originally published by USA Today
The strange music of a freight train, the metal-on-metal drone of wheel on rail, the groans and clanks as box cars shift and settle and are propelled onward, the occasional horn as it nears a crossing—these are familiar sounds along the Shenandoah Valley Railroad as it lumbers through Verona.
The trains run day and night, and perhaps their heavy, hollow noises fit into our dream soundtrack with little real meaning. But in sight of the tracks are young people who once looked to and rode a different train, one they hoped would take them to freedom. Instead, they’re behind razor wire and seemingly forgotten as new immigrant arrivals dominate our national conversation.
They call that other train The Beast. It will likely haunt their dreams even if they obtain freedom in America.
These young people came alone. Most crossed thousands of miles, saw violence and sometimes death as they escaped from their homes in Central American countries, only to be locked up on the outskirts of Staunton, Virginia, where local organizations are trying against odds to give them a voice.
Of the thousands of unaccompanied youth that come across the border from Mexico to the United States each year, fewer than 1% are transported by the Department of Health and Human Services to what are called “secure” settings.
Some of these children were recruited by the drug cartels as young boys, with the threat of violence to their family if they did not join up.
In a center where local minors are incarcerated for criminal charges, these boys and girls face no criminal charges. But their past makes them too dangerous to be kept in the traditional shelters while awaiting their court date to see if they are granted asylum or an immigrant visa. They may have fought with other kids in the shelters. They may have simply admitted a past relationship with the maras (local gangs) or the cartels.
So they are brought to a secure center like the one in Virginia.
Who are they? And how did they end up here? While we can’t talk to them, we can learn some of their life stories through poetry and art they have created while here.
The train of dreams, and dreaming America
They have no names, no identification, no addresses or phone numbers when they climb aboard the Beast.
La Bestia. Not one beast but many, actually. A network of freight trains leading over a thousand miles from the southern tip of Mexico to the United States. An artery of hope for tens of thousands of immigrants each year—and a deadly leg of a journey which each year claims thousands of young lives.
They are constant targets of the maras and cartels.
They are thrown from the freight car roofs to their deaths.
They are kidnapped and sexually abused by the cartels.
They are attacked by local gangs at hostel towns along the way.
They fall from the cars and beneath the screaming wheels of the Beast. Those that survive may lose limbs and are too ashamed to go home, too scared to go on. They live a kind of half-life in the small towns along the tracks, a warning for those who continue on that they may not finish unscarred, even if they survive.
If they die, their families will never know what has become of them. The very thing that kept their families safe from the gangs prevents them from being identified. Their bodies, if found, are buried in mass graves at various dumps, with a single date the only marker of their existence.
And that’s better for them.
To speak a name or learn a name could mean death. When the gangs come, if they find a phone number or identification, it is an invitation to be kidnapped and ransomed, or to be blackmailed into service to the cartels to keep your family safe.
The teenagers who are incarcerated here may be safer than they once were. They may be getting fed three meals a day. But they do not forget how they got here, or what is going on outside those walls. One such teen wrote:
While you and I are talking
Others are at war,
Others are killing boys and girls,
Others are crying, others laugh,
If they wanted to write
What I know to be
Happening, there wouldn’t be
Or paper enough
Everything that could be seen.
You can't visit these teenagers and ask them about their lives. But you can read poems written by those who spent time here; you can see the images they painted in collaborative murals, and learn of the real-life details behind those paintings.
Professors, poets and muralists from local universities brought programs to the detention center that both immigrant and local teenagers participated in.
The children created poems and pictures from tragedy, violence, self-loathing and depression. From love of family and friends, from pride, from self-realization and hope.
The poems were published last year in the bilingual edition Dreaming America, edited by Seth Michelson and published by Settlement House.
For a mural created in 2014, the children transformed the memories of La Bestia into a Train of Dreams, a vehicle for telling their stories, moving from past to present to future. They were helped by professors and students from Mary Baldwin University in Staunton.
Brought together, this combination of original writing presented in English translations (with both Spanish and English versions in the accompanying video) and artwork provides a point of view and a voice missing in the current discussion of immigration:
That of the children who risk everything to come to America.
'It turns you into a monster'
They know that, even if they are lucky enough to make it to the U.S., they may be looked down upon:
After I Fled
After I fled my country, everything became an adventure because I’d left the world I’d been living in; It doesn’t feel good to know that everyone is afraid of you. It turns you into a monster, which is what they think of people like me. They can’t imagine that everything I did, I did out of fear. Fear they’d hurt my family. But all of that is done.
