Anna-Catherine Brigida and Jessica Moulite
LOS ANGELES — It’s 6:30 a.m. on a brisk weekday morning when Maribel’s alarm sounds. Two of her sons dutifully rise to wash up but Miguel, the oldest, lingers in bed. He’s tired, he says, and he begins to cry. He pleads with his mother not to send him to school.
For Maribel, a single mother and recent immigrant from Honduras now living in Los Angeles, it is another day “en la lucha”— in the fight. In the past two years, Miguel, 9, Carlos, 8, and Alejandro, 6, whose names have been changed, have dealt with more trauma than most people experience in their lifetimes.
Maribel, 29, led her children on a treacherous, 2,800-mile journey north from San Pedro Sula, which has the highest murder rate per capita in the world.
But the journey to America has not brought the peace of mind they prayed for. The three boys, especially Miguel, have started to act out in violent, traumatized ways Maribel never expected. As the sole provider for the household, her only break from working and taking care of the kids is when she sleeps.
“Sometimes I say, enough, I can’t do it anymore,” said Maribel, a heavyset woman with a round face that is bare except for thin black eyeliner that rims her eyes. “Sometimes I don’t want to live but I have to keep going forward,” she said in Spanish, her voice getting soft as she choked up. “For them more than anything.”
The family joined the nearly 70,000 women with children apprehended at the US/Mexico border from October 2013 to September 2014, a surge of more than 350 percent over the previous year. An estimated 4,680 are now living in California,according to a recent study by American University. Many experienced extreme violence and trauma in their home country or during the journey.
In the US, the trauma that drove the undocumented immigrants to flee remains with them in daily life.
“Maribel represents all the families and children that come that witnessed all the violence,” said Father Richard Estrada, a priest who has been working with the family. “Her story connects with our stories of dealing with life, starting over again, having another chance, having dreams fulfilled and the things that people go through to live out their dreams.”
By 7:10 a.m. Maribel and the the kids leave their second-floor apartment in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in East L.A.
Miguel looks down at his green Converse as he pouts about having to go to school. Carlos, about the same height and a little huskier than his older brother, stays closest to Maribel. Alejandro quickens his tiny steps to catch up to his older brothers. They cross the street towards a jewelry store, pass a pawn shop and turn left at a Mexican restaurant to arrive at school within five minutes.
At school, Miguel doesn’t pay attention, talks back to the teacher and pushes other students. Miguel’s behavior has gotten him and his younger brothers kicked out of the after-school program.
“The teachers tell me he is a terror,” Maribel says with a sigh.
But true terror is what Miguel and his brothers experienced back in San Pedro Sula.
There, Central America’s largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street, battle to take over homes to use as bases. Both gangs actually originated in Los Angeles, founded by Central American migrants. The US government arrested and deported a large number of these gang members back to their home countries, where they have established powerful footholds.
A few years ago MS-13 members demanded the family’s home to traffic drugs. But Maribel’s husband Javier (also not his actual name) refused.
Maribel, Javier, and the three boys were at home on December 20, 2013 when a young gangster barged in. With Alejandro sitting on his dad’s lap, the young man shot Javier in the head at point-blank range. Miguel and Carlos emerged from another room to see their father as his head hit the wall and his lifeless body fell to the ground.
Miguel fights back tears when he remembers that day. “My Dad is in Heaven,” he says, sitting in his living room, nervously eating potato chips.
Maribel and the kids immediately fled to another part of San Pedro Sula, but MS-13 followed them. It was then that Maribel decided the family should flee Honduras. In January 2014, they began a nearly year-long journey to the US.
Many Central Americans in similar circumstances pay thousands of dollars for a coyote to smuggle them through Mexico and across the border. Maribel could not afford that, she said, so she and the boys rode the freight rain called “La Bestia” or “The Beast,” part of the way. The train has gained notoriety for the large number of migrants who have died or lost limbs underneath the wheels of the train.
As the family tried to mount La Bestia on a rainy morning last August, the young children became terrified to jump on — especially little Alejandro, causing the family to wait three days for the next one.
With the help of other migrants, the boys were hoisted up first and then Maribel jumped aboard the still-moving train to join them. They rode on top in the scorching heat with little food or water for days.
In September 2014, nearly a year after leaving San Pedro Sula, the family snuck across the US-Mexico border at Tijuana, straight into the arms of United States Border Patrol agents. More than 2,000 unaccompanied minors from the family’s hometown crossed the border last year.
Maribel and her sons were detained for six days before receiving temporary asylum based on Maribel’s declaration that the family would be persecuted if they returned home. But the family still faces the threat of deportation. At a recent hearing a judge warned this could be the next step for the family.
Many other women and children apprehended around the same time have been detained for much longer under an Obama administration practice of detaining families even if they demonstrated a strong potential asylum case.
In February, a federal judge in Washington, DC ordered an end to this expedited deportation process.
Upon release the four travelers boarded a bus to Los Angeles, where a family friend took them in.
The family now lives on their own in an apartment in Boyle Heights with limited space and furniture but sparkling clean hardwood floors. The family just recently moved from sleeping in churches. Maribel still struggles to pay rent and the landlord has threatened to evict them.
