Two undocumented boys tell the stories of their surreal journey through an unfixable, wasteful, insanely broken immigration system.
By Juan Pablo Villalobos Portraits by Brian L. Frank
Cristhian — San Pedro Sula, Honduras
The bus drove without stopping because supposedly we could have escaped. It was going from Harlingen, Texas, to Denver. There were two drivers who took turns, and a toilet that smelled worse with each mile we traveled, as if instead of distance the odometer was measuring the stench. There are 1,200 miles between Harlingen and Denver, so you can imagine how much that toilet stank.
I had been locked up for around two months in a detention center in Harlingen, until the previous day, when I was told they were transferring me because the place was so full.
“Are you sending me to Los Angeles, with my sister?” I asked.
“No,” they said. “You’re going to another center, in Colorado.”
And they made me get on a bus, along with some other kids like me. I’d traveled so much by bus in the last few months that at times I felt like I’d been born on a bus. Or that this was what life was: a bus journey. I’d left Honduras on a bus. I crossed Guatemala on a bus. I crossed the whole of Mexico on a bus. But in Mexico, unlike this bus that drove without stopping, the bus was forever being stopped. It was stopped three times just between Chiapas and Veracruz. By the police.
The first officer who stopped us asked for money, threatened us, acting like he was going to arrest us. The truth was the police only wanted money and if you gave them some they’d let you go. If you didn’t have any they’d take you to jail. They’d get about 50 pesos off you. Then the bus would be stopped again, because the first policeman had tipped off another one who was further on ahead, and this one tipped off the next one, who stopped the bus again, and they carried on like that. It was like a tollbooth chain to get money out of us. Sometimes I wore my Club América T-shirt and managed to get through two roadblocks without being asked for money, because they assumed I was Mexican.
The thing that’s exactly the same on any bus is that it’s really boring. Time goes slowly, so slowly it starts to seem like you’ve been on the bus for 20 years. I was only 16 and it felt like I’d been on the bus for 20 years. I’d just spent my birthday in Harlingen, in March. This is 2013 I’m talking about.
Just then I saw everyone running toward the back of the bus and we heard a commotion. I raced over to see what was happening.
“Quick,” someone said to me. “The sandwiches are about to run out.”
Alex — El Conacaste, Guatemala
I’ve got an older brother and a younger sister who stayed in Guatemala, in our little village, Aldea El Conacaste. My older brother is sick, I think that’s why he didn’t come to the States. Around 2012 or 2013 he was driving a motorbike and he crashed and was dead for a bit. That’s what I was told, but I don’t really know what happened. Who knows what’s wrong with him. Sometimes he passes out and is dead for a bit.
In Aldea El Conacaste there are like 30 houses, the school only goes up to sixth grade, and if you want to carry on going to school you have to go to Gualán. It takes about half an hour by car or two hours walking to get to Gualán, so I left school after sixth grade. And my dad didn’t want me to study any more, I had to help him work.
We used to grow corn, squash, and beans, just for us, for our family to eat. When I was about five, he’d put me to work as soon as I got out of school. He made me clear the land. I had to clear his field. Or go and fetch firewood. Sometimes we had to walk for three or four hours up in the mountains to cut coffee. The coffee belonged to a man who gave my dad the harvesting work.
I was scared of my dad, because he used to hit me. He hit my sister, too. If my sister left the house my dad would hit her. My dad didn’t like my sister leaving the house. The thing is, my dad drank. In Guatemala they make this drink called guaro, which is a really strong spirit, it burns your throat. People drink a lot of it over there. And my dad had his own still, he made his own guaro. He never ran out of guaro. That’s why I left, that’s why I wanted to come here. I left on July 1, 2013. I left on my own. I was 16 years old.
“Well, you’ll just have to go hungry,” one of the drivers said.
