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Op-ed: Back in Honduras, I see the place I was born but no longer recognize

By Roxana Orellana

First Published Aug 01 2014 05:11 pm • Last Updated Aug 01 2014 05:30 pm

It’s midday when my plane begins to descend. The sun is high and already I feel the humidity. In a few minutes, I will be in Honduras, the tiny Central American country with the highest murder rate in the world.

I’m here to visit my maternal grandmother. But she doesn’t know I’m coming. I’ve read of rampant extortions and kidnappings of anyone who might be connected to money. Visiting from abroad may give some people the erroneous impression I have wealth. I worry that family fanfare over my arrival could put my 79-year-old grandma at risk. She lives alone in a house paid for by one of her daughters in the United States.

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Just before I left Utah, news broke that the number of unaccompanied children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border more than doubled this year. The majority of the kids come from Honduras. Most of those — 2,200 since January, according to The Pew Research Center — traveled from San Pedro Sula, where my plane lands.

Since I was days old, I was raised by my grandparents. I left Honduras at age 11 in 1991 on a plane with my mother. At last, she was achieving her dream of having all six children under her roof. My mother moved to the Midwest five years earlier, promising to come back for us once she settled and I had finished elementary school. My mother made the decision to immigrate for us. Moving to the States was not a necessity in my adolescent mind. Yes, I dreamt of things I didn’t have in Honduras — a bicycle, my own bed, ice cream, apples, enough food to make my belly ache. But I did not fear for my life.

My grandma lives in the same neighborhood I left. But now she lives behind a locked gate.

Overgrown shrubs and trees make a tall green barrier next to the chain-link fence. A dog runs from one corner to the next, barking at anyone who approaches. When Grandma spots me outside, her eyes widen and she flashes a toothy smile while she hurries to let me in.

She spends her days feeding her chickens, raking her yard, praying for the safety of her family, complaining about corrupt politicians and lamenting the fact that one Lempira — the Honduran currency — is worth next to nothing.

The majority of people here in El Progreso, the city where I grew up, have relatives in the States. In the years I have been traveling back and forth, I’ve seen what remittances can do. Homes have been built. Families are fed. If you can afford it, you also build a high wall with concertina wire to increase your safety.

My grandma’s property doesn’t have a concrete wall. And it troubles me to think that becoming a prisoner in her home is now an answer to personal safety.

Ever since her three dogs were poisoned, she has a harder time leaving the house. Every window and door must be secured. At night, before locking herself in her bedroom, she sets little traps in case someone breaks in.

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It is out of the question for me to walk a few blocks by myself to visit an old friend who teaches at the grade school we both attended. My grandma says no. "It’s not safe." I remind her I’m 34 years old and live on my own. "It’s different," she says, and the matter is closed.

The next day, while riding in a car with family, a crowd gathers on the side of the road next to a coconut stand. A man lies dead on the grass a few feet away. The stand owner later recounted the story for the police and local paper: Two men had stopped to buy coconut water, soon after several other men showed up in a car and shot them.

When I was a kid, these streets were my playground. We romped unsupervised for hours outside at any time of the day, coming and going as we pleased. No worries about being mugged or violently assaulted in broad daylight for your cellphone, bicycle or lunch money.

In this neighborhood 25 kids have left for the States between February and June. Two of them, who lived not far from my grandma’s house, feared for their lives after threats from gang members.

I think of my mother’s decision to yank me out of this country I considered home. It took me years to shake off the homesickness and sense of loss. It was a place I loved because of the simple joy it offered me as a child. I try to imagine my life here, had I not left. My extended family would have been nearby, but that’s the only fond thought I can muster.

It’s different now, a place that forces kids to make adult decisions and trek in terrifying conditions hoping for better. The violence of drug traffickers and gangs has poisoned the culture, leaving wreckage that sometimes seems beyond repair.

I ride to the airport while it is still dark. The early morning is cool and calm. I board the plane feeling both thankful and defeated. In a matter of hours I will be at the same destination many kids will traverse entire countries to reach. Some hope to be reunited with mothers, like I was. But they don’t know what awaits. I can only imagine that, in their desperate minds, anything is better than what they leave.

Roxana Orellana is a former Salt Lake Tribune reporter. She currently works for the Utah State Office of Education.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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