By Andy Christian Castillo
The old 15 passenger Dodge van was a classic: complete with roll-down windows, groaning ball-joints, doors that screamed and rasped every time they shut and a seat in the back that wasn’t fixed onto the rotting floor. Personality, that’s what it had — a lot of personality. The once white paint, now a dusty brown, peeled around the wheel wells and rust crept down from the windows. Out on the highway, the blistering Mexican sun pulled a permeating stench of burning oil from its straining engine and cooked its passengers alive to a coffee-brown crisp.
Everyday at 2pm, the chicos raced out of the squat white buildings — all but little Oscar, who lagged behind searching for bugs and dragging his oversized backpack through the dust. They piled into the white oven screaming and punching each other and laughing sweet laughter that drowned out the sound of cicadas.
Everyday at 2pm, a little boy jumped onto my back and shout: “Arriba, arriba!” Off we’d go, jostling and running to the van. Inside, tiny hands grabbed my already stretched shirt, pulling me next to one smiling face, and then another; grabbing my heart at the same time and tugging me away from America.
Every day at 2pm Javier awakened the old van from its slumber with a jolt, backed out over the crunching rocks and pulled out of the sun-bleached compound of El Rancho Del Rey, which has Noah’s Ark painted on the outer walls. Off we’d go out from the shadow of the towering Monterrey Mountains. The boys would start singing and I would join in. I made up for my lack of Spanish with enthusiasm.
They called me Capitan America.
The streets were narrow, lined with houses surrounded by stucco walls to keep out the wild dogs and wild people. Potholes came out of nowhere; after rain, rivers ran through the streets. Once, while we were getting Mexican ice cream, a stray got his leg run over by a passing car; no one even seemed to notice. We ate our ice cream while the creature cried underneath the van. At the schoolhouse, Javier pulled over and the boys piled past me, yelling to friends and shoving each other.
On Friday, Carlos was suspended from school for stealing, Francisco for failing grades. Francisco said he hoped that if he did poorly enough, his father would come and take him home (even though he had never come to see him). Most of the boys lived in drug infested communities; most experienced abuse of some sort; all of them didn’t have a chance at an education apart from El Rancho. Once, the boys were caught sniffing paint (they range in age from about seven to fifteen). Every one of them said they regularly saw drug use at home — most of them said they drank or experimented with drugs. Every one of them didn’t choose their life circumstances.
Growing up in the barrios of the Monterrey Valley is, in many cases, a life sentence to poverty and hardship. In 2013 more than half of Mexico lived under the poverty line — the war on drugs and crime has ravaged the nation, leaving a wake of broken families and hurting children. Drug-orphans are everywhere and the government doesn’t have enough resources to take care of them all. Most fall through the cracks: exist on the fringes of society, fall into crime or simply fade out entirely.
El Rancho Del Rey is a bright light that shines through the dust. Just off the highway in the middle of a growing neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Monterrey, the white walls provide a safe haven from dangers that lurk outside. About fifteen boys stay in the residence each school year. They’re given a safe place to run around and be kids; three square meals a day and an opportunity to pursue education. Since its start in the 1950s, the home has given thousands of boys an opportunity for success.
What a contrast to America! where education is a God-ordained right; where we complain if our school is too far away; where we expect to be spoon-fed knowledge; where we throw education away like it’s disposable; where we don’t appreciate learning. For many American college students, university is a chance to escape from home and party without consequences; classes are an annoyance and studying is a waste of time.
My perspective on school changed while racing down bumpy Mexican highways in that old Dodge van; it changed when I looked into those beautiful, smart and bright eyes that were cheated by life before they opened for the first time. It changed when small arms wrapped around my neck and didn’t want to let go. How many future scientists, doctors or lawyers sat among them? How many more were never given the chance? How many more died in ignorance? Most Americans will never understand how privileged they are to have the freedom and ability to attend school and study.
In her short story “Salvador Late or Early,” Sandra Cisneros bottles up this reality perfectly — these little boys, who have “a hundred balloons of happiness” inside of their hearts, are plagued by “a single guitar of grief” (11). Their potential is squashed by reality. Many of them, despite the love showed to them through the home, will drift off into the sea of crime and oppression without a say in the matter. But some will become mechanical engineers and doctors and lawyers and scientists and some might even run for Mexican President.
GIVE: Support the boys here.
Andy Christian Castillo is the Founder of Ver・ism(s). He is a military veteran and student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pursuing a degree in English. In his free time, he plays music, writes poetry, gallivants around the world, climbs mountains and runs through the pouring rain.