The trouble was there were still 12 hours of driving to go. And there was another odometer, but one that measures hunger: for each mile, more hunger. And I think a bad smell’s one thing, you can put up with it, but hunger’s something else. I think they got scared there’d be an uprising, then they said they were going to stop off to buy food, and they stopped at a Walmart. Through the window I saw the driver get off to go and buy the stuff and I sat there trying to figure out what he’d bring.
The other day someone told me they were going to open a Walmart where I’m from in San Pedro Sula. One of my friends told me on Facebook. Now I’ve only got two friends from Honduras on Facebook. And they tell me back home things are getting worse all the time, that this guy or that guy was killed, they’re always telling me this stuff.
In San Pedro Sula there were four guys who were my best friends. We’d go and play soccer every afternoon in a field near where I lived, in Cabañas. There are loads of gangs there, hanging out on street corners, and you have to join them even if you don’t want to. When you’re little they don’t pay any attention to you, but as you get older they get you to sell drugs. Or send you to beat someone up. Or even to kill somebody.
My friends were older than me, they were about 18 already. As I was the youngest, they told me to go to the States, they said that was the only way to get away from the gangs.
“Get out of here,” they’d say, “you’ve got a sister over there, you’ve got your mom, your aunts and uncles.”
It was true: My mother and my sister had both gone to the United States. I was only with my dad. And my dad didn’t pay attention to me, he didn’t look after me, he left me at home by myself, so my sister sent money to a lady who washed my clothes, cooked for me, and made me go to school. My sister sent me almost two hundred dollars a month, and I saved that money up until I stopped going to school. In the end I saved almost a thousand dollars.
Out of my four friends, after I left, two got out as well. One went to Tegucigalpa and the other moved to another neighborhood in San Pedro Sula. And the two who stayed carried on going to the same pitch to play soccer, until one day they were killed.
I don’t know why they were killed, although I do know they were being hassled to join a gang. They did do some stuff, they even robbed someone. They were my best friends and they killed them on the same soccer pitch where I used to play with them.
The lady who looked after me had a son who used to travel to Guatemala and Mexico. I gave him all the money I had and then I think the lady gave him some more, because what I had wasn’t enough. My sister was always telling me I should wait until she’d saved some money, until she was a resident and could sort out my papers. But I didn’t want to wait. What was I waiting for? For them to kill me?
I left carrying nothing but a backpack. All I had was a pair of pants, a T-shirt, and a few pairs of boxer shorts. And my toothbrush and my deodorant. Every two days or so, when I got the chance to have a wash, I’d change my clothes. Or sometimes I didn’t wash, I’d just change.
Oh, look, the driver who’d got out at the Walmart came back to the bus carrying some bags and handed out what he’d bought. It was caramel popcorn. That was all we ate until we got to Denver: bags of caramel popcorn.
Back home in the village we used to eat black nightshade. It’s a wild plant, with little black berries. You make a broth with it, kind of like a soup. We ate beans, rice, and corn. We hardly ever ate meat. Mamá raised chickens, but for their eggs, she wouldn’t often kill one of her chickens. I like the food a lot here. I like hamburgers. Pizza. You hardly ever get those things there. In Gualán they exist, but we never used to buy them. I’d never tried pizza until I got here.
Gualán is actually quite big, it’s got something like 20,000 inhabitants. There are lots of gangs in Gualán. They say that when they threaten you, you have to join, because if you don’t they’ll kill you. They want to get you in to sell drugs or to kill someone. If you won’t do it they threaten to kill your family or kill you. They did kill some people. They killed my grandfather, one of my uncles, two or three other people. They killed them in Gualán, my dad told me. I don’t know why they killed them, because I was still little when it happened.
I had a cousin who’d been living for many years in the States, in Louisiana, working in construction. Sometimes, when I spoke to him on the phone, he’d tell me to come, said he’d help me find a job. And I had my aunt who lived in Los Angeles, but at first I didn’t plan on going to live with her. I wanted to go to my cousin’s. Later, when I was arrested, I had to go and live in Los Angeles with her. My aunt came here years ago and she says it was different before, not so dangerous. When I told her everything that had happened to me she looked shocked, because she thinks I’m too young to have gone through all that.
