Read an Excerpt
The boy does not understand.
His mother is not talking to him. She will not even look at him. Enrique has no hint of what she is going to do.
Lourdes knows. She understands, as only a mother can, the terror she is about to inflict, the ache Enrique will feel, and finally the emptiness.
What will become of him? Already he will not let anyone else feed or bathe him. He loves her deeply, as only a son can.
With Lourdes, he is openly affectionate. “Dame pico, mami. Give me a kiss, Mom,” he pleads, over and over, pursing his lips.
With Lourdes, he is a chatterbox. “Mira, mami. Look, Mom,” he says softly, asking her questions about everything he sees. Without her, he is so shy it is crushing.
Slowly, she walks out onto the porch. Enrique clings to her pant leg. Beside her, he is tiny. Lourdes loves him so much she cannot bring herself to say a word. She cannot carry his picture.
It would melt her resolve. She cannot hug him. He is five years old.
They live on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, in Honduras.
She can barely afford food for him and his sister, Belky, who is seven. She’s never been able to buy them a toy or a birthday cake. Lourdes, twenty-four, scrubs other people’s laundry in a muddy river. She goes door to door, selling tortillas, used clothes, and plantains.
She fills a wooden box with gum and crackers and cigarettes,
and she finds a spot where she can squat on a dusty sidewalk next to the downtown Pizza Hut and sell the items to passersby. The sidewalk is Enrique’s playground.
They have a bleak future. He and Belky are not likely to finish grade school. Lourdes cannot afford uniforms or pencils.
Her husband is gone. A good job is out of the question.
Lourdes knows of only one place that offers hope. As a seven-year-old child, delivering tortillas her mother made to wealthy homes, she glimpsed this place on other people’s television screens. The flickering images were a far cry from Lourdes’s childhood home: a two-room shack made of wooden slats,
its flimsy tin roof weighted down with rocks, the only bathroom a clump of bushes outside. On television, she saw New York
City’s spectacular skyline, Las Vegas’s shimmering lights, Disneyland’s magic castle.
Lourdes has decided: She will leave. She will go to the
United States and make money and send it home. She will be gone for one year—less, with luck—or she will bring her children to be with her. It is for them she is leaving, she tells herself,
but still she feels guilty.
She kneels and kisses Belky and hugs her tightly. Then she turns to her own sister. If she watches over Belky, she will get a set of gold fingernails from el Norte.
But Lourdes cannot face Enrique. He will remember only one thing that she says to him: “Don’t forget to go to church this afternoon.”
It is January 29, 1989. His mother steps off the porch.
She walks away.
“¿Dónde está mi mami?” Enrique cries, over and over. “Where is my mom?”
His mother never returns, and that decides Enrique’s fate.
As a teenager—indeed, still a child—he will set out for the
United States on his own to search for her. Virtually unnoticed,
he will become one of an estimated 48,000 children who enter the United States from Central America and Mexico each year,
illegally and without either of their parents. Roughly two thirds of them will make it past the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Many go north seeking work. Others flee abusive families.
Most of the Central Americans go to reunite with a parent, say counselors at a detention center in Texas where the INS houses the largest number of the unaccompanied children it catches.
Of those, the counselors say, 75 percent are looking for their mothers. Some children say they need to find out whether their mothers still love them. A priest at a Texas shelter says they often bring pictures of themselves in their mothers’ arms.
The journey is hard for the Mexicans but harder still for
Enrique and the others from Central America. They must make an illegal and dangerous trek up the length of Mexico.
Counselors and immigration lawyers say only half of them get help from smugglers. The rest travel alone. They are cold, hungry,
and helpless. They are hunted like animals by corrupt police, bandits, and gang members deported from the United
States. A University of Houston study found that most are robbed, beaten, or raped, usually several times. Some are killed.
They set out with little or no money. Thousands, shelter workers say, make their way through Mexico clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains. Since the 1990s, Mexico and the United States have tried to thwart them. To evade Mexican police and immigration authorities, the children jump onto and off of the moving train cars. Sometimes they fall, and the wheels tear them apart.
They navigate by word of mouth or by the arc of the sun.
Often, they don’t know where or when they’ll get their next meal. Some go days without eating. If a train stops even briefly,
they crouch by the tracks, cup their hands, and steal sips of water from shiny puddles tainted with diesel fuel. At night, they huddle together on the train cars or next to the tracks. They sleep in trees, in tall grass, or in beds made of leaves.
Some are very young. Mexican rail workers have encountered seven-year-olds on their way to find their mothers. A policeman discovered a nine-year-old boy near the downtown Los
Angeles tracks. “I’m looking for my mother,” he said. The youngster had left Puerto Cortes in Honduras three months before.
He had been guided only by his cunning and the single thing he knew about her: where she lived. He had asked everyone,
“How do I get to San Francisco?”
Typically, the children are teenagers. Some were babies when their mothers left; they know them only by pictures sent home. Others, a bit older, struggle to hold on to memories: One has slept in her mother’s bed; another has smelled her perfume,
put on her deodorant, her clothes. One is old enough to re-
member his mother’s face, another her laugh, her favorite shade of lipstick, how her dress felt as she stood at the stove patting tortillas.
Many, including Enrique, begin to idealize their mothers.
They remember how their mothers fed and bathed them, how they walked them to kindergarten. In their absence, these mothers become larger than life. Although in the United States the women struggle to pay rent and eat, in the imaginations of their children back home they become deliverance itself, the answer to every problem. Finding them becomes the quest for the Holy Grail.
Enrique is bewildered. Who will take care of him now that his mother is gone? Lourdes, unable to burden her family with both of her children, has split them up. Belky stayed with Lourdes’s mother and sisters. For two years, Enrique is entrusted to his father, Luis, from whom his mother has been separated for three years.
Enrique clings to his daddy, who dotes on him. A bricklayer,
his father takes Enrique to work and lets him help mix mortar.
They live with Enrique’s grandmother. His father shares a bed with him and brings him apples and clothes. Every month, Enrique misses his mother less, but he does not forget her. “When is she coming for me?” he asks.
Lourdes and her smuggler cross Mexico on buses. Each afternoon,
she closes her eyes. She imagines herself home at dusk, playing with Enrique under a eucalyptus tree in her mother’s front yard. Enrique straddles a broom, pretending it’s a donkey, trotting around the muddy yard. Each afternoon, she presses her eyes shut and tears fall. Each afternoon, she reminds herself that if she is weak, if she does not keep moving forward, her children will pay.
Lourdes crosses into the United States in one of the largest immigrant waves in the country’s history. She enters at night through a rat-infested Tijuana sewage tunnel and makes her way to Los Angeles. There, in the downtown Greyhound bus terminal, the smuggler tells Lourdes to wait while he runs a quick errand. He’ll be right back. The smuggler has been paid to take her all the way to Miami.
Three days pass. Lourdes musses her filthy hair, trying to blend in with the homeless and not get singled out by police.
She prays to God to put someone before her, to show her the way. Whom can she reach out to for help? Starved, she starts walking. East of downtown, Lourdes spots a small factory. On the loading dock, under a gray tin roof, women sort red and green tomatoes. She begs for work. As she puts tomatoes into boxes, she hallucinates that she is slicing open a juicy one and sprinkling it with salt. The boss pays her $14 for two hours’
work. Lourdes’s brother has a friend in Los Angeles who helps
Lourdes get a fake Social Security card and a job.
She moves in with a Beverly Hills couple to take care of their three-year-old daughter. Their spacious home has carpet on the floors and mahogany panels on the walls. Her employers are kind. They pay her $125 a week. She gets nights and weekends off. Maybe, Lourdes tells herself—if she stays long enough—they will help her become legal.
