who could not attend his funeral because they were also in the country illegally.

In the crowd here, Zepeda’s other son, Brandon, who was 10 months old when his father left Guatemala, stared blankly at the powder-blue coffin. He was the only one who did not cry. Some relatives were reluctant to show him the body, but Brandon insisted.

“I want to see him,’’ said Brandon, 9, dressed in a neat orange polo and New Balance sneakers. “I don’t know him. Even if it’s this way, I am going to meet him.’’

It is a sad homecoming that is common among illegal immigrants, many of whom must rely on donations from churches, consulates, and friends to deliver loved ones to their native lands for burial. Foes of illegal immigration say they should not have left their home countries to begin with, but immigrants say poverty propels them to spend painful years apart from their families in the hope that they will eventually prosper and return.

Everyone dreads the words whispered at Zepeda’s funeral: He left looking for a better life, and found death instead.

Zepeda, who was 35, had missed so much while he was away: his mother’s death, his grandfather’s funeral, the birth of a niece he named Darling, in English, from afar. It was an absence he justified by what he provided in his place: money for medicine to ease his mother’s heart condition; money for college tuition, clothes, and shoes for the children; and to buy food for his father, who still lives in a ramshackle hut with wood and cardboard walls.

A popular and promising student, Zepeda had left Atescatempa, a small farming town of gleaming green fields and brightly painted adobe houses near the Salvadoran border, when he was 17. He had grown up poor, the second-oldest of five children to Gerardo, a farm worker, and Esther, a housewife who could not read or write.

The family lived a poor but dignified life, relatives said in interviews in Guatemala and in Boston. Zepeda went fishing with his father in the lagoon, collected wood for the cooking stove with an uncle, and played on the stone streets, sometimes without shoes.

When work grew scarce, his despondent father began to drink, infuriating Zepeda, his family said. So he left for Guatemala City, a bustling and dangerous metropolis where he could work and put himself through high school.

For months, he slept on a folded refrigerator box until he could find a room to rent for his father, mother, and four siblings. His father found a job with a bus company, washing buses and collecting tickets. Zepeda delivered office supplies by day and studied accounting at night.

In 1996, he met Milvia, a no-nonsense, freckled girl who worked at a bakery in the capital. When he asked her out, she demurred, saying she had to visit her mother in a village hours away. But he persuaded her to give him her address. He was that way: bold, persuasive, persistent.

Two days later, she said, she nearly fainted when she saw him arrive on the bus. They married in 1998.

A year before Zepeda graduated from high school, Brandon was born, but the couple was struggling to afford the rent. It became clear to them that their only hope of escaping poverty in Guatemala, where nearly a third of the population lives on less than $2 a day, was to go the United States.

“He said he was going to be the one who was going to lift up the entire family,’’ said his cousin, Maria Concepcion Santos. “He would say that someone in the family has to prosper and I’m going to do it, no matter what it takes.’’

Zepeda set out one August day in 2000 with a backpack and promises to save money for a house and to send their son to college. He borrowed $5,000 from family and others and paid a smuggler to sneak him across from Guatemala City to Massachusetts, where his wife had relatives. The plan was to return in three years.

The journey across the Mexican border was agonizing. It took more than a month to cross, because the smugglers kept him for long periods in safehouses, with little water and only canned meat to eat, relatives said, recalling Zepeda’s accounts.

As Zepeda’s group crossed the desert into the United States, one man leaned on him until he could walk no more; they left him where he fell. Zepeda also passed skeletons along the route.

By 2002, Zepeda was well-settled in Boston, with a $16-an-hour job hanging drywall and sheet rock, earning more in an eight-hour day than he earned in a month in Guatemala. But it was expensive to live in Boston and hard to save money. He grew lonely and distant, Milvia said.

Against her husband’s wishes, she joined him in Boston and found work as a baby-sitter. They planned to return soon to be with Brandon.