Sometimes, from the bus window, I would see signs for the cities we were passing through. Some of the names of cities were easy to remember because they were in Spanish and others I couldn’t pronounce properly because they were in English. It’s hard to understand English at first, but you get the hang of it after a while, you get used to it. I know we crossed the whole of Texas and some of New Mexico to get to Colorado.
At the start of the journey, back at the crossing between Honduras and Guatemala, we had to go around. I didn’t have a passport or anything like that. We just paid a hundred quetzals to the guy on the border and then we sneaked around the back and that was it. We crossed the whole of Guatemala by bus, all the way to Tecún Umán, on the border with Chiapas. My friend, the lady’s son, went looking for a coyote, a kind of paid guide. He found one who was cheap and said I’d be safe. We had to give him all the money we had left.
When we crossed Mexico I don’t really know where we went through. The main thing’s getting through, not looking at the places you’re passing. And because you’re scared of not getting there, what you try and do is leave everything behind. Keep going, keep going for miles and miles. Now the odometer works backward: the more miles you travel, the closer you get to the United States, the less afraid you feel.
I know we went from Chiapas to Veracruz and we stayed there for about four days, in some fleapit hotel. We slept five to a room. We were waiting to go someplace else, I don’t remember where. I think I went through Mexico City, too, but I’m not sure. In the city I can’t remember we stayed hidden in the roof of a house. The roof was made of cement and we slept up there, out in the open. Then we took a bus to Reynosa.
In Reynosa, Mexican immigration stopped us and got a lot of money out of the coyote. They threatened to throw us in jail and took five hundred pesos off each of us. We spent the night in a warehouse where there were about 30 people waiting to cross the border. The Mexicans always went first. Even if they’d got there later. I was waiting a week to leave and I was scared because I’d heard that the ones who’d gone before had been given a stash of drugs to take with them.
Eventually they told us a group of us were going to leave. They picked 10 of us and we went to the border and crossed over the river in a tire, a truck tire. Then we snuck along for like three hours through the trees toward McAllen. It was about midnight, and then we heard:
And we all hid, without a sound. Suddenly there were lights and we were surrounded. Headlights, quad bike lights, motorbike lights. There were horses, too.
And everyone started to run, running everywhere. There were a lot of us, there were meant to be 10, but other people had joined us at the river, there was a long line behind us. The coyote had taken off already.
When immigration catches you, they ask you right away:
“Do you want to go back to your country?”
And of course no one’s going to say yes. In any case they put some people onto a bus and deported them.
My dad paid a coyote about five thousand dollars, I think. If I got to the States he was going to have to pay him six and a half thousand or so. I had a little money on me, but I barely used it, because the coyote paid for everything.
I came through Reynosa, that way. I don’t know where I went through in Mexico, only that I crossed over at Reynosa. The bus took us over the mountains, there were hardly any cars there. It was a road, but it only had two lanes. I think it was all narco country around there, because we only saw flash cars go by and there were no police.
In Mexico we were only stopped like twice, but we had to pay. The police let us through for two hundred pesos. They didn’t make the coyote get out, he was Mexican so they let him alone. If we didn’t give them money they said they’d leave us there. That’s all they said. They asked for a certain amount and if we didn’t give it to them, you’re staying here, they said.
To cross the river we walked at night. Then they put us in a taxi and took us to McAllen, where they shut us up in a house for like eight days. And then we walked through the desert heading for Houston.
They caught us when there was only a little way to go, about an hour.
They were going to leave us in Houston, our families were supposed to come and collect us there.
They caught me on the 26th of July.
They caught me when I was about to get to Houston.
They caught me out in the desert.