Every morning as the couple leave for work, the little girl cries for her mother. Lourdes feeds her breakfast and thinks of
Enrique and Belky. She asks herself: “Do my children cry like this? I’m giving this girl food instead of feeding my own children.”
To get the girl to eat, Lourdes pretends the spoon is an airplane. But each time the spoon lands in the girl’s mouth,
Lourdes is filled with sadness.
In the afternoon, after the girl comes home from prekindergarten class, they thumb through picture books and play. The girl, so close to Enrique’s age, is a constant reminder of her son.
Many afternoons, Lourdes cannot contain her grief. She gives the girl a toy and dashes into the kitchen. There, out of sight,
tears flow. After seven months, she cannot take it. She quits and moves to a friend’s place in Long Beach.
Boxes arrive in Tegucigalpa bearing clothes, shoes, toy cars,
a Robocop doll, a television. Lourdes writes: Do they like the things she is sending? She tells Enrique to behave, to study hard. She has hopes for him: graduation from high school, a white-collar job, maybe as an engineer. She pictures her son working in a crisp shirt and shiny shoes. She says she loves him.
Enrique asks about his mother. “She’ll be home soon,” his grandmother assures him. “Don’t worry. She’ll be back.”
But his mother does not come. Her disappearance is incomprehensible.
Enrique’s bewilderment turns to confusion and then to adolescent anger.
When Enrique is seven, his father brings a woman home.
To her, Enrique is an economic burden. One morning, she spills hot cocoa and burns him. His father throws her out. But their separation is brief.
“Mom,” Enrique’s father tells the grandmother, “I can’t think of anyone but that woman.”
Enrique’s father bathes, dresses, splashes on cologne, and follows her. Enrique tags along and begs to stay with him. But his father tells him to go back to his grandmother.
His father begins a new family. Enrique sees him rarely,
usually by chance. In time, Enrique’s love turns to contempt.
“He doesn’t love me. He loves the children he has with his wife,” he tells Belky. “I don’t have a dad.”
His father notices. “He looks at me as if he wasn’t my son,
as if he wants to strangle me,” he tells Enrique’s grandmother.
Most of the blame, his father decides, belongs to Enrique’s mother. “She is the one who promised to come back.”
For Belky, their mother’s disappearance is just as distressing.
She lives with Aunt Rosa Amalia, one of her mother’s sisters.
On Mother’s Day, Belky struggles through a celebration at school. That night she cries quietly, alone in her room. Then she scolds herself. She should thank her mother for leaving;
without the money she sends for books and uniforms, Belky could not even attend school. She reminds herself of all the other things her mother ships south: Reebok tennis shoes, black sandals, the yellow bear and pink puppy stuffed toys on her bed. She commiserates with a friend whose mother has also left. They console each other. They know a girl whose mother died of a heart attack. At least, they say, ours are alive.
But Rosa Amalia thinks the separation has caused deep emotional problems. To her, it seems that Belky is struggling with an unavoidable question: How can I be worth anything if my mother left me?
“There are days,” Belky tells Aunt Rosa Amalia, “when I
wake up and feel so alone.” Belky is temperamental. Sometimes she stops talking to everyone. When her mood turns dark,
her grandmother warns the other children in the house,
“¡Pórtense bien porque la marea anda brava! You better behave, because the seas are choppy!”
Confused by his mother’s absence, Enrique turns to his grandmother. Alone now, he and his father’s elderly mother share a shack thirty feet square. María Marcos built it herself of wooden slats. Enrique can see daylight in the cracks. It has four rooms, three without electricity. There is no running water.
Gutters carry rain off the patched tin roof into two barrels. A
trickle of cloudy white sewage runs past the front gate. On a well-worn rock nearby, Enrique’s grandmother washes musty used clothing she sells door to door. Next to the rock is the latrine—
a concrete hole. Beside it are buckets for bathing.
The shack is in Carrizal, one of Tegucigalpa’s poorest neighborhoods. Sometimes Enrique looks across the rolling hills to the neighborhood where he and his mother lived and where Belky still lives with their mother’s family. They are six miles apart. They hardly ever visit.
Lourdes sends Enrique $50 a month, occasionally $100,
sometimes nothing. It is enough for food but not for school clothes, fees, notebooks, or pencils, which are expensive in
Honduras. There is never enough for a birthday present. But
Grandmother María hugs him and wishes him a cheery ¡Feliz cumpleaños! “Your mom can’t send enough,” she says, “so we both have to work.”
Enrique loves to climb his grandmother’s guayaba tree, but there is no more time for play now. After school, Enrique sells tamales and plastic bags of fruit juice from a bucket hung in the crook of his arm. “¡Tamarindo! ¡Piña!” he shouts.
Sometimes Enrique takes his wares to a service station where diesel-belching buses rumble into Carrizal. Jostling among mango and avocado vendors, he sells cups of diced fruit.
After he turns ten, he rides buses alone to an outdoor food market. He stuffs tiny bags with nutmeg, curry powder, and paprika,
then seals them with hot wax. He pauses at big black gates in front of the market and calls out, “¿Va a querer especias?
Who wants spices?” He has no vendor’s license, so he keeps moving, darting between wooden carts piled with papayas.
Younger children, five and six years old, dot the curbs, thrusting fistfuls of tomatoes and chiles at shoppers. Others offer to carry purchases of fruits and vegetables from stall to stall in rustic wooden wheelbarrows in exchange for tips. “Te ayudo? May I
help you?” they ask. Arms taut, backs stooped, the boys heave forward, their carts bulging. In between sales, some of the young market workers sniff glue.
Grandmother María cooks plantains, spaghetti, and fresh eggs. Now and then, she kills a chicken and prepares it for him.
In return, when she is sick, Enrique rubs medicine on her back.
He brings water to her in bed. Two or three times a week, Enrique lugs buckets filled with drinking water, one on each shoulder,
from the water truck at the bottom of the hill up to his grandmother’s house.
Every year on Mother’s Day, he makes a heart-shaped card at school and presses it into her hand. “I love you very much,
Grandma,” he writes. But she is not his mother. Enrique longs to hear Lourdes’s voice. Once he tries to call her collect from a public telephone in his neighborhood. He can’t get the call to go through. His only way of talking to her is at the home of his mother’s cousin
María Edelmira Sánchez Mejía, one of the few family members who has a telephone. His mother seldom calls. One year she does not call at all.
“I thought you had died, girl!” María Edelmira says, when she finally does call.
Better to send money, Lourdes replies, than burn it up on the phone. But there is another reason she hasn’t called: her life in the United States is nothing like the television images she saw in Honduras.
Lourdes shares an apartment bedroom with three other women. She sleeps on the floor. A boyfriend from Honduras,
Santos, joins her in Long Beach. Lourdes is hopeful. She’s noticed that her good friend Alma saves much faster now that she has moved in with a Mexican boyfriend. The boyfriend pays
Alma’s rent and bills. Alma can shop for her two girls in Honduras at nice stores such as JCPenney and Sears. She’s saving to build a house in Honduras.
Santos, who once worked with Lourdes’s stepfather as a bricklayer, is such a speedy worker that in Honduras his nickname was El Veloz. With Santos here, Lourdes tells herself, she will save enough to bring her children within two years. If not,
she will take her savings and return to Honduras to build a little house and corner grocery store.
