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 Service.
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 remember 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 Lourdes again.
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 Belky.
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 twenty-four 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.