My name is Lester and I am from Honduras. I was thirteen when I came to the United States. I grew up in San Pedro Sula. It is one of the major cities in Honduras. I was just a child so I didn’t really think about my community that much, but I saw how dangerous it was and how poor people were treated by the government. People in power influenced poor people to do bad stuff for them. For example, they would pay the poor people to kill people. The poor people needed the money. Let’s say there was a company, and they had competition, they would try to kill the competition. You would see that a lot. But I didn’t really think about it. I would just have fun at school, with my friends. Over there you hear everything, you overhear everything. People would talk about stuff and you would hear them. You could see that they killed people. They didn’t care if there were children or women around, they would just kill them. They talk about it like it is nothing. It is normal. It was normal to live in that environment.
My mother first sent my brother here, but my brother was sent back to Honduras. My brother came by himself; he was sixteen years old. He came with a coyote. They paid a coyote to bring him here. He came to be with my grandparents, on my father’s side. They live in Portland. My brother never made it to Portland. He got caught at the border and was sent back to Honduras. I don’t know exactly what happened. The border police already knew they were coming. I don’t know how, but he got caught. My brother didn’t want to come back to the US. He said, “No, I don’t want to go. It is dangerous over there.”
The coyote kept the money, but we got a second chance. That is how I came here. We didn’t pay for me to come here. My brother decided he didn’t want to try again. So I came instead. I was thirteen. It was a random day. They just told me, “You’re going.” I didn’t know in advance. I was shocked because I couldn’t say goodbye to any of my brothers and sisters, just to my mother and that was it. I couldn’t say goodbye to anybody. I was just thinking that this is better for me so I gotta go. I gotta go.
I didn’t bring anything, just the clothes I was wearing that day. It was so fast because the coyote was already waiting for me in the bus terminal. At the beginning I was nervous because this guy had a lot of tattoos, and in Honduras when you see a person with tattoos it means something is wrong, that he is in a gang. He was actually nice to me because I was the youngest one. There were three people, two boys and one woman. And then we met another two people in Guatemala. I was nervous. I didn’t know how to interact with them. After time I started to feel more confident with them, started talking more.
At the beginning we took two buses, crossing all of Guatemala in one day. And then being in Mexico we had to wait for a week in a hotel because the police were raiding that town looking for immigrants, so we didn’t go out. Then we walked for two days. We walked and then we took La Bestia, the train, for two days and two nights. There were a lot of woods there so we hid, and we waited there for twelve hours. The train was moving, not that fast, but it was moving, so we had to just jump. There were a lot of people, a lot of children. There were hundreds of people, many families from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. At some point we saw the Mexican police but they didn’t stop us because we were going really fast at that point. It felt dangerous, really dangerous. Nobody fell off during the time I was there, but I heard stories of people who had fallen from that train and died. It was really cold, especially in the desert of Mexico. When I was on the train I had to hold on the whole time. I was scared to go on the top. The train had these little holds in between the cars. I was down there.
Sometimes people were robbed on the train. There was the gang called Sureños Trece. We were waiting for this bus, eating junk food. They came and started asking questions. “Where are you from? Where are you going?” We didn’t want to talk to them, we didn’t know them. They took the girl with us, they wanted to kidnap her, but the coyote didn’t want that so he gave money to them. It was scary.
The coyote was responsible for giving us food and water, especially me since I was the youngest one. They paid extra for me. My grandpa told me that it was ten thousand US dollars. It was a lot. And then we walked to the border at Laredo, Texas. We were four days in the desert with little food or water. No blankets, nothing. We walked at night because during the day there were a lot of police officers there. Sometimes we hid during the day, not all the time. We brought food and water, but we ran out, especially water because it was really hot during the day. The nights were really cold. It was March 2014.
I heard stories of people dying in that desert. One of the guys who was with us got lost. We were looking all over the place, but we didn’t find him. I don’t know what happened to him. He fell behind. He was really tired and was complaining a lot. He couldn’t walk anymore. He had a lot of blisters on his feet.
We got caught. We crossed the Rio Bravo and I remember seeing people around but I didn’t pay attention to that. I told the coyote and when I told him we were already surrounded by the police. Everyone started running. I ran too, because I saw everybody running. I was the last one they caught. They caught everybody.
Some people got sent to Mexico right away and some of us went into detention centers in the US. The police had caught this coyote before and they had files on him. I think he was sent to prison in the US. He was doing it to make a living. I don’t know if it is true, but I heard from other people that were with me that he had drugs on him, too.
