This story is by Terra L. Walker and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Tomorrow is a special day.
I was born at the Nuevo Laredo Detention Center between Mexico and the United States. My mother didn’t know she was pregnant when she and her younger sister left their home near the Guatemalan sugar cane fields our family worked for generations. Rising violence and crime pushed them north, searching for peace, opportunity, and hope.
By the time they arrived at the border crossing in Nuevo Laredo, my mother was visibly pregnant and suffering from terrible edema. Hundreds of hopefuls from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador crowded the ‘Gateway to the Americas Bridge’, the port of entry across the Rio Grande River from Laredo, Texas. My mother went into labor after three weeks camped at the border, and lucky for us both, Border Patrol took her to a nearby emergency medical facility. Cold grey concrete, hard white plastic, and shiny silver mylar colored my first view of the world.
For a short and precious time at the detention center, we were a family. Mixed in with other immigrants – one enormous extended family – we waited for our American Dream to come true.
It never did.
A US Immigration Court ruled to deport my aunt and mother back to Guatemala – but just the two of them. Record-keeping was shoddy at the center, and officials failed to attach my birth certificate to the intake form with my mother’s information. The judge knew nothing of me when he ruled; legally, I didn’t exist. Before my family knew what was happening, they were on a plane to Guatemala – without me.
This detention center is where I’ve been, for the last four thousand, three hundred and seventy-nine days – but tomorrow is a special day. It’s my birthday.
“Niña, come here,” said Fanny, “I have a present for you.” Fanny sat on a bench near a group of migrants from Honduras. Fanny arrived at the detention center about 18 months ago from the mining town of El Estor, Guatemala. She was still awaiting her asylum hearing.
“Niña, you need something to wear on your special day, so I made you,” she pulled a brightly colored piece of fabric from the waistband of her skirt, “THIS!” Beaming, she unfurled a dress, hand-stitched from scraps of cloth – bright greens, warm pinks, and oranges. It was the most beautiful dress I’d ever seen.
“Oh, Fanny,” I gushed, “Thank you!” I hugged her tight. Her scent reminded me of my mother – soft musk laced with fresh citrus.
Her hazel eyes sparkled. “Well, it’s not every day a girl turns twelve. You deserve something nice, Niña.”
I laid the dress on my lap and watched a group of children play with a dusty rubber ball. Conditions at the detention center are horrid. Food is scarce, and we often run out of clean drinking water. Our center is beyond capacity, with barely room to breathe as officials force more bodies behind its doors daily. The showers don’t work, filth clogs the toilets, and we sleep on the ground. It is not a place to grow dreams – only nightmares.
“THEY ARE COMING!” Someone shouted above the chatter of women and children in the fenced-in yard. “Los Observadores! The Watchers are coming!”
Los Observadores – The Watchers. They regularly came to ensure the detention center was clean, and we had access to food, water, health care, and legal aid.
The women in the yard sprang to action. They ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. We all knew what was coming next.
I’ve seen terrible things happen at the center. Babies ill with infection from bedbug bites. A girl my age hemorrhage to death after a fall cracked open her fragile skull. But the worst are the disappearances.
It happens when they come – Los Observadores. Guards at the DC will clean, give us more food and water, and tell us to shut our mouths. When ‘The Watchers’ arrive, they tour the center and choose people to interview; anyone who makes a statement goes to a locked room on one end of the facility. Afterward, they file into a truck waiting outside, and we never see them again.
I pulled on Fanny’s sleeve, whimpering. “We’ll be fine!” She smiled, but I watched her lips tighten as detention center guards stormed through the crowd, marking several women and children for interviews.
They were close.
Fanny pushed me to the ground behind her and squatted, spreading her skirt out over me.
“Curl up,” she whispered, “and don’t say a word.”
The guard tagged an older woman along the fence next to the bench. He turned and smirked at Fanny.
Fanny stared at the ground, motionless.
Another guard grabbed Fanny’s arm and clipped a red plastic tag onto her ID bracelet, marking her for an interview with Los Observadores.
The morning of my birthday, I put on the beautiful, handcrafted dress Fanny made for me. I went to the dining area and looked for her in our usual spot. I checked the bathroom – I searched every crack in the walls of our shared prison.
Fanny was gone.
Outside, the sun was blinding. I sat on the bench where I last saw Fanny. Leaning against the metal enclosure, I felt hot tears streak down my now 12-yr-old cheeks.
More people arrived daily at the detention center, and Los Observadores increased their visits. It was no surprise when they showed up a few days after Fanny’s disappearance. I watched, stone-faced and defeated, as they tagged great numbers of asylum seekers, who gathered their precious belongings and reported for questioning like lambs to the slaughter.
Exhausted and raw from standing witness to countless victims vanishing into the interview room, I decided it was my turn. I was sick of being alone. I hated the detention center’s concrete floors, towering fences, and the misery this fortress contained. All my life, hunger, pain, and fear surrounded me, suffocating me. No matter what was waiting on the other side – it had to be better than this place.
I marched over to a guard.
Sunlight filtered through the dirty window of the interview room as the fluorescent lights buzzed over my head like angry bees. I rested my head on the cool, metal table – waiting. A woman walked in wearing a navy suit and heels that clicked on the hard floor.
“What is your name? Where are you from?” She sat in the chair across from me.
“People call me Niña. I guess. I don’t know.”
She opened the file on the table and clicked her pen. “Where are your parents from?”
“My mother and my aunt are from Guatemala,” I squeaked out. “But I haven’t seen them in a long time.”
“How long have you been here?”
“All my life – I was born here.”
She scanned the pages, flipping them over, searching.
“You were born HERE. In this building? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Was I using the wrong words? Why didn’t she understand me?
She pulled a document out of the file and frowned. She made a brief cell phone call, and a few seconds later, a guard entered the room.
“Is this the correct documentation for this girl?” She asked.
The guard stared at the floor. “Uh, I think so?”
She threw the file at the guard. “Get the Center Director and US Customs on the phone. There’s been a massive mistake.”
The guard hurried out the door.
The lady moved to the chair next to me. She smelled of oranges and spice.
She continued, “We can assign you a foster home here in the US until we locate… was it your mother and aunt?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“It will take time, but I’m happy to represent you Pro-Bono, um, for free.” She looked at me, almost as in apology, awaiting my response.
“I don’t understand?”
She slid the document across the table and into my hands.
I grabbed it and read the words, ‘Esperanza Paloma Castillo. Place of Birth – Doctors Hospital, Laredo, Texas, US’.
Was this me?
“Niña, I mean, Esperanza, my name is Maria Lopez,” she cupped my hands in hers. They were warm, like the sun.
“I work for a legal organization aiming to reunite families and help people navigate the justice system. If you’d like, I can assist you in filing your US birth certificate.”
Was I dreaming? I felt like an unbound cloud floating in the desert sky.
“I’m glad you came forward, Esperanza. We at Los Observadores were not aware of your situation. You won’t spend another night in this… facility.”
An opportunity to break free from this prison? I’d only imagined it.
Maria leaned over to hug me. In her arms, all the anguish held in my body melted away.
“I promise we’ll find your family.”
Her words blanketed my soul with hope.
Today is a special day.