Translation: Newly Arrived
Translated by Patrick Moseley
Daniel Alarcón: Hey, a message to all musicians who follow us. Listen up: NPR Music is holding a Tiny Desk Contest to find one great unsigned musician to play at NPR’s headquarters, in Washington, and tour the United States with NPR Music. Shoot a video that shows you or your band playing an original song and submit it by January 29. Learn more at npr.org/tinydeskcontest
Big changes are coming in the United States. In a few days a new president will come into power in Washington, a president who campaigned and won, in part, by attacking Latinos and Latin American migrants.
So here at Radio Ambulante we wanted to understand this phenomenon better. We know that often political rhetoric has nothing to do with real life. In this case we want to understand who these young Latino migrants are, who were the targets of so many attacks during the campaign.
Last week we met several unaccompanied minors stranded in Mexico. These are difficult and complicated stories. But obviously some of them do manage to make this journey north.
So we’re left with the question: What happens to those who make it across the border? What is their life in the United States like?
And to answer that question, we went to Northern California. It’s May 2016. During the last weeks of school at Oakland International High School.
Silvia Viñas: Outside you can see… well, what looks like a normal high school like any other in the US. It’s a medium sized run-of-the-mill concrete building. And the students are typical teenagers, looking at their phones…
Diana: Óscar, come on! You’re on your phone all the time…
Óscar: I’m going to take a picture of you.
Silvia: …Rushing off to class, flirting…
Student: …He’s on Messenger. And he says he’s going to take a picture…
Daniel: But this isn’t exactly like any other high school. There’s something about it that makes it different from the other high schools in the city.
Silvia: Exactly. Only students who have recently arrived in the United States go to this school. New arrivals. They come from all over, more than 30 countries. From Afghanistan, Yemen, Burma…
Daniel: And, of course, some of them are from Latin America.
Silvia: Mostly Central America. We all heard this news:
Newscaster: In August of 2015 alone more than 36 thousand minors, mostly from Central America, were detained by border authorities in the United States while trying to enter the country on their own.
Silvia: Ok. Legally, they’re migrants. But given the situation in many Central American countries it might be more appropriate to call them refugees.
Daniel: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Silvia: And I’m Silvia Viñas.
Daniel: Silvia spent several days in Oakland International High School getting to know some of these Central American young people. Because we have all heard about the migration crisis, the young people who get on the Beast and cross the desert to make it to the United States alone.
Silvia: But I wanted to know more about how they survive, how they adapt once they are here and how the life they left behind continues to affect them.
This story begins with a teacher: Adela Toledo. She teaches biology and she was born in Ecuador. And although many teachers at the school speak Spanish, Adela is the only one who is a Latina immigrant. In October 2015, she emailed us to tell us about some of her students. A few weeks later, we got to talk over Skype. And she told me about the day she asked some of her students…
Adela: “Why did you leave your country, what do you like about the United States?”
Silvia: And they told her their stories about how they had to flee their countries.
Adela: And how they had to meet with friends and come… or make it here and come looking for their mom or dad or aunt or…
Silvia: And these stories surprised her. Even though she did her student teaching here, it was her first semester as a full-time teacher and it was challenging. She had all sorts of students.
Adela: Some are getting used to me and my rules.
Silvia: While others have a very hard time adjusting…
Adela: To everything: to this country, my rules, the school’s rules… Now I think with a few of them I can say: “Sit down and get started.” But when I had just gotten here, I couldn’t.
Silvia: In fact, on the first day of classes a student took out his phone and started making calls and walking around the room taking pictures.
Adela: And I told him “No, you know that this is school and that cell phones are on the top of the list when it comes to things that are banned.”
Silvia: And Adela told him to put his phone away if he wanted to stay in class. But she wasn’t expecting the answer he gave her:
Adela: He said: “Then I don’t want to be in class. And you can’t tell me what to do, I don’t even know you.”
Silvia: And the boy left.
The day she asked her students where they came from and why they’d left was a revelation for her. Of course, she had heard the stories on the news. She knew things in some Central American countries aren’t good. But hearing it from the students themselves was something else entirely. It had a big impact on her. When we spoke a month later, in November, she told me that her relationship with her students had started to get better.
Adela: I feel like I just got to a point where I don’t have to say: “Please, be quiet” or “please, sit down” or “what are you doing over there?”, things like that…
Silvia: And since that conversation with her students, she felt like she understood them better.
Adela: Many of them have a kind of mask on and they don’t want to show themselves… They don’t want to show their weaknesses. And since many of them have been through some pretty tough things, their way of protecting themselves is by being distant or causing problems.
Physics teacher: Alright, let’s go! Let’s go! Welcome, we got new seats, so take a look.
Silvia: Months later I was able to visit the school. I was looking for those students with the “masks” Adela was talking about, and I met Ángel, one of those boys who was having a hard time adjusting.
