“If I don’t understand something, it’s hard to ask questions. The teacher moves on. You take the test and fail.”
So, she mainly hangs out with her classmates who speak Spanish. She finds the academics at her high school difficult; it’s so different from her previous school. In El Salvador, the teacher would teach and if you were interested you could study, if not, students could do what they like. Here in the United States, the pace is faster. “If I don’t understand something, it’s hard to ask questions. The teacher moves on. You take the test and fail. Then you go on to the next step.”
Paty is 18 now and has lots of adult responsibilities. She races to finish homework during lunch and free periods because she works. She waits tables in a restaurant almost every evening. By the time she finishes a 12-hour shift every Saturday, she has racked up 50 hours of work each week. Paty needs the money to pay for rent, her lawyer, and food. And she sends $100 dollars home to her family every week.
She has a large family in El Salvador: her parents, an older brother and sister, and a younger brother. Her father is a farmer and they live in the countryside looking after cows and pigs. One day, her father told the family that a neighbor was going to the U.S. with a coyote. He asked Paty and her older brother if they wanted to go. Paty says her brother was fearful and said no. But she agreed to go; to be brave and find work to help her family. She says simply, “the United States has more opportunities to study, to work. In El Salvador, even if you are smart, there is no school and no jobs.” She gave her sister her clothes and said goodbye to her friends. “I miss my home, my mother, my father, my brothers, my niece, everything,” Paty said as she teared up.
Twenty-two days after Paty left home, she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. It was December 2016. She had carried a backpack with some clothes and shoes, but when she had to cross the Rio Grande River, she had to leave everything behind. “I come with nothing,” she said, showing her open palms. “Nothing.”
She was placed in a shelter for migrant youth in San Antonio for a few days and then moved to one in New Mexico. She doesn’t know the names. Every weekday, she attended classes where she learned the English alphabet. But Paty wasn’t interested in school back in El Salvador, and is not very interested here either. She would wait for weekends when they could play outside and go to church, even though you couldn’t leave the compound. She was much happier when she moved to the facility in New Mexico because her minder wasn’t as strict or serious and the girls got to do crafts sometimes. She made good friends in the shelter because no one had any family around. “We don’t have anybody else to talk to.” They shared stories and said encouraging words to each other. When the time came for her to move to Virginia, all the girls in her unit started crying. She thinks of them often and wonders if they are still there, have moved somewhere else in the U.S., or are back at home in El Salvador.
Paty talks to her parents five times a week and dreams of building a house for them in El Salvador. “One day, I hope I will see them again,” she said softly. And what if that day comes sooner than she imagines?
Paty takes a second to translate the question in her mind and another to allow herself to imagine it. Then she smiles widely and lets out a burst of laughter. And as clearly as any American teenager, in perfect English, said: “That would be incredible.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teaching Migrant Children: Paty