"They had nothing," she says. "We had very little ourselves, but we did what we could for them. What could we offer? A few tortillas?"
Struggling to quiet the cries of baby Maria, Engracia offered her breast to her sister. There was no milk -- she was still a child herself -- but the sucking brought the little one some comfort. One day in the rainy season, the father left the house with 2-year-old Maria and didn't return. Shortly after daybreak came a knock on the door.
Engracia says a neighbor told her the bad news. Their father had lost Maria on the way home from a night of boozing. The toddler was found in a puddle of rainwater.
"My sister died that day," Engracia says, years later, tears in her eyes. "I always blamed my papa for her death."
From then on, the weekly visits to the TB hospital began and ended the same way: their mother wondering why her youngest child wasn't with them. Their father would make excuses, Engracia recalls. Little Maria was staying with the neighbors.
It was left to Engracia to tell her mother the child had died; the father couldn't find the courage. In the months that followed, the mother was desperate to go home, according to hospital records. She feared for Jose's safety, knowing that her husband was responsible for the death of their youngest child. But she died after two years in the sanitarium, her age listed as 32.
The family abandoned the shack in the gorge. Engracia, furious with her father, moved in with a family that owned a variety store. She had missed so much school that the 11-year-old girl was enrolled in the first grade. Jose Antonio, 6, was left with his father, wandering from bar to flophouse.
The father rented a room in the shadow of a 19th century church, and the three reunited as a family for a time. But his nights out left his children to beg for food at the bakery across the street.
Their hunger finally led them to run away, back to the gorge, back to the shantytown above the filthy river where their old neighbors would at least take pity on them. They were living alone, a 12-year-old sister and her 7-year-old brother, and the food they scrounged was never enough. One day, Engracia found that Jose had been scavenging for scraps in a heap of garbage. The news enraged her.
We're not that kind of people, she says she screamed. Then she struck him, and he ran away, seeking his father.
Sister and brother wouldn't see each other for 11 years.
Trolling for odd jobs, the father left Jose in the care of a street vendor named Clotilde Lopez, who ran an open-air food stand along the main drag. Lopez would give the boy something to eat and then watch over him as he slept in the shelter of her stall.
Engracia found a home with a family in a nearby neighborhood where she lived as their domestic for the next 18 years. Their father dropped dead in a cheap hotel room in 1983, with Jose by his side.
Jose and Engracia were now real orphans.
"I come from a place where the angels reside in misery. They are clothed in filth, and they devour dreams," Jose wrote in a letter. "Don't you see that loneliness terrifies me?"
An Oasis -- While It Lasts
The four teenage boys slipped out of the dark hall and tiptoed along the lush grounds of the rambling colonial compound. It was movie night at the orphanage, and they had other ideas. The orphanage, home to Jose Antonio and 124 other boys, was an island of calm and beauty amid Guatemala's 35-year civil war. The grounds were an old coffee plantation, and the Spanish-style buildings had once been a luxury hotel.
Jose and his friends threaded their way through stands of orange trees and headed to the field where the horses grazed. They reached the pasture in the brisk highland air and mounted bareback. John Rodas, one of Jose's buddies, remembers the exhilaration as his horse began to bolt through banana groves and rows of coffee plants.
"I just recall riding and riding, feeling free as could be," he says. "It's something that stuck with me all these years."
Jose's ability to think of himself as more than a street kid, his friends in Guatemala say, came from the years he spent at the former Casa Alianza, outside the town of Antigua. The orphanage was a project of Covenant House, a Catholic program for runaways that was founded in New York City. The man in charge was Patrick Atkinson, a North Dakota farm boy and lay missionary who became a substitute father to the boy he knew as Tono.
The boys raised turkeys and tended to the garden that provided fresh vegetables for meals at the orphanage. They swam in the pool and took field trips to Maya ruins, the beach and the volcano that rose outside their windows.
"He was a very alive kid. Yet he had this sadness inside of him
Jose grew close to another orphan, Diego Raymundo de Leon, whose mother and father had been killed by the military. The two friends tried not to dwell on their pasts, but sometimes it was hard not to talk about their mothers.