The mural The Train of Dreams shows the children riding on the roof of La Bestia. Behind the train is all they left behind—beautiful landscapes, the gods and mythic figures of their homelands. In the background against the mountains Jesus watches all that is happening, signifying the continuing faith they bring with them.
The windows of the train in the mural provide glimpses into the individual life stories of the children.
One window depicts the plight of a boy kidnapped by the cartel. His best friend and a family member are murdered. He escapes one night through a window, hiding for months before he finds a way across the border.
Another depicts the life of a 17-year-old Honduran girl. In the image she is not alone but she is isolated. She was the victim of human trafficking and sexual abuse. Somehow she survived La Bestia and made it as far as this secure center. Where she is now, four years later, is not something we know.
Desperation plays out as powerfully in the children's words as it does in the glimpses through those train windows. One wrote:
I tried to kill myself 6 times without succeeding, but I know that day or night that moment will have to come when from a slip I lose my life…
One boy lost his father on his 9th birthday. He saw him gunned down by the cartel. His mother had left the family before he turned 1:
In my room I always cry.
My crying in my room
Is like a heavy rain.
At night I always ask God
To give me a mother that loves me.
That same mixture of tragedy and ongoing faith can be found in the Guatemalan boy who drew the Virgin Mary for another window of the train. He felt the presence of his mother and sister’s prayers protecting him as he traveled on The Beast, even though both died when he was young.
Others were less positive about the outlook. This poet understood that while he may be safe from the aggressive maras and cartels for the moment, he is still constricted by walls which create depression and loneliness, and he realizes he may end up back in his home country, where the currency of survival is brutality...
the tigers are dozing,
the walls have spoken,
my feelings express solitude
and the devil pays me
Even though one boy felt sure he would be repatriated when he turned 18, he hoped he could find a house big enough for all his family, close to the types of things we take for granted in a secure life—a grocery store. A movie theater. A place to go out at night.
Near the front of the train is a window that shows shackled hands and a dove floating above them. This was created by a boy who wishes to be a singer, and wants his voice to soar free above the life that he’s had to live.
The train—this train of dreams, anyway—rolls on to the future. Ahead is a tunnel with the words for “belief” or “faith” written in many languages. These unaccompanied minors realize that although they are isolated, they are not alone. Many dream of freedom, of change.
And they know for things to change, they have to be a big part of the change. It’s why they’ve made this journey:
I’d begin the rebirth with myself.
Because one day I thought that I could change the world,
But I was wrong.
And I thought I could change
My country, but I was wrong about that, too.
And I thought I could change
My family, but I was
Very wrong there.
And so I think about changing myself.
Outside the detention center, the freight trains weave their way across this Virginia valley. There are no children riding these empty cars looking for a better life. But local youth in the same facility share some similar feelings as they wake behind bars. Those of desperation and of hope, not so different than those of their peers from Central America.
One local teenager contributed an image of his own to the Train of Dreams mural. His picture was split in two—one side showed gangs and guns and was titled Violence; the other side showed people getting along and was titled Peace.
Between the two halves of the image lay a door that will always be open.
No matter where you are from, the choice between peace and violence is one that has to be made every day. That open door is both a danger and an opportunity. And another border that will have to be crossed for some of those kids at the detention center. Again and again.
There are borders in life.
It’s very hard to learn English but I’m trying.
Although borders are hard
I’ll one day make it across and improve my life
As with much poetry, it's difficult to know what the writer meant when he or she penned the lines below. But it would not be hard to imagine that the poem is about the unharvested promise of this generation of immigrant children:
From the Earth
From the earth grew a fruit
I paused to wonder,
Who harvested this fruit?
More on the murals and the poems
The poems by the unaccompanied children were collected in Dreaming America, edited by Seth Michelson and published by Settlement House. As part of a program, Michelson and his students at Washington & Lee University worked with the undocumented youth to tell their stories through poetry. The students then translated the work into English. The book contains both Spanish and English versions of the poems.
The Train of Dreams mural is just one of several murals that May term students at Mary Baldwin have helped facilitate with unaccompanied youth at the area's secure facility, with the guidance of Spencer Center artist-in-residence Claudia Bernardi, who developed the Walls of Hope mural project to illuminate history while serving the wider purpose of creating community connections. More information on Second Chances, another mural mentioned in this story, can be found here.