Fernando is 12 years old, with smooth, baby skin and long eyelashes. He came to the United States from Guatemala, but he’s not sure when. He’s lost track of time since he left his village alone with a coyote who was paid to ferry Fernando for the first leg of the long trip.
Fernando carried a cell phone, soap, toothpaste, and a change of clothes in his small backpack. After a few days of walking, three other adults joined and they made the more than 1,000-mile journey to Texas on foot. He kept getting handed off to different coyotes at different points along the journey and new people joined them. But one thing was constant. From the time a coyote woke him every morning until sundown, they walked. “It was very tiring, we had to walk so much. I was always tired.” His sneakers got worn out but he didn’t complain. He wanted to be obedient. Finally, a coyote gave him another pair. Fernando says the hope of seeing his mother after more than four years apart kept him going.
He was picked up by “the police” at the border and moved to McAllen in Texas (he pronounces it “TAYX-us”), the largest immigration processing center in the U.S. He stayed with other children in an enclosure made of chain link fence. But he was soon transferred to another shelter where he took classes in English and math. One day, someone came and taught Fernando and other children how to bake a cake. There was always a “mister” close by. There were many rules—no hugging, no touching, no joking, no running, and always be respectful to the adults in charge. “They told us first it would be a verbal warning and then they would make a report and it would affect our legal case.” So even though it was against his nature, Fernando didn’t make friends with the other boys. Every day, he waited until evening when he could go outside and play soccer. Even then, he tried to be as quiet as possible.
In Guatemala, Fernando’s life was simple. He lived with his grandmother in a village and his father visited from the city every month. As he talks about his abuela, his eyes fill with tears. He says he misses everything about her. “She loved me a lot. She would look after me when I fell sick, she always took care of me.” He tries not to think about his best friends back home and their dreams of becoming futbolistas or the personal treasures he left behind. A ring, a chain, his baby photos.
About two or three months ago, Fernando reunited with his mother. He said it was “special” and they hugged each other. His mother cried a lot. He now lives with her, her new husband, and his two half-sisters who were born in the U.S. One is four years old, the other just turned one. He says he loves them even though “they keep waking me up and want to play.” Practically everything in Fernando’s life is different here. He was surprised to see “buildings on top of buildings.” He’s not used to wearing a thick jacket. “It’s so cold, very cold here.” And he misses playing soccer “all the time.” Now he plays only once a week for an hour in an after-school program. Mostly, he stays indoors playing with a remote-controlled car. Even his mother seems different, more American. “She cooks fish differently from my grandmother.”
Fernando is in 6th grade at a public school. He doesn’t have “mucho amigos” like he had back home and he feels excluded because he doesn’t understand what other children are saying. He’s learned how to name different colors in English and how to say ‘bathroom’ and ‘water’ but he doesn’t understand much in class. “It makes me sad.” In Guatemala, he boasts, he never got below 85 percent on any test.
Every night before he sleeps, Fernando thanks God for his family, his school, and for giving him another day to live.
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teaching Migrant Children: Fernando