I usually don’t have conversations during flights. Instead, I listen to music and fall asleep in fits and starts. This most recent flight from El Salvador o the U.S. was different as an unaccompanied minor was seated next to me. He was a young teen who looked sad. His shoulders were slumped over and I could tell by his constricted breathing he was trying not to cry.
By the time they brought us a terrible excuse for a sandwich, cookies, a Snickers bar and something to drink I was able to talk to the boy by interpreting for him since he didn’t understand what the flight attendant was saying. He ate his sandwich so fast I was concerned he was going to choke. I wasn’t even halfway done with mine, albeit I didn’t finish it because it tasted like it was two-weeks old, he was done with his cookies and candy. I offered him my Snickers and a cookie, which he took and in a soft, low voice said “thank you.”
He was cold and I asked him if he was on his way to someplace warm. He told me he was on his way to Minnesota and was dismayed to hear it was going to be much colder than the plane. He was excited to see snow, and I reassured him he would see tons of it. He said his stepmother petitioned him. He hadn’t seen his father since he was two years-old and his mother since he was seven. He lived with his grandmother and uncle. His grandfather was murdered three years-ago; the killers never brought to justice.
We then spoke about what life will be like in the U.S. I told him to continue playing basketball and playing the trumpet, like he had done in school in Izalco, that way he could apply for scholarships for college. He told me he could fix cell phones and I encouraged him to continue tinkering, that he would never be out of work if he went into a career that had anything to do with technology. He was concerned about pizza tasting as good as it does in El Salvador and I assured him he would eventually find a pizza place in Minnesota he would like. He bragged about his pizza-eating abilities, adding that twelve slices is his best record. He told me he rode a bicycle all the way to the top of the Izalco volcano. I told him there are no volcanoes in Minnesota, but I have friends who work at the University of Minnesota with whom he could talk to about summer programs. He talked about wanting to travel the world, meet new people, learn new things. He doesn’t think staying put in one place is a good thing when there’s a big world out there. By now his eyes had brightened up, he talked excitedly and even looked happy.
He had a fanny pack and pulled out a small photo album. He was sad to leave his grandmother behind, but longed to see his mother and having a snowball fight with his father. He said that he would return to El Salvador to see her, and that maybe even return to live there. He asked me how long it would take for his mother to drive from where she lives to Minnesota and he whispered that she couldn’t fly because of her legal status.
I wished I could document this boy’s ability to talk about his hopes and dreams to contrast what the mainstream media and many politicians would have the world believe about Salvadoran youth.
When it was announced that we would be landing soon he said: “I’m in the United States!” and I said: “Welcome!” I gave him my card and told him that if he and his family were ever in DC to please contact me. He had to stay on the plane while the rest of us disembarked. Before I left I wished him well and he said to me: “I hope to make a new friend in my other flight too.”