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Book Excerpts

An El Salvadoran refugee family sparks a Colorado author to reflect on the impact of childhood memories

Kelsey Freeman spent weeks talking to migrant families who'd left their homes, and often gang violence, to face a difficult and uncertain journey to the U.S.

Kelsey Freeman is a writer and educator born in Denver and raised in Carbondale.

Her writing focuses on immigration policy, Indigenous rights, social justice, and public policy. After graduating from Bowdoin College, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English and study migration in central Mexico. She currently lives in Bend, Oregon and runs a college-readiness program for Native American high school students through Central Oregon Community College.

The following is an excerpt from “No Option but North.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


Una tortugita que se llama Chapulín 
(A turtle named Grasshopper)

I saw myself in those girls; it was impossible not to. They looked about three years apart in age, just like my sister and I were. The older one had dark brown straight hair, pulled together into a floppy ponytail aback her neck. Loose strands framed her tiny brown face; her hair brought back images of my sister’s similarly messy buns. The younger girl was maybe three years old, and her curly hair was collected into a ponytail that sprouted from the top of her head like a piece of broccoli. Wisps of this baby hair formed delicate spirals at the edge of her forehead, and her doe-like eyes dominated her little face. They were playing in the corner of the shelter, flipping the pages of a picture book and making up stories about the wonders of the mysterious letters on the pages. 

Jocelyn and María after their family moved to El Refugio. The family stayed in El Albergue for their first night in Celaya, but needed longer-term shelter so that Jacqui could give birth before continuing north. (Photo by Tess Freeman)

On the other side of the room, their parents and I shared a frayed sofa. They were José Ernesto and Jacqueline, an El Salvadorian couple heading toward Houston via la bestia. Jacqui’s belly bulged out over the top of her jeans and her shirt crept up the mound; she was eight months pregnant. The family had left El Salvador in October 2016, but had stopped in Huichipan, Hildalgo, in November so that Ernesto could work and save up enough money for the rest of the journey. He took a job working seven days a week for 120 pesos (the equivalent of six dollars) a day, and was not even paid for his work on Sundays. Nonetheless, it was a job—and that was what the family needed. They had originally expected to be assisted by Jacqui’s mother in Houston upon their arrival, but they had been calling her and sending messages and hadn’t heard anything back. “I think they’ve regretted helping us,” Ernesto lamented. “Now we don’t have anywhere to live.” 

Why would this family choose to leave El Salvador, especially when the journey is arduous even for a single male, much less for a pregnant woman and two little girls? “We’re going for them,” Ernesto began, glancing at the girls in the corner. “So that their future is different.” And now was the time to go. The family had run out of money in El Salvador and jobs were scarce. “There where we live, it’s pure coffee, pure coffee plantations.” There referred to a rural village where Ernesto and Jacqui had spent their whole lives. However, the price of coffee had recently plummeted, forcing the plantation to cut much of its workforce, including Ernesto. 

Author Kelsey Freeman.

Why wouldn’t Ernesto just take his family to another village or to the city and find a job there, instead of journeying all the way to a distant America? “Well the other problem is the gangs,” Ernesto shared. “At least in the old days, one could go and work in another town, but not anymore . . . because the town where I live is one gang’s (territory) and the town that I go to is another gang’s . . . Just because I live in the other’s territory, I can’t go into another (gang’s) territory anymore.” Indeed, economic opportunity and gang violence are intricately interlinked in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. “For this reason, many of us are migrating. Because imagine if, shall we say, a guy that is from our (territory) gets his degree. He can no longer go look for a job in a factory or business in another town. Why? Because he’ll go work for two or three days and then, well, the gangs will ask for his earnings. And if he doesn’t want to give it to them, they will kill him. Or they say he has to become part of the gang. Because of this, many people don’t look for jobs elsewhere. They prefer to leave for the United States.” 

Ernesto cooks dinner at El Albergue. Ernesto did constant volunteer work around the shelter so that his family could stay for multiple months. (Photo by Tess Freeman)

In the US, we are rooted to the idea that education and hard work spur economic opportunity. But when criminal networks have the final say, does having an education and working hard mean anything? Ernesto was right—education was worthless if you were arbitrarily limited to the jobs that existed in one gang’s territory, an imaginary line that held dire consequences for your life. 

Ernesto told me that the journey north was most difficult on his wife and children, but “nothing bad has happened to them so far, thank God.” Tellingly, Ernesto did not consider sleeping in the street, begging for money, walking hundreds of kilometers with two (almost three) children under seven, going hungry, and taking a train that was never meant for passengers—all of which had occurred on their trek—“bad.” He knew that there were a lot worse things that could happen on the road north, especially to women. 

