December 8, 2016
Feliz Navidad is a sombre Christmas tale from Sam Hawken that serves as a powerful and poignant reminder that Christmas is a time when we need to reach out to others. Encompassing the importance of the gift of charity, and of extending a compassionate welcome to all people, Feliz Navidad is a story that explores the true meaning of Christmas.
In mid-2014 a wave of undocumented migrants swamped the United States’ southern border. Most of them were under the age of eighteen and many were as young as six or seven years old, all traveling without adults to accompany them. They came from all across Central America, fleeing the scourge of violence American demand for illegal drugs has created. These children believed that if they turned themselves into the American authorities, they would have a chance at a new life free from danger.
The massive surge of youths has abated somewhat, but the journey north continues for many thousands desperate for safety and opportunity. This is the story of one such child.
FELIZ NAVIDAD by Sam Hawken
“On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula in Honduras, his older brother, Osvaldo, was killed in the street. They didn’t know if he was shot deliberately, or if he had simply been unlucky enough to be on the scene. Two others died in the same incident. Raúl packed his things in a blue Adidas gym bag, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had he had five hundred and eleven dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything his family had been able to put together. He was fourteen years old.
He took a bus to the city limits, riding until there were no more stops to be made. He was the last person on the bus besides an old man with a ratty paperback book with no cover. Raúl helped the old man get off at the end of the line, then turned south and walked.
It took him the better part of two hours to reach Chamelecón at the southeast corner of the El Merendón National Forest, and he was feeling good about the journey. He stopped only for a bottle of water at a vendor selling from a cart. He kept on, walking along the CA-4 highway. It started to rain.
He walked for the rest of the day, and when it grew dark he stepped back into the forest out of sight of the road and lay down under the spreading branches of a pine tree, his bed a thick layer of old needles. This kept the worst of the rain from him, and the ground was not soaked. It was cooler than it had been during the day, but it only dropped into the twenties. He was warm enough in his fleece running jacket and jeans, though he woke up with dew forming on his body.
Things went on like this for three days until he made the border with Guatemala. He was ragged by then and his clothes were dirty. The men at the border crossing looked at him suspiciously, but he tried to smile when he lied to them about where he was going and what he would do when he got there. He knew it was another three or four days’ walk to Guatemala City and already his feet hurt and his legs were very tired. It was only the beginning. They ignored the fact that he was only fourteen and let him through.
Raúl was careful with his money and he didn’t eat on opposite days, and then only a little. He knew it robbed him of energy, but he only had a small amount of cash to make the journey and he could not afford to spend much. On a bad day he was forced to drink from a puddle of rainwater formed in a depression in the road. He kept wearing the same clothes he left wearing until he was close to the Mexican border, and he only changed when he was within sight of the crossing, ducking between two buildings and shucking off his filthy garments to replace them with fresher ones.
“Where are you from?” the Mexican at the crossing asked him.
“I’m not stupid,” the Mexican said. “You have a Honduran passport. Where in Honduras?”
“San Pedro Sula.”
The Mexican exchanged glances with the uniformed man nearest him, then looked back to Raúl. “And you’ve come to Mexico to visit your Mexican relatives.”
“Mexican relatives,” the man said firmly, cutting Raúl off. “Did you say they were in Oaxaca?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Oaxaca,” the Mexican said, and he stamped Raul’s passport. “Your mother is coming up in line?”
“Good, because I cannot let a minor across the border without an adult escort.”
The Mexican gave Raúl his passport still open. The ink from the stamp was fresh and dark. “Thank you, sir,” Raúl said.
“Don’t thank me. Move along.”
Raúl moved along. He crossed with a collection of adults and children he didn’t know and took up alongside the highway as he had all the way from his home. The numbers had changed, but the road was just the same: two lanes heading in either direction, the middle lines nearly invisible from sun and rain.
He forgot what day it was. All there was for him was walking and restless sleep in doorways and alleys and out in the wilds between towns. He followed the signs north through Chiapas, aware only that he was moving forward step by step and that eventually the journey would come to an end. When he reached Tuxtla Gutiérrez he spotted a date on a calendar in a small shop where he bought a sweet bun and a carton of milk.
