Here is What A Christmas Celebration Is Like In One Of The Most Harmful Neighborhoods In The World
A whole lot of candies wrapped in rainbow foil fall from a blue sky. Scores of brown-skinned kids gleefully snort whereas snatching the candy manna floating via thick humid air, pouring from the stomach of a Santa Claus piñata.
Youngsters scramble on their knees selecting up the fallen “confites,” as candies are referred to as in Honduras. Some manically stuff pockets or use shirt bottoms as baskets ― a couple of fall prey to temptation and stuff their mouths, their shouts and the bachata music blasting from blown audio system making a joyful noise because it echoes from the cinder block partitions of poor properties that haven’t been blessed with a lot pleasure for years.
It’s Christmas week in Rivera Hernandez, a spot that’s been described as some of the harmful neighborhoods on the planet. How harmful? About two weeks in the past, and never that removed from this avenue get together, a younger lady’s seminude physique was discovered beneath a tree ― simply her physique. The 18-year-old’s head was resting on a department a couple of ft above her corpse. The neighborhood consensus, whispered quietly, is that this newest horror was most probably a message from one of many 5 gangs which have divided a lot of Rivera Hernandez into fiefdoms.
Misplaced and Discovered
This is among the greatest Christmas events for poor kids ever celebrated in Rivera Hernandez. Over the course of three days, 400 girls and boys are getting dolls and toy automobiles, clothes, fried rice, sweet, tamales and cake. Among the meals was bought regionally to help neighborhood micro companies. It’s a celebration few households right here might afford.
The rationale I’m right here, kneeling and photographing this seething mass of glad hysteria a couple of days earlier than Christmas, is straightforward: 4 months earlier, I bought misplaced in Rivera Hernandez whereas on task, and met a exceptional younger man.
I’m right here as a result of, like lots of of individuals on this poor, violent neighborhood, I’m Kevin Rodriguez’s amigo. However extra about that later.
A Trash Heap For A Cradle
Kevin Lagos Rodriguez is 17, center top, slender with child options. However he speaks with the maturity of an grownup. Final August, whereas protecting one other story in Honduras, on a whim, I made a decision to go to Rivera Hernandez. I wished to see how this violent, gang-infested neighborhood was faring in its efforts to scale back violence, particularly murders. I wandered the muddy streets and encountered Kevin by likelihood at the local people heart the place he volunteers. Throughout an informal dialog, instructed me he was deserted on the age of two months on the Guamilito Market in San Pedro Sula. Kevin says he was bawling and sick on a trash heap close to an artisan stall. That’s how he was discovered by Jose Antonio Lagos, a day laborer who masses vehicles on the market. The balding man with stooped shoulders would develop into Kevin’s adopted father.
“Kevin appeared like an African child with a swollen stomach. He nearly died 3 times throughout the first yr we took him in,” says Lagos. Kevin’s adopted mom, Digna Emerita Rodriguez, cleans homes for a residing. Years of laborious work are etched on her face and on her callused arms. The household’s mixed revenue of lower than $300 a month has stored them on the margin of poverty all their lives.
“Many occasions, we went to mattress early, it was one of the best ways to neglect you had been hungry,” Kevin says. He recollects that his life turned even worse when gangs arrived in Rivera Hernandez about 10 years in the past.
“The Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 promised poor children the solar, the moon, something to get them to affix,” he says. That was the case with Kevin. A pointy examine, he was a continuing goal of gang recruitment beginning at age 9. They wished him as a “Posta,” the younger lookouts who sound the alarm when strangers are within the neighborhood. Kevin refused these overtures, time and again. “Even at that younger age I knew that life wasn’t for me,” he says.
However the younger boy discovered that saying no had a worth.
The Worth Of No
“It was simply earlier than my 10th birthday and I had gone out to gather cans, bottles, something of worth to pay for my college provides,” recollects Kevin in a relaxed voice that betrays not one of the anguish in his black eyes and clean caramel-colored face. “That’s when three older boys, gang members, jumped me. They stated, you didn’t need it the straightforward approach ― now it’s the laborious approach.”
Kevin says he was overwhelmed and raped. “Sadly, they abused me,” is how he refers back to the brutal assault. He says he begged his mom to maneuver away as a result of the gang overtures continued, now laden with threats of future abuse. The poor household packed up its few belongings and ran off to a different colonia, or small neighborhood, inside Rivera Hernandez. It was referred to as “La Colonia de los Descuartizadores” ― “The Colony of the Dismembered” ― a darkish allusion to the native gangs’ penchant for chopping up victims.
Kevin says that their new residence had a leaky tin roof, skinny shaky partitions, no operating water and the ever-present starvation. “It was nearly like residing within the streets,” he says.
As a reporter protecting gang violence in Central America, I assumed that whereas tragic, Kevin’s story was not so totally different from hundreds of Honduran youth in locations like Rivera Hernandez. However I shortly modified my thoughts when he defined how he selected to take care of the horrible hand life dealt him.
‘Something Is Potential’
Kevin stayed in class, graduating from elementary and center college. The 11th-grader started attending the Por Tu Barrio, or “For Your Neighborhood,” Outreach Heart as a shopper a couple of years after the rape. He transitioned from being a shopper of the united statesA.I.D.-supported heart to being a volunteer.
