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I am originally from Panama, which has an American military presence. A sexy military presence: I was born from an extramarital affair between my mom and a member of the U.S. Air Force. Technically, I should have already been an American citizen, but thanks to a wacky series of adventures, including misfiled paperwork and some mild kidnapping, no citizenship for me. My mother and I decided to sneak into the United States for a chance at a better life, a free education, and one of those sweet Springsteen headbands all people are issued the second they cross into U.S. territory. Here's how it went down:

5
Trusting Your Life to the Coyotes

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At the Honduras border, my mom had to hire some coyotes. Not actual coyotes, mind you -- the stereotypes aren't true (not all Panamanians can talk to the beasts). These guys smuggle human beings for a living, and I don't know if you know this, but apparently some people who smuggle human beings for a living aren't very nice. Go figure.

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Stick to rum smugglers if you can. They're a merry, musical lot.

The coyotes took us to this ramshackle hideout made of wood. It looked like the kind of place an ax murderer would use as a vacation home. Sometime around 1:00 a.m., we woke up to be told that there were border guards patrolling with machine guns nearby, and we had to be quiet.

"They'll shoot first, and they don't ask questions."

To this day, I have no idea if they were just fucking with us or not, but we sure shut the hell up. Pro Tip for new parents: If you want your kids to quiet down, convince them armed soldiers will murder them for speaking. It works!

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"Uh-oh, looks like Shanksgiving might be coming early this year."

We also had to use coyotes on the trip from Honduras to Guatemala, but my mom was running low on funds at that point. Thankfully, she met this really nice guy who also just happened to coyote from time to time. He was a pretty cheerful dude, with a nice wife and four kids. He was the Ned Flanders of international crime. (Remember, I said some people that smuggle human beings for a living weren't very nice. Some are just delightful.) They took us into their home for a week while they gathered supplies and people to cross the border with us.

The border crossing itself was awesome. My mom was able to cross with her Panamanian passport, but my brother and sister couldn't, so the plan was that she would meet us in a small town just across the border after we crossed over with Honduran Flanders ... on horseback. How many illegal horseback adventures did you have before the age of 13?

Is it more than one? Whoa, really? Well la-di-da, Billy the Literal Kid. Get your own article.

4
Thrown in Jail at the Guatemala-Mexico Border

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When we met back up, we planned to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border. We hopped on a bus and made our way over there. Again, our passports weren't valid, but we tried to cross anyway. I don't remember what we did, but I do remember that we got caught and had to stay in Mexican border jail.

Marina Kravchenko/iStock/Getty 
An experience many American visitors to Mexico can relate to.

The phrase "Mexican border jail" probably conjures up mental images of dingy cells and knife fights accompanied by wild mariachi music, but it wasn't like that at all. Everything was stainless steel and very clean.

It wasn't that bad when you remove the abject terror that we all felt about the possibility of being separated. I was horrified that my younger siblings might be sent to the U.S. (their American passports were actually valid) while my mom and I were sent back to Panama. There were posters around that assured us this wouldn't happen, but the policeman who released us said differently. When in doubt, take the word of the guy with the gun over the marketing campaign.

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The nice saleslady up north may say "Give me your tired and your poor,"
but down south the armed guard still wants to see your papers.

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3
Crossing in Dangerous Territory

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At the Belize-Mexico border, we again had to hire a coyote, and this guy crossed us through a freakin' swamp. He kept telling us stories about how deep the swamp was, even though everything looked super shallow. We were frightened little kids, remember. He also said we needed to be careful, because he had seen a fully grown man drown in there. Just because you "work with people," that doesn't make you a "people person."

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"I've seen hundreds of kids eaten by gators right over there. So ... you guys like show tunes?"

We were already suitably terrified, and then my baby brother fell into the water. I felt my stomach drop to the god-damned ground. And then I dropped to the god-damned ground to try to grab him.

Luckily, either the coyote was a remorseless sociopath who enjoyed needlessly terrifying children (likely) or that bit of swamp wasn't "drown a grown man" deep. The water only reached up to his shoulders. After we got him out of the water, we all hugged him, and I gave him a piggy back ride until we reached solid ground. My back was gross, and the water smelled like a bag of soggy grandpa ass tossed into a Taco Bell dumpster.

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So, you know, like a regular Taco Bell.

2
The Big Finale: Crossing into the U.S. from Mexico

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At the Mexico-U.S. border, my mom scouted for another coyote. She was even considering trying to cross the Rio Grande on a giant tire. Tubing is a great way to beat the heat in the summer, but it's a somewhat less great way for small children to sneak across a national border. If we'd tried, we might have ended up being a few more of the over 2,000 illegal immigrants who died crossing between 1999 and 2012.

PBS
"Actually, the PC term is 'migrant.'"
-person who didn't almost die crossing the border and whose opinion totally matters

When derring-do ended up looking a little too daring, we eventually employed the oldest and most effective coyotes of all: "walking" and "asking nicely." We made our way to Ciudad Juarez, and I told my mom to let me do the talking: See, my mom has a very thick accent, but my English has been pretty much accentless since I was in third grade. We came to the border crossing and I strolled up to the cop with my family in tow and told him we wanted to go home. I said "please." He asked if we had any food that we needed to declare, I said no, and we were in America. He didn't even ask for any paperwork, maybe because I didn't have an accent, my siblings were both white and blond, and my black mom looked like she could have been our maid or nanny or something.

After all that, the big climactic crossing ended up being: "Hey, can I come into America?" and "Sure, so long as you don't bring any weird food in here."

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"That bean could breed and eat our corn!"

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1
Life After You've Finally Arrived

USCIS

Once we got to the states, we hopped around, attending three different schools in a year so no one would catch on to us. Sometimes when we switched schools the administrators would want to hold me back a grade because of soft-serve racism, but whatever. When I was 12, my dad's lawyers finally tracked us down. I went to live with him, and now I'm in a pretty good place. My mom is still illegal, though. She was deported once I was found, and she keeps trying to hop the border.

Jack Hollingsworth/Blend Images/Getty
Stop trying to bring me food. They won't let you through with it.

I'm engaged to be married to an awesome guy with an American fairy tale background: parents still together, upper middle class, rocking the headband of patriotism since he was a baby. When we talk about our childhoods, it gets awkward sometimes. Oh, you played video games? I ran through rivers and played in garbage and stole fruit from trees. I'm not complaining; I think it was an awesome time. But everyone I tell feels bad for me, and weirdly enough, that's kind of the worst part.

Related Reading: Cracked talks to people with all kinds of fascinating life experiences, including these garbagemen who know all your filthy secrets. We sat down with the accidental accomplice to a mass murder, and also heard the stories of a male porn star. This woman who was raised in a fundamentalist cult told us her story, and if you'd like to tell us YOUR story send an email here.

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