He had been on the road for two weeks. He was unclean down to the pores and his skin itched all the time. He found a public washroom and waited until there was a lull, then he stripped to the waist and washed himself in the sink, using a dirty shirt as a washcloth. There was only powdered soap in the dispenser and it was gritty against his body, but when he was done he did not smell so bad and even his hair had lost some of its greasiness.
Ten days to Oaxaca, the city where the Mexican pretended he had family. Nine days to Mexico City. More than two weeks to walk the distance to Monterrey and then four more days to reach Reynosa on the Rio Grande across from McAllen, Texas. He dragged into Reynosa with numb feet, feeling drained in every way. His clothes fit loosely on him because he had lost much weight on the journey. He had run out of clean clothes a long time before and hadn’t wanted to spare the cash to clean them at a lavandería. Now he saw the river beyond a metal fence with many holes in it and on the far side America.
He didn’t wait. He pushed his bag through a hole in the fence and then squeezed through after it, tearing his shirt. The embankment was steep, but he crashed down to the water and plunged in. It was colder than he expected.
The current was strong, though the surface seemed placid. He tried to swim while holding the Adidas bag, but he couldn’t. It was gone in an instant. He heard shouting in English from the far bank. He stroked with his arm and kicked with his legs. He wished he’d left his shoes behind.
In the middle of the crossing he managed to look up on the far side and he saw men in uniform and a white truck with a green stripe. The men had something round and orange and they climbed down their side of the river, which was reinforced with concrete. They threw the orange ring into the water and it landed a distance to Raul’s right. He struck out toward it, brushed it with his fingers, got a grip he would not release. He put his other hand on the ring and hung on as they hauled him in.
The men grabbed him under his arms when he reached the American bank, hauling him dripping from the water. One of them was speaking Spanish to him, but he didn’t understand because his head was whirling. They laid him down on the dirt. Raúl struggled to focus on the man who spoke.
“You could have died!” the man said in Spanish. “You could have died!”
Raúl reached for the man’s arm and caught it and squeezed. “I am not dead,” he said. “I am in America.”
An ambulance came. An overweight medic examined him with his shirt off, and Raúl knew the Border Patrol officers watching him were talking about how thin he was. When the examination was over, he wrapped up in a plastic thing like a blanket, only it looked like tinfoil. It kept him warm all the way to the hospital.
At the hospital he was stripped completely out of his wet clothes and given soft footies with rubber strips on the soles, and two gowns he could wear front and back to cover himself. He lay on a comfortable bed in a room with a television playing an English-language station, and an orderly brought him food, real food. It took all his willpower not shove the sandwich into his face with both hands, or to slurp the Jell-O out of its container. He consumed a whole banana in two bites. The milk he got in a paper carton was guzzled down in a second. After a while, the orderly came back to him and asked him a question in English. “No hablo Inglés,” Raúl told the man, and the orderly went away.
Eventually he saw a doctor, who took his vital signs and asked him in Spanish to do things like breathe deeply and say ah. “Have you been sick recently? A cold or anything?” the doctor asked him.
“Not sick. Very hungry.”
“I’ll see about getting you some more food,” the doctor said. He was dark-skinned and Latino, and the name on his hospital identification was Garcia. “And then they’ll want to take you.”
“Take me where?”
“Somewhere you can rest and sleep.”
“Can’t I stay here for a while?”
Dr. Garcia looked at Raúl with sad eyes. “I’m afraid not. This is a hospital, not a shelter. Don’t worry. It will be all right.”
The same orderly as before brought Raúl a fresh tray of food. He ate in a more measured fashion this time. By the time he was done he felt almost full.
It was an hour before men in uniform arrived. Raúl didn’t recognize their badges or their faces, but they were authority, and that was all that mattered. They brought him clothes: white socks and underpants and a t-shirt, white slip-on shoes and then loose pants and a top made of bright orange linen. “Put these on,” said one of them. “Don’t take too long.”
Raúl reluctantly shed the hospital gowns and got into the clothes. It was prisoners’ clothing, though it lacked any writing to indicate where the wearer belongs. When was finished dressing he said, “I’m ready,” and the uniformed men re-entered the room. One of them put handcuffs on him, though they cuffed his hands in front.
