The woman slumped on the edge of the sagging couch, its cushions flattened over time by the weight of countless sweating bodies. The synthetic upholstery had gone from white to the color of boiled oatmeal. Her hair drifted in wild, loose tangles, framing a pair of eyes that stared, vacant and wide with fear out of her pale face. There was something almost feral or childlike about her, the way her eyes darted abruptly, like minnows startled at the slightest provocation.
The woman had arrived at the shelter late – nearly midnight the night before. Warily, she had walked through the town’s deserted streets, past the dark houses and shuttered storefronts. The taquerias along the town square, each with their cluster of battered plastic tables were empty, the last customer having wandered off hours earlier. She crossed the railroad tracks that ran like an iron vein through the town. For a while, a dog trotted alongside her, barking furiously. Standing in a pool of yellow streetlight, she knocked on the shelter door, as flying insects careened above her head. The sound of their demented trajectories colliding with the metal door made odd ticking sounds, like an engine cooling.
She and her husband had left Honduras eight days earlier. Reaching the squalid Guatemalan border village of Tecún Umán, they were ferried across the Suchiate River aboard a raft made of tractor tire inner tubes lashed to a wooden plank. The raft was packed with migrants, each clutching a small backpack of essential belongings. It listed to one side beneath their weight. The equally dismal town of Hidalgo in the Mexican state of Chiapas lay just across the river. The Mexican police rarely patrolled this stretch of river. Here, no one checked papers and the woman and her husband stepped off the raft into Mexico.
They boarded a bus. Back home in Tegucigalpa, people in the barrio had warned them not to sit together. Sleep. Disappear. Say nothing to no one. Your Honduran accents will give you away. But the woman was frightened and they sat side by side. She stared out the window at the passing landscape. She thumbed through the pages of her bible, one she rarely read at home but that she now found comfort in. Her husband dozed beside her. They were on a journey across the wilderness, she thought – like the children of Israel.
Near the town of Tonala, a migra agent boarded the bus. He worked his way up the aisle, checking papers.
“Sus papeles, por favor.” Her husband shook his head.
The woman kept her eyes lowered on the bible. She didn’t look up, not even when the migra agent told her husband to get off the bus and come with him. She read and reread the same passage in her bible, even though afterwards, she couldn’t recall what that passage was. She didn’t take her eyes off the bible until well after the bus had driven away.
In Arriaga, the bus pulled into the station. While the rest of the passengers collected their belongings and got off, the woman remained in her seat, absently wringing the bible, it’s spine now moist with perspiration.
“Le puedo ayudar en algo?” the driver asked. He sounded annoyed. Worried he might call the police, the woman tucked the bible into her backpack and got off the bus. It was eleven in the morning. She wandered around the terminal, past the ADO counter where people stood in line to buy tickets. She sat down in a plastic chair in the waiting area, near a food stand selling sandwiches and bottled water. She wondered where the migra agent had taken her husband. After a while, she noticed a man staring at her. He smiled, but it was not a friendly smile. His eyes had narrowed and there was something predatory in the way he looked at her, leaning forward slightly, elbows resting on his knees. She looked away. When she looked up a few moments later, the man had leaned back in his chair, hat pulled low over his face, legs outstretched. He appeared to be sleeping. The woman thought she could feel his eyes staring at her through the fabric. She walked across the terminal to the restroom.
She handed the bathroom attendant three pesos. She washed her face and smoothed her hair. When she came out of the restroom, the man was gone. She tried to think about what to do next, but she couldn’t concentrate. She hadn’t eaten since leaving Tecún Umán early that morning – a few cold tortillas left over from the food they had packed. Her husband had most of the money they had brought for the journey with him. She had paid the lanchero eighty pesos for the ride across the river and another one hundred and twenty pesos for bus fair. She felt lightheaded but was afraid to spend what little money she had left. Her head ached. She closed her eyes and slept. She woke suddenly, startled from a dream that she couldn’t remember, although in the dream, she had felt certain that she was back home. She gazed around, blinking and bewildered, her surroundings penetrating her consciousness, taking shape gradually like the features of some drowned person rising from the murky depths to the surface of a lake. Along with that consciousness came an overwhelming sense of despair. Her throat felt dry. She turned at the sound of something behind her and realized that the man who had been staring at her earlier had not left after all. He was sitting directly behind her, regarding her with the same vaguely prurient look.
