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THE BAKER'S HOUSE

In Honduras, bad economy means broken dreams, but families find ways to persevere

 

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- The path to the house the baker built isn’t easy to follow.

The paved road ends in a neighborhood of large homes, hidden behind walls and tall iron gates. From the street, the hills that rise in the near distance are a lush, seemingly impenetrable green.

Between two of the homes, a garbage-strewn gravel-and-dirt lane begins its ascent into the hills and winds toward the other side of society — a starkly symbolic passageway to the abject poverty that drives so many Hondurans toward the U.S. border in search of economic opportunity.

Heading up, the houses quickly become less grand, the stucco giving way to bare concrete blocks and corrugated tin panels. The lane devolves into a series of ruts, the way up and down so precarious that one car can’t pass another.

Where the road levels out, several thousand feet up, there’s a small store and an Episcopal church, an odd sight in the predominantly Catholic country.

A few hundred feet past the church, a path even steeper and more eroded than the road begins on the right and snakes up through the trees toward the top of another hill. The trail is part hike, part climb; the way up is arduous on a sunny day and nearly impassable when it rains hard, which happens frequently.

Finally, there, perched on top, is the red stucco house the baker built. It has two bedrooms, a large kitchen and a comfortable living room. A small front porch offers a view of the village below.

“The money my husband sent home paid for the house,” said the baker’s wife, Luz Rodriguez.

She oversaw construction nine years ago, turning his U.S. wages – earned in a bakery on the East Coast – into a comfortable, if remote, home for their family of five.

Anyone who walks through the front door will have spent more time in the home than the man who paid for it. He’s never been in it.

He snuck across the border from Mexico to the United States 11 years ago in search of better pay, and he hasn’t been back since.

“We’ve gone through some really hard times,” Rodriguez said in August, surrounded by her daughters, Alejandra, 18; Karla, 20; and Vanessa, 22. “It’s not fair. They haven’t seen their father in years, and he hasn’t seen them grow up. But he can’t come home.”

Rodriguez’s husband is one of the hundreds of thousands of Hondurans living illegally in the United States. Like most, he went in pursuit of work with an honest wage. He’d been a baker in Honduras, but the pay was so low, he couldn’t support his family. So he headed north.

Rodriguez found a way across the border, and once in the U.S., he found work, again as a baker.

He has faithfully sent home money to support his wife and three daughters ever since, but the closest the family comes to seeing each other in years has been on Skype.

***

As the debate continues in the U.S. about immigration, particularly about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s contentious plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico – at Mexico’s expense – a complicated, nuanced side of the story exists in the places from which the immigrants come.

Few of them speak English, and their voices are rarely heard, especially in the U.S., where talk centers more on policy than people.

Mexico continues to be the prime source of illegal immigrants, but three Central American nations – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – also see citizens by the tens of thousands make the perilous journey north, at great risk and often at great cost. Smugglers, called “coyotes” by locals, charge $5,000 or more per person to lead people across the U.S. border.

While it’s hard to know how many people have crossed the border, U.S. Census data offer proof of a growing Hispanic population in the U.S., and records of immigration enforcement actions confirm a growing number of people trying to get in.

Nationwide, the U.S. tracks the number of people caught trying to cross the border illegally and records data by country, and the numbers for Honduras have been steadily increasing in recent years.

In 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, U.S. officials caught 106,928 Hondurans trying to sneak into the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics. That was nearly one-sixth the total number of people apprehended at all U.S. borders.

While the number pales in comparison to the 350,177 Mexicans caught trying to cross U.S. borders, the gap between the countries has narrowed considerably in the past 10 years.

The total for Mexico was less than half what it was as recently as 2009 and a third of what it was in 2006.

The total for Honduras was at a 10-year high, up 45,000 from the year before.

The numbers are also increasing for Guatemala (97,151) and El Salvador (79,321), which both posted 10-year highs in 2014.

“When there’s no opportunity, people will always leave,” said the Rev. Marco Varela, the rector of San Jose de la Montoya Episcopal Church, the church near the Rodriguez home in Nueva Primavera, a village on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula.

***

In Honduras, the story is often about family and money.

“Our culture is built on family,” said Delmy Murcia, the head of the San Pedro Sula office of DINAF, a government agency created two years ago to work on child safety and welfare issues, primarily helping unaccompanied children who had been deported from the United States.

“When husbands and fathers and brothers go the U.S., it breaks up families here,” she said. “It’s had a tremendous impact on our society. It could take generations to recover from this.”

A big part of the problem is that the breakup has been increasing in recent years. While there are some signs of improvement in the county’s notoriously weak economy – new international call centers are offering relatively stable, well-paying jobs to people with language skills, employment a step above the textile factories and fruit plantations for which the country is better known – Honduras is still an incredibly poor country.