He was led out of the hospital past many faces, white, black and brown. They watched him with a mixture of emotions, though most seemed sad for him. Others looked strangely, inexplicably angry, including a white man who flushed red when Raúl marched by. The man whispered something to the woman with him and the both of them glared at Raúl until he was out of sight.
The uniformed men put Raúl in a white van and they drove for a while. He could not be certain how long. They were in McAllen properly now, not just in the part that skirted the river. Everywhere there were unreadable signs in English and cars and activity. Spanish appeared regularly as if to comfort him, offering drugstores and televisions and places to cash checks. Though it was not so terribly different from what he saw in Reynosa, it was also alien. These things he saw were American and he was not in his home or the home of anyone south of the river.
They approached a forbidding, angular building made of red and gray stone. The van cruised past a line of police units on the way to a gated entrance manned by another uniform. The van drove down an angled slope into an underground receiving area where finally the driver killed the engine and Raúl’s escorts got out.
He was released from the back of the van and brought through two sets of doors with electric locks into a room with a long counter divided into sections. People were at every section, speaking in Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and English to the men and women in uniform behind the counter. All the people doing the talking were cuffed like Raúl.
“Wait behind the blue line,” said one of the men with Raúl. The other one left. Raúl stood behind the blue line.
It took most of an hour before someone at the counter could see him. Raúl listened as his escort talked to the woman in his section in English. They both laughed and then finally Raúl was alone with the woman. A man on his left spoke animatedly in Salvadoran-accented Spanish. On his right, a Mexican woman was barely audible through the tears she shed.
“My name is Agent Flores,” said the woman behind the counter. “What is your name?”
Agent Flores typed. Raúl could not see the screen. “Where are you from, Raúl?”
“San Pedro Sula. In Honduras.”
She looked directly at him. “How old are you, Raúl?”
“Where are your parents?”
“My father is in prison. My mother is at home.”
“You came alone?”
Raúl hesitated. “They say… they say if a boy comes here, he can stay. That they won’t send him away. Is that true?”
“Sometimes,” Agent Flores said, and Raúl thought she looked sad. His eyes strayed past her to the Christmas decorations on the wall. Santa Claus and snowmen and mistletoe and holly. And Christmas trees and snowflakes.
She asked him other questions, about how many brothers and sisters he had, and where he had gone on his long walk. She asked him how much they said he weighed at the hospital and how tall he was. She asked him if he had relatives in the United States. She asked him question after question for a long time until finally there were no more questions.
“What happens to me now?” Raúl asked.
Agent Flores smiled unhappily. “They’ll take you somewhere to stay.”
The building was full of many halls and doors. Someone new took Raúl up an elevator to a high floor and brought him out into a concrete hallway ringing with the sound of children’s voices. It sounded like a school before the first bell rang, high laughter and shouted jokes and cursing and the rush of a hundred simultaneous conversations. After a short stretch of hallway the interior of the building opened up and there were bars on both sides.
The teenagers were broken into two groups, boys on one side and girls on the other. There were a two hundred or more in each holding area and many of the tinfoil-looking blankets. Rubber sleeping mats lay haphazardly all over the floor, being trodden on by kids in sneakers and in white slip-ons like Raúl’s. The boys closest to the bars were yelling to the girls, trying to get their attention, and some of the girls were yelling back, not always friendly. Raúl tried to keep his eyes straight ahead.
He was turned toward a door and the door was opened with a heavy brass key. The man who escorted him said, “Look at me.”
Raúl looked at the man. He was tall and straight and heavy in the chest and shoulders like a man used to lifting weights. His hair was shot through with grey. “Yes, señor?” Raúl asked.
“No ‘señor.’ It’s mister. I am Mr. Martinez. I’m in charge of this floor. If you have questions, you ask to speak with me. If you have problems, you come to me. If you have a need, I’m the one you look for. Do you understand? Mister Martinez?”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
“Good. And don’t let any of these little bastards give you any shit. Later someone will bring you a mat for sleeping and a blanket. You’ll be all right until then.”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
Raúl went. He let Mr. Martinez lock the door behind him and he faced the pandemonium of the holding area. There were a few tables made of stainless steel and bolted to the floor, along with their seating, but they were overrun with boys. None of the boys he saw seemed younger than thirteen, but some were clearly close to eighteen or over it. There were angry looks and curious looks and looks of complete indifference.