Ángel: My first day of class was weird. I don’t know… Because I felt different, well, because of the language. I didn’t feel connected to the other people.
Silvia: He didn’t speak to anyone. He says he was always alone.
Ángel: Every time someone talked to me, said anything to me, I was like mad and everything. I didn’t want to be here.
Silvia: For his teachers it was obvious that things weren’t going well for him. He got in arguments with them on several occasions and they ended up sending him to Ms. Sailaja’s office, who is one of the principals.
Sailaja Suresh: I know Ángel David well because he was in my office a lot his first two years. He was very angry at the world.
Silvia: It was hard for Ángel to adapt to the school’s rules. And, of course, he wasn’t the only one.
Sailaja: We don’t just have to teach them science and English; we have to teach them all of the different rules as well.
Silvia: Here’s how another person who works at the school explained it to me: imagine you just traveled alone, for a month or two, crossing all of Mexico. Imagine you’re Ángel. And now you come to a school where you aren’t allowed to walk two blocks over to go to McDonald’s for lunch.
Also, Ángel isn’t the most talkative person. But in the fall of 2015, Ángel surprised everyone when he gave a presentation in English in front of the teachers, counsellors and other adults in the community. I tried to get a video of the presentation but unfortunately they told me they didn’t film it. But they told me a little about what it was like. And, most of all, the impact it had.
There, in front of about 15 adults, he told his story.
Ángel: In my presentation I talked about why I came here, what the hard times in Mexico where like, how I felt when I made it to the US, how I felt in school…
Silvia: It was the same story he told me. And it’s striking.
Ángel is only 17 years old and he was born in El Padernal, a town north of Tegucigalpa, in Honduras. He’s never met his father and when he was 12 his mother left Honduras to go to Spain. Ángel went to live with his grandmother, but the following year his grandmother died. So he ended up alone. He dropped out of school and got a job working for a family in town selling water. He worked for four hours a day and continued to live on his own. It was like that for nearly a year.
Ángel: And I couldn’t take living in that house alone anymore.
Silvia: He didn’t make enough money and he wasn’t in school. So, like a lot of other kids in his town, he decided to go to the United State, where he had an aunt. A friend helped him pay for the trip and Ángel left Honduras with a group of five boys. He was the only minor. He was only 14. The rest already had experience traveling north. From there, everything Ángel told were like scattered scenes from a nightmare:
Hiding the little money he had…
Ángel: …In little plastic bags that we put in our mouths.
Silvia: The Beast, that murderous train that goes across Mexico.
Ángel: I’ve seen a lot of people who have ended up missing a hand or a foot or some other body part.
Silvia: The Zetas
Ángel: They charge for the ride on the train. And if you don’t give them any money, they’re clearly going to shoot you or kill you.
Silvia: He saw dead bodies and he was very afraid, but in the end he crossed the border and turned himself in to authorities.
They didn’t deport him because he was a minor. He spent the night in a “cooler” which is a really cold room where they usually put migrants before moving them to a more permanent detention center. And finally, after some time in the center for minors, he got to Oakland. Two months had passed from the time he left Honduras to when he arrived at his aunt’s house in California. A little while after arriving in Oakland, he enrolled in high school.
Many of the teachers I spoke with referred to the presentation I mentioned before as a breakthrough for Ángel, something that marked a before and after. This is Lauren Markham, who works in the high school and coordinated the event.
Lauren Markham: When Ángel David was, you know, speaking… Oh my God, I mean… I was like… I cried. I mean, I couldn’t leave. And the room was silent while he told his story.
Silvia: This is Cromac Kilgallen, who is part of the school’s administration.
Cormac Kilgallen: I think it was hard for him. I could see a change in him. It was really cathartic for him, you know?
Silvia: During the time I spent in Oakland I thought a lot about the masks that Adela, the Ecuadorian teacher, mentioned. In Ángel’s case, taking his off so publicly was very important.
Ángel: I saw that a lot of people liked it. And before I thought “it’s just a story and no one’s going to care about it”. And, well, now I see that… That they do care.
Daniel: And something as simple as that can change everything. We’ll be back after the break.
Daniel: You’re listening to Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Our producer Silvia Viñas was in Oakland, California, at a school called Oakland International High School. And the idea was to…
Silvia: ….Get to know how the students from Central America were adapting, but specifically those who had come to the United States alone. So…
Adela: All eyes on Sarah, please.
Silvia: On my second day I visited the biology class that Adela teaches. They were in the last few weeks of class and the students had to finish their projects on the water cycle.
Adela: Rain, so we have rain. First water comes from the rain. Now you can continue, David Hernández.
Silvia: The boy she just mentioned, David, is from San Salvador. He’s 16. He arrived in the US with his brother in the summer of 2014. His father was already here.
