2003Feature Writing

Enrique's Journey; C1, p4

By: 
Sonia Nazario
Times Staff Writer
Don Bartletti
Times Photographs
September 29, 2002;
Page 4

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Addiction

Enrique, now 15, gathers his clothing and goes to his maternal grandmother.

"Can I stay here?" he asks.

This had been his first home, the small stucco house where he and Lourdes lived until Lourdes stepped off the front porch and left. His second home was the wooden shack where he and his father lived with his father's mother, until his father found a new wife and left. His third home was the comfortable house where he lived with his Uncle Marco.

Now he is back where he began. Seven people live here already: his grandmother, Agueda Amalia Valladares; two divorced aunts; and four young cousins. They are poor. "We need money just for food," says his grandmother, who suffers from cataracts. Nonetheless, she takes him in.

She and the others are consumed by the slayings of the two uncles; they pay little attention to Enrique. He grows quiet, introverted.

He does not return to school.

At first, he shares the front bedroom with an aunt, Mirian Liliana Aguilera, 26. One day she awakens at 2 a.m. Enrique is sobbing quietly in his bed, cradling a picture of Uncle Marco in his arms. Enrique cries off and on for six months. His uncle loved him; without his uncle, he is lost.

Grandmother Agueda sours quickly on Enrique. She grows angry when he comes home late, knocking on her door, rousing the household. About a month later, Aunt Mirian wakes up again in the middle of the night. This time she smells acetone and hears the rustle of plastic. Through the dimness, she sees Enrique in his bed, puffing on a bag. He is sniffing glue.

Enrique is banished to a tiny stone building seven feet behind the house but a world away. It was once a cook shack, where his grandmother prepared food on an open fire. Its walls and ceiling are charred black. It has no electricity. The wooden door pries only partway open, and the single window has no glass, just bars. A few feet beyond is his privy--a hole with a wooden shanty over it.

The stone hut becomes his home.

Now Enrique can do whatever he wants. If he is out all night, no one cares. But to him, it feels like another rejection.

Nearby is a neighborhood called El Infiernito, or Little Hell, controlled by a street gang, the Mara Salvatrucha. Some MS have been U.S. residents, living in Los Angeles until 1996, when a federal law began requiring judges to deport them if they committed serious crimes. Now they are active throughout much of Central America and Mexico. Here in El Infiernito, they carry chimbas, guns fashioned from plumbing pipes, and they drink charamila, diluted rubbing alcohol. They ride the buses, robbing passengers.

Jose del Carmen Bustamente

Jose del Carmen Bustamente, above, and Enrique tried train riding when they were 16. They took buses through Guetemala to Mexico, then hopped a freight in Tapachula. Jose was terrified. After they were caught, he chose to stay in Honduras.

Enrique and a friend, Jose del Carmen Bustamante, 16, venture into El Infiernito to buy marijuana. It is dangerous. On one occasion, Jose is threatened by a man who wraps a chain around his neck. The boys never linger. They take their joints partway up a hill to a billiard hall, where they sit outside smoking and listening to the music that drifts through the open doors.

With them are two other friends. Both have tried to ride freight trains to El Norte. One is known as El Gato, the cat. He talks about migra agents shooting over his head and how easy it is to be robbed by bandits. In Enrique's marijuana haze, train-riding sounds like an adventure.

He and Jose resolve to try it soon.

Some nights, at 10 or so, they climb a steep, winding path to the top of another hill. Hidden beside a wall scrawled with graffiti, they inhale glue late into the night. One day, Enrique's girlfriend, Maria Isabel Caria Duron, 17, turns a street corner and bumps into him. She is overwhelmed. He smells like an open can of paint.

"What's that?" she asks, reeling away from the fumes. "Are you on drugs?"

"No!" Enrique says.

He tries to hide his habit. He dabs a bit of glue into a plastic bag and stuffs it into a pocket. Alone, he opens the end over his mouth and inhales, pressing the bottom of the bag toward his face, pushing the fumes into his lungs.

Belky notices cloudy yellow fingerprints on Maria Isabel's jeans: glue, a remnant of Enrique's embrace.

Maria Isabel sees him change. His mouth is sweaty and sticky. He is jumpy and nervous. His eyes grow red. Sometimes they are glassy, half-closed. Other times he looks drunk. If she asks a question, the response is delayed. His temper is quick. On a high, he grows quiet, sleepy and distant. When he comes down, he becomes hysterical and insulting.

Drogo. Drug addict, one of his aunts calls him.

Sometimes he hallucinates that someone is chasing him. He imagines gnomes and fixates on ants. He sees a cartoon-like Winnie the Pooh soaring in front of him. He walks, but he cannot feel the ground. Sometimes his legs will not respond. Houses move. Occasionally, the floor falls.

For two particularly bad weeks, he doesn't recognize family members. His hands tremble. He coughs black phlegm.