I don’t always have the urge to lunge across the table and give the person I’m interviewing a long, mamma-bear hug.
But this time was different. And I bet anyone with a beating heart and moment to hear this story would understand.
Because it’s all about a kid and a hug.
And man, this kid. He aced his AP and honors classes. Made honor roll. Killed it on the varsity soccer team. Sailed through his high school’s Navy Junior ROTC program. Got a fat college scholarship. Held down a job. Babysat all the kids in the house. Cooked and cleaned every week.
A model young man.
Who has no one to hug him.
Gilson Argueta was part of a class I met at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., last year.
A lot of his friends are like him, migrants — most of them undocumented — who are trying to navigate the hallways and pitfalls of American high school. Homework, prom, sports, college applications, detention. Or the gangs that prey on kids like them.
I was a fly on the wall in one of those trailers last year, watching them work on college essays and do trust-building activities, like being led around an obstacle course while blindfolded.
Maybe that’s silly to the rest of us. But Gilson was raised on a corn farm dodging gun-wielding bandits. He then trusted his life to a coyote while crossing mountains and deserts, hiding in bushes and cargo trucks and cramming into buses, boats and scary safe houses with dozens of strangers. The human smuggler made two promises to his parents in exchange for $5,000 — to get their oldest son to America and to keep him safe. Only one of those promises was kept.
Trust doesn’t come easily.
“Most of the time, there were guns everywhere. So, so much danger,” said Gilson, who is now 20, sharp in a shirt and tie, nerd glasses, remembering how unsafe the journey was. “And when we got to the border, we crossed in the middle of the night. Running, running in the rain for maybe four hours. Our feet hurt so much.”
His story of why he took such a risk is now too familiar. Gilson was 16 when gangs were closing in on his hometown in El Salvador. It was a small town of about 1,000 people, “and maybe 10 or 20 people were dead by guns every month,” he said.
His family of five had enough money saved for only one of them to make the journey. And they decided Gilson, who worked the fields in the early morning before walking to school, where he was an excellent student, had the best chance of success.
“Seeing all the poverty around me, I wanted to be somebody, to be the one to help my family,” he said.
It took four months from his family farm in El Salvador to the uncle’s house in North Carolina. After a year with the single uncle, who was always gone on construction jobs and no help in navigating a high school that had few kids like him, Gilson persuaded another distant relative in Maryland to take him in.
The family had four kids and everyone worked multiple jobs. The deal was that Gilson would have to clean, cook, babysit and contribute to the rent. He took it.
And he joined scores of others like him at Northwestern High. After meeting them, I wondered what happens to them. Do they find that American Dream?
Gilson is one who did.
A year after graduating with a 4.25 grade-point average, Gilson is a college student who holds down a job, coaches youth soccer, pays rent and sends money back to his siblings in El Salvador so they can pay for a safer, private school.
He is a youth health counselor for La Clinica and recently organized a huge soccer tournament and health fair where he talked to kids about obesity, HIV/AIDS and self care.
At Prince George’s County Community College, he is studying to be a social worker because it was the counselors at Mi Refugio who helped him most. His dreams aren’t about owning a car or a mansion or any of the standard, American bling. “A family. I want to have a family again,” he said.
When Gilson talks about the terrifying journey from El Salvador, about the guns and violence and blood he saw on the trip, about the scary federal detention facility and about starting life in America with nothing but a T-shirt, shorts and his birth certificate, he is stoic.
It’s when he talks about the happy moments — on the soccer field, at graduation, when he got the call about the scholarship — that his voice begins to soften and quiver with emotion.
I imagined those highlight moments for my sons — their first goal, a speech, a solo in the school musical — and how they were smothered in dad hugs and mom kisses.
Like he was gripping his heart with a curled hand, Gilson pounded his chest. “In those happy times, I was alone,” he said. “I didn’t have anyone to hug me.”
Of course, I hugged him.
And I wish the rest of our nation would, too.