All at once the looks turned into talking and Raúl was asked a dozen questions at once. Where he was from, what he was doing here, did they say anything about letting anyone out, would they bring extra food for dinner, how old was he, was he going to a family in the States, and on and on and on.
He tried to answer all the questions as well as he could, but there were too many to keep track of, and very soon the eager questions stopped, and he was back to being ignored. Raúl worked his way through the crowd along the bars, settling into a spot where the corner met the cage, and sat down. He put a hand on a bar and felt the cold metal under the mint-green paint. For the first time since he left home, he felt like crying. The voices pummeled him endlessly.
Every half an hour or so, a man in uniform came by to check on them. Raúl also noticed cameras in the ceiling, protected inside plastic bubbles, looking down on them all. He imagined Mr. Martinez keeping an eye on him in his corner, alone among a multitude, and telling the other men in uniform that this kid was all right. Decent and respectful. They taught them well in Honduras. Not like those Salvadoran kids.
His eyelids drooped despite himself and he drifted into a sort of half-sleep. The roar of the voices, echoing and re-echoing off the flat concrete, reduced to a background tumult and there were images of soft beds and his room and trays of food, each more delicious than the last.
Raúl wasn’t sure how long he drifted this way, but eventually he opened his eyes again and nothing had changed. He felt a pressure in his bowels and he stood up, looking for a place to go. He saw the word RESTROOM emblazoned above an open doorway, and under it the word BAÑO. Little by little, he worked his way through the crowd until he could get there.
With each step closer to the restroom he could smell the growing stench of urine and feces. By the time he was at the door, the odor was almost overwhelming. He stepped over the threshold, and his clean white shoe splashed in a shallow pool of water. He saw the whole interior of the restroom was flooded to the depth of a centimeter, and the water was not clean. Chunks of raw excrement lay on the floor, some swathed in toilet tissue that had soaked through.
He went to the stalls to find a toilet and discovered the first one was so full of waste that it had mounded up over the seat and begun to spill down the sides. The next one was the same and the next and the next. Some of the boys had even taken to moving their bowels into the urinals along one wall, so that half of them were clotted with stools.
The pressure was too much to ignore. The food from the hospital had worked through him rapidly. He stepped into one of the stalls and took down his pants and his underpants, only he could not let them fall to his ankles lest they soak in the filthy water. Nor could he sit on the seat because of the accumulated filth. Instead he half-bent and half-squatted over the clogged toilet and did what he had to do. When he was done, he used what little toilet tissue was left in the dispenser to clean himself.
He washed his hands in a sink and fled the restroom as soon as he was able. When he returned to his spot by the bars and sat down, he did cry, though he hid his face and made no sound.
Food time was a time of chaos, as the dozens pressed up against the one open door, trying to grab a meal before anyone else could. They were given small paper bags with a cold sandwich and a bag of chips inside and a small container of apple juice. Eventually, all the mob were sorted out, but for a long time Raúl thought he would not get any food at all.
He ate in his corner and ignored the sound of chewing and intermittent squabbling over who had rights to what bit of a meal exchange. The sandwich was tasteless, the bread soaked in something that was not mayonnaise. Raúl ate it anyway, because he knew without asking that to leave any food uneaten in this place was to lose it forever.
From time to time he looked out through the bars at the girls in the opposite holding area. They were much the same as the boys, sparking up into screaming matches that burned out as quickly as they started. He saw a girl sitting near the bars almost directly across from him, her back to the others, looking out at Raúl while she ate and he ate. She raised a hand to him in a half-wave and he waved back. They said nothing to each other.