Lourdes unintentionally gets pregnant. She struggles through the difficult pregnancy, working in a refrigerated fish factory, packing and weighing salmon and catfish all day. Her water breaks at five one summer morning. Lourdes’s boyfriend,
who likes to get drunk, goes to a bar to celebrate. He asks a female bar buddy to take Lourdes to the public hospital. Lourdes’s temperature shoots up to 105 degrees. She becomes delirious. The bar buddy wipes sweat dripping from Lourdes’s brow. “Bring my mother. Bring my mother,” Lourdes moans.
Lourdes has trouble breathing. A nurse slips an oxygen mask over her face. She gives birth to a girl, Diana.
After two days, Lourdes must leave the hospital. She is still sick and weak. The hospital will hold her baby one more day.
Santos has never shown up at the hospital. He isn’t answering their home telephone. His drinking buddy has taken Lourdes’s clothes back to her apartment. Lourdes leaves the hospital wearing a blue paper disposable robe. She doesn’t even have a pair of underwear. She sits in her apartment kitchen and sobs,
longing for her mother, her sister, anyone familiar.
Santos returns the next morning, after a three-day drinking binge. “Ya vino? Has it arrived?” He passes out before Lourdes can answer. Lourdes goes, alone, to get Diana from the hospital.
Santos loses his job making airplane parts. Lourdes falls on a pallet and hurts her shoulder. She complains to her employer about the pain. Two months after Diana’s birth, she is fired. She gets a job at a pizzeria and bar. Santos doesn’t want her to work there. One night, Santos is drunk and jealous that Lourdes has given a male co-worker a ride home. He punches Lourdes in the chest, knocking her to the ground. The next morning, there is coagulated blood under the skin on her breast. “I won’t put up with this,” Lourdes tells herself.
When Diana is one year old, Santos decides to visit Honduras.
He promises to choose wise investments there and multiply the several thousand dollars the couple has scrimped to save. Instead, Santos spends the money on a long drinking binge with a fifteen-year-old girl on his arm. He doesn’t call
By the time Santos is gone for two months, Lourdes can no longer make car and apartment payments. She rents a garage—
really a converted single carport. The owners have thrown up some walls, put in a door, and installed a toilet. There is no kitchen. It costs $300 a month.
Lourdes and Diana, now two years old, share a mattress on the concrete floor. The roof leaks, the garage floods, and slugs inch up the mattress and into bed. She can’t buy milk or diapers or take her daughter to the doctor when she gets sick. Sometimes they live on emergency welfare.
Unemployed, unable to send money to her children in
Honduras, Lourdes takes the one job available: work as a fichera
at a Long Beach bar called El Mar Azul Bar #1. It has two pool tables, a long bar with vinyl stools, and a red-and-blue neon façade. Lourdes’s job is to sit at the bar, chat with patrons, and encourage them to keep buying grossly overpriced drinks for her. Her first day is filled with shame. She imagines that her brothers are sitting at the bar, judging her. What if someone she knows walks into the bar, recognizes her, and word somehow gets back to Lourdes’s mother in Honduras? Lourdes sits in the darkest corner of the bar and begins to cry. “What am I doing here?” she asks herself. “Is this going to be my life?” For nine months, she spends night after night patiently listening to drunken men talk about their problems, how they miss their wives and children left behind in Mexico.
A friend helps Lourdes get work cleaning oil refinery offices and houses by day and ringing up gasoline and cigarette sales at a gas station at night. Lourdes drops her daughter off at school at 7 A.M., cleans all day, picks Diana up at 5 P.M., drops her at a babysitter, then goes back to work until 2 A.M. She fetches
Diana and collapses into bed. She has four hours to sleep.
Some of the people whose houses she cleans are kind. One woman in Redondo Beach always cooks Lourdes lunch and leaves it on the stove for her. Another woman offers, “Anything you want to eat, there is the fridge.” Lourdes tells both, “God bless you.”
Others seem to revel in her humiliation. One woman in posh Palos Verdes demands that she scrub her living room and kitchen floors on her knees instead of with a mop. It exacerbates her arthritis. She walks like an old lady some days. The cleaning liquids cause her skin to slough off her knees, which sometimes bleed. The woman never offers Lourdes a glass of water.
There are good months, though, when she can earn $1,000
to $1,200 cleaning offices and homes. She takes extra jobs, one at a candy factory for $2.25 an hour. Besides the cash for Enrique,
every month she sends $50 each to her mother and
Those are her happiest moments, when she can wire money. Her greatest dread is when there is no work and she can’t. That and random gang shootings. “La muerte nunca te avisa cuando viene,” Lourdes says. “Death never announces when it is going to come.” A small park near her apartment is a gang hangout. When Lourdes returns home in the middle of the night, gangsters come up and ask for money. She always hands over three dollars, sometimes five. What would happen to her children if she died?
The money Lourdes sends is no substitute for her presence.
Belky, now nine, is furious about the new baby. Their mother might lose interest in her and Enrique, and the baby will make it harder to wire money and save so she can bring them north.
“How can she have more children now?” Belky asks.
For Enrique, each telephone call grows more strained. Because he lives across town, he is not often lucky enough to be at
María Edelmira’s house when his mother phones. When he is,
their talk is clipped and anxious. Quietly, however, one of these conversations plants the seed of an idea. Unwittingly, Lourdes sows it herself.
“When are you coming home?” Enrique asks. She avoids an answer. Instead, she promises to send for him very soon.
It had never occurred to him: If she will not come home,
then maybe he can go to her. Neither he nor his mother realizes it, but this kernel of an idea will take root. From now on, whenever
Enrique speaks to her, he ends by saying, “I want to be with you.”
“Come home,” Lourdes’s own mother begs her on the telephone.
“It may only be beans, but you always have food here.”
Pride forbids it. How can she justify leaving her children if she returns empty-handed? Four blocks from her mother’s place is a white house with purple trim. It takes up half a block behind black iron gates. The house belongs to a woman whose children went to Washington, D.C., and sent her the money to build it.
Lourdes cannot afford such a house for her mother, much less herself.
But she develops a plan. She will become a resident and bring her children to the United States legally. Three times, she hires storefront immigration counselors who promise help. She pays them a total of $3,850. But the counselors never deliver.
One is a supposed attorney near downtown Los Angeles.
Another is a blind man who says he once worked at the INS.
Lourdes’s friends say he’s helped them get work papers. A
woman in Long Beach, whose house she cleans, agrees to sponsor her residency. The blind man dies of diabetes. Soon after,
Lourdes gets a letter from the INS. Petition denied.
She must try again. A chance to get her papers comes from someone Lourdes trusts. Dominga is an older woman with whom Lourdes shares an apartment. Dominga has become
Lourdes’s surrogate mother. She loans Lourdes money when she runs short. She gives her advice on how to save so she can bring her children north. When Lourdes comes home late, she leaves her tamales or soup on the table, under the black velvet picture of the Last Supper.
Dominga is at the Los Angeles INS office. She’s there to try to help a son arrested in an immigration raid. A woman walks up to her in the hallway. My name, she tells Dominga, is Gloria
Patel. I am a lawyer. I have friends inside the INS who can help your son become legal. In fact, I work for someone inside the
INS. She hands Dominga her business card. IMMIGRATION
CONSULTANT. LEGAL PROFESSIONAL SERVICES. It has a drawing of the Statue of Liberty. Residency costs $3,000 per person up front, $5,000 total. Find five or six interested immigrants, the woman tells Dominga, and I’ll throw in your son’s residency papers for free.
“I found a woman, a great attorney!” Dominga tells Lourdes.
“She can make us legal in one month.” At most, three months. Dominga convinces other immigrants in her apartment complex to sign up. Initially, the recruits are skeptical.
