As I walked my 2 “fur kids” around the elementary school, we encountered a little boy. He had large chocolate eyes and was not dressed warmly enough for the weather. He seemed wary of the dogs. I said “Good Morning” to him and after a moment, shyly, he said it back.
The Immigrant Story
The situation: Single mothers throughout Central America, including Honduras, are leaving their young children behind in search of fool’s gold – a job as a nanny or a maid in the US.
The children left behind feel abandoned. Their bellies are now full, but their hearts are bruised. Kids as young as 9 have been found by la migra – the Border Patrol – wandering through downtown L.A. looking for their mothers.
According to Mother Jones, 70,000 children from Central America and Mexico show up alone at the US border each year. Could the little boy in Spokane have been one? If so, he was lucky. In Honduras, he would most likely not be going to fourth grade. He’d be selling tortillas on the street. Or begging. It’s hard to go to school when you don’t own a pair of shoes. When you can’t afford to buy paper. (I imagine an electronic gadget like a cell phone or tablet would be as out of reach as a trip to the moon.)
The migration of the children is too much to comprehend en masse, so Pulitzer-Prize winning L.A. Times reporter Sonia Nazario decided to profile a single child. Enrique, from Tegucigalpa.
Legal or Illegal?
I expected that the author of this book would be Latina. Actually, her parents were born in Peru. Her grandparents are from Syria. She was lucky. Her dad was an engineer. Her parents got to come to America on a plane, with papers. They were not without resources.
The children in the book, like Enrique, have literally nothing. Many are so poor they have never owned a single book, or even one toy. They’ve never had a birthday party or a piñata. Worst of all, poverty has robbed them of the one possession they should always have had: the presence of their parents.
Lourdes, the mother of Enrique and his sister Belky, was dumped by her husband for another woman. Lourdes didn’t want to watch her kids scrounging in garbage dumps for scraps. She decided to make the dangerous journey to El Norte. She didn’t know she’d be stuck in the US, afraid to leave in case she couldn’t get back in.
She didn’t know that her children, once they were no longer starving, wouldn’t forgive her for abandoning them just so she could send barbies and toy trucks from the north. She didn’t know that the crap wages she would be paid for working two shitty jobs simultaneously would never provide her with a decent standard of living. It is much cheaper to live in Honduras. Lourdes didn’t know that the money she sent home so her daughter Belky could graduate from high school and become a professional would drive a wedge between her and Enrique, who didn’t do well in school. That her cute, needy little boy would always feel his mother gave his sister more; loved her best.
Is It Our Fault?
Are North American policies to blame for the obscene economic conditions of Central Americans? I believe that wealth creates poverty and visa-versa. Extreme wealth creates extreme poverty. (This is based on a TED Talk I heard a few years ago explaining how slavery benefitted a very few and how low-wage jobs are not much different. Buddhist monk and humanitarian Thich Nhat Hahn says something similar in his book Peace Is The Way.)
I know people here in the US who say they don’t mind taking in immigrants – as long as they apply legally. Is it reasonable to expect people to wait for a decade while they watch their children cry themselves to sleep at night because all they’ve had to eat is a glass of water with a teaspoon of sugar? There was a time when my Mormon forebears – who also had large families – lived in a tent in southern Idaho and dined on water with a little flour stirred in. I’m not sure why they didn’t have to also contend with crooked law enforcement and rampant bandits and gangs. I’m glad they didn’t however, and that the LDS Church looked after its own, providing church welfare. I doubt my ancestors would have survived without it.
Enrique tried to make it into the US eight times before succeeding. He was robbed, he was beaten, he starved, he froze, he saw fellow migrants lose arms and legs to the Mexican trains; he met girls his age who had been raped by bandits and robbed by police. All before he turned 17.
Strangely, these parts of the book didn’t make me cry. What made me cry were the parts where, in Veracruz and Oaxaca, the very poorest Mexicans would go down to the train tracks four times a day and throw food, water, and sweaters and blankets to the migrants atop the cars. Unlike northern Mexicans along the US border, who feel strongly that they should be able to immigrate to America but where nine in ten flatly refuse to help Central American migrants. Unlike southern Mexicans in the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, where lawlessness runs rampant – the police are afraid of the gangs – children can be beaten and thrown from the train by bandits. (And needless to say, unlike US ranchers along the border, who have been known to shoot migrants who approach them for help. Recently a 17 year old Mexican boy bled to death after being shot in the leg by a rancher.)
No, a few Catholic churches in the central Mexican states have taken up the migrants’ cause. One brave priest even intervened when the police began beating a pregnant 16-year-old. Within minutes he was surrounded by 50 of his parishioners, who ran the three cops out of their village.
Act Like Jesus, Lose Half Your Congregation
Of course, not everyone agrees with his actions. Ironically, both priests profiled in the book lost half their congregations when they began acting like Jesus – helping the migrants. People complained that it wasn’t seemly – that the migrants were smelly and dirty, uneducated, that they were peeing outside. Mexico, it seems, is more developed than Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala. The majority of people in Mexico look down on Central Americans as less educated, and poorer than they. Just like the majority of people in the US look down on the Mexicans.
The plight of unaccompanied minor immigrants in the US has been on the news a lot lately. I wonder how many people ever ask themselves what those kids have suffered to get where they are – why they were so desperate to do it?
(Photo at left is ALL children.)
After reading Enrique’s Journey, I know that for the next few days I will feel grateful for blessings I normally take for granted. That I have all my limbs in good working order. That food, water, and warmth and shelter are readily available to me – and it is inconceivable that they ever wouldn’t be. That I have animal companions. That entire aisles and rows in the supermarkets in my country are full of nothing but pet food. That while, like every daughter, I have issues with my mother, I wasn’t forced to do without her during my formative years. I never had to question whether or not she loved me – or whether she loved me enough.
I know, having battled depression for over 20 years, that it is too simple to point out to a depressed person that others in the world are worse off. I know that my newfound awareness of just how bad it is for children like Enrique will not last. But the Jewish tradition of performing acts of kindness, or mitzvahs, did not spring from nowhere – it is true that helping others makes people feel better. Even people with major mental illness. If we in the wealthy US start helping children like Enrique, we will at the same time help ourselves. (Since I believe that being born into a certain country and class is a matter of random chance, there is always the chance that by ignoring the plight of Central American children, you yourself could be born as one the next time.)
The major irony of the book – and of Enrique’s life – is that while he remained bitter over his mother’s decision for many years, Enrique also left a child behind in Honduras. When he decided to go north, his girlfriend Maria Isobel was just discovering she was pregnant with a little girl. Enrique decided he could best help his baby by working as a housepainter in North Carolina.
This is a cycle that needs to be broken. And a book that needs to be read.