The Right To Grow Old

Tomas Ayuso

2017 - Ongoing

Honduras; Guatemala; Mexico

Triggered by a decade of violence, corruption, and scarcity, Hondurans are fleeing collapsing communities toward perceived shelter across borders at the rate of hundreds per day. This project renders visible the man-made catastrophe of forced displacement of a people who refuse to be dehumanized.

Set in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, this work tracks the vulnerabilities that a young family faces before and after crossing borders and reflects on their shifting identities as they endure crossing emotional and physical boundaries. Their plight attests to the fight to preserve life as an act of resistance in itself: migration as survival.

Such as the barrio where gangs rule. Where selfless love between neighbors and generational hatred between enemies coexist. Where father figures fight to preserve family, both biological and chosen. Individuals choose to flee for their lives, while others offer holy salvation in the next. The young Moises confesses: he lays awake at night wondering whether to live, die, or flee from the barrio.

His family urged them to leave before the violence of his San Pedro Sula took their loving bond they found in their corner of Honduras. His friends told him he's better off staying with them, while the police persistently harassed him for being from "one of those bad neighborhoods." While his girlfriend, Meya, now suddenly pregnant, urged them to leave for the sake of their unborn child.

Fighting increased in cruelty yearly and in the wake of undeclared wars between state and gangs, depopulated neighborhoods, civilians struck by stray bullets and inflicted by trauma of daily horror, Moises, Meya and their baby Jimena were left no choice but to leave Honduras to age far away somewhere safe in peace. They cross borders in busses and trains until the young family reached the US-MEX border when the tracks ran out in Mexicali; where they wait to secure sanctuary. This is a chapter from an ongoing project that illustrates Honduran youth who have had their lives undermined by violence, corruption and dispossession, called The Right to Grow Old.

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  • When the clangor of the streets becomes to stifling, Moises and Jaime climb up to the overlook above the patchwork of neighborhoods outside in San Pedro Sula’s hinterlands. Each is ruled and often contested by different gangs, whereby the boys must navigate a volatile terrain marked by tense social dynamics, and ruled by structures that run parallel to state authority.

  • Due to heavy gang losses, the recruitment age is now steeply younger. Chino, left, joined at 14 and receives the privileges that come with being active duty: respect, fear, and power. He grew up in a broken home but now had followers like Tito, right, who one day hopes of being like him.

  • Tavo’s asked his son Moises to flee the country while he could: “I believe Honduras stopped caring about its people and started eating its young." Moises refused, claiming he couldn’t leave his family and his friends, many of whom had already joined a local gang. With storms above, Tavo clasped his hands: "I beg you God have mercy on my boy."

  • The half-decade of peaking violence that carved up San Pedro Sula, left harsh invisible gashes in low-income districts. Even if a person isn't affiliated with a gang, the reputation of an area as being under control of a gang is enough to get someone killed. This was the case with Leo, a 16-year-old, who, unbeknownst to him, walked through a neighborhood held by rivals of his barrio. For his mistake he was brutally lynched by gang members from another neighborhood. His mother opted for an open casket funeral, so they could see what they did to her baby.

  • Neighborhood children are often the kid brothers, cousins, and neighbors of full-fledged gang members. They admire their elders, and are often courted into the fold at an early age through tiny assignments to lure them in bit by bit.

  • I ask Dario about his crescent scar that curves from temple to jaw bone. As a child, a police officer mistook him for a member and pistol whipped him until he stopped resisting. Dario became another child brutalized in the name of pacification. Wave after wave of crackdowns and rival gang incursion left the young Dario traumatized & vindictive, with fewer choices every time the blood of his generation was spilled. Fed up, he chose to enlist.

  • The fight for Moises' life is made more difficult when his girlfriend, Meya, reveals a secret in the bare cinder-block bedroom: she is pregnant. Its then that Moises sees his future clearly. If he stays in what he calls a war zone he could join a gang for protection, or remain a civilian in a besieged neighborhood. Or a third choice: leave. Seek asylum abroad to save his life from the surrounding fighting, that both targets and recruits him. Shortly after, they would leave for the sake of their unborn child’s future.

  • Jimena sharing one last moment with her grandpa, Don Tavo, the day she left Honduras.

  • In March, Moises, and his partner, Meya, packed little in the way of clothes for themselves to make as much room for as many tins of baby formula and bundles of diapers.

  • After a year mulling over fleeing, the oppression of the neighborhood turned out to be too much for Moises. Again. He'd leave soon. Again. Too many swarming wraiths in the shadows he couldn't see, he couldn't predict until too late. For the sake of his family, his sweet old mom, and sickly old man, and now his baby daughter and his sweetheart, he’d given up on the society that never cared for kids like him. He rode on a pickup truck with his loved ones and especially his pops who would bid him a final farewell not knowing when they'll hold each other again. During the drive Don Tavo, his father, stays quiet; he chokes back tears.

  • Jimena says goodbye to her grandpa, Don Tavo, the day she leaves Honduras. Not knowing what the journey holds for her and whether he'll be alive to see her again, the old man weeps.