Some accompany Dominga to Patel’s office. It is a suite in a nice building that also houses the Guatemalan Consulate. The waiting room is full. Two men loudly discuss how Patel has been successful in legalizing their family members. Patel shows
Dominga papers—proof, she says, that her son’s legalization process is already under way.
They leave the office grateful that Patel has agreed to slash her fee to $3,500 and require only $1,000 per person as a first installment. Lourdes gives Patel what she has: $800.
Soon Patel demands final payments from everyone to keep going. Lourdes balks. Should she be sending this money to her children in Honduras instead? She talks to Patel on the phone.
She claims to be Salvadoran but sounds Colombian.
Patel is a smooth talker. “How are you going to lose out on this amazing opportunity? Almost no one has this opportunity!
And for this incredible price.”
“It’s that there are a lot of thieves here. And I don’t earn much.”
“Who said I’m going to rob you?”
Lourdes prays. God, all these years, I have asked you for only one thing: to be with my children again. She hands over another $700.
Others pay the entire $3,500.
Patel promises to send everyone’s legalization papers in the mail. A week after mailing in the last payments, several migrants go back to her office to see how things are going. The office is shuttered. Gloria Patel is gone. Others in the building say she had rented space for one month. The papers the migrants were shown were filled-out applications, nothing more.
Lourdes berates herself for not dating an American who asked her out long ago. She could have married him, maybe even had her children here by now . . .
Lourdes wants to give her son and daughter some hope.
“I’ll be back next Christmas,” she tells Enrique.
Enrique fantasizes about Lourdes’s expected homecoming in December. In his mind, she arrives at the door with a box of
Nike shoes for him. “Stay,” he pleads. “Live with me. Work here.
When I’m older, I can help you work and make money.”
Christmas arrives, and he waits by the door. She does not come. Every year, she promises. Each year, he is disappointed.
Confusion finally grows into anger. “I need her. I miss her,” he tells his sister. “I want to be with my mother. I see so many children with mothers. I want that.”
One day, he asks his grandmother, “How did my mom get to the United States?” Years later, Enrique will remember his grandmother’s reply—and how another seed was planted:
“Maybe,” María says, “she went on the trains.”
“What are the trains like?”
“They are very, very dangerous,” his grandmother says.
“Many people die on the trains.”
When Enrique is twelve, Lourdes tells him yet again that she will come home.
“Sí,” he replies. “Va, pues. Sure. Sure.”
Enrique senses a truth: Very few mothers ever return. He tells her that he doesn’t think she is coming back. To himself, he says, “It’s all one big lie.”
The calls grow tense. “Come home,” he demands. “Why do you want to be there?”
“It’s all gone to help raise you.”
Lourdes has nightmares about going back, even to visit,
without residency documents. In the dreams, she hugs her children,
then realizes she has to return to the United States so they can eat well and study. The plates on the table are empty. But she has no money for a smuggler. She tries to go back on her own. The path becomes a labyrinth. She runs through zigzagging corridors. She always ends up back at the starting point.
Each time, she awakens in a sweat.
Another nightmare replays an incident when Belky was two years old. Lourdes has potty-trained her daughter. But Belky keeps pooping in her pants. “Puerca! You pig!” Lourdes scolds her daughter. Once, Lourdes snaps. She kicks Belky in the bottom.
The toddler falls and hits her face on the corner of a door.
Her lip splits open. Lourdes can’t reach out and console her daughter. Each time, she awakens with Belky’s screams ringing in her ears.
All along, Enrique’s mother has written very little; she is barely literate and embarrassed by it. Now her letters stop.
Every time Enrique sees Belky, he asks, “When is our mom coming? When will she send for us?”
Lourdes does consider hiring a smuggler to bring the children but fears the danger. The coyotes, as they are called, are often alcoholics or drug addicts. Usually, a chain of smugglers is used to make the trip. Children are passed from one stranger to another. Sometimes the smugglers abandon their charges.
Lourdes is continually reminded of the risks. One of her best friends in Long Beach pays for a smuggler to bring her sister from El Salvador. During her journey, the sister calls Long
Beach to give regular updates on her progress through Mexico.
The calls abruptly stop.
Two months later, the family hears from a man who was among the group headed north. The smugglers put twentyfour migrants into an overloaded boat in Mexico, he says. It tipped over. All but four drowned. Some bodies were swept out to sea. Others were buried along the beach, including the missing sister. He leads the family to a Mexican beach. There they unearth the sister’s decomposed body. She is still wearing her high school graduation ring.
Another friend is panic-stricken when her three-year-old son is caught by Border Patrol agents as a smuggler tries to cross him into the United States. For a week, Lourdes’s friend doesn’t know what’s become of her toddler.
Lourdes learns that many smugglers ditch children at the first sign of trouble. Government-run foster homes in Mexico get migrant children whom authorities find abandoned in airports and bus stations and on the streets. Children as young as three, bewildered, desperate, populate these foster homes.
Víctor Flores, four years old, maybe five, was abandoned on a bus by a female smuggler. He carries no identification, no telephone number. He ends up at Casa Pamar, a foster home in
Tapachula, Mexico, just north of the Guatemalan border. It broadcasts their pictures on Central American television so family members might rescue them.
The boy gives his name to Sara Isela Hernández Herrera,
a coordinator at the home, but says he does not know how old he is or where he is from. He says his mother has gone to the
United States. He holds Hernández’s hand with all his might and will not leave her side. He asks for hugs. Within hours, he begins calling her Mama.
When she leaves work every afternoon, he pleads in a tiny voice for her to stay—or at least to take him with her. She gives him a jar of strawberry marmalade and strokes his hair. “I have a family,” he says, sadly. “They are far away.”
Francisco Gaspar, twelve, from Concepción Huixtla in
Guatemala, is terrified. He sits in a hallway at a Mexican immigration holding tank in Tapachula. With a corner of his Charlie
Brown T-shirt, he dabs at tears running down his chin. He is waiting to be deported. His smuggler left him behind at Tepic,
in the western coastal state of Nayarit. “He didn’t see that I
hadn’t gotten on the train,” Francisco says between sobs. His short legs had kept him from scrambling aboard. Immigration agents caught him and bused him to Tapachula.
Francisco left Guatemala after his parents died. He pulls a tiny scrap of paper from a pants pocket with the telephone number of his uncle Marcos in Florida. “I was going to the
United States to harvest chiles,” he says. “Please help me!
Please help me!”
Clutching a handmade cross of plastic beads on a string around his neck, he leaves his chair and moves frantically from one stranger to another in the hallway. His tiny chest heaves.
His face contorts in agony. He is crying so hard that he struggles for breath. He asks each of the other migrants to help him get back to his smuggler in Tepic. He touches their hands.
“Please take me back to Tepic! Please! Please!”
For Lourdes, the disappearance of her ex-boyfriend, Santos,
hits closest to home. When Diana is four years old, her father returns to Long Beach. Soon after, Santos is snared in an
INS raid of day laborers waiting for work on a street corner and deported. Lourdes hears he has again left Honduras headed for the United States. He never arrives. Not even his mother in Honduras knows what has happened to him. Eventually,
Lourdes concludes that he has died in Mexico or drowned in the Rio Grande.
“Do I want to have them with me so badly,” she asks herself of her children, “that I’m willing to risk their losing their lives?”
Besides, she does not want Enrique to come to California.
There are too many gangs, drugs, and crimes.
In any event, she has not saved enough. The cheapest coyote,
immigrant advocates say, charges $3,000 per child. Female coyotes want up to $6,000. A top smuggler will bring a child by commercial flight for $10,000. She must save enough to bring both children at once. If not, the one left in Honduras will think she loves him or her less.
