Which one to choose – Amanda Eyre Ward

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By Amanda Eyre Ward

To research my novel, The Same Sky, I left my husband and three children and went to Brownsville, Texas and San Diego, California to interview unaccompanied minors who had been caught attempting to enter the United States illegally, most trying to reach their parents. Richer kids had come with coyotes in buses, cars, planes, and (in one case) a speedboat; poorer kids had ridden on top of the train that cuts across Mexico to the US. Their stories were terrifying. Some were more horrific than others. In San Diego, my translator was also the staff psychologist; as the kids spoke, she shook her head, sometimes saying, “I didn’t know about that,” and “Oh, God, she hadn’t told me this part.”♥

I began to get a stomach ache every time a child said, “and then it was night.” Listening to what these kids had endured to get to the US (and the reasons they’d been forced to leave in the first place) seemed even worse via a translator: I stared into the children’s eyes as they spoke, watched their hands twisting and the way they pulled their hair in front of their faces.

In-between interviews, I called my house to check on my kids. One had a choir concert; one was reading Wonderstruck; one had dumped her noodles on the floor. It seemed impossible to comprehend that the children I interviewed were the same age as my own. I interviewed one sweet Guatemalan boy with a crew cut and a wide, white smile. A crude tattoo of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) had been forcibly carved into his arm by gang members who had held him down on the train. (Not recognized by the Catholic Church, Saint Death is widely worshipped by violent drug mafias.) The boy said he didn’t believe in Santa Muerte but he was very scared of Santa Muerte. When I asked him why he had come to Texas, he said hopefully, “I would like to be adopted.”

At the same time the shelter is trying to find the children’s relatives and process reunification, each child has a file that is moving through another agency toward deportation. The day before I visited, a baby ditched at the border by a frightened coyote had been reunified with her desperate mother who had finally risked her tenuous foothold in Chicago to approach the authorities with a photo of the baby she had paid thirty thousand dollars to have brought to the US. When the photo that came through the fax machine matched the baby in the shelter’s nursery, the workers cheered.

One heavily pregnant girl’s eyes were flat and black. She claimed she had an aunt in California, the shelter workers told me, but though they had searched, no aunt had been found. It was possible she had left El Salvador pregnant, but she had probably been raped (as most girls were) along the way to Brownsville.

As I was leaving at the end of the day, the girl asked if I could send her a teddy bear. “I don’t have anything to give my baby,” she explained. Like all the other girls, she wore a new pink sweat suit. Her hair was wet from the shower. She stood with her roommate, whose leg was broken from trying to jump the border fence the day before. “I just want one thing to give my baby,” the pregnant girl said, shyly.

When I got back to my house on a tree-lined street in Austin, I talked a lot about the immigrant children, hoping to teach my family something but I don’t know what. Almost every kid in the shelters spoke about God, and their belief that He was watching out for them, even though many had seen other children die — starved, beaten, drowned, burned, bitten by alligators, left behind because they were too dehydrated to walk another step, tossed off a speeding train. I told my kids that one girl’s story was so cruel and sad that I racked my brain for something to say that might bring a smile. I told her I would name the girl in my book after her — Carla. Carla asked if I was famous, and was disappointed I was not.

My children listened quietly. I told them about the pregnant girl from El Salvador (but not the rape). I said they should each pick a stuffed animal to send to the girl, for her baby. I followed my son to his room, where we both stood in the doorway, looking at the ant farm, the coloring books, the CD player, his shoes. At least twenty stuffed animals were scattered across his bed and on the floor.

“I don’t know which one to choose,” he said.

In the end, I filled a box with toys for the pregnant girl. It sat on the dining room table for weeks, but I never mailed it. I don’t know what the hell I was doing that I didn’t have time to mail the box. Finally, I couldn’t bear looking at it and feeling sick about it and about all the kids I had talked to who had laid their hearts bare and then watched me walk out the door.

I hope that girl found her aunt in California. I hope her baby grows up safe in a room full of coloring books. If she’s reading this, I hope she knows how much I think about her. I hope the boy with the tattoo gets adopted. I hope Carla becomes a movie star. I wish I had sent the teddy bear, but now it’s too late.

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of five novels, including the bestseller How to Be Lost. She has spent the last year visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children and hearing their stories. The Same Sky is inspired by them.


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