As the Introduction to this moving book explains, thousands of children trek daily from Central to North America, clinging to freight trains, wandering in the desert and fording rivers. “Those who seek asylum at the border are often placed in detention in la hiedera, ‘the freezer’, where guards are known to crank up the air conditioning and toss frozen ham sandwiches to them once a day.”
Poverty and fear – especially of gangs – are key drivers. In El Salvador, 40% of children under five are chronically malnourished. In Honduras, 60% of people live in poverty. Violence against women and child abuse are commonplace. Many of the narrators in this collection are the children or grandchildren of people displaced by the US militarisation of much of Central America in the 1980s.
Soledad, from Honduras, rejected by her mother and abused by her relatives, nearly died as a child because a life-threatening illness was mis-diagnosed and she was given the wrong medication. At 14 she made the gruelling journey to the US, which involved being robbed at gunpoint and a three-day walk through a hot desert. Once in the US, she was given false papers that said she was 21 and started work in a laundry, working two shifts back to back from 7am to 1am the next morning, getting four hours sleep, to pay off her debt to the ‘coyotes’ who had organised her journey. After being hit by her father, she ran away, came to the attention of social services and was put in foster care, where she was fed so little she regularly passed out at school.
Jhony, aged 16, travelled alone from rural Guatemala. Shot at by gangsters in Mexico, he was eventually arrested and deported. Five years later, he tried again, was again robbed, then arrested and handed over by Mexican immigration officials to gangsters. Eventually he crossed into the US by swimming the Rio Grande, only to be arrested and put in the ‘freezer’ by US officials, poorly fed, deprived of sleep for several days and later deported in chains.
Gabriel, from Honduras, lived in an overcrowded home, with seven in one room. From the age of seven, he was raped by his cousins over the course of a year. His mother left and he was put to work in the fields by his grandfather and barely fed. Threatened at school by gangs, he decided, aged 14, to begin the month-long journey north, shepherded by ‘coyotes’, given drugs to keep walking, while others on the trek were raped or abducted by gangs.
Josué fled El Salvador at 16 after being threatened by gangsters who would later kill his father and uncle. Adrian, from Guatemala, was shot and stabbed at 17 for refusing to join a gang. He made it to the US, only to be thrown in jail for months. Daniela from El Salvador left with her three young children after violent abuse from her partner.
Julio, from Honduras, abused and then thrown out by his mother aged six, lived on the streets, eating garbage. As he grew older, he turned to a gang for protection, but they demanded he kill his relatives – quite a common ultimatum, as proof of loyalty – and his refusal marked him for death at 14 – hence his trek north.
Gang violence crops up repeatedly. But a new feather in El Salvador especially is government-backed vigilantes who carry out summary killings of gangsters – and many other young people.
This is a harrowing book. The ordeal for many who make the dangerous journey does not end when they get to the US. Even those who start fulfilling new lives in the US are still under threat of deportation, thanks to immigration rule changes under Trump. And these alarming narratives were documented before the US government began a policy of forcible separation of children from parents and carers at the border, a policy condemned by the UN as illegal and inhumane. The editors have done an excellent job of bringing to life the suffering behind the statistics of Central American migration.