Enrique despairs. He will simply have to do it himself. He will go find her. He will ride the trains. “I want to come,” he tells her.
Don’t even joke about it, she says. It is too dangerous. Be patient.
R E B E L L I O N
Now Enrique’s anger boils over. He refuses to make his
Mother’s Day card at school. He begins hitting other kids. At recess, he lifts schoolgirls’ skirts. When a teacher tries to make him behave by smacking him with a large ruler, Enrique grabs the end of the ruler and refuses to let go, making the teacher cry.
He stands on top of the teacher’s desk and bellows, “Who is Enrique?”
“You!” the class replies.
Three times, he is suspended. Twice he repeats a grade. But
Enrique never abandons his promise to study. Unlike half the children from his neighborhood, he completes elementary school. There is a small ceremony. A teacher hugs him and mutters, “Thank God, Enrique’s out of here.”
He stands proud in a blue gown and mortarboard. But nobody from his mother’s family comes to the graduation.
Now he is fourteen, a teenager. He spends more time on the streets of Carrizal, which is controlled by the Poison gang and is quickly becoming one of Tegucigalpa’s toughest neighborhoods.
His grandmother tells him to come home early. But he plays soccer until midnight. He refuses to sell spices. It is embarrassing when girls see him peddle fruit cups or when they hear someone call him “the tamale man.” Sometimes his grandmother pulls out a belt at night when Enrique is naked in bed and therefore unable to quickly escape her punishment by running outside. “Ahora vamos a areglar las cuentas. Now we are going to settle the score,” she says. She keeps count, inflicting one lash for each time Enrique has misbehaved.
Enrique has no parent to protect him on the streets of Carrizal.
He makes up for it by cultivating a tougher image. When he walks alongside his grandmother, he hides his Bible under his shirt so no one will know they are headed to church.
Soon, he stops going to church at all.
“Don’t hang out with bad boys,” Grandmother María says.
“You can’t pick my friends!” Enrique retorts. She is not his mother, he tells her, and she has no right to tell him what to do.
He stays out all night.
His grandmother waits up for him, crying. “Why are you doing this to me?” she asks. “Don’t you love me? I am going to send you away.”
“Send me! No one loves me.”
But she says she does love him. She only wants him to work and to be honorable, so that he can hold his head up high.
He replies that he will do what he wants. Enrique has become her youngest child. “Please bury me,” she says. “Stay with me. If you do, all this is yours.” She prays that she can hold on to him until his mother sends for him. But her own children say Enrique has to go: she is seventy, and he will bury her, all right, by sending her to the grave.
Sadly, she writes to Lourdes: You must find him another home.
To Enrique, it is another rejection. First his mother, then his father, and now his grandmother.
Lourdes arranges for her eldest brother, Marco Antonio
Zablah, to take him in. Marco will help Enrique, just as he helped Lourdes when she was Enrique’s age. Marco once took in Lourdes to help ease the burden on their mother, who was struggling to feed so many children.
Her gifts arrive steadily. She sends Enrique an orange polo shirt, a pair of blue pants, a radio cassette player. She is proud that her money pays Belky’s tuition at a private high school and eventually a college, to study accounting. In a country where nearly half live on $1 or less a day, kids from poor neighborhoods almost never go to college.
Money from Lourdes helps Enrique, too, and he realizes it.
If she were here, he knows where he might well be: scavenging in the trash dump across town. Lourdes knows it, too; as a girl,
she herself worked the dump. Enrique knows children as young as six or seven whose single mothers have stayed at home and who have had to root through the waste in order to eat.
Truck after truck rumbles onto the hilltop. Dozens of adults and children fight for position. Each truck dumps its load.
Feverishly, the scavengers reach up into the sliding ooze to pluck out bits of plastic, wood, and tin. The trash squishes beneath their feet, moistened by loads from hospitals, full of blood and placentas. Occasionally a child, with hands blackened by garbage, picks up a piece of stale bread and eats it. As the youngsters sort through the stinking stew, thousands of sleek, black buzzards soar in a dark, swirling cloud and defecate on the people below.
Enrique sees other children who must work hard jobs. A
block from where Lourdes grew up, children gather on a large pile of sawdust left by a lumber mill. Barefoot atop the peachcolored mound, their faces smeared with dirt, they quickly scoop the sawdust into rusty tin cans and dump it into big white plastic bags. They lug the bags half a mile up a hill. There, they sell the sawdust to families, who use it as kindling or to dry mud around their houses. An eleven-year-old boy has been hauling sawdust for three years, three trips up the hill each day. The earnings buy clothes, shoes, and paper for school.
Others in the neighborhood go door-to-door, offering to burn household trash for change. One afternoon, three children, ages eight to ten, line up in front of their mother, who loads them down with logs of wood to deliver. “Give me three!” one boy says. She lays a rag and then several pieces of wood atop his right shoulder.
In one neighborhood near where Enrique’s mother grew up, fifty-two children arrive at kindergarten each morning.
Forty-four arrive barefoot. An aide reaches into a basket and places a pair of shoes into each one’s hands. At 4 P.M., before they leave, the children must return the shoes to the basket. If they take the shoes home, their mothers will sell them for food.
Black rats and a pig root around in a ravine where the children play.
At dinnertime, the mothers count out three tortillas for each child. If there are no tortillas, they try to fill their children’s bellies with a glass of water with a teaspoon of sugar mixed in.
A year after Enrique goes to live with his uncle, Lourdes calls—this time from North Carolina. “California is too hard,”
she says. “There are too many immigrants.” Employers pay poorly and treat them badly. Even with two jobs, she couldn’t save. She has followed a female friend to North Carolina and started over again. It is her only hope of bettering her lot and seeing her children again. She sold everything in California—
her old Ford, a chest of drawers, a television, the bed she shares with her daughter. It netted $800 for the move.
Here people are less hostile. She can leave her car, even her house, unlocked. Work is plentiful. She quickly lands a job as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant. She finds a room to rent in a trailer home for just $150 a month—half of what the small garage cost her in Los Angeles. She starts to save. Maybe if she amasses $4,000, her brother Marco will help her invest it in
Honduras. Maybe she’ll be able to go home. Lourdes gets a better job on an assembly line for $9.05 an hour—$13.50 when she works overtime.
Going home would resolve a problem that has weighed heavily on Lourdes: Diana’s delayed baptism. Lourdes has held off, hoping to baptize her daughter in Honduras with Honduran godparents. A baptism would lift Lourdes’s constant concern that Diana’s unexpected death will send her daughter to purgatory.
Lourdes has met someone, a house painter from Honduras,
and they are moving in together. He, too, has two children in
Honduras. He is kind and gentle, a quiet man with good manners.
He gives Lourdes advice. He helps ease her loneliness. He takes Lourdes and her daughter to the park on Sundays. For a while, when Lourdes works two restaurant jobs, he picks her up when her second shift ends at 11 P.M., so they can share a few moments together. They call each other “honey.” They fall in love.
Enrique misses Lourdes enormously. But Uncle Marco and his girlfriend treat him well. Marco is a money changer on the
Honduran border. It has been lucrative work, augmented by a group that for years has been in constant need of his services:
U.S.-funded Nicaraguan contras across the border. Marco’s family,
including a son, lives in a five-bedroom house in a middleclass neighborhood of Tegucigalpa. Uncle Marco gives Enrique a daily allowance, buys him clothes, and sends him to a private military school in the evenings.
