EDITOR'S NOTE: Finding a child living through the immigration crisis was only the first step for Herald reporters Amaris Castillo and Richard Dymond. With the help of an immigration attorney, the reporters found a family in fear of deportation willing to share their story. Today is the first day of a series of stories as we share their dreams, fears and struggles.
By AMARIS CASTILLO and RICHARD DYMOND
Herald Staff Writers
Christopher was a slight 11-year-old boy who knew how to keep a secret.
Secrets meant safety.
He was trapped in one of the world's most violent countries -- and a world away from his parents.
His parents had fled to the United States years ago, and left Christopher in Honduras. They meant everything to him, yet he never talked about them to anyone. His uncle had been kidnapped and killed for talking about his U.S. relatives.
Just as he kept his parents' whereabouts hidden from others, Christopher kept the truth of his everyday life from his parents. It included beatings at the hands of older boys. He was even stabbed in the leg, but kept silent. If he told, he feared, his tormentors would burn down his grandmother's house.
He could only think about one thing: being safe with his parents in the United States.
From his home in a small Honduran pueblo, Christopher called his father, who was living thousands of miles away in Bradenton. "Papi, I really want a new pair of Nikes," he lied.
He felt guilty asking his father, who spent long days working construction to support his family, but Christopher had a mission. And $50, the child thought, was enough to get him what he wanted.
Christopher's Journey - Interactive Map
Christopher, as he has asked to be called, is one of more than 24,000 children who decided to risk the treacherous journey last year into the United States, most of them from Central America and Mexico. Honduras has the world's highest murder rate, according to a 2014 United Nations report. There were 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in the Central American country in 2012.
Born in Honduras' capital city Tegucigalpa, Christopher was raised by his maternal grandmother -- he called her Mama -- in a small pueblo called San Juancito. He lived in a small cement block house with his Mama and a cousin his age. Fruit trees -- orange, guava, mango -- grew behind it.
His father left for the U.S. before Christopher was born. His mother followed when he was just 1 1/2. Both were in search of the "American Dream," with its promises of upward social mobility through hard work.
More than a decade later, his parents still had not sent for him, although Christopher longed to come live with them. His father, who has asked to be called Joel, did not have the money. His mother, who has asked to be called Nina, did not want her son to take the same path that they had -- the harrowing trek towards the U.S. border that thousands of others have taken by foot, train and water. The couple had hoped to save up enough money to someday build a house in Honduras and return to their native country.
Christopher's parents sent his grandmother $100 every two weeks -- more than enough for food and other expenses.
"I had almost everything I ever wanted," Christopher said in Spanish.
Everything except his safety and his parents, who he grew to know through phone calls and Skype. He and his father bonded over soccer.
Though he found comfort with his grandmother, Christopher was thinking of just one thing as he planned his trip. He wanted to be reunited with his mami and papi.
Christopher is not alone: Fueled by the desire to reunite with their families, many children flee the fear and violence rooted in their native countries.
Many have no idea of the risks they are taking when they leave their countries. As they navigate through mountains and trudge over long stretches of land, they face the dangers of little food, no shelter and kidnappings. But as violence grips their native countries, more children are expected to head to the U.S. border.
Christopher didn't know anything about the journey, nor did he ask anyone what they knew. His father never spoke about his own migration. The boy briefly considered what could happen, but one thing outweighed all those fears.
"I thought about being with my father," he said.
And then he knew he could wait no longer. A gang of teenagers who associated themselves with Mara Salvatrucha -- aka MS-13, a widespread criminal gang with roots in Los Angeles and influences in Central America, Mexico, United States and even Canada -- ganged up on him once again. This time, they stabbed him in the leg.
He learned that a family friend he called Tia -- Aunt in Spanish -- was planning to go to the U.S. He asked her if he could go, too, and she agreed. Christopher called his dad for the $50, and it came through Western Union.
Christopher and Tia left on a night in July 2013. They didn't tell anyone where they were going. Christopher's grandmother thought he was going to spend a few days at Tia's house.