David: Well, my dad came because he had a lot of kids and he thought he couldn’t provide them with a good future. So he decided to come to the US when I was… I’m not sure if I was one or if I was about to turn one.
Silvia: For years, when his dad called, he would ask them if they wanted to come live with him in the United States. David said no.
David: I felt like I was going to leave my life behind and, well, I didn’t want to do that… mainly because of my family, my grandparents, because they’re already pretty old.
Silvia: But his neighborhood had become too dangerous and he knew that sooner or later, he would have to leave. Sometimes at night he heard fire fights between rival gangs in his community.
David: There is a lot of crime and a lot of gangs. And a lot of people die every day.
Silvia: None of his friends joined the gangs and they still hadn’t tried to recruit him. But he knew about a boy who did join. And David told me that that is what his father wanted to avoid: the gangs trying to recruit David and his brothers. So at one point his dad made the decision for him.
He traveled to the US with his brother and a friend. David was only 13. They always traveled with other migrants and someone in charge: different guides or coyotes who took them from one point to another, by car, bus or train. They slept in hostels and abandoned houses.
They crossed the Rio Grande on a raft more than a month after having left El Salvador. And on the other side, in the United States, after they were picked up by border agents, they went through different detention centers and a shelter for minors. Until the day arrived that they could be reunited with their dad. They flew from Houston, Texas, to Oakland.
David: We were just arriving and right when the plane landed we felt like “Oh, we’re finally going to see my dad” and all that. Me and my brother were really happy and all we could think about was what we were going to do when we got there. Things like that.
Silvia: The reunion was nice. He was happy to see his dad, but at first…
David: I didn’t know how do to talk to him yet or what to talk about.
Silvia: He really had never lived with him. His father had only visited them in El Salvador once, for a little while, when David was 12. So, of course, getting used to living with his dad and his dad’s wife wasn’t going to be easy.
David: And he told us that we had to do the cleaning. At first he was calm about it, but later he was more… more forceful.
Silvia: And they responded with the same tone. It may seem like a totally familiar scene: a teenager arguing with his dad over household chores. But remember in this case…
David: …I didn’t know him at all. Even now I don’t think I’ve really gotten to know him. And well, I never imagined what it was going to be like.
Silvia: David told me things had gotten better, in part because his other siblings made it from El Salvador. He says that now they feel more like a family. Besides, they’ve started helping more with the cleaning. But it’s still hard for him to talk to his dad.
Adela had told me that David learned English very quickly, that was at a very high academic level but that sometimes she had to ask him to leave class because he is very talkative. He even admits it.
David: My worst problem is that I talk a lot. I can’t sit still for very long. I think that bothered her…
Silvia: But Adela sees that David has made a lot of progress.
Adela: He still gets up from his seat and everything and I tell him “Sit back down!” But before it was a struggle: “I don’t want to! Why do I have to go? I’m not leaving. I don’t care if you send me to the office.” Whereas now: “Sit back down. Sit back down.” And now he does.
Silvia: Adela has made an effort to get closer to him, and it seems like it’s working.
David: She was always giving me advice. She would give me advice, and would say “stay after class I have to talk to you.”
Adela: Now you can really tell that he’s trying his best.
David: Before when I did something wrong she always told me that I have a lot of opportunities here and I have to take advantage of them.
Adela: And now, for example, he won an award because he got good grades. And right away he came to my class: “Miss, miss I want to show you something. I want to show you something!”. “What is it?” And he showed me: “Look what I got.”
Silvia: David told me that his dream is nothing less than attending MIT, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He wants to study robotics.
Óscar: This process is called the water cycle.
Silvia: This is Óscar, another one of Adela’s biology students. Like David, he is also from El Salvador, but he’s not from the capital. And when I asked Óscar why he left El Salvador, his answer was a lot like David’s: the gangs.
Óscar: My studies were what was most affected because where I lived there was one gang and where I went to school there was another.
Silvia: It’s no exaggeration to say that if he wanted to go to school he was putting his life at risk.
Óscar: If you come from a rival area, they say it’s like you are part of the gang. And so they don’t let people in and they kill the ones who do come from an area that belongs to another gang.
Silvia: The gang in his community tried to recruit him and his friends. Some said no and the gang members beat them. And others, as Óscar puts it, were disappeared.
Óscar: They reached out through friends who were already part of the gang. And well that was it. They said that life there was really good, that we shouldn’t be afraid, nothing was going to happen, that everything was really good. We just had to follow the gang’s rules.
Silvia: But no. Óscar didn’t want to give in to living the life of a gang member. And they started to bother him.
Did they threaten you?
Óscar: Yes, they said they didn’t want me to go back there, then… since my step-father is a police officer in my country that made things even worse.