By day, Enrique runs errands for his uncle, washes his five cars, follows him everywhere. His uncle pays as much attention to him as he does his own son, if not more. Often, Marco plays billiards with Enrique. They watch movies together. Enrique sees New York City’s spectacular skyline, Las Vegas’s shimmering lights, Disneyland’s magic castle. Negrito, Marco calls Enrique fondly, because of his dark skin. Marco and Enrique stand the same way, a little bowlegged, with the hips tucked forward.
Although he is in his teens, Enrique is small, just shy of five feet, even when he straightens up from a slight stoop. He has a big smile and perfect teeth.
His uncle trusts him, even to make bank deposits. He tells
Enrique, “I want you to work with me forever.” Enrique senses that Uncle Marco loves him, and he values his advice.
One week, as his uncle’s security guard returns from trading
Honduran lempiras, robbers drag the guard off a bus and kill him. The guard has a son twenty-three years old, and the slaying impels the young man to go to the United States. He comes back before crossing the Rio Grande and tells Enrique about riding on trains, leaping off rolling freight cars, and dodging la migra, Mexican immigration agents.
Because of the security guard’s murder, Marco swears that he will never change money again. A few months later, though,
he gets a call. For a large commission, would he exchange
$50,000 in lempiras on the border with El Salvador? Uncle
Marco promises that this will be the last time.
Enrique wants to go with him, but his uncle says he is too young. He takes Victor, one of his own brothers, instead. Robbers riddle their car with bullets. Enrique’s uncles careen off the road. The thieves shoot Uncle Marco three times in the chest and once in the leg. They shoot Victor in the face. Both die. Now Uncle Marco is gone. In nine years, Lourdes has saved $700 toward bringing her children to the United States. Instead, she uses it to help pay for her brothers’ funerals.
Lourdes goes into a tailspin. Marco had visited her once,
shortly after she arrived in Long Beach. She had not seen Victor since leaving Honduras. If the dead can appear to the living,
Lourdes beseeches God through tears, allow Victor to show himself so she can say good-bye. “Mira, hermanito, I know you are dead. But I want to see you one more time. Come to me. I promise I won’t be afraid of you,” Lourdes says.
Lourdes angrily swears off Honduras. How could she ever live in such a lawless place? People there are killed like dogs.
There are no repercussions. The only way she’ll go back now,
she tells herself, is by force, if she is deported. Soon after her brothers’ deaths, the restaurant where Lourdes works is raided by immigration agents. Every worker is caught up in the sweep.
Lourdes is the only one spared. It is her day off.
Lourdes decides to wait no longer. With financial help from her boyfriend, she baptizes seven-year-old Diana. The girl’s godparents are a trustworthy Mexican house painter and his wife. Lourdes dresses Diana in a white floor-length dress and tiara. A priest sprinkles her daughter with holy water. Lourdes feels that one worry, at least, has been lifted.
Still, her resolve to stay in the United States brings a new nightmare. One morning at four, she hears her mother’s voice.
It is loud and clear. Her mother utters her name three times:
Lourdes. Lourdes. Lourdes. “Huh?” Lourdes, half awake, bolts up in bed, screaming. This must be an omen that her mother has just died. She is inconsolable. Will she ever see her mother again?
Back in Honduras, within days of the two brothers’ deaths,
Uncle Marco’s girlfriend sells Enrique’s television, stereo, and
Nintendo game—all gifts from Marco. Without telling him why, she says, “I don’t want you here anymore.” She puts his bed out on the street.
A D D I C T I O N
Enrique, now fifteen, gathers his clothing and goes to his maternal grandmother. “Can I stay here?” he asks.
This had been his first home, the small stucco house where he and Lourdes lived until Lourdes stepped off the front porch and left. His second home was the wooden shack where he and his father lived with his father’s mother, until his father found a new wife and left. His third home was the comfortable house where he lived with his uncle Marco.
Now he is back where he began. Seven people live here already:
his grandmother, Águeda Amalia Valladares; two divorced aunts; and four young cousins. They are poor. Gone are
Marco’s contributions, which helped keep the household financially afloat. Águeda has a new expense: she must raise the young child left by her dead son Victor. The boy’s mother left him as a baby to go to the United States and hasn’t shown any interest since. “We need money just for food,” says his grandmother, who suffers from cataracts. Nonetheless, she takes Enrique in.
She and the others are consumed by the slayings of the two uncles; they pay little attention to Enrique. He grows quiet, introverted.
He does not return to school. At first, he shares the front bedroom with an aunt, Mirian, twenty-six. One day she awakens at 2 A.M. Enrique is sobbing quietly in his bed,
cradling a picture of Uncle Marco in his arms. Enrique cries off and on for six months. His uncle loved him; without his uncle,
he is lost.
Grandmother Águeda quickly sours on Enrique. She grows angry when he comes home late, knocking on her door, rousing the household. About a month later, Aunt Mirian wakes up again in the middle of the night. This time she smells acetone and hears the rustle of plastic. Through the dimness, she sees
Enrique in his bed, puffing on a bag. He is sniffing glue.
Enrique is banished to a tiny stone building seven feet behind the house but a world away. It was once a cook shack,
where his grandmother prepared food on an open fire. Its walls and ceiling are charred black. It has no electricity. The wooden door pries only partway open. It is dank inside. The single window has no glass, just bars. A few feet beyond is his privy—a hole with a wooden shanty over it. The stone hut becomes his home. Now Enrique can do whatever he wants. If he is out all night, no one cares. But to him, it feels like another rejection.
At his uncle’s funeral, he notices a shy girl with cascading curls of brown hair. She lives next door with her aunt. She has an inviting smile, a warm manner. At first, María Isabel, seventeen,
can’t stand Enrique. She notices how the teenager, who comes from his uncle Marco’s wealthier neighborhood, is neatly dressed and immaculately clean, and wears his hair long.
He seems arrogant. “Me cae mal. I don’t like him,” she tells a friend. Enrique is sure she has assumed that his nice clothes and his seriousness mean he’s stuck-up. He persists. He whistles softly as she walks by, hoping to start a conversation. Month after month, Enrique asks the same question: “Would you be my girlfriend?”
“I’ll think about it.”
The more she rejects him, the more he wants her. He loves her girlish giggle, how she cries easily. He hates it when she flirts with others.
He buys her roses. He gives her a shiny black plaque with a drawing of a boy and girl looking tenderly at each other. It reads, “The person I love is the center of my life and of my heart. The person I love IS YOU.” He gives her lotions, a stuffed teddy bear, chocolates. He walks her home after school from night classes two blocks away. He takes her to visit his paternal grandmother across town. Slowly, María Isabel warms to him.
The third time Enrique asks if she will be his girlfriend, she says yes.
For Enrique, María Isabel isn’t just a way to stem the loneliness he’s felt since his mother left him. They understand each other, they connect. María Isabel has been separated from her parents. She, too, has had to shuffle from home to home.
When she was seven, María Isabel followed her mother,
Eva, across Honduras to a borrowed hut on a Tegucigalpa mountainside. Like Enrique’s mother, Eva was leaving an unfaithful husband.
The hut was twelve by fifteen feet. It had one small wooden window and dirt floors. There was no bathroom. They relieved themselves and showered outdoors or at the neighbor’s. There was no electricity. They cooked outside using firewood. They hauled buckets of water up from a relative’s home two blocks down the hill. They ate beans and tortillas. Eva, asthmatic,
struggled to keep the family fed.
Nine people slept in the hut. They crowded onto two beds and a slim mattress jammed each night into the aisle between the beds. To fit, everyone slept head to foot. María Isabel shared one of the beds with three other women.
When she was ten, María Isabel ran to catch a delivery truck. “Firewood!” she yelled out to a neighbor, Ángela
Emérita Nuñez, offering to get some for her.