Christopher took a backpack with two changes of clothes. On his neck was a chain from his uncle, made of artisanal blue crystals bearing the image of Jesus Christ.
"I brought it so He would take care of me," Christopher said.
Even though he was scared, Christopher knew he had to be brave. The icon offered him comfort.
Christopher and Tia began their journey by bus, soon filled beyond capacity as more people jumped on. It was in the dead of summer and there was no air conditioning. The bus windows were barely cracked open for people trying to catch a breeze.
He doesn't complain now about the trek, although he will acknowledge his fears when pressed. He doesn't describe it as a grand adventure.
"It was uncomfortable," he said, recalling how he sat beside his Tia in the packed bus.
After the bus ride, they took several taxis. Neither Christopher nor his aunt carried a map, asking locals along the way where they were.
From Guatemala to Mexico, a mostly mountainous trek, they slept inside potato sacks, which protected them from insects and the ruggedness of the wilderness.
"It felt better because the mountains wouldn't hurt so much," Christopher said.
Nights were so cold, Christopher slept close to his aunt.
Some days he ate twice -- other days, nothing.
When he did eat, Christopher ate mostly baleadas -- folded flour tortillas often stuffed with mashed fried beans. Other days, it was beans alone.
He kept his blue chain with Christ's image around his neck and at night, Christopher prayed that He would help him reach his destination.
When they reached Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, Christopher's aunt called his father. That's when Christopher's parents first learned he had left Honduras.
His parents had never sent for Christopher because they knew how dangerous the journey could be. Children have lost limbs and even been killed trying to hop trains to the United States. Kidnappers grab children for ransom. Mercenaries, known as coyotes, stop people on the migration and force them to pay for final passage.
Christopher's father, Joel, was distraught. He begged for details -- why did they choose to come? How were they doing it?
Joel had taken the journey more than a decade before. He left Christopher's mother and rode on "La Bestia" ("The Beast"), a network of Mexican freight trains ridden by many U.S.-bound immigrants. It is extremely dangerous, earning the moniker "El Tren de la Muerte" ("The Train of Death"). Many ride on top of the large trains. Timing has to be precise to successfully and secretly jump on the train and ride it through Mexico. Some miss, others fall off, some are thrown off once discovered.
Joel rode the trains to Mexico City, where he and two others trying to escape were kidnapped, blindfolded and thrown into a sewer.
After some time, Joel and another man escaped. The third man fought back. Joel still is not sure what happened to him.
The images of Christopher taking the same trek left the construction worker weak with fear.
"My soul... my life," he said in Spanish.
Christopher's mother, Nina, was traumatized. She turned to her faith, hoping that would be enough to bring her son to her. She prayed constantly.
"When I found out, I couldn't remain calm," she said in Spanish.
Christopher and Tia rode in a packed train -- the same kind that his parents had ridden -- through Mexico. Christopher made himself sick with worry on the ride, and couldn't sleep.
"I thought someone would do something to hurt me," he said.
Christopher couldn't keep track of how long he was in the train, but he remembers the gnawing hunger. He had no food for the entire train ride.
Finally, they came to the end. Christopher and his Tia bought tortillas and juice at a nearby store and began walking. They didn't know where they were, but they somehow quickly reached the Rio Grande.
Joining a large group of immigrants, Christopher and Tia swam across the river with their hands clasped tightly. The current was strong, the river deep.
"I had never done something like that before," Christopher said.
After they crossed the river, Christopher and his aunt continued on. As they walked, armed coyotes grabbed both of them. The coyotes called Christopher's father and demanded money. Joel paid them $3,500 through MoneyGram -- the money he had been saving for a family home.
The coyotes gave Christopher and his aunt a password -- Azul -- saying that would get them through the checkpoint to cross the border.
Christopher and his aunt reached the border, more than a week after they began that 1,900-mile journey.
But when they crossed into Texas, they were caught by border officials.
They were taken to a detention center in Houston. Christopher was separated from his aunt, who was sent to another area of the detention center.
"I cried. I wanted to be with her," he said. "She cried too."
But immigration officials questioned him about his family before placing him in a cell with other children. And they contacted Joel to let him know they had his son.
