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A Milky Green River Between Him and His Dream

Enrique's Journey


"You are in American territory," a Border Patrol agent shouts into a bullhorn. "Turn back."

Sometimes Enrique strips and wades into the Rio Grande to cool off. But the bullhorn always stops him. He goes back.

"Thank you for returning to your country."

He is stymied. For days, Enrique, 17, has been stuck in Nuevo Laredo, on the southern bank of the Rio Bravo, as it is called here. He has been watching, listening and trying to plan. Somewhere across this milky green ribbon of water is his mother.

She left him behind 11 years ago in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to seek work in the United States. Enrique is challenging the unknown to find her. During her most recent telephone call, she said she was in North Carolina. He has no idea if she is still there, where that is or how to reach it. He no longer has her phone number.

He had written it on a scrap of paper, but it blew away while he was being robbed and beaten almost four weeks ago while riding on top of a freight train in southern Mexico. He did not think to memorize it.

Of the estimated 48,000 youngsters from Central America and Mexico who go north illegally on their own every year, many do not memorize telephone numbers or addresses. They wrap them in plastic and tuck them into a shoe or slip them under a waistband. Some of the numbers are lost, others are stolen. Occasionally kidnappers snatch the children themselves, find the numbers and call the mothers for ransom.

Stripped of phone numbers and destinations, many of the children become stranded at the river. Defeat drives them to the worst this border world has to offer: drugs, despair and death.

It is almost May 2000, nearly two months since Enrique left home the last time. He is a hardened veteran of seven attempts to reach El Norte. This is his eighth. By now, his mother must have called Honduras again, and the family must have told her that he was gone. His mother must be worrying.

He has to telephone her.

Besides, she might have saved enough money to hire a smuggler, or coyote, who can take him across the river.

He remembers one number back home--at a tire store where he worked. He will call and ask his old employer to find Aunt Rosa Amalia or Uncle Carlos Orlando Turcios Ramos, who had arranged his job, and ask them for his mother's number. Then he will call back and get it from his boss.

For the two calls, he needs two telephone cards: Fifty pesos apiece. When he phones his mother, he'll call collect.

He cannot beg 100 pesos. People in Nuevo Laredo won't give. Mexicans along the border, he notices, are quick to proclaim their right to immigrate to the United States. "Jesus was an immigrant," he hears them say. But most won't give Central Americans food, money or jobs.

So he will work by himself. He'll wash cars.




The encampment he has joined is a haven for migrants, coyotes, junkies and criminals, but it is safer for him than anywhere else in Nuevo Laredo, a city of half a million and swarming with immigration agents, or la migra, and all kinds of police, who might catch him and deport him.

The camp is at the bottom of a narrow, winding path that slopes to the river. Each evening, without fail, he summons his courage and goes to the Nuevo Laredo city hall with a large plastic paint bucket and two rags. From a spigot on the side of the building, he fills the bucket. Then he goes to parking places across the street from a bustling taco stand. One of his rags is red. Each time someone arrives to eat dinner, he waves the red rag to guide the customer into a parking space, like a ground crew ushering a jetliner to a gate.

Usually there is competition. Two or three others immigrants set up their buckets along the same sidewalk.

Enrique approaches a woman driving a yellow Chevrolet Impala with chrome-spoke wheels. She is talking on her cell phone. May he wash her car?

She ends the call and declines.

A man and his young daughter drive up.

"May I clean your car?"

"No, son."

The woman with the Impala returns with her tacos. Enrique waits until traffic is clear, then waves his red rag and guides her out.

Suddenly, she reaches out her car window and presses 3 pesos into his hand.

Enrique approaches dozens of people, but just one or two say yes. By 4 a.m., when the stand closes, he has eked out 30 pesos, or $3.




The air around the taco stand fills with the aroma of barbecue. Enrique watches workers pull strips of meat from a vat, put them on large chopping blocks and cut them up. Customers sit at long stainless steel tables and eat. Sometimes, when the stand closes, the servers slip him a couple of tacos.

Otherwise, for his only meal every day, he depends upon Parroquia de San Jose, or St. Joseph's Parish, and another church, Parroquia del Santo Nino, the Parish of the Holy Child. Each gives food cards to migrants. One is good for 10 meals and the other for five. Enrique can count on one meal a day for 15 days. The cards are like gold. Sometimes they are stolen and turn up on a meal-card black market.

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