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What Drives Latino Children to El Norte?

Sixty thousand children from Central America walked over the U.S.-Mexican border and, for a few days, the world looked up from war in the Middle East and the problems between Russians and Ukrainians and paid attention.

These were not just any children. Though some of them were still in pampers, they had the most unusual powers. As word spread of their arrival, chaos followed. The haters mobilized to send them back to whatever slum they’d come from. President Obama shed crocodile tears while counting up the cost to house and feed them. Lawyers talked about closing legal loopholes big enough for five-year-olds to walk through. Even the usually unflappable, well-dressed presidents of Mexico and Central America rushed to the White House for photo ops, eager to push the children off the nightly news.

While the radio hosts rattled on about the dangers of terrorists on tricycles, many folks acted shocked and surprised that the children had come so far, mostly alone, across such dangerous territory. It seemed the U.S. had a bad case of mass amnesia.

Did the public remember nothing about the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua? Of the dictatorships the U.S. backed? The Honduran coup blessed by Saint Obama? The U.S. invasion of Panama? Didn’t they have a clue where their 60 cents-a-pound bananas came from and at what cost? Apparently not.

It seemed that 60,000 children had walked out of history and into the U.S. consciousness to remind the Yanquis that Manifest Destiny has intertwined our destinies.

In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état against President Jacob Árbenz Gúzman because he had begun to distribute land to the hard-pressed peasants. This challenged the rule of United Fruit Company, the largest landowner in Guatemala. A friend of the State Department McCarthyites, its exploitation of the people knew no ethical or legal bounds.

The coup d’état divided the Guatemalan army. Some officers were bought off by the CIA; others helped launch the guerrilla movement, realizing that conditions for indigenous peasants were unbearable. This unleashed a civil war 36 years long in which many died. In 1996, the two sides signed peace accords, but peace was still elusive.

Instead, the accords launched another kind of war. Many of the young and traumatized kids of that time, as well as the young adults with the scars of the war fresh on their skins, fled to the north and found refuge in the romanticism of gang culture in big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.

Within a decade of being involved in gangs, they were tangled up in the U.S. judicial system and introduced to prison culture. This was followed, sooner or later, by deportation to Guatemala or another Central American country wrecked by war and free trade. Once home they unleashed what they had learned in gang life: extortion, enlisting children for criminal activities, and terrorizing poor neighborhoods. All this in communities where people tried to live decent lives, already punished by wars and the endless parade of corrupt governments.

Then Obama started deporting nearly half a million people a year. Families trying to put lives back together in a foreign land were re-traumatized and divided by ICE raids on buses, in schools and homes, and at traffic stops. Now there were more orphans on both sides of the border.

In Central America, these kids joined others left without family by criminals, poverty or government policy. They set out from their home countries ready to do whatever they had to do to find a better life. They suffered hunger and abuse on their way north. And it wounded their little psyches to be shoved aside like the Dalits of India once here, after they had endured such an odyssey. But regardless, they were undoing Obama’s mass deportation policy and putting it on its head.

It turned out there is something stronger than U.S. imperialism. It is the children’s hunger for safety, for a roof over their heads and, most of all, for the love of their families. It pushed them across mountains and cities, across deserts and rivers. It’s why they took care of each other.

NGO band-aids and temporary fixes won’t stop this exodus. More children are leaving today to make the journey north and more will leave tomorrow. Until there is justice in our hemisphere, the children will give us no peace.

Colten Stokes, originally from Guatemala, is now a U.S. citizen working as a public employee active in his union.

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