After that, each morning María Isabel asked if Ángela had a chore for her. Ángela liked the sweet, loving girl with coils of hair who always smiled. She admired the fact that she was a hard worker and a fighter, a girl who thrived when her own twin died a month after birth. “Mira,” María Isabel says, “yo por pereza no me muero del hambre. I will never die out of laziness.”
María Isabel fed and bathed Ángela’s daughter, helped make tortillas and mop the red-and-gray tile floors. María Isabel often ate at Ángela’s. Eventually, María Isabel spent many nights a week at Ángela’s roomier house, where she had to share a bed with only one other person, Ángela’s daughter.
María Isabel graduated from the sixth grade. Her mother proudly hung María Isabel’s graduation certificate on the wall of the hut. A good student, she hadn’t even asked her mother about going on to junior high. “How would she speak of that?
We had no chance to send a child to school that long,” says Eva,
who never went to school a day and began selling bread from a basket perched on her head when she was twelve.
At sixteen, a fight forced María Isabel to move again. The spat was with an older cousin, who thought María Isabel was showing interest in her boyfriend. Eva scolded her daughter.
María Isabel decided to move across town with her aunt Gloria,
who lived next door to Enrique’s maternal grandmother.
María Isabel would help Gloria with a small food store she ran out of the front room of her house. To Eva, her daughter’s departure was a relief. The family was eating, but not well. Eva was thankful that Gloria had lightened her load.
Gloria’s house is modest. The windows have no panes, just wooden shutters. But to María Isabel, Gloria’s two-bedroom home is wonderful. She and Gloria’s daughter have a bedroom to themselves. Besides, Gloria is more easygoing about letting
María Isabel go out at night to an occasional dance or party, or to the annual county fair. Eva wouldn’t hear of such a thing,
fearful the neighbors would gossip about her daughter’s morals.
A cousin promises to take María Isabel to a talk about birth control. María Isabel wants to prevent a pregnancy. Enrique desperately wants to get María Isabel pregnant. If they have a child together, surely María Isabel won’t abandon him. So many people have abandoned him.
Near where Enrique lives is a neighborhood called El Infiernito,
Little Hell. Some homes there are teepees, stitched together from rags. It is controlled by a street gang, the Mara
Salvatrucha. Some members were U.S. residents, living in Los
Angeles until 1996, when a federal law began requiring judges to deport them if they committed serious crimes. Now they are active throughout much of Central America and Mexico. Here in El Infiernito, they carry chimbas, guns fashioned from plumbing pipes, and they drink charamila, diluted rubbing alcohol.
They ride the buses, robbing passengers. Sometimes they assault people as they are leaving church after Mass.
Enrique and a friend, José del Carmen Bustamante, sixteen,
venture into El Infiernito to buy marijuana. It is dangerous.
On one occasion, José, a timid, quiet teenager, is threatened by a man who wraps a chain around his neck. The boys never linger. They take their joints partway up a hill to a billiard hall,
where they sit outside smoking and listening to the music that drifts through the open doors.
With them are two other friends. Both have tried to ride freight trains to el Norte. One is known as El Gato, the Cat. He talks about migra agents shooting over his head and how easy it is to be robbed by bandits. In Enrique’s marijuana haze, train riding sounds like an adventure. He and José resolve to try it soon.
Some nights, at ten or so, they climb a steep, winding path to the top of another hill. Hidden beside a wall scrawled with graffiti, they inhale glue late into the night. One day María Isabel turns a street corner and bumps into him. She is overwhelmed.
He smells like an open can of paint.
“What’s that?” she asks, reeling away from the fumes. “Are you on drugs?”
“No!” Enrique says.
Many sniffers openly carry their glue in baby food jars.
They pop the lids and press their mouths to the small openings.
Enrique tries to hide his habit. He dabs a bit of glue into a plastic bag and stuffs it into a pocket. Alone, he opens the end over his mouth and inhales, pressing the bottom of the bag toward his face, pushing the fumes into his lungs.
Belky, Enrique’s sister, notices cloudy yellow fingerprints on
María Isabel’s jeans: glue, a remnant of Enrique’s embrace.
María Isabel sees him change. His mouth is sweaty and sticky. He is jumpy and nervous. His eyes grow red. Sometimes they are glassy, half closed. Other times he looks drunk. If she asks a question, the response is delayed. His temper is quick.
On a high, he grows quiet, sleepy, and distant. When he comes down, he becomes hysterical and insulting.
Drogo, one of his aunts calls him. Drug addict.
Enrique stares silently. “No one understands me,” he tells
Belky when she tries to keep him from going out.
His grandmother points to a neighbor with pale, scaly skin who has sniffed glue for a decade. The man can no longer stand up. He drags himself backward on the ground, using his forearms.
“Look! That’s how you’re going to end up,” his grandmother tells Enrique.
Enrique fears that he will become like the hundreds of glue-sniffing children he sees downtown.
Some sleep by trash bins. A gray-bearded priest brings them sweet warm milk. He ladles it out of a purple bucket into big bowls. On some days, two dozen of them line up behind his van. Many look half asleep. Some can barely stand. The acrid smell of the glue fills the air. They shuffle forward on blackened feet, sliding the lids off their glue jars to inhale. Then they pull the steaming bowls up to their filthy lips. If the priest tries to take away their glue jars, they cry. Older children beat or sexually abuse the younger ones. In six years, the priest has seen twenty-six die from drugs.
Sometimes Enrique hallucinates that someone is chasing him. He imagines gnomes and fixates on ants. He sees a cartoonlike
Winnie-the-Pooh soaring in front of him. He walks,
but he cannot feel the ground. Sometimes his legs will not respond.
Houses move. Occasionally, the floor falls.
Once he almost throws himself off the hill where he and his friend sniff glue. For two particularly bad weeks, he doesn’t recognize family members. His hands tremble. He coughs black phlegm. No one tells Enrique’s mother. Why worry her? Lourdes has enough troubles. She is three months behind in school payments for Belky, and the school is threatening not to let her take final exams.
A N E D UCATION
Enrique marks his sixteenth birthday. All he wants is his mother. One Sunday, he and his friend José put train riding to the test. They leave for el Norte.
At first, no one notices. They take buses across Guatemala to the Mexican border. “I have a mom in the United States,”
Enrique tells a guard.
“Go home,” the man replies.
They slip past the guard and make their way twelve miles into Mexico to Tapachula. There they approach a freight train near the depot. But before they can reach the tracks, police stop them. The officers rob them, the boys say later, but then let them go—José first, Enrique afterward.
They find each other and another train. Now, for the first time, Enrique clambers aboard. The train crawls out of the
Tapachula station. From here on, he thinks, nothing bad can happen.
They know nothing about riding the rails. José is terrified.
Enrique, who is braver, jumps from car to car on the slowmoving train. He slips and falls—away from the tracks, luckily—
and lands on a backpack padded with a shirt and an extra pair of pants.
He scrambles aboard again. But their odyssey comes to a humiliating halt. Near Tierra Blanca, a small town in Veracruz,
authorities snatch them from the top of a freight car. The officers take them to a cell filled with MS gangsters, then deport them. Enrique is bruised and limping, and he misses María Isabel.
They find coconuts to sell for bus fare and go home.
A D E C I S I O N
Enrique sinks deeper into drugs. By mid-December, he owes his marijuana supplier 6,000 lempiras, about $400. He has only
1,000 lempiras. He promises the rest by midweek but cannot keep his word. The following weekend, he encounters the dealer on the street.
“I’m going to kill you,” the dealer tells Enrique. “You lied to me.”
“Calm down,” Enrique says, trying not to show any fear.
“I’ll give you your money.”