After the meal there was a collection of the garbage, and once again the single door was mobbed. Once two teens broke out into the passageway and tried to run, but Mr. Martinez and the other uniformed men put them quickly back in place. Raúl did not try to escape. He did not know where he would go even if he were to slip out of the holding area, out of the building and onto the street. The entire plan had been to make the crossing and surrender to the first American in a uniform he could find. That was done, though this was not the result he had been led to expect.
Raúl held off using the restroom as long as he possibly could, but finally he was forced into the mire to urinate. He would rather have died than face the toilets again. He huddled up in his spot, gently rocking himself. The girl was still there, glancing up at him from time to time, but not staring.
He heard her voice for the first time a little while later on. “Oye,” he heard her say. “Hey. Hey, you!”
He looked. “What do you want?”
“What’s your name?”
“I am Beatriz.”
“How old are, Raúl?”
“How old are you?”
Raúl straightened a little. “I’m also fourteen.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Mexico. Do you know a place called Xalapa?”
Raúl thought about it, and shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s a city. Do you come from the city or the country?”
“The city. San Pedro Sula.”
“Where is that?”
“I said it’s in Honduras.”
Beatriz made a sour face. “If you’re going to be rude, then I won’t talk to you.”
Footsteps sounded in the passageway, and Beatriz suddenly became very interested in her lap. Raúl strained to see farther down the hall, but he could not see who was coming until they were nearly upon him. He recognized Mr. Martinez, and saw that the man carried a rolled up foam mat and a folded blanket like all the tinfoil-looking blankets in the holding area.
Martinez spotted Raúl and pointed toward the door. “You,” he said, “meet me over there.”
Raúl hurried to get to the door, stepping over and around the densely packed crowd. Mr. Martinez opened the door, but there was no rush to escape this time. The other boys fell back instead, and Raúl stood alone at the threshold with the man.
“These are yours,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl, and he thrust the bedding into Raúl’s hands.
“I read through your documents and it says your brother was killed not long ago.”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
“You have another brother, though.”
“Yes. He is eleven.”
“It’s good that he isn’t here. It’s almost Christmas. He should be with his family. Like you should. This is no place for a boy. Not for any of you. Why would you come here and put yourself through this?”
Raúl shook his head slowly. “In my country there is so much killing. The gangs control everything. What they can’t take, they destroy. The people who won’t follow them, they murder. Someone has to get out and tell Americans what is happening. So my mother and my brother can come here and be safe.”
Mr. Martinez looked down at him. “Your mother and your brother are never coming here.”
He closed the door and walked away. The level of conversation picked up around Raúl, and the circle closed. Soon it was as if the man had not been there at all. Raúl retreated to his spot.
Beatriz was watching him. “Your brother died?” she asked.
“That’s terrible. My uncle was killed by the narcos. It’s everywhere.”
“No,” Beatriz agreed. “Not here.”
They had nothing else to say to each other after that, and soon it was time for lights out. One of Mr. Martinez’s men came through yelling in Spanish for everyone to lie down and go to sleep. Half the overhead illumination was shut down so it was not truly dark. Raúl found he could not unroll his mat entirely in his place, nor could he unwind his body to lie full length. He was forced into a curled position, almost hugging his knees, with the papery blanket over him for warmth.
Despite himself, he drifted. In his dream-state he heard Beatriz whispering to him. Then he realized it was not a dream at all, but her urgent whisper through the bars and across the space that separated them. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, Raúl!”
“It’s time to sleep,” Raúl hissed back.
“In a week it will be Christmas. Good things happen at Christmas.”
Raúl only nodded, and then he went back to sleep.
Each day it was the same. Food came three times a day, sandwiches for lunch and dinner and a sticky roll and milk for breakfast. Every other day they were taken out in shifts to use showers. They were locked into the stalls alone and given five minutes to clean themselves. The toilets were mucked out once, but soon were clogged with filth, and the process started all over again.
Talk began to spread among the teenagers on this level, both on the girls’ side and the boys’, that something special was set to happen on Christmas Day. Beatriz was the one who first told Raúl this, and one of the boys near him overheard them talking. The rumor spread rapidly. Soon everyone demanded of the uniformed men and women who looked after the floor what was going to happen. They were told to sit and be quiet and mind their own business.