"I thought it was a miracle," Joel said.
Christopher said the officials in Texas treated him "más o menos" -- so-so.
They carried handcuffs, which frightened him. Christopher thought they would use them on him, but they didn't. And they took Christopher's iconic necklace, which had offered him comfort on the journey.
"We slept on the floor and they kept putting more kids in," he said.
A hundred children 13 and younger were in the cell with him, he said, and more kept arriving. They slept on blankets.
While Christopher's father filled out paperwork to get his son to Bradenton, Tia was sent back to Honduras.
Christopher was in the detention center for a month as paperwork was processed. Finally, in August 2013, an immigration official accompanied Christopher on a flight to Florida.
Before he landed, Christopher imagined meeting his father in person for the first time at Tampa International Airport. He imagined a tight embrace.
His father had always sent large boxes to Honduras filled with necessities -- clothes, shoes, lotions. Their relationship was built on phone calls and over Skype. Sports and Christopher's favorite Honduran soccer team, nicknamed Olimpia, were popular topics.
"I would tell him that I loved him very much -- that I wanted to be with him," Christopher said. "He told me he always loved me and that he will never stop loving me."
Christopher spotted his father first. He walked a little faster.
"My heart jumped out when I saw him... because I had never seen him before," Christopher said.
Christopher burst with pride. Finally, he was with his papi.
The moment meant no more phone calls. No more Skype sessions.
Father and son drove together to Bradenton, where Christopher was reunited with his mother and two younger brothers.
They ate pepperoni and pineapple pizza from Hungry Howie's. He thought it was strange.
For years, Joel was filled with guilt over leaving his oldest son behind.
His head bent forward in shame, Joel acknowledges today, "It's not easy leaving a child."
Christopher was soon enrolled as a fifth-grader at Manatee Elementary School in Bradenton. The year started off well for the boy, who made a friend on his very first day who also spoke Spanish. Christopher immersed himself in the English language at school, and really liked one of his teachers.
"She treated me like I was her son," he said.
Now 12 and a sixth-grader at Sara Scott Harllee Middle School, Christopher practices English at school and at home with his younger brother.
"It makes me feel happy because I see that he's now adapting to life here," Joel said.
School officials estimate that 744 immigrant students are currently in Manatee County schools.
"We receive state funding for each student," said Kate Hoffman, migrant coordinator for Manatee County Schools. Each immigrant student is eligible for counseling and special English for Speakers of Other Languages classes (ESOL) if needed.
The school district also receives funds from the federal government to ease the process of acculturation. The number of immigrant students fluctuates as new students enter the district.
"When I interview students, I refrain myself from asking them about their immigrant status, since we do not take their immigration status into consideration for services," said Lissette Fernandez, an immigrant social worker with Manatee County Schools.
Many of the children, Fernandez knows, have endured hardships to arrive here.
"After building rapport with the students, some of them choose to share their immigration stories and many have similar stories," Fernandez said. "They go through either a desert or across a river, they get caught by immigration and put in an immigration center for a couple of months and then are released to a family member in the U.S. with a scheduled court hearing. I can't exactly tell when these cases started cropping up, but through my recent interviews with newly arrived students, I realized that I hear them more often than not."
Christopher has said he wants to make a difference in the lives of others like him.
"I know what I suffered," he said, "and I don't want the same to happen to anyone else."
He and his parents are working with an immigration attorney -- something Christopher now thinks he should become when he grows up, to help others separated from their families.
"He said, in the little time he's spent with us here, he feels like he was born again," Joel said.
Joel recalls Christopher's painful questions.
"He tells me, Papi, he says 'How could you leave me?" Why did I do it? Now, he understands," Joel said. "I have asked him for a lot of forgiveness and he tells me, 'Papi, I see how much you've worked... you helped bring me here.' He hugs me and says 'Thank you viejo, because you helped bring me here... that's why I'm with you now."
COMING TOMORROW -- Like his journey to the U.S. from his native Honduras, Christopher's legal journey to citizenship is fraught with roadblocks and uncertainties.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072. Follow him on Twitter @RichardDymond.