BY SONIA NAZARIO, TIMES STAFF WRITER
TIMES PHOTOGRAPHS BY DON BARTLETTI
he 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 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 5 years old.
They live on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, in Honduras. She can barely afford food for him and his sister, Belky, who is 7. Lourdes, 24, scrubs other people’s laundry in a muddy river. 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. So she 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 Lourdes 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 Jan. 29, 1989. His mother steps off the porch.
She walks away.
"¿Donde esta 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 U.S. 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% 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 on and off 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 7-year-olds on their way to find their mothers. A policeman discovered a 9-year-old boy four years ago 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, guided only by his cunning and the single thing he knew about her: where she lived. He 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. In their absence, these mothers become larger than life. Although the women struggle to pay rent and eat in the United States, 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.
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