The family’s first attempt to leave in early October 2016 had been unsuccessful. They had crossed the Mexican–Guatemalan border, but only got as far as Tapachula, Chiapas, where the combi they were on was detained at a checkpoint. On their current journey to the border, they had decided not to risk the combi or any of the public buses, which were more likely to be patrolled by immigration authorities. Instead, they had walked across the entire state of Chiapas. Ernesto described one night when it was pouring rain and they had nowhere to sleep. The girls were soaked through their pink sweatshirts. Eventually the family came across an old abandoned car. Crawling underneath, they spent the night there, the raindrops percolating through the rust and plastering their foreheads. 

“No Option but North” by Kelsey Freeman.

Yo estaba temblando,” Jocelyn, the oldest daughter, suddenly interjected. “I was trembling.” I had been unaware that she had been listening to the conversation. I pictured six-year-old Jocelyn sleeping under a rusty car in the rain, and wondered what her innocent mind made of what she had already been through. Six is old enough to comprehend that the life you are living is transitory. Six is old enough to grasp that there are certain evils that even your parents can’t shield you from. The rain hits your face and they can’t keep you warm. At six, you recognize that it feels scary to grab the rungs of a freight train, but you’re not old enough to understand why you’re doing it. You carry all the emotions of the world inside you, but none of the logic. 

I wondered what other emotions Jocelyn carried inside her as the family walked for three more days, before arriving in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. Amidst the surf vibe of this beach vacation town, they slept in the streets and begged for money from tourists. Ernesto recalled how “a guy from your country” gave them 150 pesos (about seven US dollars), which was enough to allow them to continue north. From there, they would go by train. “Since she’s pregnant, it’s up to me to fight with the bags and get (the girls) on,” Ernesto said. “If the train stops, we get on, but if it doesn’t stop, we don’t. No way.” Not getting on the moving train meant that the family would often have to wait days to climb aboard, or walk even further distances. But there was no better option. 

“Do you feel vulnerable?” I asked Ernesto as his wife accepted an animal sticker from her oldest daughter. 

“Yes, I do.” There was certainty in his words. “Because I have everything here.” “Everything” was his wife, his two girls, and his unborn baby. I couldn’t help but think that Jocelyn picked up on the subtleties of her own vulnerability, storing them away in layers deep within herself. What parts of this experience would she carry with her going forward? What would become the unwritten notes in the tune of her unconscious? 

There are still times when the uncertain moments of my child- hood arise and launch me right back into being my six-year-old self. Transitions often do the trick. Any period laced with uncertainty makes me feel just as vulnerable as the six-year-old who wasn’t quite ready to move between her divorced parents’ households. I would stare out the window on a Sunday night, watch a car pull up to come get me and my sister, and feel a sinking sense of losing my balance. The Sunday-night blues still come back to me often. They are a part of me, a reaction to change that I will probably never quite shake. It was impossible to pinpoint what reoccurring feelings the trip north might bring up for Jocelyn later in life. All I knew was that her six-year-old self was recording all that she passed through, weaving an emotional web somewhere in the depth of her core. 

Jocelyn came over and nestled up to the base of her mother’s feet. She was drawing something in her notebook—a picture of herself and her family, she explained. 

“Are you leaving already?” she asked reproachfully as I tucked my notebook into my backpack. 

“Not yet,” I assured her. 

“Want to see my drawings?” She offered me her notebook, which was plastered with butterfly stickers and scribbled figures. 

“Is that you?” I pointed to a rounded drawing that had a face and some hatch marks. 

She smiled, cocking her delicate neck up at me. “¡No! Es una tortugita que se llama Chapulín.” She giggled as she told me it’s a little turtle named Grasshopper

“Ah, that makes sense,” I responded, because it did in fact look like a turtle. But, of course, drawing a turtle named Grasshopper was a piece of kid logic that would make any adult’s heart turn to melted butter. What is rational to us can be bent and molded until it becomes something else entirely for a kid. I hoped the journey north could be kneaded into something softer in Jocelyn and her sister María’s minds, just as a turtle could be called Grasshopper. There would always be a certain ugliness behind these days for them, a sliver of darkness and uncertainty hanging in the air they breathed. Earlier, Ernesto had described how every time the family passed a park, the girls would beg to stop and play. “Sometimes it gives me the urge to cry, or even to return,” he sadly shared. 

I was sure it was the same for his girls—the longing to be kids balancing unsteadily on the tumultuous ground beneath them. But I hoped, deep in my softened heart, that they would find a base of stability one day that could ease the emotional weight of watching the train tracks pass beneath their little feet. 

María reaches for a marker as the girls draw during a morning at El Refugio. The girls would entertain themselves with doodling and games, but they would inevitably bore and beg their mom to play outside the shelter. (Photo by Tess Freeman)

— Buy “No Option but North” at BookBar

— Interview with author Kelsey Freeman

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