I didn’t see the other people I was traveling with again. We were kept separate. I did see one girl later in Galveston, Texas. The detention center was freezing, freezing, freezing. We didn’t get blankets or anything like that. We got cold bean burritos and cookies. We couldn’t go outside. We didn’t see the sun or light. I was there for three days. There were lots of other kids there. There were fifty people in a small room. It was all kids my age. Adults were in a different part. Some of the kids came with their parents and were separated from their parents. There was a little boy, he was recently born, and he was given to other people when he got separated from his parents. He was just given to a random person. The bathroom was made of metal, very cold. Everybody could see. There was no privacy. I wasn’t allowed to call anybody for the first three days.
They asked me if I had anybody to call, but I said no because that is what my grandparents told me to say. They told me to tell them that they didn’t know I was coming. They knew, but they told me to say that they didn’t. I don’t know why. My grandparents are US citizens. They came a long time ago.
After three days, they transferred me to this other place in Galveston. It was much better there. We had food, we went to school, we had beds, we used to play games. They took us to the beach; it was very nice. There were two houses. One for kids. There were about twelve of us. This was very different. I think it was private, not the US government. They were helping with my files, with the court dates. I was there for one month. I didn’t speak any English. School was teaching us English. There were really nice people who worked there. Some of them were racist, but most of them were really nice people who would help you with anything you needed. If you needed space from everybody they would take you outside. We had to be with people all of the time. I don’t feel like I had a bad experience there.
At that point I was talking to my grandparents once a week on the phone. I wasn’t able to talk to my mother. My grandparents bought me a plane ticket. I don’t know how they figured it out. I flew to Portland and moved in with my grandparents. At that point I was able to talk to my mother. It had been three or four months. During that time she didn’t know whether I was alive or not.
I want to add something that many people don’t talk about. When you are on the border between Mexico and the United States there are a lot of gangs there. They are cartels. It is really dangerous. We got kidnapped by one of them. They were called Los Zetas. My coyote didn’t pay the fee that you have to pay to have immigrants. You have to pay them in order to cross. I don’t know how. We got kidnapped and a lot of stuff happened. You’d see dead bodies all over the place. One of my friends died. They killed him. Actually, they made me do it.
They did it to make other people afraid, to take control, to intimidate other people. They took us to this old building. I don’t know what it was. I was there for a week. They didn’t give us food. I was blindfolded. When they took me to this room by myself they took the blindfold off but I closed my eyes because there were a lot of dead bodies. I didn’t want to see them.
I think that might be why my brother didn’t want to go again. I am the youngest of my siblings. I have two brothers and two sisters. My first brother went because the gang that was in my neighborhood was trying to recruit him and my mother didn’t want that. When my brother went back he ended up in that gang for a while, but then he realized it wasn’t good. He wasn’t that into the gang so he was able to get out. We already knew some of the gang members and so my sisters talked to them and he was able to get out. Now that I think about it, I would say that the gang was trying to recruit me, too. While I was there I wasn’t thinking about it. My mother saw that they were recruiting me.
Two of my brothers are in the United States now. One of them is here in Portland and the other is in Texas. My sisters are in Honduras. My brother got lucky the second time. He didn’t get caught. My grandparents drove to Texas to pick him up.
My oldest sister wouldn’t like to come here, even though it is dangerous for her there. She has already made her life there. Her husband is a gang member. She doesn’t have a way out. He is in jail, but he still has control over her. He could call and they would do anything to her. He is a really nice guy. He treats her very well. But a long time ago they had a problem. My sister was seeing another guy because they weren’t together at that point. He got jealous and he tried to kill my sister. He said, “Nadie va a matar, solo yo voy matarte algun dia.” Nobody is going to kill you, but I am going to kill you sometime, with my hands. I don’t know why she doesn’t want to get out of there.
My other sister might come, but she is married, too. Her husband’s brother is in a gang. It is really hard for a man not to be in a gang. They make you a gang member. It is hard in all the cities. It is a little different in the rural areas, where there are more narco traffickers. They are different. The gangs sell drugs, but they mostly care about the territory they control. Cartels are about business and spread drugs all over.
My mom works cleaning offices. I didn’t grow up with my father. My mom arranged all of this. My father is here in Portland, but I haven’t seen him. We don’t have a good relationship. He came here thirteen years ago. My grandfather came about forty years ago, a long time ago. I don’t know his story. He hasn’t told me. I just know that when he crossed the border he gave fifty dollars and just walked in. My grandmother came twenty years later. They had children, but they weren’t together. There was an expectation that my grandfather would still help her, but he had another family here, too. I have half uncles and aunts here in Portland.
When I got here my grandparents told me that I had to graduate high school and then start working to pay them back. They didn’t give me the chance to graduate; they sent me to work before I graduated high school. I was going to high school and working a job at night at Fred Meyer’s cleaning. This was to pay them back for the coyote and to pay rent. They didn’t see this as something nice to do. They have money. It was the same for my brother.
