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Defeated Seven Times, a Boy Again Faces 'the Beast'

Enrique's Journey


Enrique wades chest-deep across a river. He is 5 feet tall, stoop-shouldered and cannot swim. The logo on his cap boasts hollowly, "No Fear."

The river, the Rio Suchiate, forms the border. Behind him is Guatemala. Ahead is Mexico, with its southernmost state of Chiapas. "Ahora nos enfrentamos a la bestia," immigrants say when they enter Chiapas. "Now we face the beast."

Painfully, Enrique, 17, has learned a lot about "the beast." In Chiapas, bandits will be out to rob him, police will try to shake him down, and street gangs might kill him. But he will take those risks, because he needs to find his mother.

When he was 5 years old, she left him in Honduras and joined hundreds of thousands of women from Central America and Mexico seeking work in the United States. An estimated 48,000 youngsters go north alone every year, many to search for their mothers.

This is Enrique's eighth attempt to reach El Norte. First, always, comes the beast. About Chiapas, Enrique has discovered several important things.

In Chiapas, do not take buses, which must pass through nine permanent immigration checkpoints. A freight train faces checkpoints as well, but Enrique can jump off as it brakes, and if he runs fast enough, he might sneak around and meet the train on the other side.

In Chiapas, never ride alone.

In Chiapas, do not trust anyone in authority and beware even the ordinary residents, who tend to dislike migrants.

Once the Rio Suchiate is safely behind him, Enrique beds down for the night in a cemetery near the depot in the town of Tapachula, tucking the "No Fear" cap beneath him so it will not be stolen. He is close enough to hear diesel engines growl and horns blare whenever a train pulls out.

The cemetery is a way station for immigrants. At sunup on any given day, it seems as uninhabited as a country graveyard, with crosses and crypts painted periwinkle, neon green and purple. But then, at the first rumble of a departing train, it erupts with life. Dozens of migrants, children among them, emerge from the bushes, from behind the ceiba trees and from among the tombs.

They run on trails between the graves and dash headlong down the slope. A sewage canal, 20 feet wide, separates them from the rails. They jump across seven stones in the canal, from one to another, over a nauseating stream of black. They gather on the other side, shaking the water from their feet. Now they are only yards from the rail bed.

On this day, March 26, 2000, Enrique is among them. He sprints alongside rolling freight cars and focuses on his footing. The roadbed slants down at 45 degrees on both sides. It is scattered with rocks as big as his fist. He cannot maintain his balance and keep up, so he aims his tattered tennis shoes at the railroad ties. Spaced every few feet, the ties have been soaked with creosote, and they are slippery.

Here the locomotives accelerate. Sometimes they reach 25 mph. Enrique knows he must heave himself up onto a car before the train comes to a bridge just beyond the end of the cemetery. He has learned to make his move early, before the train gathers speed.

Most freight cars have two ladders on a side, each next to a set of wheels. Enrique always chooses a ladder at the front. If he misses and his feet land on the rails, he still has an instant to jerk them away before the back wheels arrive.

But if he runs too slowly, the ladder will yank him forward and send him sprawling. Then the front wheels, or the back ones, could take an arm, a leg, perhaps his life.

"Se lo comio el tren," other immigrants will say. "The train ate him up."

The lowest rung of the ladder is waist-high. When the train leans away, it is higher. If it banks a curve, the wheels kick up hot white sparks, burning Enrique's skin.

He has learned that if he considers all of this too long, then he falls behind--and the train passes him by.

This time, he trots alongside a gray hopper car. He grabs one of its ladders, summons all of his strength and pulls himself up. One foot finds the bottom rung. Then the other.

He is aboard.

Enrique looks ahead on the train. Men and boys are hanging on to the sides of tank cars, trying to find a spot to sit or stand. Some of the youngsters could not land their feet on the ladders and have pulled themselves up rung by rung on their knees, which are bruised and bloodied.

Suddenly, Enrique hears screams.

Three cars away, a boy, 12 or 13 years old, has managed to grab the bottom rung of a ladder on a fuel tanker, but he cannot haul himself up. Air rushing beneath the train is sucking his legs under the car. It is tugging at him harder, drawing his feet toward the wheels.

"Don't let go!" a man shouts. He and others crawl along the top of the train to a nearby car. They shout again.

The boy dangles from the ladder. He struggles to keep his grip.

Carefully, the men crawl down and reach for him. Slowly, they lift him up. The rungs batter his legs, but he is alive. He still has his feet.




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