Some of the boys and girls were taken away and did not come back. This fueled the speculation even more. But then new boys and girls were brought in to take their places. The holding areas were jammed head to toe, and there was barely enough space to form a thought. Raúl held onto his station and refused to be budged.
Mr. Martinez came once a day to look in on them, and he took time to speak with Raúl at his place by the bars. He knew many of the other boys by name, but Raúl felt especially singled out whenever Mr. Martinez spoke to him. He did not like talking to the other boys, and Beatriz could not talk to him all the time, so Mr. Martinez was the best of all possible worlds.
“It’s Christmas tomorrow,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl one day.
“I know. There is a lot of talking about—”
“I know what they’re talking about. They’ve been on about it all week. Don’t listen to them.”
“But something must happen on Christmas,” Raúl insisted.
“Maybe something will,” Mr. Martinez said. “We’ll see.”
And that was the end of their conversation. The day before Christmas went on the way every other day had, with talk and jokes and fights and shouting and singing and chaos. Raúl kept himself to himself and didn’t speak even to Beatriz.
There was night and then it was Christmas day. The lights came on and the holding areas awoke with stretching and yawns. Raúl struggled to bring some life into his stiff limbs. Every night he spent curled up was harder than the night before. His joints ached. He felt old. Lines formed for the restroom and the reek of urine was everywhere.
Breakfast did not come on time and there were rumblings. After an hour’s delay there was anger in the air.
Raúl heard the sleigh bells first, and then the jolly sound of someone booming, “Ho, ho, ho!” There were many footfalls in the passage. And then there he was: Mr. Martinez in a red suit with white trim, a floppy cap with a puffball on the point draped over his skull. He was followed by the morning crew with the breakfast carts.
A loud and rousing cheer rose from the boys’ side of the floor, and then a higher-pitched response from the girls. Soon the doors were open and food was dispensed. Mr. Martinez kept chortling away and the bags were all distributed. Inside, along with the usual milk and roll, was a piece of wrapped chocolate and an orange. Soon the smell of orange zest was in the air instead of the earthy stink of the restroom and the closely packed bodies.
Raúl ate and was happy and saw Beatriz smiling at him as she sectioned her orange. There was more laughter and less shouting now than there had been on days before. Raúl felt light.
It was close to lunchtime when Mr. Martinez returned without his Santa suit. He came with another uniformed man, and they opened the door to the boys’ holding area. “Raúl!” Mr. Martinez called. “Raul! Honduras! Come on! Bring everything!”
Raúl gathered up his things and hurried to the door. He hadn’t yet unwrapped and eaten his chocolate yet. “I am here,” he said.
Mr. Martinez smiled at him. “Come with us.”
They took him down from the high floor to another place with many rooms and offices. He was put in a new cell, much smaller, all alone. A little while later a woman brought him a large paper sack. In the sack were the clothes he’d worn the day he’d crossed the border. “Put those on,” the woman said. “They’ve been cleaned.”
He stripped off the orange suit, but he kept the socks and the underpants and the undershirt even though he was sure they wanted him to take those off, too. He changed into his old clothes and waited. After a long while someone else came to get him, and he was brought through to another holding area, still fairly small, where he was held with three boys who were very young.
Mr. Martinez came to them after a while. “This is the end of your time with us, Raúl,” he said.
“Is it time?” Raúl asked. “Have they decided to let me stay?”
“Your case was reviewed by a judge. His decision was to let you go. There’s a plane leaving the airport in three hours. You’ll be on it.”
Raúl’s vision blurred. He felt tears and wiped at them. “I can’t go back to Honduras! I can’t! I came so far!”
“I know,” Mr. Martinez said somberly. “I’m sorry.”
The other boys were crying, too. They had only a few things between them and soon they were all picked up by men in uniforms and put in a van and taken to the airport. They were given seats on the tightly packed planes, and a man with a badge, but no uniform, flew with them. The flight to Honduras took five hours. There was time to reach home for Christmas dinner.
On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula again, his cousin, Emilio, was killed in a clash over drug territory. Raúl packed his things in a pale green pillowcase with clouds printed on it, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother, and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had one hundred three dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything he had left from his sojourn north. He was fourteen years old.”