A Milky Green River Between Him and His Dream

A Milky Green River Between Him and His Dream

ou are in American territory," a Border Patrol agent shouts into a bullhorn. "Turn back."

Sometimes Enrique strips and wades into the Rio Grande to cool off. But the bullhorn always stops him. He goes back.


"Thank you for returning to your country."

He is stymied. For days, Enrique, 17, has been stuck in Nuevo Laredo, on the southern bank of the Rio Bravo, as it is called here. He has been watching, listening and trying to plan. Somewhere across this milky green ribbon of water is his mother.

She left him behind 11 years ago in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to seek work in the United States. Enrique is challenging the unknown to find her. During her most recent telephone call, she said she was in North Carolina. He has no idea if she is still there, where that is or how to reach it. He no longer has her phone number.

He had written it on a scrap of paper, but it blew away while he was being robbed and beaten almost four weeks ago on a freight train in southern Mexico. He did not think to memorize it.

Of the estimated 48,000 youngsters from Central America and Mexico who go north illegally on their own every year, many do not memorize telephone numbers or addresses. They wrap them in plastic and tuck them into a shoe or slip them under a waistband. Some of the numbers are lost, others are stolen. Occasionally kidnappers snatch the children themselves, find the numbers and call the mothers for ransom.

Stripped of phone numbers and destinations, many of the children become stranded at the river. Defeat drives them to the worst this border world has to offer: drugs, despair and death.

It is almost May 2000, nearly two months since Enrique left home the last time. He is a hardened veteran of seven attempts to reach

El Norte

. This is his eighth. By now, his mother must have called Honduras again, and the family must have told her that he was gone. His mother must be worrying.

He has to telephone her.

Besides, she might have saved enough money to hire a smuggler, or coyote, who can take him across the river.

He remembers one number back home--at a tire store where he worked. He will call and ask his old employer to find Aunt Rosa Amalia or Uncle Carlos Orlando Turcios Ramos, who had arranged his job, and ask them for his mother's number. Then he will call back and get it from his boss.

For the two calls, he needs two telephone cards: Fifty pesos apiece. When he phones his mother, he'll call collect.

He cannot beg 100 pesos. People in Nuevo Laredo won't give. Mexicans along the border, he notices, are quick to proclaim their right to immigrate to the United States. "Jesus was an immigrant," he hears them say. But most won't give Central Americans food, money or jobs.

So he will work by himself. He'll wash cars.

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