There is an armed security guard at every Dunkin’ Donuts in Honduras. When you enter a pharmacy, the guard with a shotgun slung across his chest will considerately hold your pistol while you wait for your prescription to be filled. On holidays, there are no official fireworks, only a handful of illegal firecrackers and gunshots exploding in the night air. On Christmas Eve, New Year’s, Independence Day, in every barrio across the country, shots echo in the dark like a posse galloping out of town in an old Western.
Five years ago, I left the States to volunteer alongside other Americans and Nicaraguans at a children’s home on the northern coast of Honduras that served orphans and kids who could no longer live with their families due to extreme poverty, abuse or both. We learned firsthand that paradise and hell are next-door neighbors, and you can hear the gunshots at night from both places.
I first had a gun pointed at me while waiting for a cab before dawn in the wealthiest neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, the industrial center of the country and, at the time, the “murder capital” of the world. The security guard saw me standing outside the seminary where I had spent the night as a guest. He climbed down from his turret on the street corner and approached me with a machete in one hand and a raised revolver in the other.
Paradise and hell are next-door neighbors, and you can hear the gunshots at night from both places.
“What are you doing here?” He squinted at me, blinking back sleep.
“I’m just waiting for a taxi. I’m headed to the airport,” I said.
“Then why would you be waiting here on the street?” he asked. “Nothing good happens here this time of night.” Surrounding us were houses that were mansions even by U.S. standards. I wanted to go back inside the seminary, but the 15-foot-high gate had slid closed behind me, and I could not open it again without waking up all the priests, nuns and seminarians inside.
“I can go wait on another block,” I offered. “My cab is just five minutes away.”
“No!” he responded firmly. “You wait right there. Don’t move. Just wait.”
When my taxi finally did arrive, he holstered his gun and offered an apology, but I did not stick around long enough to acknowledge it.
Before I moved to Honduras, I visited the country. For a week, I helped lead a group of high school students from all of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Dallas who wanted to offer some manual labor and supplies to our “sister diocese.” In the shadow of a massive green mountain, we worked to rebuild and paint a crowded school where Luis, our local guide, and his wife were teachers. Luis was the closest thing the small village had to a mayor. He ran the school, helped settle disputes, led the community Bible study and Sunday service, and as one of the only residents with a car, also provided ambulance service.
One morning he greeted us with bags under his bloodshot eyes. He had taken a neighbor who had stomach pains to the hospital in the middle of the night—more than an hour’s drive each way, around to the other side of the mountain. He returned in time for breakfast and prayers and to greet us in the morning at the school.
Luis and his wife stood out as towering examples of what was possible even amid extreme poverty.
Luis and his wife stood out as towering examples of what was possible even amid extreme poverty. With determination and a good heart, one could be a pillar of the community—a community worth staying for. I once asked Luis if many of the young men in his village would eventually leave for the United States. “All of them,” he told me. There was no shame in his voice; it was simply a fact. When I asked if he had ever thought of making the journey, he shook his head. He had a wife and young son, a good job, a community where he was making a difference; he could not imagine leaving.
Years later, when I moved to a town just on the other side of that mountain, I jumped on the bus to visit Luis and his family. He was thrilled to see me again but cautioned me not to take the bus next time. “It was not safe” is all he would say.
During my two years in Honduras, I learned to love those kids at our children’s home like they were my own. Our goal was to prepare them for healthy and productive lives in Honduras, despite the brutal and heartbreaking childhood they had suffered. If we could only offer them enough love and stability and peace in the midst of the tempest around them and behind them in their past, they might have a fighting chance, we believed.
Suddenly the cursed choice to flee this country that so many of our Honduran neighbors had been forced to make became my own.
Yet violence does not issue warnings, and it will not take into consideration sincerely held beliefs. I had just returned from teaching my English class for the day when I learned that one of our volunteers and our executive director, who was visiting from the States, had been attacked on the beach next to our property. Maybe 200 yards from the house, our sanctuary, they had been held with machetes to their necks, and the volunteer, one of my best friends, was raped. “We know where you are from,” their attackers had said when they let them go. “Tell anyone and we come back and kill you and all the children.”
After going to the hospital and giving her testimony to the police, my beloved friend spent the night surrounded by the rest of us on the floor, several of us with machetes by our sides and all of us unable to sleep. In the morning, she was evacuated out of the country, and the rest of us were offered the option by our board of directors to leave as well. Suddenly the cursed choice to flee this country that so many of our Honduran neighbors had been forced to make became my own. The men responsible had still not been caught, and our already limited community of volunteers was quickly dwindling as many admitted they no longer felt safe enough to continue working. The next day the rest of us left as well.
A few years later I reached out to Luis via WhatsApp. It turned out he and his family had snuck away from their small town in the middle of the night. A local gang had demanded he pay for “protection,” and when Luis refused, they threatened to kill him and his family. They fled to a larger city, but he and his wife were unable to find any work as teachers and were still fearful the gang would eventually find them. He asked if I could help him claim asylum in the United States.
Poverty and violence, the causes of these caravans, are diseases we infected these countries with.
I got in touch with a few immigration lawyers, who told me Luis would have to make it to the Mexico-U.S. border and apply for asylum there. But even if he got that far, I had to tell Luis, it was very unlikely his family would be granted asylum. Luis was heartbroken. He needed to protect his family, he said, and the best way he could do that was to leave and provide some kind of living for them. Maybe you and I could get married, if only on paper, he offered sincerely. He was right that such a union was now legal here in the United States, I explained, but I could not just marry him to get him citizenship. Despite the absurdity of the suggestion, I struggled to type out my response, knowing my decision was a matter of life and death.
I still receive messages from Luis every few weeks begging me for help, though to be honest, I no longer have the courage to open them. Constant reminders that I am helpless simply became too much. I know ignoring him is wrong. I know it is my privilege to be able to log off of the violence of Honduras and pretend I do not live in the country that created Luis’s desperation, which is also the country that could help to fix it.
Being born in paradise is no reason to condemn those still stuck in hell.
For all I know, Luis may be part of the infamous caravan, waiting on the other side of the southern border to claim asylum. It is the type of thing a real friend should know. It is important to know who these people are and that what they are doing is legal. There is no way for them to claim asylum from within their country of origin. Implying that those who peacefully present themselves at ports of entry have broken any American laws is simply not truthful.
When I first met Luis, I assumed that in Honduras it was possible to get an education, work and become financially stable enough that you would never need to leave. But the image in my head of the “virtuous Honduran” proved an illusion when even Luis was forced to flee from the unyielding violence and poverty of Central America. If we want to end the cycle of families fleeing in the night for our border, it is necessary to learn why their nights became so terrifying to begin with.
The weapons that plague their streets came from us. The corruption that infests their governments is a direct result of the coups and instability our country has consistently directed or condoned for over a century. Before Banana Republic was a chic clothing store, it was a dismissive term for a country made entirely dependent on a more powerful economy outside its borders. It was merely an updated version of colonialism, and the original victim was Honduras.
Poverty and violence, the causes of these caravans, are diseases we infected these countries with. Getting mad at the migrants is like the conquistadors and white frontiersmen wondering why the Native Americans they found were always getting so sick.
Those of us who live north of the Mexican border have to learn just how intertwined our lands are and why our neighbors to the south still hear gunshots at night. I have fled from one side to the other myself and watched in vain as those I care about try to follow. But being born in paradise is no reason to condemn those still stuck in hell.