Josué Tiquiram left his family farm in Guatemala 18 months ago in pursuit of a way to provide for his parents and seven young siblings. His journey spanned 3,000 miles, taking him through dense jungles and vast deserts before he arrived in New Bedford, where he found the means to support his family in the construction industry.
That journey came to an abrupt end earlier this month. Josué, 24, was killed Sept. 6 on a sprawling, dusty worksite in East Freetown. His head was crushed between the arms of an industrial machine that is used to sift gravel from dirt. He was not wearing a helmet.
On Saturday, his body was returned to his Guatemalan hometown in a casket, a tragic symbol of dreams unfulfilled and the perilous conditions under which immigrants like Josué are willing to work to achieve them. He was eight days shy of his 25th birthday.
“He should not be dead,” said Josué’s uncle, Maximo Tiquiram Quinilla, who had worked alongside Josué each day at the construction company and himself witnessed the accident. “He wasn’t wearing a helmet. The company doesn’t require that we wear a helmet.”
The company, John Oliveira & Sons Stamp Concrete, Inc., a family-owned business that specializes in paving roads and cement work, declined to comment.
Josué was one of many immigrants in New Bedford working in the construction industry, often under dangerous conditions with little regulatory oversight. In Massachusetts, 18 construction workers died on the job in 2021, the most recent year that data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is available. There is no data indicating how many of those workers were immigrants.
For undocumented workers, fear of deportation and the need for work often mean that unsafe conditions can go unreported. Oliveira & Sons had not been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in at least the last 10 years, according to the agency’s database.
Records show the accident is under investigation by OSHA, which oversees workplace safety. Its regulations require helmets to be worn when there’s a risk of head injury. The agency declined comment on its investigation.
“The companies look at us as disposable,” said Adrian Ventura, who leads Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a labor activist organization for New Bedford’s many immigrant workers. He was speaking at a ceremony held at the site of the accident in East Freetown. Flowers and candles were laid at the foot of the rusted, orange machine that claimed Josué’s life. He continued: “They don’t care if we wear a helmet because they don’t care about our safety.”
Far from home
Josué was raised in the highlands of midwestern Guatemala in a quiet region called San Andreas Sajcabajá. Like many there, his family earned a meager living as tenant farmers. They depended on a plot of land smaller than a soccer field, pitched on the slope of a small hill. Little of the land was flat, which meant their rent was relatively cheap, but also meant that it was harder to farm. Often, their yield of crops would not cover the cost of rent, and his father would turn to sowing cornfields at larger farms nearby.
In Guatemala, Josué also worked in construction, building small but sturdy cement homes in the nearest city. The houses he built were mostly financed by others in his community who had already ventured to the United States. The work did not pay well, less than $5 per day. It frustrated Josué, his uncle said, to see his low wages matched against the money he saw flowing in from those up north. He wanted the same for himself and his family.
“His dream was to buy a piece of land and build a house. Not for him, but for his whole family. That was not possible there.” Maximo said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. “He told his dad: ‘I’m going to the United States. I am going to send you money. I am going to support the family.’”
Josué arrived in New Bedford on April 10, 2022. Sharing a cramped apartment in the North End, he was far from home, but he quickly reconnected with his community and family members who had migrated to New Bedford before him. He found his brother, who connected him with his two uncles and one cousin. Within days, his uncle Maximo had secured Josué a job at the construction company where he had worked for 15 years.
“He arrived on a Saturday, and by Monday he was working,” Maximo said. He had not seen Josué since he himself had left Guatemala 20 years ago. At the time, Josué was 5 years old, and Maximo said he was stunned to see how he had grown. “He was not a child anymore,” he said. “He was a man.”
When Josué first arrived, supporting his family was a duty that he shared with his older brother, Ector Tiquiram. But one month ago, his brother was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Maximo said. He is awaiting deportation at a detention center in Pennsylvania. At the age of 24, the weight of supporting his two parents, their farm and seven young siblings in Guatemala fell entirely on Josué’s shoulders.
Josué worked long hours, six days a week, his uncle said. And on Saturdays he would receive a check for about $600. He would rush to a storefront in the North End to wire most of the money home to Guatemala. He split his earnings in thirds: $200 for himself, $200 for his family and $200 to pay down the debt of $20,000 he had borrowed to pay coyotes for his migration to New Bedford.
The last day of Josué’s life began at 6 in the morning. He and his uncle drank coffee as they traveled in a red company van to Newport, where they laid a cement floor at a large, recently renovated home. When that was finished, they stopped in Providence to prepare a job site for the next day before returning to the company’s headquarters in East Lakeville.
They were ready to go home for the day when a supervisor called and told them he needed help replacing a part on the arm of a large machine, his uncle recalled. The system is complex, involving conveyor belts and hydraulic jaws to crush medium-sized stones into small stones that can then be sifted out from the dirt. But to those who worked on the site, it was known only as “the machine.”
A supervisor and his uncle watched as Josué climbed the machine to remove a large screw, which would allow him to replace the broken part on the machine’s arm. As he pulled the screw, his uncle said, the arm dropped from beneath his feet. Josué grabbed onto the body of the machine, suspended about 15 feet in the air, as another arm folded over him. His head was crushed between two pieces of heavy steel. He fell, wedged into the base of the machine surrounded by mounds of dirt.
Maximo said it was clear right away that Josué was dead.
Josué was not wearing a helmet, his uncle said, because the company did not provide helmets. In his 15 years working there, Maximo said that he had never received safety training.
“Never,” Maximo said. “Not once.”
On Saturday, Sept. 23, a procession carrying a light blue casket filled the cobbled street of San Andreas Sajcabajá. Women held flowers and police sirens wailed over a crackling speaker playing a somber Guatemalan song.
Inside the casket was Josué’s body. He had left the town to support his family, but his dream was not to remain in the United States, Maximo said. He had wanted to return home to buy a plot of land, prying his family out of the generational poverty that pushed him to leave his country in the first place.
In the United States, Josué had slowly chipped away at the $20,000 he had borrowed from a cooperative in Guatemala to finance his trip to New Bedford. Paying it off was the final hurdle of his long journey, after which he would have been able to start saving money to buy land. He had $7,000 left to pay at the time of his death. Now, his uncle said, the remaining debt will fall on the family he had set out to support.
“He wanted to return,” his uncle Maximo said. “But not like this.”
A GoFundMe campaign organized by CCT has raised $300 as of Sept. 28 to help cover funeral expenses and the cost of sending Josué’s body back to Guatemala.
Email reporter Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.