That Crash in California: Remembering Yesenia

On March 2, a maroon Ford Expedition with 25 people inside was hit by a semi-trailer in southern California. Thirteen of the people inside were killed in the crash. They were immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries—and the smuggler who brought them in, the van’s driver. 

Every migrant has a story. Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona, age 23, was one of 13 migrants who died in the Ford Expedition

“Yesenia’s uncle, Rudy Dominguez, fled Guatemala first — 16 years ago.

“Ahead of the trip, he said, he thought about the risks: the chance that he could be kidnapped, the possibility that he could be left to die in the desert. ‘These are decisions you make, where you ask yourself, ‘Do I die over there? Or do I die fighting for a dream?”…

“Yesenia had been in her fourth year at the University of San Carlos — where she was studying to be a lawyer — when she and her mother decided to leave. The young woman was being harassed and threatened, according to her uncle.

“’It was an emergency decision,’ Dominguez said. ‘There they threaten you and they kill you.’…

“Normally, the 1997 Expedition would hold seven or eight people. But this one had just two seats, one for the driver, one for a front passenger. When it collided with the empty tractor-trailer at 6:15 a.m., 23 other men and women were jammed into the back.” 

Yesenia’s mother was in the van, too. She survived, though with a severe concussion. She doesn’t remember the crash. All she remembers is waking up in the van, with Yesenia’s body lying across her legs. 

No one leaves home easily. Desperation drives migrants north to the United States. Some, like Yesenia, are fleeing for their lives. Others leave to save the lives of their children, unable to find work enough to feed those children in their home countries and desperate enough to risk everything for the chance to find a job elsewhere and send money home. 

Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote about refugees and migrants in a poem called “Home:”  

no one leaves home

unless home is the mouth of a shark …

you have to understand

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land…

Back in Guatemala, Yesenia had been one of the lucky ones, with a job and a place in the university. Unlike millions of her fellow Guatemalans, desperate and hungry in the wake of hurricanes and pandemic, she seemed to have a future. But the threats to her life were real, and she fled to what she believed was safety in the United States.  

We need to change immigration laws, policies, and procedures to ensure that migrants like Yesenia find safe refuge, not death. 

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet,, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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