Many faces of undocumented Hispanic youths from the “Unaccompanied” series. (Oliver Contreras)
“Unaccompanied” is an audio-visual story of young immigrants in the Washington, D.C. area who were among the thousands of children seeking refuge from the violence of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala created by photographer Oliver Contreras and CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center. Following President Obama’s statement about a humanitarian crisis on the border in the summer of 2014, these youths captured the national spotlight. Countless articles related stories of tragic and violent journeys.
Noticeably absent from some of the discourse were the voices of the youths themselves. What circumstances drove the children to seek refuge on U.S. soil? What challenges do they face adapting to a new life?
“Unaccompanied” provides these youths a platform to directly share their personal stories with the public. Unaccompanied child immigrants represent an entanglement of issues in both their native and new countries. This project seeks to demonstrate the realities that youth immigrants face: the doubts, aspirations, complexity and humanity of their experience.
Captions were contributed by Elliot Blumberg. Some names in this series have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Erminia migrated to the U.S. two years ago from El Salvador when she was 15 years old. She dreams of being a family lawyer. (Oliver Contreras) On her first night walking through the Texas desert, Erminia’s shoes fell apart. She spent the subsequent three days and two nights crossing the desert wearing only her socks. “There were so many thorns,” she recalls, “and I had to walk without shoes. The entire desert.” (Oliver Contreras) Karina was raised by her grandmother in El Salvador and didn’t meet her biological mother until she was 10. As a result, Karina (now 18) doesn’t have as strong a maternal connection with her mother as with the family she left behind. (Oliver Contreras) “Building up strong family relationships after being separated for a long time is complicated,” says Karina. “I left my grandmother, and I did all this sacrifice for something better so I have to make it worthwhile,” she says. (Oliver Contreras) During his first attempt at immigrating to the United States, Marvin was arrested and slept on the floor of a Mexican prison for four weeks. He was 14. “They gave us disgusting food. There were a lot of people in just one room,” he remembers. (Oliver Contreras)
On his second attempt, Marvin was held in a house with other immigrants by the Mexican military, who found their coyote nearby with drugs. “I’ve had someone point a gun at my head and threaten to kill me,” he says, describing the experience.
These traumatic experiences imprint themselves on many of the unaccompanied, but Marvin’s story turned around upon his entrance into the U.S. He graduated from high school as salutatorian and received a full scholarship to a university.
At age 13, Mauricio’s mother paid to bring him across the Mexican border. He was passed between several coyotes, and nearly fell victim to a scam. “(A coyote) told me that if I didn’t want to walk, I had to pay seven thousand dollars,” he says. (Oliver Contreras)
Mauricio was able to call his mother for help and safely reunite with her. Now he wants to value her sacrifice and succeed in his new home. “For me, the American dream consists of overcoming, of happiness, and of reunification with your family.”
Antonio is in the process of applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, an option for children who were victims of abuse or neglect in their home countries. He is doing well in high school, learning English, and still wants to be a pilot. (Oliver Contreras)
From a young age, Antonio loved aviation. At age 9, his grandparents forced him to quit school and work as a fisherman. He protested, but they beat him repeatedly until he complied. Antonio was able to leave Guatemala five years later with the help of his mother. “I ran to hug her and didn’t let go and started to cry and cry … I didn’t remember her, only from photos and talking on the phone.”
Daisy grew up in a farming town in the Guerrero state of Mexico. When she was 10, she was the victim of an assault. “That night … changed everything about my life and my childhood. My mother told me that it was a nightmare, but what happened to me wasn’t a nightmare.” The assailant was never identified.
Daisy received little to no support following the trauma, and as a result, began cutting herself. This continued after her border crossing until she started receiving counseling through the public school system.
“And finally they believed me,” she says.
At age 13, Gissell wants the chance to prove her worth in society. “I think it’s really important to tell our story,” she says. (Oliver Contreras) Gissell’s father left for the United States from her native El Salvador when she was 3 years old. She spoke to him every day, but dreamed of the day when they would meet again. When she was 12, she came to the U.S. to reunite with her father. “I believe the hardest thing was separating from my sister and my mother,” she says. (Oliver Contreras) “My older brother always dreamed of coming here.” As one of nine siblings, it wasn’t Adelso’s dream to make the journey from his native El Salvador to the United States – it was his responsibility. (Oliver Contreras)
Two weeks after he arrived on U.S. soil, Adelso, 24, got a job in a restaurant. He now works in construction and lives with relatives, but his siblings and parents remain in El Salvador and receive his economic assistance. His dream of pursuing architecture is on hold for the moment.
“We’re here to do the best we can,” he says.
Fleeing the alcoholic and drug-addicted father of her child, Nadia failed twice to enter the United States. Finally, on her third attempt, Nadia crossed the border with her one-year-old daughter to live with her mother. “I had a lot of problems buying milk for (my daughter) during the trip,” she says. (Oliver Contreras) Nadia, 20, and her infant daughter are in a pending immigration case. While the court decides her and her daughter’s fates, Nadia wears an ankle monitor, which she was forced to don as a condition of her release from a Texas detention center. (Oliver Contreras) Like many immigrants, for security reasons Sara couldn’t tell any of her friends in El Salvador that she was leaving. One day, her and her brother simply picked up and left. They now live together with her sister.
At 19, Sara is in her final year of high school. Upon graduation, she will continue her job waiting tables and sending money to her parents, who remain in El Salvador.
Despite her humble position, Sara dreams of studying to become a doctor. “There aren’t excuses for not dreaming,” Sara says.
More In Sight:
Undocumented in D.C: Looking at the identity and culture of Washington’s immigrant youth
Waiting with uncertainty, photographing for change among Yucatan’s immigrants
Child victims of sexual abuse in Guatemala are giving birth at an alarming rate. These are some of the young mothers.