University of Nebraska-Lincoln
At home in America: ‘I am so thankful’
By Mara Klecker
Hail Mary, full of grace…
Two of the five men have flashlights. They all have guns. She hears the slap of their hands echo against the metal boxcar doors. It’s a frigid December night, 2011, in a dark tunnel somewhere in Mexico. She’s 12 years old, maybe 75 pounds. She presses her fragile frame harder and harder against the steel roof, hoping the gunmen who halted the train won’t see her.
She peeks over the edge, watching the small band of drug dealers. She hears the muffled words in rapid-fire Spanish. Then she sees it coming– the slow sweep of the flashlight beam rising to the top of the train, where she shivers and prays, trying not to cry, belly down with the other immigrants.
Angela Escobar has only a backpack stuffed with three pairs of jeans and a few cotton shirts. She cradles dreams of America – the big houses and the clean classrooms she’s seen in the Hollywood movies with Spanish subtitles.
The Lord is with thee…
She hasn’t prayed aloud since she left her home in San Jose Cancasque, a poor village of 1,500 in the north-central highlands of El Salvador.
She didn’t tell anyone the night she left. Not her drunk father, who abandoned her at birth. Not her mentally-ill mother, who never learned to read. Not her gang-banger brother, who spends his days high on pot and crack. Not her other brother, 34, with the brain function of a first-grader, maybe younger after all the alcohol the street kids give him for their own amusement.
For several years, the girl drifted in and out of the ramshackle schoolhouse. What was the point? Books so old they fell apart at the touch. Teachers who fell asleep in class, skipped out, didn’t show up. By fifth grade, she didn’t know how to use a computer. But she knew this much: She didn’t want to die on the streets of her village. She knew she wanted something else, something more – an education, a life, a hope.
So one night, she slipped out of the family’s one-room mud hut and joined a few other villagers bound for Texas.
Blessed art though amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…
She still hears those words, all those sounds of her home ringing in her ears: The swoosh of the machete as her brother – on crack – swings at a cousin. Her mother, in fits of madness, screaming the ugly names at her. The chug of the approaching train, felt more than heard as she laid on the tracks so she’d know when it was coming.
After a month of traveling – jumping on trains, wading through rivers, watching Mexico pass by from the top of the cargo train they call El tren de la muerte – the death train – the group made it to the Promised Land. They crossed the Rio Grande and huddled under a bridge for three and a half days, waiting for a car that never came, starving, thirsty, exhausted.
The next day, they start wandering in the desert outside of Eagle Pass, Texas. Angela hasn’t eaten in four days. She’s light-headed, the ground spinning. Her knees buckle and she collapses. When she wakes, she sees how much blood she’s vomited on the dry, gray dirt.
The voices sound so far away. They’re talking about leaving her. She’s slowing them down.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death…
But her neighbor from San Jose Cancasque won’t leave her to die. The woman slings Angela’s arm over her neck and carries the thin girl farther into the desert, finally resting under some scrub brush. And that’s when they hear another sound: “Immigracion! Immigracion!” They see the men with the white trucks and badges and vests. U.S. Immigration officers.
Back then – when she was freezing atop the boxcar, when she was vomiting blood, when she was learning the days of the week in English during a two-month stay in a Brownsville, Texas, detention center – she could never have known about the three-bedroom suburban Omaha home with the polished wood floors and leather sofas. A neighborhood awash with picket fences and driveway basketball games. She couldn’t have imagined the classrooms with shelves of books with unbroken spines and crisp pages and gleaming computers, or Mrs. Hunt, the patient woman with the soft voice who would inspire her – day after day – to speak and write in another language.
Back then, Angela Escobar could never have known her dream was still alive, her prayers about to be answered.
* * *
Inside a Ralston Middle School classroom, Angela walks by shelves of shiny new books in Spanish and English, and books in other languages she’s never heard of, careful not to touch any of them. She goes through an intensive English course and a demanding summer school. Still, months pass before she finds the courage to ask if she can take one of the books home to read.
At first, she didn’t even want to come to middle school. She worried the other kids would laugh at her, make fun of her accent.
For most of seventh grade, she would only talk to Mrs. Hunt. She would wave the English Language Learner teacher over and type her question into Google Translate so she didn’t have to say it aloud.
“I just saw this timid girl who was terrified of making a mistake,” Beth Hunt said. “She was desperate to follow the rules and to be perfect.”
And then one day, in one of their first conversations, Angela said something startling: She wanted to be a doctor.
The teacher smiled. Doctors, she said, must be really good at math and science.
So Angela learned how to add and subtract in two days, how to multiply and divide in two weeks. During her seventh-and eighth-grade years, she went from a no-grade reading level to a 10th-grade one.
“I don’t even know how to explain Angela,” said Hunt. “I’ve had talented students before, but I’ve never seen anyone so motivated.”
In the two years she taught her, Hunt watched the shy girl with down-turned eyes start raising her hand, start helping other students with their homework. At least twice a week, Mrs. Hunt would get emails: Angela wants to know what else she can work on.
“I cannot tell you how many of her teachers have come to me and said, â€˜I wish I had a classroom full of Angelas.'”
After finishing eighth grade with a 3.74 GPA, after writing essays on “The Outsiders,” after becoming one of a select group inducted into the Junior Honor Society, Angela told her teacher once again: “I want to be a doctor.”
