They are healthier now. More sure of themselves, less haunted. They have put on weight — in some cases too much. Homesickness sneaks up with less frequency, but that longing for places they risked everything to escape is still there.
Nearly a year after we profiled six child migrants reunited with parents already living in the Washington area, all are getting on with their American lives, despite predictions by legal advocates and White House officials that their ultimate destiny would be deportation. Several won’t appear before immigration court judges for another year.
Meanwhile, the flow of unaccompanied children making the dangerous journey from, in most cases, Central America has slowed dramatically. In the first eight months of this fiscal year, 1,755 have joined family in the District, Maryland and Virginia, compared with 8,146 for all of the previous year, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
During this extended legal limbo, the families have been helped by advocacy groups such as CASA of Maryland, and the children have profited from superior education and health-care systems. Ask them and they will say, “I’m happy.”
Or maybe, “Estoy feliz,” because their English remains a work in progress.
Tania Latin, 13, prior to her promotion ceremony at Lincoln Multicultural Middle School in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Tania Latin journeyed from Guatemala to live with her father and step-mother. Here, she was photographed one year ago (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Tania Latin, 13
The band strikes up “Pomp and Circumstance” as the students file into the auditorium in their caps and gowns. The eighth-grade promotion ceremony at Lincoln Multicultural Middle School in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood draws a standing-room-only crowd of proud parents. Most of the 130 rising ninth-graders fill long rows at the front of the audience, but about a dozen, including Tania, sit on the stage. These are the students with the top grade-point averages.
A“The next student represents what it looks like when the [bilingual education] system is run well,” an administrator says. “She did a tremendous job, overcame a lot of adversity to get here. It is my honor to introduce the most improved ELL [English language learner] student, Miss Tania Latin!”
Tania’s shy smile as she steps forward amid the whoops and cheers to accept her certificate betrays nothing of the 2,000-mile journey from Guatemala she undertook with her 9-year-old sister a few months before classes started last fall. In the audience, her father, Marcos Latin, a cook, and her stepmother, Yasmin Romero-Latin, a nursing student and tenant activist, clutch a bouquet of carnations for her.
At the simple reception afterward in the cafeteria, a teacher says: “She’s awesome. When she arrived she had difficulty writing. She never missed a single assignment. She turned in her work before it was due.”
Tania will start at Bell Multicultural High School in late August. Then, in October she will have her third appearance in court. The judge could make his final decision then.
“It would be bad to be deported because here I have my parents and my sister,” Tania says, holding a tablet she uses to take pictures of her friends. “The future is brighter here.”
Daniel, 7, plays outside CASA of Maryland in Hyattsville, Md. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
A year ago, Daniel, with his mother, Reyna. The family is from El Salvador. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
After wading across the Rio Grande with a pair of older cousins who were still children themselves, and finally reaching his mother and father in Langley Park, Md. Daniel was a silent boy with a long list of medical problems.
Now he scampers around a playground, giggling, making faces, playing hide-and-seek. He chatters in Spanish and in his rapidly developing English, which he demonstrates by sitting down with a book, “Just Me and My Puppy.”
“ ‘I wanted a puppy just for me,’ ” he reads. “ ‘He keeps me company while I do my homework.’ ”
Daniel, who just finished first grade, looks up. “This is easy.”
Reyna, his mother, can hardly believe the transformation. “In El Salvador, he’d be dead by now,” she says.
Not from the gangs that plagued their neighborhood and prompted her and her husband to leave nearly a year before Daniel did. His health would have failed, she is convinced. Regular checkups in El Salvador revealed nothing, she says, but in Maryland, doctors diagnosed liver, kidney, blood pressure and cholesterol problems. Daniel also had fits of difficult breathing and needed his tonsils removed.
“He sleeps peacefully,” Reyna says. “He doesn’t breathe like he’s drowning. He does his homework himself. He sits down to read his books. I feel the happiest that I could be.”
A judge has set a second court appearance for June 2016. Saving money for a lawyer is a challenge, especially since Reyna stopped working to dedicate herself to Daniel.
If Daniel is deported, her husband, an electrician’s assistant, contemplates going back to El Salvador, according to Reyna.
