I try to avoid too much news. Reading news sites is a huge time dump and never very uplifting. But sometimes a story comes along that I can’t take my mind off.
This short story is my response to events of the past week. The tales of Mexican children being separated from their parents at the US border made me think about my own children and how it would feel to be torn away from them like that. And also what a small child would imagine was happening when separated from their parents and unsure when they’d be reunited.
This story is my reaction to these events and my way of processing my feelings about it. I hope you enjoy it.
We Love Our Children Too
Chico held his brother’s hand tightly. Francisco’s hand felt warm and wet, wrapped around his own, but the feel of it helped keep the fear at bay.
In front of them was a line of other kids. Little ones like him, big ones like Francisco. Boys and girls.
The grown-ups were on the other side of the vast, dark space. Chico couldn’t see his Mama and Papa anymore; they’d disappeared into the crowd and gone through a wire fence.
Mama had cried when they’d separated him and Francisco from her. She’d widened her eyes at the big black man in uniform, gabbling at him so fast Chico could hardly understand her. Papa had interrupted, talking English in a lower voice. His hand on Mama’s arm. Mama had carried on crying, grasping at Chico’s hand.
“But he’s only six! He needs me. They both do.”
Papa had given him a look, a look that said be brave, little man. Be a big strong man like your Papi. Francisco had whispered in his ear: it’s ok, they’ll be back in a minute. They just have to process us.
Chico didn’t know what it meant to be processed. The only thing he’d heard of being processed was sausages, and he wasn’t a sausage. Even the thin pale man with the scar over his right lip didn’t look mean enough to turn little kids into sausages.
But what if he was wrong? What if he was going to be minced up and eaten by the gringos on the other side of the wall?
He let his hand slip from Francisco’s and started to cry. He was scared without his Mama and he needed the bathroom.
Francisco turned to him. “Don’t let go, idiot! We have to stay together.”
Francisco grabbed his hand again, the grip tight now. It hurt. He sniffled but managed to avoid crying.
“Are they going to turn us into sausages?”
Francisco frowned. “Don’t be a dumbass. Of course they aren’t. He bent down to his brother. “Who’d want to eat you anyway?”
But he was smiling, trying to reassure him. Francisco was eleven now, almost a grown up in Chico’s eyes. They’d had a sister, Maria, who was in the middle. But she’d gone out to get water one day, when the tap stopped working. And she’d never come back. Mama had told him that she’d found somewhere better to live, somewhere there was plenty of food every day. But he’d overheard the grown-ups talking. They thought she’d been sold. Like a truck, or a mule. To be made into sausages? He hoped not.
The line was moving slower now, kids filing in through a metal gate. The space on the other side was surrounded by mesh on three sides and he could just about make out a concrete wall on the other. It was high, and full, and it smelled really bad. He was a big, brave boy, he’d manage to keep it in. But he could see the pants of the kid next to him, dark with pee. What a baby.
There was a lady standing next to them. She wore the same uniform as the tall black man and the scarface white man, but she looked like him. Her skin was brown, and her hair waved around her ears. Maybe she’d help them get back to Mama.
“Excuse me?” he whispered.
She looked down at him and smiled. She had a nice face; orange-brown eyes and rosy cheeks. She reminded him of Maria.
“Hey, little guy,” she said. “You just keep going and we’ll have you processed in no time.”
Processed. What was processed? He could feel his stomach tightening now, making him feel like he was going to be sick.
Francisco pulled him to one edge of the space, wanting to keep away from the center. Some really big kids were there, fourteen or fifteen maybe. They looked like they were in charge of the place; they called to each other, whistling, cursing and laughing. He’d seen kids like that, back at home. He knew that the best thing was to hide from them. Mama had always told him. Run straight home from school and don’t you get involved with those gangs. They aren’t nice kids. OK, querido?
He’d always nodded yes, his eyes large and solemn with dread, and been rewarded with a hug. He needed a hug now. Mama’s bulk would shield him from those kids, keep him safe.
Where was she? Not being processed, he hoped. They’d get a lot of sausages out of Mama. He mustn’t think of it.
The lady, the one with the pink cheeks who’d looked friendly, came up to him, on the other side of the fence. Francisco moved in front of him, shielding him. Chico slipped out from behind him. Don’t be scared, brother, he thought. I’m not. I’m brave. But Francisco was shaking. His face was pale and his fingernails looked as if he’d been biting them. Chico grabbed his hand but Francisco shook him off.
“Hey, boys,” said the lady, in English. Then she said something he didn’t understand.
Francisco nodded but said nothing. Chico knew that he spoke some English, had been learning ready for this trip. But he didn’t use it. Chico had listened to Papa teaching Francisco the strange, guttural words, and had learned what he could. Some of it made sense.
The lady switched to Spanish.
“Just the two of you?” she asked. “No brothers or sisters?”
