Who Leaves and Who Stays

Several factors are at the heart of Honduran asylum seekers’ decision to migrate to the United States. According to Brenda Ramirez Calix, a 24 year-old employee at a downtown hotel in San Pedro Sula, the majority of the migrants are in their late teens and twenties and their main goal is to find employment. Life where agriculture is the mainstay leaves youth with very few options to create a sustainable and productive livelihood. Their decision to leave weighs heavily on every aspect of their lives, and most of the time the process includes the initial attempt to start a new life in the urban areas. But finding work in the cities of San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa, capital city of Honduras, is difficult and frustrating.  

Brenda Ramírez Calix. Photo by Irma Guadarrama

But Brenda insists that she will avoid the pressure of leaving her country by staying on course. “No tuve una niñez (I didn’t have a normal childhood),” she says, referring to the rural community where she lived until the age of fourteen. Her family relied on subsistence farming for survival; her father, a campesino, toiled the land like his family, the traditional way of life for generations. Brenda, her mother and two younger brothers, carried out their duties and responsibilities in all aspects of agricultural life in a mountainous region in the neighboring state of Yoro. When she had completed the highest level of educational program in her community, she made the decision to pursue certain educational goals. Her plan was to eventually complete a university degree, procure a long-standing professional career, and assume the financial responsibilities of her family. “My father is a hard-working campesino; he has inspired me to work just as hard,” responds Brenda to the question on what motivates her to continue her studies and pursue a career. “He works the land in a small finca, cultivates coffee, corn, beans, and bananas.” “It’s very small,” she says, “but sufficient to sustain us.”

Brenda and her father. Photo by Brenda Ramirez Calix.

Brenda was fourteen years old when she moved in with her Aunt and Uncle in a community outside of San Pedro Sula so she could attend the high school. She managed to graduate from high school and attend the university for a couple of years. Lack of economic resources delayed her university degree, and at the time of the interview, she had opted to take a stint with the naval military to earn enough money to return to the university. 

How has she managed to stay out of harm’s way in an area dominated by gang violence and control?

Brenda learned how to avoid any encounters with gang members. “They used to live in the urban areas, but now, they’re everywhere,” she says. Her description of the “before and after” life in her small town provides clarity to how gang members have systematically dominated the lives of each member of the community. Her best strategy for staying alive was to avoid any potential contact with any person that may be associated with the gangs. She simply stayed away from socialization possibilities, which led to a life of social isolation. She couldn’t visit her friends anymore, certainly, she couldn’t go out at night. But, the entire social and cultural fabric of life in her community also changed – drastically. The traditional customs that the community boasted as being important and sacred radically disappeared. Even Christmas and Easter community events had to be suspended for fear of gang interference and violence.

The Risk Factor

Brenda believes that she is at risk of becoming a victim of gang violence each time she travels by public transportation, a necessity in order to make the 40-minute trip to her place of employment in San Pedro Sula. Bus drivers and/or their assistants in main transportation arteries are the prime targets by gang members who consistently demand extortion fees (“impuestos de guerra”). Sometimes the extortion fees become extraordinarily high, perhaps, because gang members feel pressured to steal more money at less intervals to avoid police arrest or stricken by violent reprisal from gang rivals. When their victims refuse to pay they are killed, mostly by fire arm. Gang members consistently disengage from the possibility of hurting or killing innocent bystanders. Brenda remembers friends and acquaintances killed by gang members just because they were at the wrong place, wrong time. 

The Honduran government’s lack of effective solutions to social, economic, and security problems has created a sense of distrust among its people toward the country’s leadership. Brenda describes the conditions of greed and complacency as “everything for me” (“todo para mi”), thus, the reason why there’s a lack of a serious, long-term comprehensive plan to substantially improve the lives of many impoverished people. An integral social and educational reform plan is long overdue, and the steps taken now toward a better future are possible, when and if the governmental leadership is willing to make the change.        

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