Chapter 1

Enrique is bewildered. Who will take care of him now that his mother is gone? For two years, he is entrusted to his father, Luis, from whom his mother had 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 says.

Lourdes crosses into the United States in one of the largest immigrant waves in the country's history. She enters through a rat-infested Tijuana sewage tunnel and makes her way to Los Angeles. She moves in with a Beverly Hills couple to take care of their 3-year-old daughter. 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. "I'm giving this girl food," she says to herself, "instead of feeding my own children." 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 says she loves him.

She will be home soon, his grandmother says.

But his mother does not come. Her disappearance is incomprehensible. Enrique's bewilderment turns to confusion and then to adolescent anger.

When Enrique is 7, his father brings home a woman. 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. 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. "He doesn't love me," he tells Belky. "I don't have a dad."

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 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 struggles with an unavoidable question: How can I be worth something if my mother left me?

Confused by all of this, Enrique turns to his grandmother. Alone now, he and his father's elderly mother share a shack 30 feet square. Maria 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 had 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 Maria hugs him and wishes him a cheery

"¡Feliz cumpleaños!"

"Your mom can't send enough," she says, "so we both have to work."

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.

After he turns 10, he rides buses alone to an outdoor food market. He stuffs tiny bags with nutmeg, curry 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.

Grandmother Maria 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.

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' voice. His only way of talking to her is at the home of a cousin, Maria Edelmira Sanchez Mejia, one of the few family members who have a telephone. His mother seldom calls. One year she does not call at all.

"I thought you had died, girl!" Maria Edelmira says.

Better to send money, Lourdes replies, than burn it up on the phone. But there is another reason she hasn't called. A boyfriend from Honduras had joined her in Long Beach. She unintentionally became pregnant, and now he has been deported. She and her new daughter, Diana, 2, are living in a garage, sometimes on emergency welfare. There are good months, though, when she can earn $1,000 to $1,200 cleaning offices and homes. Scrubbing floors bloodies her knees, but 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.

It is no substitute for her presence. Belky, now 9, 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.

For Enrique, each telephone call grows more strained. Because he lives across town, he is not often lucky enough to be at Maria 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."


On the telephone, Lourdes' own mother begs her, "Come home."


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. A woman in Long Beach, whose house she cleans, agrees to sponsor her residency. But the counselors never deliver.

"I'll be back next Christmas," she tells Enrique.

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," Maria said, "she went on the trains."

"What are the trains like?"

"They are very, very dangerous," his grandmother said. "Many people die on the trains."

When Enrique is 12, Lourdes tells him yet again that she will come home.


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."

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. Sometimes they abandon their charges. "Do I want to have them with me so badly," she asks herself, "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.

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.

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