Chico opened his mouth to tell the lady about Maria, how he was going to look for her in the USA. How he’d find her and rescue her from the bad people who took her. But Francisco’s hand was tight on his shoulder now. He knew what that meant: shut up. He was a blabbermouth; everyone in the family told him, even Uncle Pedro, who could talk till the moon was high in the sky.
The lady looked away at a sound, a metallic noise. She frowned and walked away, leaving them alone.
“Sit down, Chico,” said Francisco, his voice sounding like Chico’s had when he’d stayed up too late on Dia de los Muertes. “We don’t know how long we’ll be here.”
“What about Mama and Papa?”
A sigh. “I dunno. They’ll come and get us, I guess. Just wait. Try to sleep.”
But he couldn’t sleep, not with those kids shouting in the middle of the cage. It was filling up now, legs rising up in front of his spot on the floor. If he didn’t move, he’d get trodden on. He stood up.
“What you doing?” asked Francisco.
“I don’t want anyone to stand on me.”
“They won’t stand on you. Sit down. Stay put. Papi told me not to lose you.”
“You won’t lose me.”
“Hmm. Just stay here, yeah?”
Chico shrugged but moved closer to his brother, leaning against him. Francisco was getting tall, and when he crouched like he was doing right now, his face was almost at the same level as Chico’s. He gave Chico a sad smile.
Chico leaned against the metal bars, trying to ignore the sticking out one that poked into his arm. After a while Francisco had to stand up too, there was so little room.
“See?” said his brother. “I said being on the edge would be better.”
Chico couldn’t remember that but he was right. There in the middle, it would be hard to breathe. The shouting had been replaced by wailing now, lots of it. Little kids. The place stank of pee. Poo, too. Would anyone notice if Chico peed his pants?
Papa would. He’d be disappointed. Chico hummed a tune to himself, trying to ignore it.
“What you singing?” a kid asked, right in front of him. He was short and thin with a black eye. Chico wanted to ask how he’d got it but didn’t dare.
He stopped singing and looked down. The kid grunted.
Then there was another sound, like the noise the gate at the end of their street made, scraping on the ground when Papa opened it. Papa and the neighbours had put it there themselves, they said it protected them from the gangs, It made a good place to climb, at least. Chico wondered if he’d ever see it again. If he’d ever see Mrs Velasquez next door, who gave him churros whenever she spotted him running outside. She made the best churros.
Then the crowd started to move. It was like being in the sea when the waves were coming in, pushing him one way and then the other. They were being pushed forwards. Hands grabbed them, tugging at his shirt. He batted them off, not letting go of Francisco’s hand for one second.
At last they were at another door; not the one they’d come in, but another larger one. It was like the whole wall of the cage had been taken away. In front of them was a sea of kids. Shouting, screaming, crying. A hundred cries of “Mama! Papi!”
But Chico was smart. He knew how to get his mother’s attention.
“Alejandra!” he cried at the top of his voice. Her name. Hers, and hers alone. There were a hundred Mamas here, but only one Alejandra.
Francisco grinned at him and joined in. The the other kids spotted them and started doing it themselves. Dozens of names being shouted, like the most jumbled up, crazy song you’d ever heard.
Then there was a squealing noise, and they all stopped just as quickly as they’d started. The man, the one with the scar, was standing on a platform in front of them, with a loudspeaker. He was saying something in English.
The kids stared at him. Some of the older ones moved forwards, but most of them didn’t understand.
The lady with the pink cheeks hopped up next to him and muttered something. He frowned. She took the loudspeaker.
“Everyone line up. You’ll be processed one at a time. You’ll be back with your parents soon. Don’t panic, just keep calm and it’ll be OK.”
Just the mention of the word panic made it happen. Around him, kids started shoving, trying to get to the front of the line. The men in uniform got sticks out of their belts and started prodding the kids at the front, pushing them back. One little girl slipped under the feet of the children around her, screaming as she was trampled.
Chico watched, horrified. HIs legs had gone soft and his feet were stuck to the floor. The crowd was moving past him and he was getting further and further from the front. The men shoved them all into line, a shaking, shuddering line that refused to do as it was told.
Then he realised he’d lost the feel of Francisco’s hand over his. He pulled his fist up to his face, blinking. His stomach felt funny, like the time when he hadn’t had anything to eat for two days.
He walked up and down the edge of the crowd, trying to spot his brother. Kids scowled at him, pulling closer together and keeping him from diving in. Then he spotted him.
“Chico!” His brother looked cross but pleased at the same time. He started waving and pushing at the kids around him, trying to get through. But it was no good.
Chico looked at the girl closest to him. She was a bit taller than him, with snot running into her mouth.
“Let me through.”
She folded her arms. “Uh-uh.”
“My brother’s in there. I’ve got to get to him.”
Two other girls moved in closer to her. They looked like her; one smaller, one bigger. They all had crooked noses and long chins. They were a wall.