When the bus was going through Colorado, the toilet broke. Then the water ran out. They stopped to buy more water, but not for us go to the bathroom; they were afraid we’d escape. So everyone was wetting themselves. It was so cold I don’t think anyone even wanted to escape.
It was really cold in Colorado. But it was even colder in the freezers. That’s what they call the place you get taken when immigration catches you. It’s horrible, like they’ve put you in an icebox. That’s why they call it the freezers, because of the cold. And all they give you is a foil blanket. Sometimes there aren’t enough blankets to go around and people fight over them.
The freezers are locked rooms with only one door. That’s it. And there are lots of them. All full. In the room where I was we were all minors. It was full, there were about 60 of us, all sleeping on the floor. We were packed in tightly together, fighting over the foil blankets because we were dying of cold.
Then I was called and they started asking me questions about everything, checking my record. They asked if I had any family and I gave them my sister’s phone number, but she didn’t answer.
“Sorry,” they said. “She’s not picking up. Go back to your cell.”
“No, no,” I said, “wait, I’ll give you another number.”
I gave them a number for my aunt, and she told my sister what was going on. Then they took me back to the freezer, and I stayed there for another 12 hours, until a van came. They only took six of us, and moved us to Harlingen. And from Harlingen the others all went somewhere else and I was the only one left, asking when I was going to get out. My sister was fixing the paperwork so she could be my guardian, so they’d let me live with her, but paperwork takes time. It was two months before they sent me to Colorado on that bus where the food ran out, the water ran out and the toilet broke. The odometer clocking up nothing but trouble. And that wasn’t the worst thing: The worst thing was that from Colorado they were going to send me to Oregon, even further up,
I was practically going to end up in Canada.
And a friend from Guatemala who was with me in Harlingen and Colorado got sent to Los Angeles, because his family was in New York. He wanted to go north and they sent him south. For me, it was the other way around.
They kept me in the freezers for something like 12 or 24 hours. There they make you sign some papers and you don’t even know what you’re signing. I think it’s in English and you have no idea. Then they say they’re going to send you back, that they’re going to do all kinds of things to you. If they’d sent me back, who knows what would have happened to me. Although with the money my dad had spent, I might have ended up trying all over again. But then they told my aunt I’d been arrested and she started filling in the forms to become my guardian. The only thing is, it takes a while for them to authorize it. So they sent me to the young offenders’ prison, kept me there for a few hours and then sent me to a shelter. Right there in Houston. I was locked up there for a month.
In the orphanage they made us get up at half past six or seven and took us to have breakfast. Sometimes we had classes, but they weren’t normal classes — the teachers talked and they didn’t even give us paper for copying things down. And they took us outside to play. They made us play outside and watch TV and play Xbox. There were lots of people like me, and they separated us into groups, maybe four groups. In each room there were three beds. One bed on top of another bed, and a third bed to one side. There were kids from Honduras and El Salvador, but not that many from Mexico.
After all that, I arrived at my aunt’s house in Los Angeles house around the 11th of September.
When I had finally gotten off the bus in Denver, I peed so much I could have filled the Río Bravo. At least they sent me to Portland on a plane. I was there for about another two months. In Portland the rooms really were like cells, and there were three people in each one. I played soccer there. It was a shelter that felt like a prison, but it had its advantages. We played in teams of Hondurans against Mexicans. Kids from El Salvador against kids from Guatemala. The ones from El Salvador fought a lot with the Mexicans. The Guatemalans kept to themselves. As for the Hondurans, we got on with everyone.
By that point, I think my friends who had stayed in San Pedro Sula had already been killed. I only found that out later, but it’s something I think about a lot: If I hadn’t left Honduras, I’d be dead by now.
And then in July, when my sister finished all the paperwork, they sent me to Los Angeles.
They left me on my own in the Portland airport. The guy who took me there said:
“Off you go.”
“But… go how?”
“Oh, just go,” he said, “I gave you the ticket and you know which gate it is and all that.”
“You mean, like, by myself?”
