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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
Don’t even joke about it, she says. It is too dangerous. Be
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
He stands on top of the teacher’s desk and bellows, “Who
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
She gives him 100 lempiras, about $7—all the money she
“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.