By 11, Juan Carlos had had a few good experiences. He had lived with his grandmother in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, since he could remember, because his mother had left to El Norte to make money to help the family. She called every once in a while, but that happened less and less. He remembered her through a picture in which a young woman with a sad smile and braids held a baby whom he was told was him. Reina, his older sister, had left long ago to live with her father in a village in Guatemala; she had gone alone because Juan Carlos had another father, about whom nothing was known, and to whom his grandmother referred using only insults.
Life wasn’t easy in San Pedro. He learned things through his grandmother’s screams: to obey, defend himself, fight, steal and work on the street—the last enforced by the punches of his uncle Adán, his grandmother’s violent and vulgar brother. They were selling stolen stuff or candies and they pushed Juan Carlos to beg. His grandmother sold food from her home window, and he had to help her in the evenings. He began attending school at 7, but he stopped when the gangs that forced him to traffic drugs started to beat him too often, and finally threaten to kill him.
He fled and went to look for his mother, who year after year promised to send someone to pick him up and bring him to California to live with her. He joined a group of kids who were heading to Mexico through Guatemala. They crossed the border, and in Chiapas illegally boarded the train called La Bestia—the Beast.
That was six years ago. Traveling throughout Mexico he saw and suffered all kinds of violence and abuses, even rape; he saw dead and mutilated people by the train, and he saw how Mexican police and immigration agents were in with the murderous gangs of the Mara Salvatrucha and with the robbers and attackers who abuse, beat up and rape men, women and children migrants. He saw how the Zetas kidnapped them and forced them into drug trafficking, how the women were forced to work and provide them sexual services in exchange for security. He also saw executions. He learned that everybody takes advantage of migrants, though there are also some people who help.
He traveled in and out of Mexico several times, and was even deported. He did anything to survive: work, steal and beat people up. He lived in numerous places along the train tracks and even helped other migrants by guiding and advising them, pointing out the best and more secure routes, what to do to avoid danger and how to get food. Finally, after two years, he arrived in Texas.
There he was arrested and taken to an immigration detention center along with hundreds of unaccompanied minors; he pretended to be Mexican and was deported to Ciudad Juárez. He found refuge in a support center for migrants near the border, and he began getting odd jobs in construction.
Now, at 17, he could write a huge book with several chapters about the diverse situations and problems faced by Central American migrants trying to escape their terrible and oppressive reality and arrive in the promised land—a dream hardly fulfilled-—with an inevitable Mexican nightmare in between.
Now he opines like an expert on migrant kids and their migratory and humanitarian situation that has put the Obama administration and both parties’ politicians in Congress on the spot. He doesn’t understand why politicians play with these children’s fate, but he feels the experience is good for the kids and will help them become men, since life is hard and one has to fight it or it will kill you.
He still remembers with nostalgia and disappointment the month and a half he spent in the U.S. For two weeks he was locked in a security house while the coyotes negotiated to free the immigrants who had relatives here. Juan Carlos gave them a false phone number to call his mom. (Secretly, he wished it were real.) Ironically, he escaped this lie by an ICE raid, during which more than 40 immigrants retained by smugglers were freed from their
He spent the other three weeks in a detention center where he was treated much better; kids were fed and there was a good police officer, but also a bad one who threatened and insulted them, beating up those who misbehaved. He remembers a chemical smell he now calls “cleany”; the unique perfection of houses and trees he saw aligned on the road as he rode the bus that took the migrant kids to the border; and the impeccable freeways and automobiles, and the uniforms the agents wore and the technology they used. Everything shone and was beautiful to him. Nothing was dirty, dusty or trashed; there was no spoiled food or animals in the streets. And he’ll never forget the smell of McDonald’s hamburgers.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico, with decades-old ties to the Light. The original Spanish-language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.