“He says, ‘I missed Daniel’s childhood, and now to miss his adolescence, too? No.’ ”
Brandon Terriquez, 16, helps his mother, Trinidad Ramirez, with housework in Springfield, Va. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
This picture of Brandon, from a year ago, shows framed photographs of friends and
relatives in Guatemala. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Brandon Terriquez, 16
The boy reached his parents’ apartment in Springfield, Va. the day after Mother’s Day last year, eight years after he last saw his mother. This year for Mother’s Day Brandon presented Trinidad Ramirez with a bouquet of artificial flowers that still enjoys a prominent place in the living room.
“It hurt to leave him [with grandparents] when he was 7 years old. And then to know he came looking for me!” says Ramirez, who hadn’t realized Brandon was coming until he was on his way. “He didn’t know me. He knew I was his mother, but [for years] he never lived with me. He thought I only loved him as a child. He was feeling abandoned. It pained me. But he has recovered a lot.”
Brandon dotes on his American-born sister Aury, 7, and does push-ups with his American-born brother Chally, 2, riding his back. Sometimes Ramirez will come home and find Brandon vacuuming the living room.
Brandon misses elements of his old rural life: riding horses, calling the cattle for their meals, trapping animals for food. These days he posts videos on Facebook of himself singing. He dedicated a traditional song from back home to his grandfather.
Brandon has also started fishing at a nearby pond, the way he fished a river near where he grew up. His simple line and hook with worms dug from the suburban earth are all he needs, while neighbors with their fancy poles and lures and store-bought bait hardly catch anything.
“I just throw in the line, ” he says, laughing, “and I get a big fish. It surprised them.”
If he gets deported, he’ll lose his new home and family, yet Guatemala tugs at his heart.
“God has a destiny for everyone,” he says. “You just don’t know what it is.”
Brothers Humberto Vasilio, 9, and Abner Dionisio, 11, in Hyattsville, Md. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
The boys journeyed from Guatemala to live with their mother. This portrait was taken one year ago. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Abner Dionisio, 11, and Humberto Vasilio, 9
The vaccines and paperwork required by American schools flummoxed Hortencia, the boys’ mother. Her first language is Mam, a Mayan language spoken in her region of Guatemala. Plus, she didn’t have the money.
As a result, this past school year Abner and Humberto missed all but two months of fourth grade and second grade, respectively. When not in school, the boys stay in their apartment in Langley Park while Hortencia goes to work as a dishwasher, an unreliable occupation that leaves her without a steady paycheck.
In Guatemala, her husband was a mason who used to say he didn’t need to go to the United States because his meager living was enough. After he was killed, there was no work that would allow a woman to raise a family, so Hortencia left her sons behind. When she heard reports that they were not being well cared for by relatives, she went back for them, and they crossed the border together.
Hortencia doesn’t expect their stay to be permanent but hopes she can raise her sons here for several more years before they all return home.
“When they were in Guatemala, I used to cry for them,” she says. “Now I always see them when I come home from work. I can make their food. Talk to them.”
“If I weren’t with my mom, I would be sad,” Abner says. “But I’m happy now.”
Mynor Cerros, 19, plans to apply to the Community College of Baltimore County. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Mynor left Guatemala to live in Baltimore. Here, he was photographed one year ago for the Magazine. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Mynor Cerros, 19
Nearly two years after transplanting himself from Guatemala to Baltimore, Mynor is set to graduate next month from Baltimore Community High School. He got three F’s in his first year there but none this past year, he says. He is planning to apply to the Community College of Baltimore County.
During the year, he became a poster child — literally — for a youth violence prevention effort, which grew out of Mi Espacio (My Space), an after-school program that Mynor attended at CASA’s Baltimore office. An artist’s rendering of Mynor holding out his hands in a gesture of peace was one of the images that participants delivered to several high schools in the city and placed in some buses and bus shelters. The message on the posters said, “Give & Get Respect.”
The posters were to “show Latinos creating a [peaceful] symbol. and to motivate other people to do good,” says Mynor, who was recognized by City Council members for his effort.
He’s on his fourth job, working at a hotel, since arriving. He needs the money to pay off the $2,500 in loans that financed his trek. And he’s saving for college at what he hopes is his journey’s end.
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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