Three televisions, one in each bedroom and one in the living room, provide the only entertainment for the boys after school. While watching a show in the living room, the blaring sirens of a police car driving down Cesar Chavez Avenue enter through a window that won’t close. The sound drowns out the action of the show. When it’s time for bed around 9 p.m., the three boys share one room with a queen-sized mattress and television.
Maribel prepares to pick the boys up from school. She closes the kitchen window by removing the ketchup bottle that had propped it up and grabs her keys and cell phone. Locking the door, she glances down at her ankle bracelet put on by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in February, five months after her arrival, to track her whereabouts. Passing a clothing store, corner market and panaderia (bakery), she hopes the boys behaved at school.
Though Maribel still doesn’t know whether she and the boys will be granted asylum to legally remain in the US. Their court date is pending and Maribel continues her search to find a lawyer to take the family’s case. Meanwhile the three boys have a legal right to education.
“We are here because I want them to study, become good people and forget everything that happened in Honduras,” Maribel said.
But the trauma they have experienced, language barrier and new environment have turned school into a constant struggle for the three boys.
“Each of the boys have different ways of coping,” said a therapist that works with the family. “Miguel tends to externalize and has behavioral problems that involve being impulsive or aggressive. Carlos becomes quiet and withdraws.”
All can be signs of emotional trauma in young children, according to the therapist. This behavior often reflects deeper issues that the children are dealing with, including the violence the family experienced in Honduras, the journey north and the continued instability after they arrived.
“For a lot of immigrants there’s this idea that if we can just get to the US everything is going to be okay,” said the therapist. “The reality is for this family, when they got here they’ve continued to experience so much stress.”
On a February morning during an appointment with the boys’ therapists, Maribel arrives with glassy eyes. She greets the room with a smile, but her sniffles betray her.
The therapists have compiled handouts with information on the bilingual school closest to the family’s apartment. They slide them across the table to Maribel, explaining that a bilingual environment would help Miguel, Carlos and Alejandro adjust and excel in school. But, there is a small problem, they tell Maribel. The district does not provide bus transportation to the school.
Maribel breaks down crying when she realizes this means a 45-minute ride on a city bus each morning.
The group tries to brainstorm a solution, asking if a friend of the family could drive to school each day. But Maribel is more or less on her own in Los Angeles.
“She has the courage, the tenacity,” Estrada said of Maribel. “She has three young boys that she is taking care of and she takes them to school every day. I think she’s gonna make it.”
The next day, Maribel decides her only option is to keep the boys in their current school. With worrying about paying rent, a recent surgery, and upcoming immigration appointments, she doesn’t have the time, money or mental energy to make the long commute.
Besides, she believes, staying in the same school would provide more stability to their lives – something Maribel has struggled to give her family since they arrived in L.A. Without a social security card, they are not eligible for government-funded programs such as food stamps or homeless shelters.
On the day of the family’s immigration check-in, where the family has to report to show they are still in Los Angeles. Maribel wakes the boys up early and all carefully dress to make the best possible impression.
When they reach the immigration office in downtown Los Angeles, a guard makes an announcement in English and people start to leave. Maribel does not understand until someone comes outside to translate the message into Spanish. The computer system is down, he announces in Spanish. Everyone should go home and come back tomorrow.
“Oh my gosh,” Miguel says, crestfallen, using one of the few phrases he knows in English.
She leaves with tears building up as new problems arise faster than old ones are resolved.
The next day, Maribel and the boys are back in the immigration office. The system is back online. Twenty people sit stiffly in black metal chairs. One mother with an ankle bracelet bulging beneath her jeans holds her daughter close, bouncing her up and down to soothe and distract her. Alcoholism and breast cancer awareness pamphlets hang on a magazine rack.
At one point the two brothers hover over Miguel’s shoulder to watch him play a game of “Temple Run” on a borrowed cell phone, jumping over tree branches and dodging monkeys. The brothers sit huddled so close together that their three small bodies occupy just two chairs.
When Carlos reaches his hand out for his turn, Miguel pulls the phone closer to his chest. Alejandro interjects, but Miguel dodges them both by getting up from his seat to move away. Carlos and Alejandro retreat, climbing under the chairs, and Miguel returns to his seat.
The room is silent except for the clicking of the receptionist’s keyboard, the ticking of the clock and the whimpers and sniffles of Carlos and Alejandro. They crouch beneath the waiting room chairs, crying, while Miguel sits above them.
Tears silently stream down Alejandro’s cheeks. Carlos’ heaving sobs resonate around the room. Miguel pays them no attention and plays another round. But others in the waiting room have noticed the scene unfolding and are starting to stare.
Their sidelong glances and whispers seem to ask, “Whose kids are these and why can’t they behave?”
Maribel still out of the room, the brothers begin to make peace with one another.
Both Carlos and Alejandro’s spirits are visibly lifted. The sadness has passed over them and they are back to being three ordinary kids playing a video game in a waiting room. Maribel will likely never know of their episode; she has been discussing her immigration status, leaving two casual acquaintances to watch over the kids. They won’t tattle on each other and she has other things to focus on anyway.
The boys don’t discuss what caused them to become so upset. Perhaps they will talk about it the next time they meet for a therapy appointment. Until then, they huddle close together and act like kids again.