from Guatebad to Guate­worse -- 8/29/17

Today's selection -- from Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli. One key source of immigration from countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to the United States is children trying to escape the horrors of gang violence, most notably the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. Tragically, many children who succeed in escaping to the U.S. find those same gangs are firmly entrenched here as well:

"[In interviewing immigrant children escaping to the U.S.,] one of the questions that we dug into most consistently had to do with the gangs all the children talked about during court screenings: the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (or Calle 18). ...

"[When we ask questions about the gangs,] many of the children, especially the older ones, break down. ... The teenagers have all been touched in one way or another by the tentacles of the MS-13 and Barrio 18, or other groups like them, though the degree of their con­tact and involvement with pandilleros varies. The teen­age girls, for example, are not usually coerced into gangs but are often sexually harassed by them or recruited to be girlfriends. Boys are told that their little sister, cousin, or girlfriend will be raped if they don't man up and join. ...

Two young girls watch television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center (Credit: AP/Ross D. Franklin)

"[One child named] Manu tells me a confusing, fragmented story about the MS-13 and their ongoing fight against the Barrio 18. One was trying to recruit him. The other was going after him. One day some boys from Barrio 18 waited for him and his best friend outside their school. When Manu and his friend saw them there, they knew they couldn't fight. There were too many of them. He and his friend walked away, but they were followed. They tried running. They ran for a block or two, until there was a gunshot. Manu turned around -- still running­ -- and saw that his friend had fallen. More gunshots fol­lowed, but he kept running until he found an open store and went inside.

"[After Manu escaped to the U.S., while] preparing [his juvenile] status application, ... everything runs smoothly until the lawyers ask if Manu is still enrolled in school. He is, he says. He's at Hempstead High School [in Long Island]. But he wants to leave as soon as possible.

Migrant Routes from Central America to the United States, 2016

"Why? they want to know. They remind him that if he wants to be considered for any type of formal relief, he has to be enrolled in school. He answers slowly and in a low voice, but perhaps more confidently than when I first met him in court, months ago. He looks down at his clasped hands now and again as he talks. Hempstead High School, he tells us, is a hub for MS-13 and Barrio 18. I go cold at hearing this statement, which he delivers in the tone one might use to talk about items in a super­market. He's afraid of Barrio 18 but doesn't want to join MS-13, either, even though they are not as bad. ...

"Indeed, it turns out Manu has good reasons to be afraid. Members of Barrio 18 beat him up. When he tells me about this incident, he is missing his two front teeth. ... [He says] Hempstead is a s**t­-hole full of pandilleros, just like [his home town of] Tegucigalpa.

Crime Victimization and Migration Intentions, 2014

"Between Hempstead and Tegucigalpa there is a long chain of causes and effects. Both cities can be drawn on the same map: the map or violence related to drug trafficking. ... Official accounts in the United States -- what circulates in the newspaper or on the radio, the message from Washington, and public opinion in general -- almost always locate the dividing line between 'civilization' and 'barbarity' just below the Rio Grande. ...
[but Hempstead] is a broken com­munity that has served as a stage for the Bloods and the Crips for more than forty years. ...

"One day in court I tried to explain the phrase 'de Guatemala a Guatepeor' -- from Guatebad to Guate­worse -- to a lawyer. In translation the phrase loses some of its meaning, but it can be glossed this way: almost five thousand kilometers separate Tapachula, the Guatemala­-Mexico border town from which [the immigration train] departs, from New York. Hundreds of thousands of kids have made the journey, tens of thousands have made it to the bor­der, thousands to cities like Hempstead. Why did you come to the United States? we ask. They might ask a similar question: Why did we risk our lives to come to this country? Why did they come when, as if in some circular nightmare, they arrive at new schools, in their new neighborhoods, and find there the very things they were running from?"



Valeria Luiselli


Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions


Coffee House Press


Copyright 2017 by Valeria Luiselli


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