By mid-November, Alex was back in his concrete room in La Libertad. He felt ashamed of himself and sad for his parents. “All the things they sacrificed, all the worry that they’ve had, it’s all my fault,” he said. “If I hadn’t been detained, I would have finished school, learned English and gotten a good job.” He spent his first afternoon back in La Libertad sitting in the plaza, staring at the olive green mountains that rose on every side. The deal his father made with the coyote included two more chances to try to cross the border. But failing again could mean two years in prison and a lifetime ban on getting a visa.
Staying in Honduras wasn’t safe, either. His first weekend back, Alex scrambled up volcanic boulders for 20 minutes to a popular lookout point on the edge of a cliff. Two men soon came climbing over the rocks. They wore beanies pulled low over their eyes in the heat, and even on the uneven boulders, they walked with an unmistakable swagger. The one in front had three dots tattooed on his face, signifying the three places he was willing to go for his gang — prison, the hospital or the morgue. Alex lowered his head and quickly climbed down, terrified.
The next day, Alex walked 20 minutes outside town to a school on top of a steep hill, looping his thumbs behind the straps of his JanSport backpack the way he used to do in the halls of Huntington High. The school was closed for a long break, but a security guard in neatly pressed slacks let him in. The guard, Macario Zavala, gave Alex a tour, starting with the coffee plantation the school kept to teach students how to work in the fields. The coffee season was about to begin, and red coffee berries shined in clumps against the dark bushes. The guard told Alex that many students managed to work in the fields and go to school at the same time. “You can earn 70 lempira a day cutting coffee during the season,” Zavala said.
“But that’s like $3,” Alex said. “You can’t even buy a shirt with that.” In the United States, he earned $90 a day doing landscaping with his father.
Zavala showed Alex the rest of the campus, a set of buildings without windows or chalkboards set amid banana trees. Alex looked inside a classroom. The walls and desks, and even the teacher’s table, were covered with crosshatched doodles. Someone had written out 18 in Roman numerals on the wall. It looked like a sign for the gang Barrio 18. Alex asked if there were thugs in the school, but Zavala shook his head. “The kids do that sometimes, but they’re just being dumb,” he said. “There are no gang members here, just people trying out pretending.”
Alex stopped to examine a list of people who had failed their courses that was posted on a wall. One of the classes was English. He had thought that to keep learning English, he would have to take a bus two hours to the nearest city. “I think I’d like to enroll here,” Alex said to the guard. “It’s really nice. I think it would be good to study here, if I’m not too old.”
The guard told Alex that he was welcome anytime, and there were even older students. But he didn’t know what good it would do. “The education here doesn’t get you anything — this country is full of doctors and engineers who work as taxi drivers,” Zavala said. “That’s why my family went to the U.S.” He told Alex that he had graduated from university himself, with a degree in education, and felt lucky to have this job. The other school guard had a degree in agriculture. “You study, and for what?” he said. “But a person has to do something.” Alex nodded. He shoved his thumbs through the straps of his backpacks, thanked the guard and headed back down the hill to the plaza, to check in with New York.