Baby Johan spent his first day home chasing his family’s kitten, bouncing to music and playing like any 15-month-old boy.
But his mom said Saturday he also seemed lost in his own home — not recognizing his favorite aunt and only able to sleep with the lights on after spending five months in U.S. custody, forcibly separated from his parents.
“We have to give him time — be patient,” his mother, Adalicia Montecinos said with a tired smile after her first night back with her son, who only slept for a few hours.
He also seemed to be speaking words that his mom figured were likely in English.
For months, the couple watched their only son grow up in videos while he was kept at a U.S. government-contracted shelter in Phoenix. That’s where he took his first steps and spoke his first words.
Johan, who grabbed the world’s attention when he appeared in a U.S. courtroom in diapers, at first also didn’t recognize his mom and dad after he was flown to San Pedro Sula on Friday.
Adalicia broke down Friday in tears as she talked about how her son had become a poster child for outrage over the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“He suffered everything that we have been suffering,” she said.
His father soon won him over by playing ball. Within an hour, the tiny boy in an orange tank top, blue shorts and no shoes was laughing as both parents kissed him outside a center where they finished final legal paperwork before heading home.
And so ended the extraordinary journey of a baby who has gone from Honduran poverty to a desperate dash across the U.S. border to the front pages of the world’s newspapers.
Captured by Border Patrol agents almost instantly upon arrival, Johan’s father was deported — and the 10-month-old was kept at the Arizona shelter. Over the next five months, he spoke and walked for the first time and had his first birthday; his parents, hundreds of miles away, missed it all.
“The nightmare is over,” Adalicia said Saturday as she washed clothes in an outdoor sink outside their cement home in the steamy mountains in central Honduras.
But the family faces new challenges as their son readjusts, and she fears the effects of their separation will be lasting.
Johan shook his head “no” over and over when his aunt who lives with the family picked him up. He has been fussier and Adalicia wondered if it was because of tiredness from his long journey or something more serious.
Only time will tell, said Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. At least a dozen parents were deported back to their homelands without their children.
“I think we don’t know the future impact on these kids who were separated from their parents, but it could be lifelong,” she said.
In early July, Johan went before an immigration judge. An Associated Press account of that court appearance — of the judge’s befuddlement over how to deal with this tiny detainee in diapers, sucking on a bottle — set off an international furor.
“I never thought they could be so cruel,” said his father, Rolando Antonio Bueso Castillo, 37.
Rolando said he thought his plan was a beautiful one. He would escape his hard life in the tiny town of Libertad. His children would not grow up in the same poverty that he had endured — he had dropped out of the fourth grade to sell burritos to help his single mom support him and his four siblings.
His younger brother left the coffee-growing mountains of central Honduras for the United States seven years ago and thrived in Maryland with his wife and children. His sister followed, and also did well. Their eldest brother was killed in a drive-by shooting in San Pedro Sula, one of Latin America’s most dangerous cities.
Rolando earned $10 a day driving a bus; his brother in America sent back hundreds of dollars to help out.
An easygoing and hard-working man, Rolando was well aware of the dangers of crossing Mexico. Scores of Central Americans have fallen to their deaths jumping on trains or been shaken down by Mexican police, murdered, kidnapped, robbed or raped on their way to the United States.
He paid a smuggler $6,000, money his brother sent to him. Everything was supposed to be included — hotel stays, three meals daily and transportation in an SUV with two other parents and three children to the U.S. border. He packed five onesies, three jackets, a blue-and-white baby blanket, lotion, cream, 50 diapers, two bottles and cans of formula.
His wife, in her first trimester of pregnancy, would stay behind, working at her market stand selling Nike baseball hats, “California Dreaming” T-shirts and jewelry. In Maryland, their family would help mind Johan while Rolando worked. Adalicia would join them in a few months.
The father and son made it as far as Tampico, Mexico, 300 miles from the Texas border, when their beautiful plan started to unravel.
The smuggler drove them into a warehouse in the port city and told them to board a tractor-trailer filled with scores of other parents and children from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru.
Rolando and his son would spend three days locked in the trailer, before arriving to the Mexican border city of Reynosa, where they boarded a makeshift raft and floated across the Rio Grande to Texas.
He thought the worst was over, but his troubles were only beginning.
Within minutes a Border Patrol agent stopped them and they were taken to a detention center.
On the fifth day, immigration officers told Rolando they needed to take him to an office for questioning. One agent removed Johan from his arms. As they walked away, Johan turned, reaching for his dad.
It would be the last time they would see each other for five months.
The agents told Rolando he was going to be separated from the boy and deported to Honduras because this was the fourth time he had attempted to enter the United States. Each time, he was caught almost immediately.
Rolando spent 22 days locked up in various detention centers along the Texas border. He knew nothing of his son.
His wife would wake up reaching for her baby and remember again what had happened. She watched videos of Johan over and over: of him kicking and wiggling, laughing with his dad, staring into the camera.
Rolando said he had first been told by immigration authorities that the two would be deported together, so he agreed to go. Then, they told him his son would follow in two weeks. But months passed.
The boy’s parents learned he took his first steps from the social worker, who also sent a video of him on his first birthday, waking up and crying. From the AP’s news story on Johan’s appearance before a judge, they learned that he had started to talk.
The father said he was overwhelmed by guilt over the dismal failure of his beautiful plan. Someday, he knows, his son will ask what happened, and why he had left him in the United States.
“I’ll tell him the truth,” he said. “We thought we had a good plan to give him a better life.”
Will Rolando concoct yet another plan to reach America? He says only that he is a fighter and will work hard to survive, as he always has.
But he knows that his life and that of his family will never be the same.
“They broke something in me over there,” Rolando said. “This was never my son’s fault. Why did he have to be punished?”