“I tutor youthful children after college, get them backpacks and faculty provides by asking for donations door to door,” he says. However it’s powerful to get assist for Rivera Hernandez. “You possibly can see the concern of their eyes,” Kevin says of individuals’s response to the neighborhood’s identify.
Undaunted, Kevin launched clothes and meals drives for kids who had been worse off than him. He celebrated avenue gala’s on holidays akin to World Kids’s Day.
“I would like children to snort and play safely within the streets and neglect their poverty and the crime round them,” says the boy with a prepared smile, the boy who bears the scars of violence and generally goes to sleep hungry. Quickly, dozens of youth coalesced round Kevin, a pure chief, and began serving to him in these actions.
“He by no means asks for something for himself. It’s all the time about different individuals,” says 17-year-old Kenia Pineda, who volunteers with Kevin. “He all the time finds a approach. With Kevin, something is feasible.” Quickly, Kevin started representing the voice of youths in group gatherings, and nonprofits working in Rivera Hernandez approached the teenager as a useful resource.
No Sapos: No Snitches
One instance of Kevin’s irrepressibility is the youth soccer match he organized within the sector managed by Barrio 18, some of the violent gangs within the neighborhood.
“I’ve held occasions in different gang sectors, however Barrio 18 by no means permits outsiders of their territory,” Kevin says. It was a problem he wouldn’t go up. “I begged a good friend to introduce me to the Barrio 18 boss,” he says. “I used to be terrified once they took me to a secret location and the boss began shouting at me, however I used to be well mannered and instructed him we wished to do one thing for the youth in his group. When he slammed his gun on a desk, I assumed I used to be useless; so did his bodyguards.”
However the boss agreed, with a warning: no sapos, or snitches, and no images. The match was a hit. “Gang members have children too, they need their kids to play with out concern,” Kevin says.
Options From Inside The Neighborhood
U.S. officers consider that options to decreasing the violence in locations akin to Rivera Hernandez should come from throughout the group. Miguel Reabold, who works for U.S.A.I.D. in Honduras, says Kevin’s outreach with younger individuals “is prime to how issues are altering in Rivera Hernandez.”
The colonia has seen a big lower in homicides over the previous three years. USAID Officers and Honduran police estimate that murder charges in Rivera Hernandez for 2016 have fallen about 63 p.c from a excessive of just about 200 three years in the past in 2013.
“It’s an ecosystem the place the faculties are beneath siege by gangs, and something that brings individuals collectively goes a good distance in decreasing the chance components of youth violence,” he provides.
A Shock Christmas Reward
I had talked about that I used to be partially chargeable for the vacation celebrations in Rivera Hernandez. That’s as a result of I raised the donations to fund the events via pals and colleagues in Washington, D.C., who like me had been impressed by Kevin’s story and his need to assist his group.
However the one factor that nagged me was that he by no means requested for something for himself.
The Centro Cultural Sampedrano is among the most revered non-public college packages in Honduras. It additionally hosts the Training USA Heart ― a U.S. State Division-funded venture that gives scholarships to promising Honduran highschool college students. The low-income youth chosen for Entry, a program run out of CCS as a public diplomacy initiative, are taught English and management abilities, and are included in a recruitment pool for packages at American Universities. Many go on to good-paying jobs in Honduras and overseas.
“We’re opening every kind of doorways to Honduran youth right here,” says Omar Cerella, the college director. After the Christmas celebrations, I took Kevin to CCS one wet afternoon to see if that door might open for him as properly.
He by no means dreamed he would ever go to the college, not to mention examine right here. The amenities are spectacular. The Ben Franklin Library has English-language periodicals, magazines and books in a well-lit setting of leather-based, wooden and carpets in grays, blues and reds. There’s a Kindle station with a half-dozen gadgets, a pc lab, a glass-enclosed convention room and a Three-D printer.
“I can’t consider my eyes,” Kevin stated softly as we walked via the fashionable facility escorted by Cerella. A child raised in a neighborhood with unpaved streets, poor drainage, cinder block properties with leaky tin roofs, oppressive squalor, starvation and violence ― a child who lives in a home whose entrance door is a curtain, and who generally goes to mattress hungry ― was getting a glimpse of one other universe.
What Kevin didn’t know was that he was being interviewed for an area shuttle ticket to that universe, courtesy of a scholarship to CCS. I had reached out to Cerella and requested him to fulfill Kevin, hear his story and take into account permitting him into this system. Kevin’s Three.5 GPA within the 11th grade was ample, nevertheless it was his ethical energy as a younger revered group chief that I felt may win him a spot.
Kevin recounted his story inside that glass-enclosed convention room. I watched the director’s emotionless face as Kevin’s lifetime of abandonment, rape, poverty and hope unfolded.
On the finish, Cerella instructed Kevin, “You’ve requested your self many occasions why these dangerous issues have occurred to you, however are you able to do one thing about these issues?”
Kevin appeared puzzled, however I knew what that meant: He was in!
The subsequent phrases confirmed it: “Welcome, Kevin, are you able to begin in January?”
The boy who has nothing and has given a lot to others bought the Christmas reward of a lifetime.
“With every little thing that I’ll study right here, I can assist so many extra individuals,” he instructed me. That’s the quintessential Kevin Rodriguez. Feliz Navidad Kevin, I’m proud to name you “mi amigo.”
Armando Trull is a senior reporter at WAMU 885.