Gilberto Ramos wanted to leave San Jose Las Flores, a remote mountain village in Guatemala, for the United States to earn money to treat his mother's epilepsy.
His mother begged him not to go. "The better treatment would have been if he stayed," Cipriana Juarez Diaz said in a tearful interview on Tuesday. When he wouldn't relent, she draped him with a white rosary for safe passage.
A month later, his decaying body was found in the Texas desert. Now, the 15-year-old boy has become a symbol for the perils faced by a record flood of unaccompanied children from Central America who are crossing illegally into the U.S.
Authorities said Monday that Gilberto was 11, which would have made him one of the youngest known children to die crossing the desert. But his parents say Gilberto was 15. They had taken several years to register his birth because of the remoteness of their village. When they did, they had forgotten Gilberto's actual birth date, so they listed the same date as his younger brother, Haroldo.
Gilberto was shirtless when found, having likely suffered heat stroke, but still wearing the rosary.
"He was a good son," Juarez said. "May God give me the strength to endure."
Teenagers seeking work have long been part of the stream of young men heading north from Central America to escape poverty and gang violence. But the number of unaccompanied children picked up along the U.S. border has been rising for three years.
Migrants tell of hearing that children traveling alone and parents traveling with kids would be released by U.S. authorities and allowed to continue to their destination. Gilberto, too, had heard in Guatemala that if he got in, he would be allowed to stay, his family said.
He grew up in San Jose Las Flores in a modest wood and sheet-metal home in the Cuchumatanes mountains, along the Mexico border. At 6,600 feet above sea level, the exuberant beauty of deep-green hills and canyons, shrouded with clouds and floral bursts of purple and yellow, is a stark contrast to the poverty. There is no running or potable water and only a latrine in the family home.
The cluster of homes where Gilberto lived is accessible only by foot, a difficult walk of nearly a mile along a rocky and often muddy mile-long path through the canyons. Gilberto took that path each way to school, where he went as far as third grade before dropping out.
"He had to work to help the family," said his teacher, Francisco Hernandez, who remembered that Gilberto loved to draw.
More than half of 50 schoolchildren attending now raised their hands Tuesday when asked if they had family in the U.S., shouting, "I have eight," "seven," "three!"
Gilberto and his father, Francisco Ramos, hired themselves out to harvest and clean corn. Things improved when the oldest son, Esbin Ramos, reached Chicago and started working in a restaurant. He sends $100 to $120 a month when he can afford it, allowing the family to build a two-room home out of cement block to replace their wooden shack. Gilberto slept on a piece of foam on the floor.
Short, quiet and humble, he stayed close to home. But he grew despairing and bored, Esbin Ramos said. Meanwhile, their mother got sicker. The older brother suggested Gilberto come to Chicago, where he could return to school and work at night and on weekends.
Gilberto set out May 17 with a change of clothes and a backpack along the same path as his brother, walking the rugged road to the center of town and then hitching a ride to Chiantla to meet up with the smuggler, known as a coyote.
The trip cost $5,400, and the family had borrowed $2,600 of that, paying $2,000 the first week of the journey and another $600 the week before he died. They still owe the debt.
Esbin Ramos said Tuesday that he didn't know much about how Gilberto reached the Mexican border city of Reynosa. Esbin went the whole way in the back of a semitrailer.
"I'm okay, just the deposit money," Gilberto told his father as he was about to cross into Texas. Then Gilberto and the coyote disappeared. His parents tried to call the coyote. Four days passed, then five, then six.
Then Esbin Ramos got a call from Texas, telling him his brother was dead. They had found the body June 15, authorities said, and Esbin's phone number was on the inside of Gilberto's belt buckle.
The Guatemalan consulate in the United States notified the family on Tuesday that Gilberto's body would be returned when there is an available flight.