I sat across from him, a boy who would turn eighteen years old in a couple of weeks. He looked into my eyes for a few moments, sizing me up. Then, looking down at his hands, he started speaking in a quiet voice.
He was telling me about his life. A Central American who, at twelve or thirteen years of age, he had escaped his particular experiences of violence by heading for the United States. The details were excruciating. His matter of fact tone was disturbing. It was as if, for all of his life, all he knew was pain and, for all of the rest of his life, that was what he expected.
“My stepmother once told me that she was going to teach me how to make tortillas. So she took my hands and pressed them on the comal (a grill). The pain made me faint…and then she did it again. Another time, when my stepmother was angry at me, she stripped my clothes off of me held me in a tina (a washtub) that she had filled with cold water—she had had someone bring her some ice from the cantina and had put that in the water, and then, after I was shaking, she pulled me out and she beat me on my back with a leather strapped that she had soaked in the same water. I was only five or six years old.”
He told me this the very first time that we met.
When we talked, the child about to become a man was detained with other minors who had been caught by the border patrol. In a week, when he turned 18, he could be detained with adults, many of them with violent criminal pasts. He was nervous about being caged with violent men.
Those in charge of his case knew his story, and seemed indifferent. Appeals to their common sense were ignored. When he woke up on the morning of his 18th birthday, he was indeed picked up by border patrol agents who then jailed him in a section of the adult detention center designed to hold the most violent of the prisoners.
I remember my 18th birthday being one of the special ones in my life, a pause in time to note that I was indeed, growing up.
I was not, on my 18th birthday, taken away by armed men and put into a room with violent (and much older) men.
The usual response I have heard to these sorts of stories is something along the lines of an exasperated “We can’t be expected to take care of the entire world!” I think that I understand that sentiment. But this child is not in his country, he is in ours. He is right here, in our midst, and has been placed in a horrible situation. He is one amongst many, and his story is by far not the worst one. But his story is now mine, as well and I find that unsettling.
I plan to meet with this child again, this time at that prison, in the adult visiting area. He may well ask me why he is being held in this place. I may well have to explain to him that he is there because we are afraid of him. He who is now afraid of us.