Lots of of candies wrapped in rainbow foil fall from a blue sky. Scores of brown-skinned youngsters gleefully snicker whereas snatching the candy manna floating via thick humid air, pouring from the stomach of a Santa Claus piñata.
Youngsters scramble on their knees choosing up the fallen “confites,” as candies are known as in Honduras. Some manically stuff pockets or use shirt bottoms as baskets ― a number 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 one of many most dangerous neighborhoods on the planet. How harmful? About two weeks in the past, and never that removed from this road celebration, a younger girl’s seminude physique was discovered beneath a tree ― simply her physique. The 18-year-old’s head was resting on a department a number of ft above her corpse. The neighborhood consensus, whispered quietly, is that this newest horror was probably a message from one of many 5 gangs which have divided a lot of Rivera Hernandez into fiefdoms.
Misplaced and Discovered
This is without doubt one of the greatest Christmas events for poor youngsters ever celebrated in Rivera Hernandez. Over the course of three days, 400 girls and boys are getting dolls and toy vehicles, clothes, fried rice, sweet, tamales and cake. A number of the meals was bought regionally to assist neighborhood micro companies. It’s a celebration few households right here may afford.
The explanation I’m right here, kneeling and photographing this seething mass of completely happy hysteria a number of days earlier than Christmas, is easy: 4 months earlier, I bought misplaced in Rivera Hernandez whereas on project, and met a outstanding younger man.
I’m right here as a result of, like tons 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 peak, slender with child options. However he speaks with the maturity of an grownup. Final August, whereas overlaying 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 cut back violence, particularly murders. I wandered the muddy streets and encountered Kevin by likelihood at the local people middle 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 hundreds vans on the market. The balding man with stooped shoulders would turn out to be Kevin’s adopted father.
“Kevin appeared like an African child with a swollen stomach. He virtually died thrice 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 earnings of lower than $300 a month has saved them on the margin of poverty all their lives.
“Many instances, we went to mattress early, it was one of the simplest ways to overlook you had been hungry,” Kevin says. He recollects that his life grew to become 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 hitch,” he says. That was the case with Kevin. A pointy examine, he was a relentless 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, again and again. “Even at that younger age I knew that life wasn’t for me,” he says.
However the younger boy realized 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 easy caramel-colored face. “That’s when three older boys, gang members, jumped me. They stated, you didn’t need it the straightforward manner ― now it’s the laborious manner.”
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 known 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 working water and the ever-present starvation. “It was virtually like residing within the streets,” he says.
As a reporter overlaying gang violence in Central America, I assumed that whereas tragic, Kevin’s story was not so totally different from 1000’s of Honduran youth in locations like Rivera Hernandez. However I shortly modified my thoughts when he defined how he selected to cope with the horrible hand life dealt him.
‘Something Is Doable’
Kevin stayed at school, graduating from elementary and center college. The 11th-grader started attending the Por Tu Barrio, or “For Your Neighborhood,” Outreach Heart as a consumer a number of years after the rape. He transitioned from being a consumer of the usA.I.D.-supported middle 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 robust to get assist for Rivera Hernandez. “You can see the worry 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 road gala’s on holidays similar to World Kids’s Day.
“I need children to snicker and play safely within the streets and overlook their poverty and the crime round them,” says the boy with a prepared smile, the boy who bears the scars of violence and typically 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 at all times about different individuals,” says 17-year-old Kenia Pineda, who volunteers with Kevin. “He at all times finds a manner. With Kevin, something is feasible.” Quickly, Kevin started representing the voice of youths in neighborhood 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 event he organized within the sector managed by Barrio 18, one 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 buddy 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 neighborhood. 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 pictures. The event was a hit. “Gang members have children too, they need their youngsters to play with out worry,” Kevin says.
Options From Inside The Neighborhood
U.S. officers imagine that options to reducing the violence in locations similar to Rivera Hernandez should come from inside the neighborhood. Miguel Reabold, who works for U.S.A.I.D. in Honduras, says Kevin’s outreach with younger individuals “is key to how issues are altering in Rivera Hernandez.”
The colonia has seen a major 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 % from a excessive of virtually 200 three years in the past in 2013.
“It’s an ecosystem the place the colleges are beneath siege by gangs, and something that brings individuals collectively goes a great distance in reducing the chance elements 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 associates and colleagues in Washington, D.C., who like me had been impressed by Kevin’s story and his need to assist his neighborhood.
However the one factor that nagged me was that he by no means requested for something for himself.
The Centro Cultural Sampedrano is without doubt one of the most revered non-public college packages in Honduras. It additionally hosts the Schooling 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 all types 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 may open for him as properly.
He by no means dreamed he would ever go to the college, not to mention examine right here. The services 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 imagine 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 typically 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 satisfy Kevin, hear his story and think about permitting him into this system. Kevin’s Three.5 GPA within the 11th grade was adequate, however it was his ethical energy as a younger revered neighborhood 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 instances 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 present of a lifetime.
“With every thing that I’ll study right here, I may help 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.