Earlier this year, as part of my trip to Honduras, I spent a couple of weeks living with Enrique’s family in Honduras. Pictured is Belky, Enrique’s sister, and her two sons. Belky’s husband went to the U.S. a couple of years ago, and the money he has sent back to Belky has enabled her to open a little restaurant, and expand her small home. Her mother, Lourdes, bought her a used car. Financially, Belky is doing better.
However, as was the case when Lourdes left Belky to go to the U.S., Belky’s oldest son, Yafeth, has struggled since his father left for the north. Yafeth was very close to his father, always by his side. His father walked him to and from school. He was a star student before his father left, but now his grades have slipped. Children suffer when their parents leave them. Belky is hoping her husband returns to Honduras soon.
Enrique continues to paint houses in Florida. Maria Isabel, his ex-wife, recently married someone else, the brother of Lourdes’ husband.
I spent time with Lourdes, Enrique’s mother, when we both spoke at Sam Houston State University. Lourdes is doing well. She still cleans homes with Enrique’s wife, María Isabel, and remains very involved in her apostolic church. Last year, prompted by years of bad behavior, she kicked Enrique out of her house, where he had been living with María Isabel and their two children. Enrique began living with another woman. Despite living nearby, he rarely sees his two children, who live with Lourdes and their mother. Sadly, Enrique is repeating what he knows and lived himself as he was growing up. When I went to Honduras this summer, I visited Enrique’s sister, Belky. Belky and her husband are raising their two sons and also remain very involved in their church in Honduras. They recently expanded their tiny home, and are struggling to make ends meet. They pray that the violence and poverty that have plagued their country for so long improves.
Readers continue to ask for updates about Enrique and his family, and this year I spent a week living with Enrique’s younger sister, Belky, in Honduras to report a story for the New York Times and then a weekend with Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, his wife, María Isabel, and his two children in Jacksonville, Florida, where Enrique now lives.
This family – like the country they come from — is continuing to struggle. The violence and poverty in Honduras is worse than ever. And those who crossed the U.S. border have faced difficulties as well.
BELKY YAMILETH ORTÍZ FLORES
Belky lives with her husband, Jovanni Jafeth, and two children (Alexander, age 8, and her baby Jonathan) in a two-room house with a tin roof in Nueva Suyapa, one of the poorest communities in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Built on a dump after a hurricane in the mid-70s, Nueva Suyapa is a maze of steep, rutted dirt road, shacks and concrete homes.
Jovanni only gets sporadic work doing construction, so money is tight. Belky makes fresh fruit popsicles to sell on weekdays. On Sundays, she sells a soup called mondongo out of a big aluminum tub cooked over a wood fire on the front patio.
Belky says there is more poverty, unemployment, and violence today than a few years ago. She estimates 70% of men have no fixed job, and 50% have no income at all. The threat of violence has her constantly debating whether they should stay or flee.
Many in Honduras in recent years have been subjected to extortion threats by gangs or narco cartels that control or operate in neighborhoods.
In 2012, Belky and three relatives started getting extortion calls and texts. The texts said the extortionists knew where family members lived, gave the name of where one person worked, and threatened to skin them alive. The family stayed inside and disconnected their telephones.
Two family members on her paternal side paid the extortion fees and fled the country, and two didn’t and were killed. On the maternal side of the family, three of nine nephews living in Nueva Suyapa and more than half of the nine adults have been robbed at gunpoint; two of them have been robbed three times each.
Belky fears sending Alexander to school and doesn’t wear or carry anything of any value, including a wedding ring or cell phone. A devout Christian, she prays to God for protection. There is no one else to turn to.
To her, the steady migration of adults has destabilized Honduras by leaving orphaned children with people who don’t or cannot discipline them. Like Enrique, these children feel abandoned and disproportionately join gangs, get pregnant, or get in trouble. “A lot of kids look for love elsewhere,” she said.
Belky personally knows 20 people who left Nueva Suyapa in 2014, including two families who were neighbors. One family planned to make the journey with their six-month-old and four-year-old girls riding on top of freight trains through Mexico.