She hurried out of the station. Outside, the streets were ablaze in midday light, rendering objects devoid of shadow, bleached of any detail. Heat pulsated from the buildings and the dusty surfaces of parked cars. Taxis swerved to avoid hitting a dog in the middle of the road. Whatever coat it may have once had was gone and its mottled skin hung in loose gray folds. It scratched pitifully with its hind leg. The woman walked quickly, glancing behind her to make sure the man hadn’t followed her out of the station. Her shirt clung to her skin. After a few blocks, she stopped to ask a woman selling hamburgers from a cart how to get to the town square. She had no idea what she would do when she got there. She just wanted to get away from the bus station and the man who was bothering her.
In Honduras, the woman sold horchata door to door out of a plastic cooler tied to a wagon that her husband had fashioned from scrap lumber and wheels he had salvaged from an abandoned shopping cart. She pulled the wagon through the dusty, rutted streets of the barrio, calling out, “Horchata, horchata, horchata!” in the throaty falsetto used by street vendors – a sound that carried above the din of barrio life. Her husband worked as a night watchman for a clothing store where from eight at night until five o’ clock in the morning, he sat on an overturned crate in the parking lot, chasing off vandals or the city’s homeless youth who would otherwise use the lot for a toilet. He’d been robbed at gunpoint three times. During the day, he worked at a Pollo Campero located next to a gleaming international hotel, bussing trays, sweeping the dining area, taking the trash out to the dumpster behind the franchise where dogs cowered just out of kicking range, ears flattened and tails tucked in submission against their thin and mangy bodies.
They grew vegetables behind their house – a wooden shack with a dirt floor and a tin roof that leaked in places when it rained. They had four children, two of them grown.
They could barely keep up with the rent on the home they had built themselves. The government owned the land it sat on. They struggled to pay bills. Often, they skipped meals to make ends meet. Their children would be graduating from the primario soon. The nearest secundario was more than two hours away. Between bus fare, books, and uniforms, they could not afford to keep them in school.
Together, they had made the decision to leave Honduras.
The woman had a sister in the United States, in a place called Michigan. They would find work up north and send money home. They would be able to keep their children in school. In Michigan, the woman would clean houses. The sister said because of the economy, it wouldn’t be easy. There wasn’t much work to be found nowadays. The sister’s husband worked construction. He was lucky to get one or two days of work a week. Some weeks he found no work at all.
They sold off their possessions: a bed, a wardrobe, a table and a few chairs, an old radio with a coat hanger jammed into the hollow of a broken antenna. They borrowed from their grown son. They managed to scrape together about 4700 Lempiras – about $250 dollars U.S. – nowhere near the amount needed to pay a coyote to take them from Honduras to Guatemala, across the Mexican border, and through Mexico to the U.S. border – al otro lado. They sewed money into the seams of their clothes. They hid it in their shoes. The rest, they tucked deep into pockets. Like most too poor to pay a coyote, they would ride the freight trains that lumbered across a nearly thirteen-hundred-mile swath of Mexico’s interior.
Nearly everyone in the barrio had a relative in the United States, or knew someone who had tried – often numerous times to get there only to be caught and deported. They returned with stories of the dangerous journey northward, of being beaten and robbed by the Guatemalan and Mexican police, by highway robbers and MS-13 gang members who would attack migrants along the train route. More recently, a wave of kidnappings of Central American migrants by Los Zetas, the armed wing of the Golfo drug cartel would make Mexico the leader in kidnappings worldwide. There were injuries, sometimes fatal as migrants fell beneath the wheels of moving trains. There were stories of rape. The woman was afraid. Her husband told her not to worry. He would protect her. God would protect them.