On his 11th day of walking through the desert to cross the Mexican border and reach the United States, Eber Lopez said he thought he was going to die.
As U.S. immigration authorities hovered overhead in a helicopter when he had reached Arizona, the Guatemalan teenager was dizzy from exhaustion and dehydration. He told his uncle, David Lopez, they should just give up.
But Lopez says he told the boy "You wanted the American dream and we are going to achieve it." They hid under a bush. The immigration agents moved on. Then, for the next day the uncle carried his 14-year-old nephew through the desert.
Eber Lopez survived the journey and made his way to Greenport, where his family says he spent two years working so he could send money home to his widowed mother living in a bamboo hut in rural Guatemala. He never attended school here, nor did much beyond work sweeping floors and washing dishes, his uncle said. He was quiet, timid, home most evenings.
Eber Lopez in photos
Living in the shadows
By all accounts, he led the kind of invisible life that illegal immigrants often face, under the radar and out of sight. Even in that shadow world, he was particularly young to come here without parents, experts said.
Now, less than two years after he arrived, Eber is dead, possibly at the hands of gang members on the bucolic North Fork. Suffolk police say the 16-year-old was taken out of a christening party on June 6 in Southold by a group of young men and vanished.
They said he had no known gang affiliations and would not elaborate on a possible motive. In mid-June, police were led to his badly decomposed body buried in the woods in Farmingville. He had been shot to death.
Back in Guatemala, Eber's mother, Juana Maria Lopez, 38, said she had supported Eber's decision to emigrate, and depended on the $100 he had sent her every two weeks. Now she is devastated. "I never heard of this type of thing happening" in Greenport, Lopez said. "I don't understand why this happened. I feel empty, completely empty, without any hope."
Hope was what Long Island represented for Eber and his mother. Shortly before Eber was born, his father died, leaving Juana Maria to raise him alone.
They lived near the village of Palencia in the mountains a couple of hours outside the capital, Guatemala City. Juana Maria walked 30 minutes each way to fill up buckets with water, said Eber's uncle, David Lopez. She cooked with wood.
The uncle said he initially discouraged Eber from making the dangerous trip to the United States but relented after the boy insisted and his mother agreed.
Once here, David Lopez said he told Eber to attend school, but the boy's mission was clear: He was here to earn money and send all he could back home. His mother cares for two other children, a boy and a girl she adopted after their mother - a neighbor - died.
Tragically, it is not unheard of for some like Eber to work but not go to school, which is mandated by law until the age of 16. Sister Margaret Smyth, head of the Hispanic Apostolate of the North Fork and a friend of the Lopez family, said she receives calls from school officials asking her help to keep children in school, but the kids often feel compelled to work because of their families' poverty back home.
School district was unaware
Charles Kozora, superintendent of Greenport schools, said if the district had known Eber was here, it would have visited his home and insisted he enroll.
Dennis Nowak, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, said that in general the adult acting as a child's caretaker - even without legal custody - is responsible for the child attending school. Normally, Child Protective Services will go to Family Court to ensure a child attends school.
Eber was sharing the first floor of a rundown house in Greenport with his two uncles - David and Oscar Lopez - and three other roommates. Each paid $300 a month rent, David Lopez said.
Eber worked briefly in a Greenport restaurant, then at a Cutchogue deli, where he cleaned floors and washed dishes, Lopez said. He said Eber worked six days a week for $250.
The deli owner said Eber "was a good kid." At the restaurant, an employee said "he was part of the family."
In their rented home, Eber and his two uncles slept in three beds jammed next to each other in a 10-by-12-foot room with a single window covered by a yellowing Venetian blind. The white walls are smudged, with a broken light fixture hanging from one. Two small cans of Raid sat on the floor. Above Eber's bed was a photograph of the 11-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy his mother had adopted.
Called home almost nightly
He called his mother nearly every night about 9:30, using a $2 calling card to talk 15 minutes. He saved his change in a plastic bag he stored under his mattress.
While his salary was meager, the $100 Eber wired home to his mother every two weeks made a huge difference in her life, David Lopez said. Eber bought her a cell phone and paid for electricity to be brought to her house. The money also bought food and clothes.
His mother said Eber had promised to one day buy her a piece of land and build a better house on it.
He spent his free time in Greenport listening to traditional Guatemalan "ranchera" music. He cooked dinner for his uncles most nights - often beans and eggs.
"He liked being here," said one neighbor and friend, who gave his name only as Umberto.
It's not clear how Eber ended up at the party on June 6, or what happened there. Now his relatives are waiting to ship his body back to Guatemala. They and their friends have placed jars with his photograph and a message on it in businesses throughout the North Fork to collect the $10,000 they need to pay for it.
"I want them to send him fast," his mother said, "although this emptiness I have will never be filled. I feel like half of me has been taken away."