  • In eastern Guatemala, swarming with dirty cops looking for migrants to fleece and displaced to extort, the young family affixed their eyes on the road ahead. Is that a cop? Was that the military? Are they chasing us? The driver, noting the young couples’ seated anguish, reassured them: you won’t be turned back tonight. He weaved, raced towards the setting sun as light died out through cane fields dodging checkpoints. We can’t go back sir, the couple said in high-strung San Pedro accent. Just as fast, the driver replied in his skipping sing-song Guatemalan cadence, that’s not going to happen. Through each bump, baby Mena never let go of her bottle just as Moises never let go of Meya.

  • Moises jostled for a spot on a bus in the chilly eastern Guatemalan night. While Meya admitted this was the first time she'd ever felt cold. Moises wondered was this worth it? With his girls facing the same horrors swarming at the edge of a streetlights’ luminescence, they had no choice but to leave.

    Meya had never left her neighborhood. Her eyes darted left and right, her ears perked up to the sound of fellow migrants. Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians, Congolese, Chinese, Pakistani, & Guatemalan. Survivors of a crumbled Tower of Babel displaced and sharing buses northward.

    Seats were limited. Moises carried his baby and used his body to protect her from the roughshod migrants fighting for space at 3am. Baby Mena, held his hand tightly behind.

    Resisting the shadows of Honduras’ walking dead. Family over riches, love over duty, what’s right over everything. His and his own against the pain and loss. They grabbed a seat, folded into a pile, exhausted they slept on their way to exile.

  • Two months, three countries, and thirty towns later, baby Mena dances and spins carefree with her mother on a sand storm struck afternoon at the US-Mex border city of Mexicali. Displaced and far from Honduras, they had a home as long as their young family shared in the treasured embrace of their loving bond.

  • As Meya prepares lunch for her baby, the young family at the border find their mooring in their love. Of mother to daughter, of parent to parent. In the margins of another country, familiar but foreign all the same, they prosper. Challenges they never would’ve conceived of are faced down by relying on the support of other displaced families. The Salvadoran neighbors, the Guatemalan ice cream vendors, and the Venezuelan football players.

    Uprooted, they thrive in their self-generated parallel society. As displaced people all over the world do, across peripheral neighborhoods, left to survive or fail in Darwinian cruelty without succor from the state and indifference from the city; as the specter of actionable xenophobia always looms. In spite of this reality they persevere. As have refugees, migrants, IDPs and displaced peoples around the world stubbornly prosper by their own will, motivated by self-preservation and their love of family. Throughout history, they guarantee their own right to grow old.

  • With the many adversities they face, both in Mexico and soon in America, along with haunting reminders of the perils that await them if they were deported to Honduras, the young family hold on to hope. Nothing is insurmountable with God on our side, says Meya with her effortless smile. The wind at twilight picks up and billows the desert sand as Meya holds her baby. The twinkling lights of Mexicali turn on and reaffirm their resolve. They maintain steadfast in spite of any amount of migration police or national guard. For they believe, in their young hearts, that as long as they’re together, together they’ll persevere.

  • Every time Moises leaves for work, baby Mena screams for her pops not to go. Every time she loses it thinking he’s gone for good. And every time he returns to hold her and ease her little heart as their lives are forever entwined as father and daughter. “Tu papi siempre va caminar con vos, Mena.” He tells her. “Your daddy’s going to be by your side forever.” She answers with a giggle and a suppressed ‘papa.’ .

    Despite displacement leaving children without parents, by unforeseen violence or by choice, Jimena grows up with the love of two doting parents doing their best with what they have. After their generation was flayed by absentee fathers, missing mothers, and broken homes, and even though they are uprooted, Moises and Meya vow to break the cycle by being ever present for the baby their love blessed them with.

  • The young family travels on the rails. Not because of nostalgia for their sorrowful displacement to the border, but because it’s safer. Away from racist slurs and stares of xenophobic disdain, they make their way to market and the like. Moises feels impotent against the vitriol knowing he’d be ripped from his family if he defended them in any way. He endures and learned to move in silence through the shadows. Just like all migrants learn to do eventually. From America to The Sahara, from the Darien to the Mediterranean.

  • From the edge of San Pedro where baby Mena was born to the edge of Latin America in Tijuana, the young family hopes to start a new life across this fence. Far from death squads, far from masked children with long guns, far from the plundered ruins of a city where their lives never mattered. The waves whip and dash into the sunken iron border. The sound of sea breeze turns into a frigid howl as baby Mena holds onto her parents as they look towards their dream of hope. She coos to her father to hold her close as he did when they traveled on top of La Bestia freight train, and he does when they sleep in their hovel at the margins of Mexicali's peripherally encroaching desert.

  • Moises, Meya and their daughter Jimena in their homestead at the frontier of a frigid desert having traveled thousands of kilometers on top of the freight train known as La Bestia to secure their right to grow old and plead for asylum in the United States. Their resolve is iron bound, their motivation is life, and their bond of caring unity brooks from the love of an unexpected family challenged to survive. They muster through the good and the bad and provide their own light in the vast darkness of displacement.