According to figures from the World Bank, the country is second only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere and sixth worldwide among nearly 200 countries in the importance of remittances from expats.

In 2015, 18.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product was money sent home by citizens working abroad, legally or not. That was more than 30 times the global average for all countries of .6 percent.

“The money definitely helps,” said Maria Lopez, whose husband went to the U.S. eight years ago, leaving her to try to raise their four children alone in a village near San Pedro Sula. “But it’s not a fair trade for what we lost.”

The single mother, who lives in a house perched on another hill near the Episcopal church, has struggled to protect her children, especially her sons, from the gang violence that has made San Pedro Sula one of the most violent cities in the world.

Last year, the city had the second highest per capita murder rate in the world, trailing only Caracas, Venezuela, according to the World Atlas. The ranking was neither new nor surprising; the country has long been a waypoint for international drug traffickers, and those gangsters violently protect their turf.

Fearing that her then-18-year-old son Sergio would be sucked into a gang, Lopez saved the $6,000 it would cost to pay a “coyote” to get him to the U.S.

“It’s hard on us all because he had to go not because he wanted to but because he was forced to,” she said in her home, speaking in earshot of her 13-year-old son Jorge, who will also likely be smuggled into the U.S. in the future.

Sergio’s life in the U.S. hasn’t been easy.

The day he made it across the border, he was spooked when he thought he saw an immigration official. He ran under a bridge to avoid detection. When he came out the other side, he tripped on a rock and twisted his ankle. Then he fell and landed on a cactus.

“He couldn’t go to a doctor, though, because then he would have been sent home,” Lopez said.

An uncle, already in the U.S., found him and helped him clean the wound.

Sergio then went to the Midwest, where he reunited with his father.

The two lived together for more than a year, but one day, the father disappeared.

The elder Lopez had been arrested and would ultimately spend eight months in jail before being deported. But at the time, the son didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was he was alone, with no language skills, little money and intermittent work, thousands of miles from home.

Even when a friend told him what happened, he couldn’t go visit his father.

“I think he’s all right now,” his mother said. “He’s living with a girl. At least he’s safe from the gangs there.”

***

Wendy Pineda would love to move to the U.S. so her children, 6-year-old son Kenneth and 9-year-old daughter Helen, could have a brighter future than the one they’ll face on the outskirts of society in Honduras.

One of her brothers lives in New Jersey, but the two have seen each other just once in the 30 years since he left, and she said she would be embarrassed to ask for help.

“He left so long ago, we’ve never really been that close,” she said.

The couple can’t get visas to work in the U.S. The most likely path she and her husband, Carlos, would take is illegal, though she said it was unlikely they would pursue that.

“I’m worried about all of the dangers I would have to face,” she said.

Instead, she said, she'll likely stay where she is, living across the street from the Episcopal church and spending her days operating the small internet center the church runs as a service to the community.

She said she doesn’t understand why moving toward employment is such a bad thing.

“We’re not bad people in Honduras,” she said. “We want to work. My husband has a job in a factory here, but the pay isn’t enough. To immigrate shouldn’t be that dangerous. I can’t understand why there are such big problems for Hondurans to go to the U.S. Why can Americans come here with no problem, but if we want to go there, it’s dangerous?”

***

Not all Hondurans want to leave.

Abigail Varela, the 18-year-old college-bound daughter of the Episcopal priest, wants to become a doctor. She has visited the U.S. but has no desire to live there.

“Honduras is my home,” she said. “This is where I want to live.”

“This is our country. We’re the future. If we don’t fix our country, who will? Our health care system isn’t so good. We need doctors here. When I graduate, I want to stay in Honduras.”

Her younger brother, 12-year-old Keller – named for a U.S. soccer player – is also happy in Honduras.

On a tour of his sister’s college campus in Tegucigalpa, he marveled at the leisure of the students, a site perhaps more common to an American college experience than to life in Honduras.

“It looks pretty good here,” he said.

***

Life doesn’t look so good back at the Rodriguez house in the village near San Pedro Sula.

With the topic of their patriarch up for discussion, mother and two of her three daughters were in tears.

“It’s not an easy way to live,” Luz Rodriguez said. “It’s definitely not a fair trade,” losing her husband but gaining the U.S. dollars he earns.

Still, two of the three girls are eager to join him in the U.S., even if it means making the dangerous trip alone, having to buy their way across the border and possibly never getting to come back home to their mother.

The girls tried to explain it, but both lost their thoughts in their tears.

“They just want to see their father so much,” Luz said. “But I don’t want to see them get hurt. There should be a better way than this.”