"We try to accommodate everyone, but it can be difficult. With music. If we have a wide range of countries, how are we going to play the radio? "
  • "We try to accommodate everyone, but it can be difficult. With music. If we have a wide range of countries, how are we going to play the radio? "
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
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The 18th Street gang, now notorious for terrorizing areas of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, "is actually named after 18th Street in L.A."

They hopped trains, took buses, spent long days walking. When their path took them through remote areas, they went hungry. Every week a sheet of paper rolls off a fax machine at the Casa Cornelia Law Center on Laurel Street. It contains a list of two or three dozen names, each followed by a date and country of birth. A prosaic document, it's an accounting of children who've been apprehended by local immigration authorities. These are youngsters who've wound up in San Diego County alone, unaccompanied by their families, thousands of miles from their homes. To get here, many have endured hair-raising journeys. All of them thought they were about to make a new life in America.

One day in 2003, toward the end of the school year, five youths grabbed him by his school uniform and demanded that he dance.

For Leticia, that illusion shattered just moments after she arrived at the San Ysidro checkpoint. Leticia, driving an old car, had stopped to present identity papers to the inspector at the head of her lane. He announced that her documents appeared to be false. Leticia may have looked nervous; she'd never driven alone before and had been behind the wheel only once or twice with a friend. But a man in Tijuana had convinced her this was her best hope of crossing the border. "You look Mexican," he had argued. "And la migra would never imagine that a 16-year-old Honduran girl would be driving a car across the border." Leticia had stifled her skepticism and agreed to try.

Upon each child's arrival, he or she takes an entrance exam and starts school the following day.

And why not? So many things had happened to her in the 16 months since she'd left her Honduran village. On a sunny morning last summer, she agreed to talk about what she'd gone through. We were sitting in the main interior courtyard at Southwest Key, the East County facility where she was living while undergoing deportation proceedings. Since some of the children at Southwest Key are hiding from smugglers who would like to collect their money or prevent the children from testifying against them, the building's exact location is a secret. Moreover, multiple layers of bureaucracy prevent most outsiders from setting foot here. It took me more than two months to get the necessary permissions from various federal employees in Washington, D.C. Then I had to agree to interview Leticia in the presence of staff members of both Casa Cornelia and Southwest Key. Her attorneys also asked me to change her name, to protect her from potential judicial backlash. A slip of a thing, Leticia looked hesitant when we sat down together, but her words (all in Spanish) revealed a quiet self-assurance. She wore her silky black hair pulled back, revealing a delicate face dominated by doelike eyes and a wide smile. When she decided to leave home, she had just turned 15 and was six months short of graduating from her local school. But she wanted to keep on learning; she dreamed of studying medicine. In school she'd heard about how America was la potencia mundial (the world power). "In Honduras," she added, "people say if you know how to speak English, you're valued as if you were two people." Asked what her family thought of her decision to head for the United States, Leticia trembled. Her home situation wasn't good, she whispered. Her father had disappeared when she was 7, leaving behind his wife, daughter, and two sons. The older boy had left home, and Leticia had lost touch with him. The younger one was a violent drug addict. To escape the chaos caused by him, she'd been sent when she was 12 to live with an aunt and uncle. But the aunt had beaten her, deriding her educational dreams and carping that the girl should find someone to marry. In the winter of 2002, Leticia had heard about two older girls from her town who were heading north. She had asked if she could join them, and they welcomed her company.

In her pocket, Leticia carried 300 lempiras (about $17), money she'd gotten from her uncle on the pretext of needing school supplies. Rather than purchasing northbound tickets, however, the three girls began their odyssey by catching a ride on a freight train. "Were you scared?" I asked.

"A little," Leticia reflected. "It's very hard. But it's an unforgettable experience." The lawyer, administrator, and I burst out laughing in agreement with that.

Every time the train approached a station, the girls jumped off to avoid being caught. They then made their way to the outbound tracks, purchasing food and drinks to stash in their backpacks for a ride that might last 16 to 48 hours. If they were clinging to the side of the train, "We couldn't sleep because we might fall," the girl recalled. Hour upon hour, they stared down at the passing crossties. Depending on their nerve, they might try to climb on top of one of the cars, but the risk of being knocked off was high. Between cars, the motion was so violent it could make a person dizzy. Once in a while, kindly crewmen let them ride in one of the engines. Others demanded money for this privilege.

Leticia says once she and her companions entered Guatemala, they traveled by bus. In Mexico, they hopped trains, took buses, spent long days walking. When their path took them through remote areas, they went hungry. When it poured rain, they froze. "I swear to you," Leticia murmured, "you wouldn't like trying it."

It took about three months to reach Mexicali. There, on a broiling day, she and her companions got lucky. A woman who ran a snack shop let them sleep on her kitchen floor, and the next day she asked a customer, a man of about 60, if he might give her "daughters" a ride to Tijuana. Leticia says this gentleman, who turned out to be a Guatemalan married to a Mexican, lived in the United States. Eventually he extracted the girls' true story and promised to call Leticia's godmother, who lived in Los Angeles. The godmother sent her husband to Tijuana to help Leticia find someplace to stay.

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