The daily danger to children is one reason people leave. The narcos and the gangs that report to them have made schools a battleground to recruit new foot soldiers. Overcrowded high schools that held day and evening sessions to accommodate more students are cancelling the later shift; children are afraid to come out.
At Nueva Suyapa’s only public high school, Instituto Técnico Nueva Suyapa, narcos “recruit inside the school,” says Yadira Sauceda, the schools orientation counselor.
A tall 23-year-old student controlled the school during much of 2014. He got checked by security at the door each day, and then had someone sneak his gun to him over the school wall. Five students, mostly 12 and 13 year olds, tearfully told Yadira the man had ordered them to use and distribute drugs or he would kill their parents. The 23 year old was known to be a hit man who charged $25 a kill. He kicked one student in the face in front of an administrator and charged “rent” to others to attend school. When he wanted to get his wife, also a student, out of required Saturday classes, he told Yadira to sign a certificate excusing her.
“You are going to do it,” he said, slamming a pistol on Yadira’s desk. She refused, but feared he might kill her, and asked her husband to pick her up at work the next night. As she ran to his car, she saw the 23 year old outside, waiting for her.
By March, 67 of 450 pupils had left, almost all due to fear.
The 23 year old was killed later that month, but Yadira says four others who do the same work are still at the school.
Because of the threats of violence, Belky’s nephew left Instituto Technico for a private school in Nueva Suyapa, called El Verbo. But the private school isn’t safe either.
In September of 2013, an anonymous caller demanded extortion money from the principal, Juan Antonio Lainez. He disconnected the phone. For two weeks, narcos stopped female students on the street, asking “When do teachers get paid?” and “Who is in charge?” They passed back a warning: “We are going to kidnap students from your school.” A teacher, robbed on a bus, was told narcos knew when the principal’s 14- and 11-year-old sons went to school. Bullet-proof cars idled across the street.
An evangelical school set up prayer sessions. It gathered parents and students, and told them: We are never going to pay. Christians can’t give money to organized crime groups that buy guns and kill people. “I’d rather die,” Juan Antonio told them.
It might come to that. Pinned on bulletin board above his desk in September was a fresh news clipping that authorities had found the decomposed body of a bus dispatcher who has three children at El Verbo. His death followed extortion threats.
Another student, an eighth grader, had his mother murdered in front of him. Delinquents allowed the boy to say goodbye before shooting her.
When I was visiting, Belky’s husband served as my bodyguard and he pretended we were missionaries, in the hopes that might offer some protection.
Today, Enrique’s aunt estimates, children continue to leave. About 50% of neighborhood children leave with a smuggler, 20% with a parent, and 30% go alone like Enrique did long ago.
LUIS ENRIQUE MOTIÑO PINEDA
Enrique finally married María Isabel Carias Durón, and they have two children, Katerin Jasmín, age 14, and Daniel Enrique, age 2. Enrique works as a painter during the week, but still sporadically abuses drugs, which he had gotten hooked as an early teen in Honduras. He and his family are living with his mother, Lourdes, who blames herself for his drug addiction. He was only five when she left Honduras for the United States because she couldn’t afford to send him to school. She found work taking care of other people’s children, while Enrique was passed from relative to relative.
Sometimes, when Enrique is alone with Lourdes, he breaks down crying. He tells his mother he desperately wants to quit using narcotics. He will for a few months, but then relapses. He tells her he feels like he is crawling out of his skin at times when he abstains.
Lourdes lives with her now-husband, Fausto, and Enrique’s family in a three-bedroom house in Jacksonville. She continues to clean houses and newly-built apartments of construction debris before they are put on the market. Enrique’s wife, María Isabel, quit her job cleaning hotel rooms to work with Lourdes. Lourdes believes the devil is testing her through Enrique and his off and on drug use.
She has many in her church praying for his salvation and for him to change. She sees how his disappearances over the weekends affect her grandchildren, who often don’t know where their father is and if he is potentially in danger. Lourdes’ grandson, Daniel Enrique, is closer to her husband than to his own father.