Silvia: At this point he explained something that came as a surprise to me: I understood that having a family member in the police could increase your risks. But paradoxically it can also make you more attractive to some gangs. They want connections with the police. They take advantage of those contacts.
Óscar: So they thought that people with relatives like that would make it easier for them to get things.
Silvia: So if he wanted to continue going to school and not join a gang he had to leave the country. The idea of going to the US came from his mom and an uncle who lives in the US. Óscar didn’t want to go but…
Óscar: I agreed with them in part because I know that they suffered too when I went to school in the morning, since they didn’t know if I would make it back or what.
Silvia: Óscar’s uncle, who lives in the United States, took care of planning his trip. One day in May 2015 his mom took him to meet the person who would take him and other migrants out of El Salvador.
Óscar: I had never been far from my family, with complete strangers. I felt… I don’t know, really weird being there. I didn’t know what I was going to come across or anything.
Silvia: He was 16 and his journey, like Ángel’s and David’s, was very hard. It lasted about a month. At one point he had to spend hours in the back of a truck, where they load cargo, in intense heat and total darkness. Once in the United States, he went through a migrant holding center in Texas and then they took him to a center for minors in New York. He was there for nearly three months until September 5, 2015, he arrived in Oakland to meet his uncle, who he lives with now.
Óscar: After everything I had been through, there was the uneasy feeling of starting at a new school in another language and all that.
Silvia: He had only been in Oakland for two days when he started at his new school.
Óscar: Everyone looked at me differently…. Thank God I made a friend. I think that was… He’s been the one who has helped me the most here. He’s from El Salvador and I remember I was there just sitting, I wasn’t talking to anyone. He said: “What’s up, where are you from?” I told him “El Salvador.” “Me too.” And then we became friends. And he’s one of my best friends to this day.
Silvia: Óscar told me that the Latino students understand each other.
Óscar: We’ve all been through the same thing. We know part of what everyone here has been through. Everyone knows about what they went through on their trip. We’ve all left our families behind to be able to have… a better future, I guess you could say.
Silvia: And that’s what Óscar misses the most: his family.
Diana: Óscar, leave your phone. You’re not going to have your phone today.
Óscar: It’s my mom, Diana.
Diana: I am going to take it from you.
Silvia: While he worked on his biology project, Óscar was getting tons of messages. Óscar is in constant contact with his mom.
Óscar: We video call each other: she calls me, I call her on Facebook. My sister too. Sometimes my sister gets bored and calls me: “What are you doing?” Stuff like that.
Silvia: He messages them on Facebook and Whatsapp during the day to tell them how things are going. The two of them and his little sister, are still in El Salvador.
One of the mornings I spent at the school, while I was waiting for someone I was going to interview, I overheard a group of students who were nearby. They looked like any other group of teenagers you’d find anywhere. They were on their phones, looking at Facebook. The difference is that these teenagers were showing each other pictures of the family members they had left in their countries.
I want to point out something that I’m sure you’ve realized: so far we’ve only told three boys’ stories. There are also a lot of girls who make the same trip, of course, but in the days I was at Oakland International High School I didn’t meet any girl who wanted to tell me her story. And of course, for them the journey is even more dangerous. According to Amnesty International, 6 out of 10 migrant women and girls are victims of some form of sexual violence while making the trip by land to United States.
So if these Central American boys and girls have to face so many dangers along the way, is it worth it? I asked Ángel, David and Óscar. They aren’t representing all unaccompanied minors, just three voices from a specific place. Three voices among thousands and thousands of young people who have come in recent years.
Óscar: Well the truth is I do think it is worth it.
Ángel: If they deport me before I get papers or something, I would come back.
David: I think I’ve already started a new life and so I have to continue what I’ve started.
Daniel: So what stays with you after this experience, Silvia?
Silvia: Well, I’m left with something Adela told me:
Adela: They come from wars or suffering hunger or they come… They travel in horrible conditions or lived their lives alone in their countries or… I mean, they are… Each student has a story. And with that story, depending on the story, they also carry their traumas, like anyone. But I feel that their traumas are really… I mean, when I really sit down and try to think about their lives… It’s incredible what they’ve had to live through to be here and keep on giving it their all.
Daniel: There are thousands like Ángel, Óscar y David. In the first six months of 2016 more than 30 thousand unaccompanied minors were detained at the border.
Silvia Viñas is an editor with Radio Ambulante.
Thanks to Jean Yamasaki from the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Adela Toledo for sending us that email, to Miguel Ángel Astudillo, and everyone at Oakland International High School for all of their help with this story.
Camila and I edited this story. The music is by Luis Maurette. The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Luis Trelles, Fe Martínez, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Barbara Sawhill and Caro Rolando. Our interns are Emiliano Rodríguez, Andrés Azpiri and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.