Child Trek

The devastation of Hurricane Mitch propelled thousands across our southern border in search of new lives in America. And those were just the kids.

Honduran president Carlos Flores, calling for help right after the disaster, announced that 70 percent of crops in his country had been destroyed. With a population of only 5.7 million, all of Honduras grieved the 5,600 dead and the 8,000 who were still missing and presumed dead; Nicaragua was in a similar state of disarray with 2,100 dead and 950 missing.

In the middle of this devastation were the children. Some of them were orphaned by the storm; others, who had already been abandoned and made their living in the streets, could no longer depend on the charity of strangers who were now too destitute to help; still others, like Walter Cruz, had to shoulder the responsibilities of an adult, without having the strength or the experience to compete in the gutted job market.

"If you saw the way our country looks, you'd understand," says Walter. "There is nothing there. Nothing. Before, it was hard; there was little work. But now ... Hurricane Mitch destroyed everything. It took everything, the banana plantations where the people in the country worked, so now those people need work too. They come to the city, where there is nothing for them. They build shacks and take any jobs that come up."

Walter had been working as a welder since he was 12, and it shows in the scars that mar his hands and face. He saved up enough to buy his own welding and sanding equipment and was able to support his mother, brother and sister. Without his tools, also lost in the flood, he could work only in construction, competing with bigger and stronger men for an occasional day's work.

As if that weren't enough, Walter says, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. "And even worse than that," he says, "her father found out too. He was after me, and he was angry." Without a job, Walter had no way to support a child.

He learned his uncle and cousin had saved up some money and were going to look for work in the United States. With so many mouths to feed, Walter knew he had better find work, and this was his chance. He left with them, only to be separated along the way.

Eleven-year-old Jose Lopes had no family to help support; he doesn't remember his parents or how long he'd been fending for himself on the streets of Honduras. Also small for his age, this soft-spoken boy with large, brown eyes has never been to school and can't read or write; if he can name rivers, cities or deserts, it is knowledge he acquired by being there, crossing the rivers, walking for days and grabbing tight to the outside of rattling old cargo trains.

But the excitement he shows for talking about the dangers of the trip disappears when he talks about what his life was like in Honduras. He looks down, hunched over, staring intently at his nails.

"I spent a lot of time alone. It gets very ugly being alone if you're small, but a lot of the older boys took drugs, and I didn't like being around them. I never had enough to eat. For a while I lived with a woman. She let me spend the night at her house, but during the day I had to stay out and find my own food. When I started getting bigger, I had to go."

He met two older boys who told him they were headed to the United States. "They told me life here was very good. I didn't know anything. I thought it was close, the way they talked."

He took buses for pennies and hitched rides through El Salvador and Guatemala, and now counts the cities he passed on his fingers, rattling off their names in his rapid-fire Spanish: Salvador, Escuintla, Mazatenango, Quezaltenango. At Tecun Uman, a Guatemalan border town facing Tapachula on the Mexican side, the Suchiate river, calm and shallow, forms a natural border between the two countries, providing the only easy crossing point in an otherwise thickly wooded region.

Every two days an old freight train arrives in Tapachula, loaded with everything from corn and beans to gas. After sundown, it heads north again, empty except for the human cargo clinging to its sides. Immigrants with little or no money, like Jose and Walter, wait in the shadows for the train to pick up speed, then run fast and jump, reaching for one of the ladders that go up the side, swinging their legs out of the way of the boxcar's wheels.

"I was a little afraid of the trains at first, but then I got used to them," recalls Jose. "If you fall, you fall, and maybe you die, but if you don't, then you get a little closer to where you want to go.

"In Tapachula it was nice because there were so many people there; there were hundreds just from Honduras. The men there told me not to get on the train when it is going fast, but the immigration in Mexico will watch the train and catch anyone who tries to get on. If you get on when it is going fast, they don't want to go after you, and they leave you alone. The men in Tapachula told me they had seen a man fall and lose his legs under the wheels of the train. I was afraid, but when I heard the train coming -- Toot! Toot!" he says, pulling an invisible whistle, "I forgot my fright and the man who lost his legs, and I just ran and jumped and held on."

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