The Teens Trapped Between a Gang and the Law
On Long Island, unaccompanied minors are caught between the violence of MS-13 and the fear of deportation.
Juliana grew up with a single memory of her father. He was sitting in the half-light of evening on the porch of their home, in a small town in El Salvador, while her mother cooked dinner in the kitchen. A man in a black mask emerged from the darkness. Juliana heard three gunshots, and saw her father fall off his chair, vomiting blood. She was three years old at the time, and afterward she wondered if the killing had actually happened. The most tangible detail was the man in the mask, who came to seem more present in her life than her father ever was. Juliana used to find her mother by the windows, pulling back a corner of the curtains to be sure that he had not returned. “It was like that man went on living with us,” Juliana told me. One day when she was older, her mother said that a gang called the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, had killed her father for refusing to pay a tax on a deli that he operated out of the house.
For five years after the killing, the family moved every six months, staying with relatives throughout El Salvador, trying to keep ahead of the gang. In 2011, after Juliana’s mother, Ramona, testified against the killer, a member of MS-13 tried to stab her at a soccer game, where she was selling refreshments. She escaped, and fled the country, leaving Juliana and her two younger sisters at an aunt’s house, because she couldn’t afford to bring them with her. She went to Brentwood, on Long Island, where she had relatives, and took a job cleaning houses. A few years later, she was returning home from work, when she got a call. “What I need is money to pay a lawyer for the people who have been affected by what you’ve said,” a male voice told her. “I know the people of the neighborhood. I know your family, your kids, your daughter.” One of Juliana’s schoolmates, a sixteen-year-old boy who belonged to MS-13, had kidnapped her from her aunt’s house; for weeks, she was raped and beaten. She managed to call her mother one afternoon, and together they plotted her escape.
In June, 2015, Juliana, who was then thirteen, and her sisters set off in the back of a truck, covered by a nylon tarp, packed in with other migrants heading north; at one point, in a jungle along the border between Guatemala and Mexico, Juliana had an asthma attack and the smugglers almost abandoned her. Six weeks later, the group was arrested in Texas by United States Border Patrol agents. Juliana was relieved. “You hand yourself over, and you know what’s going to happen. You’re going to experience the hielera,” she told me, referring to the cold cells, called “refrigerators” by migrants, in borderland detention centers. “And then I’d finally get to see my mom.”
Juliana and her sisters eventually made it to Brentwood and moved in with their mother. “I kept looking for tin-and-mud houses, like the ones from my village, but there weren’t any—everything was huge,” Juliana said. She followed a simple adolescent maxim: avoid humiliation. She prepared for her first day of seventh grade by memorizing the sentence “I do not speak English.”
She arrived at a two-story brick building with dozens of classrooms and long hallways lined with lockers and crammed with students. “There were so many doors,” she said. “I didn’t understand anything.” She had no idea where her classes were, or how to read her schedule. She recited the sentence she’d rehearsed to other kids, but they ignored her or responded unintelligibly. Juliana spotted a teacher who looked Hispanic, and asked her for help. “No hablo español,” the teacher replied, and then walked away.
After a few months in school, two Salvadoran boys wearing oversized shirts, sagging pants, and light-blue bandannas sat down next to Juliana in her math class. They peppered her with questions in Spanish. Where was she from? Whom did she hang out with back home? Juliana had promised her mother that she wouldn’t tell other students her full name, so that word of her escape wouldn’t reach El Salvador, and, as the boys grilled her, she became panicked. “When someone talks like that in El Salvador, it means they’re in a gang,” she said. “They weren’t supposed to be here.”
Her questioners belonged to MS-13, the gang that Juliana had fled El Salvador to avoid. Within days, gang members were taunting her, trying to recruit her to sell marijuana and to harass other students. When she refused, they grew aggressive and claimed that she was trying to act superior. “When the threats began, I told one of my teachers, but she couldn’t do anything, because they would have run her out of the school,” she told me. Her Spanish teacher told her to ignore them—security cameras had been installed, and, if she was seen talking to gang members, school administrators might assume that she was one of them. Juliana’s mother called the school to complain, but she was undocumented, and didn’t press the issue.
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