“If you don’t pay up,” the supplier vows, “I’ll kill your sister.”
The dealer mistakenly thinks that Enrique’s cousin Tania
Ninoska Turcios, eighteen, is his sister. Both girls are finishing high school, and most of the family is away at a Nicaraguan hotel celebrating their graduation.
Enrique pries open the back door to the house where his uncle Carlos Orlando Turcios Ramos and aunt Rosa Amalia live. He hesitates. How can he do this to his own family? Three times, he walks up to the door, opens it, closes it, and leaves.
Each time, he takes another deep hit of glue. He knows the dealer who threatened him has spent time in jail and owns a
“It’s the only way out,” he tells himself finally, his mind spinning.
Finally, he enters the house, picks open the lock to a bedroom door, then jimmies the back of his aunt’s armoire with a knife. He stuffs twenty-five pieces of her jewelry into a plastic bag and hides it under a rock near the local lumberyard.
At 10 P.M., the family returns to find the bedroom ransacked.
Neighbors say the dog did not bark.
“It must have been Enrique,” Aunt Rosa Amalia says. She calls the police. Uncle Carlos and several officers go to find him.
“What’s up?” he asks. He has come down off his high.
“Why did you do this? Why?” Aunt Rosa Amalia yells.
“It wasn’t me.” As soon as he says it, he flushes with shame and guilt. The police handcuff him. In their patrol car, he trembles and begins to cry. “I was drugged. I didn’t want to do it.” He tells the officers that a dealer wanting money had threatened to kill Tania.
He leads police to the bag of jewelry.
“Do you want us to lock him up?” the police ask.
Uncle Carlos thinks of Lourdes. They cannot do this to her.
Instead, he orders Tania to stay indoors indefinitely, for her own safety.
But the robbery finally convinces Uncle Carlos that Enrique needs help. He finds him a $15-a-week job at a tire store.
He eats lunch with him every day—chicken and homemade soup. He tells the family they must show him their love.
During the next month, January 2000, Enrique tries to quit drugs. He cuts back, but then he gives in. Every night, he comes home later. María Isabel begs him not to go up the hill where he sniffs glue. He promises not to but does anyway. He looks at himself in disgust. He is dressing like a slob—his life is unraveling.
He is lucid enough to tell Belky that he knows what he has to do: he has to go find his mother.
Aunt Ana Lucía agrees. Ana Lucía is wound tight. She and
Enrique have clashed for months. Ana Lucía is the only breadwinner in the household. Even with his job at the tire store, Enrique is an economic drain. Worse, he is sullying the only thing her family owns: its good name.
They speak bitter words that both, along with Enrique’s grandmother Águeda, will recall months later.
“Where are you coming from, you old bum?” Ana Lucía asks as Enrique walks in the door. “Coming home for food,
“Be quiet!” he says. “I’m not asking anything of you.”
“You’re a lazy bum! A drug addict! No one wants you here.” All the neighbors can hear. “This isn’t your house. Go to your mother!”
“I don’t live with you. I live alone.”
“You eat here.”
Over and over, in a low voice, Enrique says, half pleading,
“You better be quiet.” Finally, he snaps. He kicks Ana Lucía twice, squarely in the buttocks. She shrieks.
His grandmother runs out of the house. She grabs a stick and threatens to club him if he touches Ana Lucía again. Enrique turns on his heel. “No one cares about me!” he says. He stomps away. Ana Lucía threatens to throw his clothes out onto the street. Now even his grandmother wishes he would go to the United States. He is hurting the family—and himself. She says, “He’ll be better off there.”
María Isabel finds him sitting on a rock at a street corner, weeping,
rejected again. She tries to comfort him. He is high on glue.
He tells her he sees a wall of fire. His mother has just passed through it. She is lying on the other side, and she is dying. He approaches the fire to save her, but someone walks toward him through the flames and shoots him. He falls, then rises again,
unhurt. His mother dies. “¿Por qué me dejó?” he cries out. “Why did she leave me?”
Even Enrique’s sister and grandmother have urged María
Isabel to leave Enrique, to find someone better. “What do you see in him? Don’t you see he uses drugs?” people ask her. Her uncle is also wary of the drug-addicted teenager. He and Enrique both work at the same mechanic’s shop, but the uncle never offers him a lift in his car to their job.
María Isabel can’t leave him, despite his deep flaws. He is macho and stubborn. When they fight, he gives her the silent treatment. She has to break the ice. He is her third boyfriend but her first love. Enrique also provides a refuge from her own problems. Her aunt Gloria’s son is an alcoholic. He throws things. He steals things. There are a lot of fights.
María Isabel loses herself in Enrique. At night, they sit on some big rocks outside his grandmother’s home, where they have a bit of privacy, and talk. Enrique talks about his mother,
his life with his grandmother María and his uncle Marco.
“Why don’t you leave your vices?” María Isabel asks. “It’s hard,” he answers quietly. When they walk by his drug haunts,
she holds his hand tighter, hoping it will help.
Enrique feels shame for what he has done to his family and what he is doing to María Isabel, who might be pregnant.
María Isabel pleads with him to stay. She won’t abandon him.
She tells Enrique she will move into the stone hut with him. But
Enrique fears he will end up on the streets or dead. Only his mother can help him. She is his salvation. “If you had known my mom, you would know she’s a good person,” he says to his friend José. “I love her.”
Enrique has to find her.
Each Central American neighborhood has a smuggler. In
Enrique’s neighborhood, it’s a man who lives at the top of a hill. For $5,000, he will take anyone to los Estados. But Enrique can’t imagine that kind of money.
He sells the few things he owns: his bed, a gift from his mother; his leather jacket, a gift from his dead uncle; his rustic armoire, where he hangs his clothes. He crosses town to say good-bye to Grandmother María. Trudging up the hill to her house, he encounters his father. “I’m leaving,” he says. “I’m going to make it to the U.S.” He asks him for money.
His father gives him enough for a soda and wishes him luck.
“Grandma, I’m leaving,” Enrique says. “I’m going to find my mom.”
Don’t go, she pleads. She promises to build him a one-room house in the corner of her cramped lot. But he has made up his mind.
She gives him 100 lempiras, about $7—all the money she has.
“I’m leaving already, sis,” he tells Belky the next morning.
She feels her stomach tighten. They have lived apart most of their lives, but he is the only one who understands her loneliness.
Quietly, she fixes a special meal: tortillas, a pork cutlet,
rice, fried beans with a sprinkling of cheese. “Don’t leave,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.
“I have to.”
It is hard for him, too. Every time he has talked to his mother, she has warned him not to come—it’s too dangerous.
But if somehow he gets to the U.S. border, he will call her.
Being so close, she’ll have to welcome him. “If I call her from there,” he says to José, “how can she not accept me?”
He makes himself one promise: “I’m going to reach the
United States, even if it takes one year.” Only after a year of trying would he give up and go back.
Quietly, Enrique, the slight kid with a boyish grin, fond of kites, spaghetti, soccer, and break dancing, who likes to play in the mud and watch Mickey Mouse cartoons with his four-yearold cousin, packs up his belongings: corduroy pants, a T-shirt, a cap, gloves, a toothbrush, and toothpaste.
For a long moment, he looks at a picture of his mother, but he does not take it. He might lose it. He writes her telephone number on a scrap of paper. Just in case, he also scrawls it in ink on the inside waistband of his pants. He has $57 in his pocket.
On March 2, 2000, he goes to his grandmother Águeda’s house. He stands on the same porch that his mother disappeared from eleven years before. He hugs María Isabel and
Aunt Rosa Amalia. Then he steps off.