But the financial demands from Guatemala intensified. Zepeda’s little brother, Wilson, and sister Ana, who had been children when he left, needed money for school; his older sister, also named Milvia, asked for money for food when her husband was out of work.

His parents relied on Zepeda the most, relatives said. Though he had stopped drinking, his father was growing too old to find work in a country that shuns older workers. His teeth were falling out, and Zepeda sent money to replace them.

His mother, who had always encouraged him to study, needed medicine that cost $300 a month. Zepeda also bought her a stove and a refrigerator.

“He never abandoned her,’’ said his aunt Elida Zepeda, his mother’s sister.

Esther died a year ago in their family home in Guatemala City, where his father and sister Ana still live, a moldy hut in a squatter camp. Despite the support Zepeda provided, the house is pieced together with scraps of cardboard, wooden pallets, and aluminum. The front door is locked with a padlock and a chain, and a bare bulb lights the inside. Water arrives three days a week.

He never abandoned Ana, either. He was upset when she married at age 18, after high school, because he wanted her to go to college. When the marriage soured, he promised to help his sister. Days before his death, he told her he would pay her tuition if she were accepted to nursing school.

“We had so many plans,’’ Ana said.

In an irony that is common among illegal immigrants, it cost more to bring Zepeda’s body home than it cost to smuggle him into the United States. Returning him to Guatemala left his family more than $7,000 in debt, but they wanted to bring him home to see him one last time.

The Guatemalan consulate in Boston pitched in $1,000, and donations helped, but they still owe money. It took reams of paperwork in two countries and three funeral homes to get him from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he died July 16, to Atescatempa 13 days later.

The family waited for hours Tuesday at a cargo drop under a cold, starry night sky so that Wilson could identify his body. That night they brought him to the La Reforma Funeral Home in Guatemala City for the first of three wakes, and the others saw the body for the first time in nine years. They had covered his head to hide the injuries, but the stitches were visible.

Zepeda’s father put his hand on the coffin and sighed, “Oh, my son.’’ Ana wiped her brother’s face with a tissue. Outside, she collapsed on the couch, trembling uncontrollably.

“Why him?’’ she said. “Why him?’’

More than anything, Zepeda had come to the United States for his children. He left two boys who will not remember him. Randy, the 1-year-old who was born in the United States, has all the promise in the world; Brandon, in Guatemala, is unsure whether he will advance past sixth grade, now that his father is dead and it is unclear how much money his mother will be able to send.

Randy has his father’s jet black hair and round, handsome face. In Guatemala, families still drive with children on their laps in the front seat. Zepeda’s final act, authorities said, was buckling Randy into a car seat before the driver plowed into him on a Brighton street.

The night before his father’s body was shipped out of Logan International Airport, Randy crawled and giggled around the tiny Boston apartment they shared with relatives. Numb with grief, they watched him to make sure he did not hurt himself. Then he stood, his chubby legs trembling, and for the first time did not fall.

Suddenly his right foot lurched forward. It was his first step.

On Wednesday, at the start of a 24-hour wake in Atescatempa, Brandon sat on a plastic chair gazing at the coffin of the father he knew only through phone calls and photographs. Relatives say Brandon takes after his father: a bit of a perfectionist, with a kind heart, who loves math.

His grandmother held a photograph that Zepeda had sent in recent months of himself and Randy. On the back, he wrote a message to Brandon: “This is how you were when I took a picture with you, 6 months old,’’ he wrote. “I love you very much.’’

At 4 a.m. Thursday, they cracked open the casket. Brandon looked at his father, and a shadow fell across his face.

That afternoon, they carried his casket in a procession through town, and into the cemetery under the lime trees and ficuses. They buried him in a tomb next to his mother.

Brandon led the procession, holding his father’s portrait. Again, he did not cry.

“He’ll feel it when he’s older,’’ said the boy’s great aunt, Alba Latin, her eyes still wet with tears.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.

Photo gallery

Fredy Zepeda goes home

Fredy Zepeda goes home