by Joseph Sorrentino

The Menores en el Camino shelter in Oaxaca, Mexico. The numbers out front are the country codes for the Northern Triangle Countries. Salvador is 503; Guatemala is 502; Honduras is 504; Nicaragua is 505.

### Noel

Noel had been walking for about ten hours when we met him on the narrow dirt path that parallels the train tracks in Chahuites, a small city in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The path he was walking on is the one that virtually all Central Americans take on their way to the U.S. When he first saw us, he turned away and it looked like he was going to run — there were eight of us and he told us later he thought we were a gang out looking to rob refugees — but Carlos called out to him and explained we were from the shelter and would take him there.

Noel, right before we reached the shelter.

Noel is a 16-year-old Salvadoran, thin, dressed in a white shirt and pants that showed the dirt of being on the road for many days. I’ll remember forever the determined look on his face as he walked. He had left his home weeks earlier, walking most of the way alone, intent on making it to the U.S. I asked him why he wanted to go there and he said his mother had cancer and he needed to find work so he could send her money for medicine they couldn’t afford. I was aching to get his story in more detail but decided to wait until morning. After all, the kid had already put in 10 hours walking that day.

When I got up early the next morning, I found Noel sitting on a low wall in the shelter, his backpack at his feet. I thought about beginning the interview but decided to wait a bit; let him at least have some breakfast, I figured. So I sat a few feet away. A minute or so later, he strapped his backpack on and walked out the front gate of the shelter. I followed and watched him, wondering why he walked out when breakfast would be served soon. Then another kid about the same age and carrying a backpack approached Noel and without exchanging more than a simple nod of the head, the two of them starting walking down the road. At first I thought they were going to the small store next to the shelter but they walked past it and, at the corner, turned, heading north. They were on their way to the U.S.

I beat myself up pretty good for a couple of days. I cursed myself for not getting his story. I decided I have to be more aggressive getting interviews. Next time, things would be different. Then I realized his actions told me far more than any words could have. So desperate was he to get to the U.S. to help his mother, he refused to wait those few minutes for breakfast.

Last Night in the Shelter, Menores en el Camino

A room where 3-4 men slept in Menores en el Camino.

It’s been challenging here, especially at first. Some guys were testing me, see what I’d do, blocking my way when I tried to walk by, making fun of my Spanish. Nothing serious and I’d learned long ago not to react to these things.

I finally connected with several guys — amazing what a Coke and a couple of sueltos can do for a guy — and things started to go well. But the noise is amazing — screaming just for fun, pounding on the stairs, a long, shrill whistle. And bone-jarring rap music until 10 at night. It all got to me; I felt resentful. Then, tonight, one of the guys got cut in a fight. I saw blood on the second floor landing and called Carlos and he told me what happened. Fortunately, it was only a cut on the small finger of his right hand but it still required stitches. It was Alcides, one of the quiet guys, which was very surprising. David, the volunteer from Hungary, told me Alcides refused to get an injection; probably tetanus or an antibiotic. They tried to convince him but he refused.

Tonight, none of the guys are downstairs like they usually are. They’re up on the third floor, right above me, blasting rap music. I went out to the balcony but it was only marginally better. I thought about their lives, what they faced, what they face here and what they’ll face as they continue their journey. Oddly, the rap doesn’t bother me tonight.

A photo of the tattoos Marcos had done to cover his gang tattoos; he was Mara Salvatrucha. He and several of the other young men at the Menores en el Camino shelter were gang members who were trying to get out of the gang. Marcos once told me, “Ex-gang members do not exist.” Anyone trying to get out of the gang would be murdered. I was told by another gang member that when a person did try to leave, the gang put out a 187: anyone could kill him with impunity. Interestingly, 187 is California law enforcement code for murder.

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Margarita is an 18-year-old Salvadoran with a pretty face and ready smile who left home after she and her family were threatened by one of the Maras. She says the gang wanted money and that, “me molesta:” They bothered me. She says this with no emotion, a slight glance downward betraying its possible meaning. I ask David, a volunteer who’s helping with translations, if she means they threatened or tried to rape her. He nods his head, “yes.”


She’s been in the shelter, *Jovenes en el Camino* (Young People on the Road) in Oaxaca, for seven months. For as long as I’ve been here, she’s been the cook and enjoys that role. And she likes the shelter. “It’s like family here,” she says. Many, if not most, of the young men were (or possibly are) members of Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most vicious gangs in Central America. But in this shelter, they’re her family.

Like many Central Americans, she’s traveling through Mexico without any papers that legally allow her to do so and, like the others without papers, keeps a sharp eye out for Mexican immigration officers. She’s been fortunate not to get caught, although she has seen them on occasion. She knows if they catch her she’ll be deported and if that happens, she faces danger in her home country. If it happens, she says, “I’ll just try again.”

This morning I find her sleeping on a worn mattress placed on the floor next to the large, wooden kitchen table. I ask her why she does this and she says it’s because it’s cooler; there’s a window just above where she slept.

Her plan is to eventually continue on to the U.S. to reunite with a sister in San Francisco. She says she’ll work cleaning houses, babysitting. Doesn’t matter. Whatever work there is, she’ll do. When asked how she’ll get into the U.S., she answers quickly with one word: “However.”

She’d stayed in another shelter before coming to Oaxaca and I ask her if she likes this one better. She says she does. “Es mas bonita.” It’s prettier. This, a shelter layered with dirt, with trash piled high in the yard behind the kitchen, marginally functioning bathrooms, where she sleeps atop an old mattress on the floor. Prettier. But I suppose compared to what she’d face back home, even hell might look prettier.

The Menores en el Camino shelter in Oaxaca.

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Joseph Sorrentino is a freelance photojournalist whose work has been published in In These Times, The Santa Fe Reporter, and Commonweal.

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