Denis taught me how to tame “The Beast.” He was 12. I was 52.
We met in a rail yard in Tapachula, Mexico, not far from the Guatemalan border. I had slung two cameras over my back and climbed the iron rungs to the top of a hopper car. I peered over and saw Denis curled up on a bed of gravel. His mattress was crumpled paper, his blanket an oversize pullover with a green collar.
A single click of my camera startled him awake. He stood up on his mattress. He looked like a kitten stretching and yawning.
It was the summer of 2000, and I was there to document the journey of the stowaways who rode the freight train that lurched northward through the soggy Mexican countryside. Migrants called it The Beast — a machine that would mutilate those who slipped and carry the lucky ones to El Norte.
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Denis — his last name was Contreras — shoved his hand into the pocket of blue trousers that still had a crease down the center of each leg. He yanked out a little matchbox. He slid it open to reveal a few matches, several Mexican peso coins and a folded scrap of paper. He wanted me to read it.
Written on the paper was his mom’s 10-digit phone number.
“I want to see my mother because I don’t know her,” he said. “I want to see her face. She lives in the state of Los Angeles.”
For three months I hung onto, jumped across, crawled over and slept on top of more than a dozen freight trains to capture the experiences of youngsters heading to the border. Working with reporter Sonia Nazario, we produced “Enrique’s Journey — The Boy Left Behind,” a six-part series published in the Los Angeles Times in 2002.
Fourteen years after that journey, I was in Denis’ hometown, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the murder capital of the world. Another Times reporter and I were doing a story on the sharp increase in the number of Central American minors — tens of thousands of them — who have been crossing the Texas border without their parents. Just like in 2000, many of them are stowaways on The Beast.
We didn’t know anyone in San Pedro Sula, but I had an address.
Before heading to Honduras, I had copied a page from my journal dated Aug. 3, 2000. Denis had carefully printed his address in that journal while we were on a train in Chiapas state.
During that earlier trip, I would track Denis in my viewfinder for a couple of days, lose track of him for a while, and then find him again. I remember thinking how fragile and vulnerable he looked. But the more I focused on him, the more he revealed his disarming street wisdom. He knew how to enlist others to watch over him. He didn’t need me.
But now, all these years later, I wanted to find him again. He had tamed The Beast. Did he wish he never had?
The address was specific: colonia, street, block and lot.
The TV was loud so I knocked and yelled, “Hola, Denis?” A twenty-something girl in skinny red pants stared at us from the interior doorway. She looked just like Denis.
Mabel invited us in. Soon I spotted a bare-chested, sleepy-eyed man. I blurted out in English, “Oh my God, Denis, it’s you! Remember me? I’m Don. We rode the trains together!”
I already knew some of Denis’ history; we had met a few times over the years. He found his mom, in San Diego. He went to school, learned English. But he drifted into trouble, spent time in juvenile hall, and his mom sent him home to Honduras. Then, four years ago, he called to say he was back. We met in La Jolla at his landscaping job; he said he had found religion, gotten a girlfriend and started a family.
But more trouble would follow. In San Pedro Sula, inside the small, dim living room of the home where he was born, he told me that he had been deported just a month before.
Denis posed for a couple of photographs, but he appeared uneasy. “I haven’t been back long enough to know who the bad guys are,” he explained.
The next day, I waited outside the 10-story office building where Denis worked in an international call center.
He had always looked sharp, and today was no different. He wore khaki slacks and a polo shirt. But the smile I remembered was missing.
“I’m sorry, Don, I don’t want to talk about anything,” he said. “I just want to forget about everything.”
A few days later, my colleague Cindy Carcamo and I wrapped up our reporting and were ready to jet home the following morning. I called Denis and invited him to join us for dinner, and was pleasantly surprised when he agreed.
He answered all my questions. But he didn’t offer an anecdote that would neatly summarize why Honduras was being drained of future citizens.
“Why did you leave, Denis?” I asked.
He explained that when he was younger, he often ran away from home to escape an older brother who hit him. Each time, his sister Sandra would find him and talk him into coming home. But when he was 10, he heard another boy talking about riding the trains to the United States.
“He said it was fun, it was safe, it was fast. I would just listen, listen, listen. Then my brother hit me again and I decided to go.”
Looking back, he said, he still felt guilty that he had stolen money from his sister to buy the bus ticket to the Guatemala-Mexico border.
“Sandra raised me since I was 1½ years old, almost a baby,” he said. “She was my sister, but she was my mother, too. But I just left and didn’t realize it until like four years ago that I broke my sister’s heart.”
I asked, “Do you wish you’d never gone?”
He didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”
The taxi pulled up. “But you found your real mom, learned English and got a job,” I said. “That was your dream on the train. Wasn’t that good enough?”
I held the back door open and Denis jumped in. “What would you say to those thousands of kids who want to ride the trains to the North now?”
“I would tell them to stay,” he said. “They might get a better life, but if God wanted them to be born in the United States, he would have done that. He decided for us to live right here.”