The quesillo arrived that morning and the smell of pupusas filled the freezing air. Mothers talked to me in Spanish and their kids spoke to me in perfect English. Salvadorans wearing snow hats and parkas walked in and out of the kitchen, always greeting me with hand and eye contact. It was as if Long Island and Chalatenango had been fused together in that house.
I sat with my coffee as the moms told me stories and clapped new pupusas into existence. Food, herbal medicine, racist police…the topics flowed as fast as I could follow them. One of the moms told me how her husband left El Salvador to work in the United States. After that, she was violently assaulted by a group of men. Her daughter witnessed the attack. When she recovered in the hospital, she and her daughter left El Salvador with a coyote – a guide who takes migrants through Mexico and into the United States. This mom had an unyielding gaze and a no-bullshit attitude. I asked if I could record her story.
“I traveled with a coyote. I didn´t have problems with him…The problem is when one gets to immigration. In Manhattan they put the shackle on me.”
She arrived to the United States without documents as an “illegal immigrant”. She reported straight to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to plead her case. She was placed in detention with her daughter and then tagged with an ankle monitor – the same kind of monitor that is placed on the ankle of someone under house arrest.
“The first time I went there, they put it on. When I entered immigration, they told me to take off the shoe laces and that my little girl should take off the rubber bands from her pony tails. They also took off her shoe laces…she was asking “mom”?
And she was crying and said “I want to be with my daddy”, and I told her “we’re going to get out of here.”
There it is like a…. like a jail but… it´s different it´s like being in a cold room … no blanket, they just give you aluminum paper… they give that so you can cover yourself…you don’t shower there, you don’t brush your teeth…from the day that I turned myself in to immigration, I was crying ….because there are no windows there; one never knows if it´s daytime or nighttime. I had to sleep on the bare floor… I held my little girl on my chest because I didn´t want her to suffer what I was going through, because it was a really difficult thing.”
Her daughter was silently playing with a doll in the corner of the kitchen. I wondered if her daughter should be listening to this story, before remembering that her five-year-old lived this story. Her mother spoke as if she were water just starting to boil.
“When I turned myself into immigration a repugnant man said to me, “you think that you are coming to a home, to a nice place?” “No” I answered, “I really don´t know, because this is the first time that I’ve entered this country”. So then he said to me, “many people think that this is a place of luxury”. So I told him “the only thing that interests me is to be with my husband – not in this place, because here one is treated like trash and one comes to this country to prosper, not to come here”.
“Every single woman had a shackle put on…. The thing that they stick the battery into on that shackle, it’s thick and made of pure rubber…it was burning me”.
I asked if she felt stigmatized wearing an ankle monitor.
“…nobody gives you work because of the shackle, they think you are a murderer, that´s why they don´t give anyone work…”.
A weak ray of autumn light was shining in through the window. The sky was grey and I felt my bones were getting colder. I asked her what she would say to people back home in El Salvador. This was the first time I saw her smile.
“El Salvador is beautiful, Dulce Nombre is lovely, the mountain is lovely… The air from the pine trees and the hammocks they give you to rest under the trees …”
I had once rested in a hammock under the pine trees on the mountain she was talking about. The memory caused me to smile back.
“Look, the only thing that I am saying is, because some people want to come to this country … this country is not… like one imagines it to be… because when I got here, I was so wrong about this country… this country is not so easy…in this country one earns well, but the way people earn – that´s also the way they are mistreated”.
Her small 5-year-old daughter walks right up to the table where I am sitting. She is a twig of a human being with big eyes and black hair. She is grabbing at her fingers in the way that little kids do. In a mousy voice, so slight, she tells me that “everything my mommy said is true.”
I nod my head.
This tiny little girl takes a deep breath as if she is about to dive underwater, and with that one breath she tells me that she saw her mom get beat up in El Salvador and that they traveled through Mexico with a coyote and that her father works and that she was stuck in migration prison and that people from migration put a shackle on her mother. One kindergartener’s introduction to the United States of America.
She continues to stare up at me, and then she repeats herself. “Everything my mommy said is true.”