7th & 8th Grade Prose Winner
“Respetar el Barrio” is La 18 ’s number one rule. It means the gang comes first. When I joined El Barrio 18 as a 17 year-old back in Honduras, in 2021, I had sworn to obey the gang code. Now, after two years, I had broken it, and we were on the run from La 18’s justice.
Among the biggest of the international narco gangs that control the streets from Los Angeles to Central America, El Barrio ran my world in San Pedro Sula, my home. I joined after the 2020 Tegucigalpa earthquake that killed our parents and wrecked our home – it meant a job to feed my little brother, Daniel, and me. But Daniel, three years younger and with a fiery temper, crossed too many La 18 men too often. I turned traitor to warn Daniel of the plans to take him out once, twice, three times. Then they figured out they had a mole.
America was our chance, a huge place to hide. I mapped out our plan.
I had heard through Facebook about a caravan heading to America. After 36 hours hiding on the edge of the city, we went to join as it left San Pedro Sula. We were shocked to find not dozens or hundreds but thousands of people. Was there safety in our numbers? We cast aside all traces of our prior life. We all threw away our friends, for fear they would betray us
under torture - and our cellphones, for fear of being tracked by La 18 , which paid well for access to all the information of Hondutel, the state telecommunications company.
We started slowly. Most of the group wasn’t like us. They were families with children and grandparents, and we covered little distance with our first steps. I was in a hurry to get out of Honduras. El Barrio is everywhere, but I hoped distance from home would help. I barely slept
the first night. When we crossed into Guatemala, on the afternoon of the second day, I started to breathe. Sleep came easier. Still, we had to get across Guatemala and then all along Mexico - two months’ journey.
The policia in Guatemala are just as dirty as in Honduras. But they seemed to know that our group didn’t have much to give. They left us alone, and my mood started to lift. The children, who had started by constantly looking around with nervous glances as if a terrible monster were to jump out from the darkness, remembered how to play. Daniel often joined the children in their games. Daniel livened up the children and helped them forget the risks of the journey. He had always loved little children and never grew tired of playing with them. Everyone in the caravan started to come together as the days went on.
We had good luck during our time in Guatemala: there was a massive rainstorm in Honduras and Guatemala, bringing mudslides and road blockages. Although it did slow our progress towards the north, it also meant that El Barrio at home and in Guatemala suddenly had many other things to think about closer to home.
We pushed on through the mud, not stopping to rest before Mexico. Mexico was not especially safe, but compared to Honduras and Guatemala, it was a haven. And the villagers on whom we depended for some of our food got more generous as we went north. We would stop
in Oaxaca to rest, continue on to Tijuana, and then finally to the promised land of America.
I thought that the violence and persecution that we had all experienced would have dulled some of our group’s ability for hope, but I was drastically wrong on that front. In fact, everyone was happier than I would have expected. The further north we went, the more joyful we were, perhaps at the prospect of a completely new life, away from El Barrio.
Many people in the caravan had stories similar to mine and Daniel’s. There was one family in particular that I remember above all else. Like us, they had fled El Barrio, but unlike Daniel and I, they were a full family with two little children. The parents had both been involved in gang activity, until they decided that their children should be provided with the opportunity of a better life. You couldn’t leave El Barrio without permission from the gang, which was rarely granted. They had given up everything they owned and risked the wrath of El Barrio to walk to a
place we did not even know would welcome or accept us. It was truly a move made out of love for their children. How I admired them.
When we finally got out of Guatemala, we knew that the worst of the journey was over. Now, all we had left to cross was the vast country of Mexico before reaching the land that we had dreamed about every night since joining the caravan. Although it was safer, Mexico had its fair share of bandits and criminals who could hurt or rob vulnerable refugees who had just fled their native land to escape horrible persecution. Still, I remembered that I needed to be positive, and that although it might be dangerous, Mexico looked like paradise compared to the drug and crime riddled streets of Guatemala or Honduras.
Crossing Mexico took a month and a half, a bit longer than anticipated. This was largely due to our week long stay in Oaxaca, the first town we really stopped to rest in. Oaxaca was, in our minds, the first place that was actually safe because it was the first major city in Mexico. After Oaxaca, we trekked through Mexico, slowly making our way to the border with America.
At long last, we were arrived in Tijuana and we stopped to rest for a day and a night. We were almost there. That night, I talked to my brother and we allowed ourselves to dream freely about what life would be like in the great United States of America. In the morning when we walked out of Tijuana, we were nearly jumping up and down with excitement, as was everyone else in the caravan. We had come so far.
The border loomed into view. When we had envisioned this moment, we had thought that we would all shout for joy. We had thought of tearful embraces and a surging feeling of hope. Hope for a better life, free from El Barrio 18. We had reached the crossing to the promised land.
And yet, there was only deafening silence. Looming in front of us, finished rapidly and far ahead of schedule, was a steel wall, 6 meters high.