“Don’t ask me,” he replied. “They just told me to drop you off.”
And so, after all that time, I had to go by myself.
Back in the village I didn’t have my own bed. There were only two beds in the house and my parents slept in one of them with my sister and the other one was for my brother and me. Now I have a bed in my aunt’s house all to myself. There’s a bed in the living room and some armchairs and a high-definition TV so I can watch the shows I like, mainly the soap operas on Univisión. In Aldea El Conacaste there was no TV, only radio, and all I did was listen to music. My aunt’s house is really near my school, the Jefferson, so I can walk there and walk home, and it doesn’t take two hours like it would have done to get from the village to Gualán.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I didn’t know where to go out because it’s so big. Now I have friends from Honduras and El Salvador. Lots of them have been through the same thing as me, almost all of them. Some have already sorted their papers out and others still have to go to court like me. I’ve already been to court but I have to go again. They ask you about everything there, what your life was like before you came here, why you came, how you managed to get here. And then they decide whether you can stay, because maybe no one looks after you there or bad things happened to you, or you’ll be in danger if they send you back. My aunt hired some lawyers from a human rights organization called CARECEN to help with it all.
I think maybe if I stay I’d like to be a policeman. In the village where I used to live there were no police. There never will be any police. You can call them or you can go and see them in Gualán, that’s it. All the police do is ask people for money. You can drive around with no license and the police don’t say anything, they just ask you for money and that’s it. They let you go. But here, if they see you without a license or without the papers for your car, they can arrest you.
That’s why I want to be a policeman.
Now someone’s coming to pick me up and take me to play soccer. I live in Baldwin Park with my sister, and I go to school in El Monte. The house is almost new, with carpets, brand new furniture, and a huge high-definition TV in the living room where I can watch soccer games. That’s where I watched the World Cup. And I have my own room. That’s what they told my sister when they authorized me to come and live with her, that the house had to have a bedroom just for me.
My sister came here a few years ago and she was much luckier than me. She crossed the border with one of her aunts and they caught her, but she was only locked up for a day before they sent her to my mom. But even so, it was already dangerous back then. My sister told me our aunt had an injection so she wouldn’t get pregnant if anyone took advantage of her on the journey.
My favorite thing about being in the United States is not worrying that anyone’s going to kill me. Because in Honduras you only have to rub someone the wrong way and you’re dead. And here I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder all the time. I don’t have to watch my back.
They say that when you go to Honduras from the United States you get kidnapped. Because people think you have money. Apparently sometimes people see you have a phone and that’s enough to make them want to kill you. Your life is worth one cell phone.
In Honduras I played on a soccer field where my friends later got killed. Once I had the chance to try out for a pro team, Atlas in Guadalajara, but I didn’t have the money to go all the way to Mexico. Out there on the field where they killed my friends, that’s where I trained for Atlas. Right there.
The match I’m playing in today is in San Diego, but the team is sending a car with a driver to take me and bring me back afterward. It’s a private club, but I don’t have to pay, they take care of everything so I can play with them. I don’t train during the week, I just go to the matches on Saturdays.
They’ve come to pick me up, I have to go. I think it’s about two hours’ drive, but now it’s different. Now the miles don’t bring trouble. Now I’m not afraid. I’ve got a green card now. And things are moving fast: My girlfriend gave birth to our daughter a few months ago.
“Are you ready?” the driver who’s taking me to play soccer asks in English.
I grab my rucksack, where I have my kit, my soccer cleats and a change of clothes. And deodorant and a toothbrush. I shut the front door and walk toward the car that’s waiting — waiting for me. One whole car waiting just for me.
“Yep, I’m ready.”
This story was written by Juan Pablo Villalobos. It was edited by Michael Benoist, translated by Rosalind Harvey and Annie McDermott, and fact-checked by Kyla Jones. Portraits by Brian L. Frank for Matter; detention-center photographs by John Moore/Getty Images.