We always draw straws to see who has to work on the first floor. The other floors are easy; the Punjabi kids on floor four give you the same story over and over while you smile and nod and try not to wonder what led their parents to sell their sons to a child trafficker. The third floor—my personal favorite—reeks of teenage boy in the summertime and is separated into neat piles of gang defectors. The Hondurans claim to be the best athletes while the El Salvadorians are busy championing Wii tennis. The Guatemalan boys are the best students. But that’s just my opinion. The second floor is wild with little rugrats, little brothers and baby boys with stories of heartbreak disguised as adventure (Pedrito’s dead parents “Trabajaban mucho,” Daniel describes the fusilimiento of his brother with an excited giggle). But the first floor, the all-girls floor that smells like roses and is always filled with music, yeah. Fuck that floor.
It took me about four intake interviews with girls to figure out what to expect, about ten more to figure out when to expect it. It was usually accompanied by a look, a spine-shattering spark of recognition then pain then fear then sadness then nothing. What was your dad like? The Look. Vivías con tu tío? Cómo te trató? The Look. Alguien te tocaba en una manera que no te gustaba? The Look. As I shadowed the paralegal who was training me, I saw this again and again, all day, for a week; stories of childhoods lost at the hands of fathers, of brothers, of uncles, of priests and gangsters and police officers. Poor, scared, and unaccompanied, they come to the border and are detained, and put in a center for children to await their refugee status. Then we come in, get the story, determine legal relief, and pass the case to a lawyer if there’s a shot in hell (which, for the girls, there almost always is). So my irresponsible 18-year-old self gathered these lost childhoods and eventually they all became one until the first floor was a monstrous place, a dungeon dressed up in pink tissue paper and drawings of Winnie the Pooh.
Of course after my week of shadowing, when I’m finally on my own, I’m stuck with the first floor. Of course the first girl walks in already crying. I stand and say hi and she freezes. We talk. Her parents treated her muy bien, as did her uncle who lived with them. She has never been touched in a way she didn’t like, she never felt scared de ser violada, todo bien. She smiles and leaves. Second girl, Cindy, comes in. Todo bien, no assault or threats of any kind. Third girl, the same thing. Maybe the week I shadowed was a really bad week, I think, maybe today is just an especially lucky day.
“Maybe they’re all lying to you” my unblinking supervisor tells me at lunch. I instantly refuse to believe I’m so unworthy of trust that ten girls in a row felt the need to lie to me. “I’ll go back and talk to them,” she says as she leaves the room. I try to swallow the shame I feel from having my supervisor go back and do the work I was supposed to have already done. “You know what it is, though?” My brother tells me over the phone that night, “It’s because you talk like a gringa. They don’t trust you.” I hate how that very stupidly makes sense, and that is the day I started faking an accent.
I could never pass as Central American, so I look further south, tasting my r sounds at the tip of my tongue and pronouncing my -st‘s like –th‘s. Cómo ‘thas? Te tdatan bien aquí? They think I’m from Argentina, or Chile, or some other land just as foreign as the world of fat Americans they hide from. Wherever they think I’m from, it works; Cindy greets me with a smile next time we meet and tells me I sound different. Then she tells me the real story. She was walking home at night from her babysitting job, and was stopped by three pandilleros who gang raped her. They took her money and her underwear and left. Four more girls come in after that, all recounting stories of trauma too sickening for anyone to hear, let alone experience as a 14-year-old. By the end of the day, I am triumphantly empty, feeling like I’m winning some sort of horrific game. These girls trust me now, they see me and they think I’m one of them and they give me their pain to translate into legal jargon (rape = Public Law No. 82-414 1101 (a)(42)(A)), and I feel like I’m cheating. Does it still count as cheating if you cheat for the good guys?
I think about those girls every day of my life. My heart breaks for them every day of my life. I wonder if they’re with their families, if they are in school or working or if they missed their court dates and are counting the seconds until deportation. I wonder if I helped at all, if I fixed all the minor leaks before the plumber came in, if I did anything, everything I could to make them feel visible. I wonder if Sylvia carried her rapist’s baby to term. I wonder if Laidy is really out in Los Angeles, trying to make it as a singer. I wonder how old Claudia will be before she realizes that man did not love her, at least not in the way men should. I wonder if they understood the language I was speaking to them with my broken tongue, the language of I want to help! I’m here! Hello! or if the center didn’t have a strict no touching policy I would hug you and tell you everything is going to be okay or the language of don’t worry, you’re safe now (which is also a lie, but for fuck’s sake. They’re just kids.). I think about the languages I speak, the commands I shout on the rugby pitch, the staccato inquiries I pass to my economics professor, the sarcastic exclamations I exchange with my girlfriend (she’s funnier than I am but we don’t have to talk about it). I want to go back to the first floor some day, to deliver a half-apology half-epilogue, and am often held hostage by that impossibility. They wouldn’t recognize me anyway.
My last day on the girls’ floor was a pleasant surprise. I called the name Usnavy (a name, according to my friend José, which derives from indigenous Guatemalan mothers, who would walk to the river bank every day, see a large ship with “U.S. Navy” written on it, and decide that it would be a good name for a little girl, a name loaded with ironic tragedy and which I personally find fucking hilarious). She was short and dark, almost certainly indigenous, and when I asked si se habla español she responded with ink’a, la en in at’inak’ li q’eq’ch’i and I almost peed my pants with excitement. She was not speaking Spanish, but rather an obscure Mayan language, spoken by about 5,000 people in the world, which yours truly learned during her time in Guatemala. I quickly responded La en in at’inak’ li q’eq’ch’i un poco! I thought about how proud my friend José will be when I tell him I was able to practice my q’eq’ch’i. Usnavy looked at me with a bewilderment usually reserved for circus performers, and began to cry. She hugged me and, against my good judgement, I let her. After three months surrounded by gringos barking at her in a language she didn’t understand, after three months facing the mockery of the Latino kids who looked down on los indios, she finally heard her own tongue. From a gringa, nonetheless! Her story was disgusting and we ended up needing a translator after all, but in that first moment Usnavy heard her native tongue or, more accurately, her beautiful language spoken with a broken tongue. She didn’t care, she tells me a few months later when she had learned enough Spanish from the kids at the center, she told me she felt like she had been lost for so long, and when we spoke she felt like someone found her. I never thought that was something a broken tongue could do.
Eleanor Flessner is a student at Oberlin College, majoring in Latin American Studies and Economics. Eleanor spent two summers working as a legal aid for undocumented children at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. She teaches a class on international solidarity in Oberlin’s Experimental College, and is a council member of the national Guatemalan Accompaniment Project (GAP).
Photo by Marco Antonio Reyes