I did graduate high school. I went to Roosevelt High School. I graduated on time. Right now I am living by myself. I got out of my grandfather’s house three years ago. I’m now working two jobs and being a full time student. I work at Panda Express and at night I work at Amazon.
When my grandmother was in Honduras she used to say that the United States was a clean place, with no trash in the streets. When I got here, I didn’t see that. I saw a lot of trash and homeless people. I was used to that, to see that in Honduras. I had a different idea of how it was here. I thought it would be easier here, but it is not. There is a lot more pressure from your community to change in the way they want you to. I had this internal conflict with my identity when I got here. I didn’t know if I should still act like a Latino person, to speak Spanish whenever I want, or to belong to the US. I felt pressure that I had to learn English, to learn the right accent. My family wanted me to adapt to this culture, to be different. They told me to not hang out with other immigrants and other Central American people. They wanted to make me white. That was hard. My grandfather thinks he is white. He is light-skinned, but he is from Honduras.
I did hang out with other Central Americans in high school. It felt like home. I could relate to their experiences. We could talk. It felt nice, more welcoming. They helped me to learn English. I do miss Honduras. I miss my sisters, my friends, and the food. There is just one Honduran food cart on 82nd Ave. They do ok. They make baleadas. It is like a tortilla with beans, cheese, and cream inside, but you just fold it in half. I love them. I cook them. My mother taught me how to cook them.
I can’t visit. If I go there, they would cut my green card. I got my green card in 2017. I have to wait five years in order to apply for citizenship. If I get accepted I can go back in 2022. I want to go, but I am scared. I am scared of being killed. If you go to a neighborhood and the gang isn’t familiar with you, you can get killed. Random people just get on the bus and kill you. Maybe it is not worth it.
My green card is for asylum. I am a refugee. I was lucky to get my papers very quickly. In 2014 when I got here, the second month I got here, I got a court date. I went to that court date with no lawyer, and I got a second one the next month. I went to three of them without a lawyer and on the last one I did have a lawyer and then they accepted my petition for asylum. And then I had to apply for my residency card and I paid five hundred dollars for that. I had to give my fingerprints. I went to meet with a judge, but not in a court. They took my testimony to make sure I was saying the same things as the beginning when they caught me, about why I was here. They interviewed me and they confirmed that I was saying the truth. After that I just waited and I got it. It took three years. All of my friends, they still haven’t gotten their papers.
The asylum was based on the gang violence and police brutality. The police in Honduras don’t care about your age. You can be seven years old and they will beat you up. There was this time when I was playing soccer with my friends in this field near my house. We were just having fun. The police came and they started searching us for drugs. We didn’t have anything but they still beat us, just to have fun. They were calling us gang members and a lot of names.
After I got to Portland I left my grandparents’ house and I lived on the streets for two weeks. It was winter. My grandfather accused me of stealing some things that were mine. I had the receipts that showed they were mine. I didn’t like that so I moved out. I went to St. John’s Church. And then after that I stayed with my girlfriend’s family. They helped me for three years when I was in high school. I was working to help them. They are from Mexico, they were immigrants too, so they understood my situation.
When I came to the United States I found the diversity surprising. I met a lot of people from different cultures. It was shocking learning about them and their experiences. I just got curious about cultures and I met people from Ethiopia, Israel, and other places. I want to travel. I’m going to a PSU study abroad program in Costa Rica and Guatemala in February. This program was supposed to go to Honduras too, but I told them that I can’t go to Honduras so they changed it. I will be taking classes about ancient indigenous cultures, geography, sustainability, and women’s studies. I want to study anthropology. I want to go to Mexico to study anthropology.
I have had experiences in the US with racism. In the beginning, when I first got here and I didn’t know any English, I was riding the Max train, I was going to summer school. There was this old white lady reading a book. The train was full and the only seat was beside her. I sat there and I got a phone call. I was talking Spanish on the phone and she started to yell at me. She took my phone and threw it away from me. She was saying, “Go back to your country. Learn English.”
Something that people should know is that people who have had a traumatic experience coming here didn’t give up easily. I didn’t talk to anybody for the first two years I was here about what I went through because I didn’t want them to know. Even though I didn’t talk to anybody, I didn’t give up. My goal was to become a better person. I didn’t give up.My experience of being kidnapped didn’t break me. I kept going, harder and harder. For most people talking about it is healthy, but I feel for myself that it is better to keep it private so that I can deal with it myself. People try to tell me different ways to help me, but then I get frustrated because I don’t know which is the right way. I prefer to find my own way. I didn’t give up.