The girls laughed. He looked between them but Francisco was nowhere to be seen. He frowned. Don’t cry, he told himself. Big, brave boy. But he didn’t feel so big and brave.
He felt something touch his arm and turned round. A guard was looking down at him, the black man with skin so dark it made his eyes glow. He said something Chico didn’t understand.
“My brother’s in there,” he said.
The man shrugged. “No habla Espanol,” he said, loudly as if he thought Chico was deaf or something. He pointed to the back of the line.
Chico let his shoulders drop and walked slowly to where the man was pointing. Kids laughed at him as he passed, calling him names and poking him when he got too close. The man turned and went back to the front.
Then he spotted him again; Francisco. He could see the side of his face past a group of little kids like him. He screwed up his face and hurled himself in between them. They yelled at him but he was stronger than them. Francisco was getting nearer.
“Hey! Stop pushing in, worm.”
A boy shoved him back out of the line. He staggered back and landed on his butt. The little kids pointed at him and giggled. One of them was naked, pee dribbling down his leg.
Chico lay on the ground for a few moments, looking at the line of kids. They were moving slowly forwards. Were the grown ups at the front? If he waited long enough, would he find Mama?
“Back of the line, back of the line,” chanted the kids. He brushed his trousers down. He’d forgotten that he needed to pee now. He walked to the back of the line, trying not to listen.
The smallest kids were at the back, the runty ones that had lost brothers and sisters or not been able to stand up for themselves. He scowled at them. He wasn’t like them; he was a big, brave boy. Papi told him, so it had to be true. He pulled his shoulders back, took a deep breath, and took his place behind them, shuffling forwards as they did.
After what felt like hours he could see the grown ups at the front again. The kids were past them, spilling out into another space behind yet another wire fence. He could see more grown ups with them, grown ups not wearing uniforms. He held his breath and held in the need to pee, stronger now it had come back.
Finally he was at the front. The nice lady was there, sitting behind a table. She held out her hand.
“I need your papers. I can’t reunite you with your parents unless I can identify you.”
He frowned at her. Papi had shoved something into Francisco’s hand when they’d been separated, a booklet of some kind. He’d told him to keep it safe, and Francisco had slid it inside his trousers. Was this what they meant?
“My brother’s got them. Francisco.”
The lady shook her head. “We’ve had a hundred Franciscos through here today.” She cocked her head. “What’s your family name, kid?”
He shrugged. “I live in Avenida Juárez.”
She smiled. “I don’t need your address. I need your full name.”
He looked at her. He knew his Mama’s name, and his Papa’s, and all his aunts and uncles, although he had trouble remembering all of those on saints’ days when they were expected to go visiting.
“My name’s Chico.”
“Sorry. Thats not what we need. Do you have another name?”
“Hurry up, kid.” It was the pale man with the scar. He said something else Chico didn’t understand.
The lady turned to him and started talking, waving her hands around like Mama did when she was angry. Was the lady angry? Was she angry with the man, or with Chico?
The lady turned back to him. The man was scowling.
“You’ll have to wait a bit longer, Chico. We need to work out who your family are.”
“I know who my family are.”
She smiled. “Yes but without—“
“I’ll find them. I’ll show them to you.”
They had to be there, on the other side of the fence. He could see other kids with their parents, getting hugs. He thought of Mama’s arms and her smell of roses mixed with cooking fat.
“I can find my Mama,” he said. “She’s big and warm and she’s got a blue dress that swishes when she sits down.”
“That’s lovely, Chico,” the lady said. “But it’s not enough. You have to wait. There’s a tent, with other boys. We’ll take you there.”
He thought of the other kids and the way they’d looked at him as he tried to fight his way into the line. “I don’t want to—”
He turned to see Francisco on the other side of the fence. He had something held up in front of him, pressed against the wire.
“Hey!” Francisco called. “Hey, that’s my brother! I’ve got his papers here.”
The big white guard went over to the fence and prodded at Francisco with his finger. Francisco scowled but didn’t pull back. Then the man gestured with his head. Francisco went to the gap in the fence where the other kids had gone through.
Francisco waved the papers in the man’s face. The other man, the thin black one, moved closer to them. He had his stick out. Chico started shaking his head. Don’t hurt him, he thought. He’s just Francisco. He’s a pain sometimes. But don’t hurt him.
“Francisco? Francisco? Oh, Chico! Chico, big man!”
Chico felt his face split open with a smile. It was Papi, come for him! He was right behind his brother, grabbing those papers off him. He said something to the white man, something in English. Clever Papi.
The kind lady smiled at Chico. “It seems your Papi has come for you,” she said. He smiled back at her.
The white man passed the papers to the lady. She opened them up, looking up and down from them to Chico. At last she smiled and passed them back to the man.
“Go on, kid. Your family’s waiting for you. You can wait to be processed with them.”
Chico gasped a thank you and ran through the fence, not stopping till he landed in Mama’s arms, not caring now if he was made into a hundred sausages.