Angela didn’t have that dream when she arrived at the Brownsville detention center. Back then, she knew no English, could barely do basic math. But she had memorized an important number: the cell phone of a cousin living near Omaha, Nebraska.
That day, when her cell phone rang, Carmen Lazo almost didn’t answer. Out-of-state number? Probably a telemarketer. But she picked up anyway.
“Hello ma’am. Do you know a Miss Angela Escobar?”
Carmen caught her breath. The words stuck.
“Yes,” she finally whispered.
“Would you be willing to be her sponsor?”
The part-time substitute teacher thought about the mound of bills. The husband who had just lost his job. The infant son and his many allergies and all the hospital visits and tests piling up.
How could she possibly afford another family member?
But then she thought of all the consequences of saying no.
“Yes,” she replied. “What can I do?”
Soon, she found Shane Ellison, an Omaha attorney with Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska, an organization offering pro bono legal representation for vulnerable immigrants.
He agreed to take the case. And under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, Angela was released to her cousin in April 2012.
Carmen drove 19 hours to Texas. A few years earlier, she had tried to adopt Angela. But after Salvadoran attorneys took her money and disappeared, she started losing hope.
She’d lost even more when she discovered Angela had stopped going to school in the third grade. Carmen wasn’t about to bring a young girl to the United States just to see her skip out on classes and fall back into street life. There would be tough new rules in her house.
Carmen waited at the detention center. The cousins hadn’t seen one another in five years. When the door finally opened, she was shocked at what she saw: a scared, scrawny waif. Hollow-cheeked and hollow-eyed, the bony girl looked like a sickly 7-year-old.
Back in Omaha, the attorney began pushing through the bureaucratic hoops of five different state and federal agencies to pursue Special Immigrant Juvenile Status – a form of protection for immigrant children who have been abandoned, abused or neglected by one or both parents. In the end, he succeeded in proving it would not be in Angela’s best interest to be deported and returned to the abusive setting from which she fled.
And so in July 2013, his client had her green card. She was a lawful permanent resident.
“Angela herself is atypical,” Ellison said. “She’s tenacious and driven.”
The legal process she went through is typical of his cases. The waits might be longer now due to the pressure the latest influx of undocumented children has put on the system, he said, but the legal side of her story is representative.
“These kids aren’t just bused up to Nebraska and dropped off – most of them have sponsors that pay and care for them while they wait to go through the legal system,” Ellison said.
These days, Carmen sees a different girl than she did when that detention door swung open 28 months ago. Angela has regained her weight and is healthy again. And although the fear and pain from the other life sometimes cloud her gaze, it is fleeting. Today, Carmen mostly sees something else – a light, a focus – in Angela’s eyes that reflects her determination to make up for lost time.
“Everything comes from herself,” Carmen says. “I never have to tell her to get up and go to school or to study. She’s just so motivated.”
So motivated she gets headaches from working such long hours on her English essays or her math problems. So motivated Carmen has to tell her to slow down, to relax. It’s OK to make one or two mistakes. Not everything needs to be perfect.
On Aug. 12, Angela will start her freshman year at Papillion-La Vista South High School. This fall, she’ll step on the field in her black and blue band uniform, holding her clarinet at just the right angle, marching along, fingering the notes to The Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started.”
And she’ll also step into her new classroom with another distinction: an Honors Student – in English, math and social studies.
* * *
It’s evening, and Angela watches her 92-year-old grandmother’s hands finger the blue beads of the rosary, her thin lips forming the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
They sit alone in plastic chairs in front of a makeshift altar with the flickering candle and the portrait of a saint propped against the mud wall of the living room.
The words are the same each night: Our Fathers and Hail Marys whispered above the clamor of the streets of San Jose Cancasque or the crash of her brother stumbling through the doorway.
In these moments, Angela tries to drown out the noise. She pleads with God for something better for her and her family. For their future.
She left her rosary in El Salvador and hasn’t replaced it. The living room in Nebraska with the flat screen TV and the framed artwork doesn’t have an altar.
But Angela has a silver cross that hangs on a thin chain around her neck. She never takes it off; her fingers trace it when she’s alone in her room.
“I want a piece of God with me all the time,” she says. “I feel Him.”
When she lies in bed now, after reading her assigned pages of “Watership Down” or writing out the lyrics to Adam Levine’s latest single, she prays to herself. For her mother’s mind, her brothers’ bodies.
Help them, Lord. Keep them safe.
She talks to her mother and grandmother at least once a week on the phone. Her grandmother’s voice is fading, her eyes failing. And it’s always been difficult with her mother. So Angela just tells her she’s doing well. She’s healthy and happy and getting good grades. She tells her mom she hopes to someday bring her to the United States. She knows her grandmother is frail, but she’d love to see her again too.
Every time she calls, her mother always ends the conversation the same way – sometimes in the loud, frantic voice that she used to run from: “Angela, don’t come back. Stay there.”
It’s evening now and when the suburban Omaha house goes quiet and the lights are turned off, when she’s tucked under her pink and purple Winnie-the-Pooh comforter, Angela reminds herself of all she can be thankful for.
Earlier in the day, she’d let a question linger in the air for a long while. She tapped her foot, tugged on her fingers, glanced up, glanced down, brushed back her hair and for a moment it seemed as though she might cry.
And then her gaze steadied and she looked up and gave her answer.
“I am so thankful for the great opportunity that America has given me,” she said softly. “I cannot just throw it away. I am going to use it.”