A man emerges by the river near where he fishes for shrimp. The girl knows him. She lives with him and his wife, a cousin on her mother’s side, in a home up the hill. Tonight he has come to claim her, a virgin, as his other woman. He grabs the girl by the arm as the older woman scuttles away. He muffles her screams with his hand, strips her sleeveless blue dress, pushes her against a rock and rapes her.
His name is Juan García Aguilar. He is 38. The girl’s name is Yolanda Méndez Torres. She is 11.
It is the summer of 1998. Over the next six years, he will take her over 5,000 miles, from the tropical scrub brush hills of Oaxaca into the Sonoran Desert and to the United States.
To North Carolina, where she will be a child laborer in blueberry fields. To Georgia and Tennessee, where she will live trapped in motel rooms as Juan pours concrete for Wal-Mart gas stations. And to Dallas, where she will sleep in a closet and decide whether to murder him or escape.
At each step, Yolanda will personify a dark migration: domestic abuse victims taken from a region beset with unreported violence against women and children to a country where they become phantoms, fearful of authorities and ignorant of legal protections.
In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, gripped by a centuries-old culture of machismo, rates of physical and sexual abuse against children are some of the highest in the world, according to a recent United Nations study of violence against children.
And the number of minors reported abducted in both directions across the U.S./Mexico border has more than doubled in recent years, from 168 in 2000 to 397 so far in 2006 – though experts warn that most abductions go unreported. Among the estimated 5 million children living in America as undocumented or with undocumented parents, the number of abuse victims cannot be known. They are largely invisible, unseen until they surface with their stories.
They call the town La Barra del Potrero, named for the ranchland where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. In all, there are fewer than 100 homes, most with walls stitched from tree branches and tin roofs held together with rusted bottle caps and pieces of found rubber. The land is raw and lush, its heavy tropical air spiked with smells of sweet flowers and burning trash.