Lourdes appeared with me at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, where students were reading my book for their summer read. Lourdes answered students’ questions with frankness and emotion. For the first time she said she felt she might have made a mistake leaving him behind in Honduras to come work in the U.S.
We hope to do more such joint appearances in 2016. Here is a video of part of the Q&A: Lourdes
Sonia Nazario wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that provides an update on Enrique and his family. To read the update, click here.
I recently visited Enrique, 27, and his family in Florida, and stayed at their home one night.
There is good news and bad news.
First, the good. Enrique vowed when he brought his girlfriend Maria Isabel to the U.S. and asked her to leave their daughter behind, that the separation from their child would be brief. Enrique made good on his pledge. Six months after Maria Isabel’s arrival, they had amassed the $5,000 needed to pay a smuggler to bring Jasmin to the U.S. “He didn’t want,” says Enrique’s mother Lourdes,” to have Jasmin go through what happened to him.”
The bad news: Enrique has been struggling with a variety of issues, including, at times, unemployment and drug use.
Maria Isabel, 30, has also struggled to help pay the family’s expenses on her job as a hotel maid, cleaning 29 rooms a day for $7.50 an hour.
Maria Isabel, who had become like a daughter to Lourdes, often turned to her for comfort during the most difficult times. Lourdes invited Maria Isabel and Jasmin to move in to her home last year. Lourdes told Enrique he could also move in under certain conditions: no drug use at her house.
Since then, Enrique has cut back on his drug use. He pays $300 a month to Lourdes in rent and works hard to paint houses outdoors in the Florida humidity and heat.
Before, when Lourdes pressed him to give up drugs altogether, he shut her down. Now, when Lourdes goes out on an errand, she asks Enrique to come along. In the car, she reminds him: what kind of role model are you providing for your daughter? She tells him he could lose Maria Isabel. “Open your eyes. Open your eyes. You will never find someone like Isabel,” Lourdes says.
Enrique is silent. Sometimes, he cries.
“It’s hard,” he tells his mother.
Lourdes has hope for her son.
“Everything reaches a limit,” says Lourdes. “He will reach a point where he says: enough. I pray for him. And that God listens to our prayers. He will change. I don’t know when, but he will change.”
Already, he is loving with Lourdes. He has largely moved past resentments he had towards her after they first reunited. Each morning, he finds his mother in the house, gives her a kiss and a hug, and tells her he loves her.
Lourdes was re-born as an evangelical Christian four years ago, and is now a leader in her church. After three years of study, she is an entercedora, someone who can put hands on people and pray to help them. She attends church or church meetings two to four times a week.
Lourdes married her boyfriend of 12 years in May 2010. She works taking care of the elderly in their homes. She wants to become a certified nursing assistant. She also hopes to someday buy a house that has more than one bathroom. She dreams of her U.S.-born daughter going beyond her high school degree and graduating from college.
Lourdes is showering Jasmin, 10, with the love and attention she could not give Enrique as a child. Jasmin and Lourdes are inseparable. Often, Jasmin tags along when Lourdes goes to her job.
Jasmin, an A and B student, speaks perfect English and her favorite topic is math. She loves Justin Bieber. She has crooked teeth, a round face, a big smile and curly hair. Enrique dotes on Jasmin, watching SpongeBob and iCarly with her.
Enrique’s sister, Belky, is living in Honduras and in 2010 married her long time boyfriend Yovani. Lourdes recently bought Belky a $600 refrigerator so her daughter could make and sell popsicles. She sends her daughter boxes stuffed with used clothing to re-sell in Honduras.
Lourdes is proud of her daughter, staying in constant contact through text messaging, but feels somewhat cheated that Belky never completed college. Lourdes remembers how her knees turned raw scrubbing floors so she could send Belky money to study in Honduras.
Belky’s son, now four years old, looks up at airplanes flying overhead and wishes he could go visit the United States. Belky hopes she can take her son to visit Lourdes and Enrique soon.
Lourdes’ sister Mirian returned to Honduras and her children in 2009, determined to return to them before they developed resentments towards her for leaving them.