Honduran Blues

For the past two weeks, Jose Antonio has raced home from whatever job he could find that day, usually busing tables or washing dishes in one of the tony downtown Phoenix eateries. Once home, he turns on the old black-and-white television in his run-down central Phoenix apartment.

He wonders if he has seen his parents' and brothers' corpses in the Univision footage showing bodies floating down Honduran rivers.

He has tried many times to call home, but the phone lines are down.
Jose Antonio does not know if his mother, father, nine brothers, two sisters-in-law and four little nieces and nephews are alive in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest huracan to hit his homeland, Honduras, in 100 years.

Jose Antonio, 20, went to school for a total of two years and cannot read well enough to read a newspaper. He can't speak English and has difficulty expressing himself in Spanish. His only official source of information about the hurricane's devastation is the news broadcast on the Spanish-language television station.

He knows that after Mitch steamrolled over Central America, 14,013 people died and another 26,000 are still missing. He knows that Honduras was hit hard--more than 6,000 Hondurans were killed, an estimated 11,000 Hondurans are missing and another one million are homeless. He knows that half of Honduras' gross national product--mostly coffee and banana crops--has been destroyed by the hurricane.

And he says his village, Puerto Cortez, sits in an area that was devastated by the hurricane.

To hear Jose Antonio tell it, his father, a farmer, was successful by Honduran standards, being the owner of a house with four rooms and several large fields planted with rice and bananas. But Jose Antonio hated the fact that in his family, all 10 sons were not allowed to get any reasonable sort of education, were forced instead to work the family fields or get factory jobs and turn over their salaries to their dad. He and his brothers were like servants to his father, he says, because they had been beaten since they were tiny. (Of course, we do not know how Jose Antonio's father would respond to his son's allegations. We do not even know if he is alive.)

Jose Antonio says he got so sick of his father that one day 18 months ago he walked out of the house and hitched, hiked and jumped freight trains until he got to the United States.

"I'll show you, Dad," he'd thought to himself.
Now he doesn't know if he'll ever see his father again.
And he feels guilty. Why should he, the prodigal son, be alive if his family was killed by the hurricane?

Sometimes, his head aches so much he just sits in the dark.

No one knows with any certainty how many Honduran immigrants actually live in the United States, much less in Phoenix. The reason: Many, like Jose Antonio, are illegal immigrants who avoid any sort of head count.

In the 1990 census, the Bureau of the Census counted 49,500 Honduran immigrants residing legally in the entire United States. The Census Bureau doesn't break down those figures by municipality.

In 1996, the last year for which statistics are available, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service said 5,870 Honduran immigrants legally entered the country.

But thousands, like Jose Antonio, are members of an uncounted underclass.
Until Hurricane Mitch, the uncounted Hondurans in Phoenix lived as anonymously as possible, hanging out in colonias, or neighborhoods, in poorer sections of the Valley.

Then Hurricane Mitch hit, and the American Red Cross in Phoenix suddenly got 100 requests from local Hondurans for news of family members. In the United States as a whole, the Red Cross got a national total of 1,800 requests, which is an indication that Phoenix has a significant Honduran population.

"We did not know there were so many Hondurans living in Phoenix," says Suzanne Luber, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross in Phoenix. Until it opened its phone lines for two nights because of the hurricane, the Red Cross, says Luber, had no sense of the extent of the Honduran community here.

Of course, not even the Red Cross can do much to calm fears about family members in Honduras. Luber says the Honduran Red Cross has received all the faxed requests for news of relatives from Arizona, but roads and telephone lines are so damaged it may take a month before the Honduran Red Cross can respond.

Jose Antonio did not even know Hondurans could ask the Red Cross for help in obtaining news about the welfare of family members.

Instead, he has devised his own fact-finding missions.
Nights when he doesn't have English classes, Jose Antonio pedals his bike through the littered alleys of his neighborhood in the vicinity of Third Avenue and Roosevelt Street.

On a recent night, he let me come with him. First stop was the apartment rented by Carlos Pineda, a 22-year-old laborer whose family lives in central Honduras.

Pineda says he just got in touch with his family, that they are fine.
But Pineda's roommate is drunk and can be heard crashing around the small apartment. Pineda explains his roommate comes from San Pedro Sula, in the northeastern stretch of Honduras most severely hit. The roommate learned earlier in the day that his family's house was washed away in floods; his wife and children are homeless.

"You're an American journalist," Pineda tells me. "Let me tell you about Central America. The United States owns Central America. If the United States forgave all of Honduras' debt, then the country would finally be free."

Jose Antonio interrupts him. Has Pineda heard anything about the fate of the village of Puerto Cortez?

Nothing, says Pineda.
Jose Antonio cannot find the other Hondurans on his route--two brothers and an elderly man. He has heard that the brothers, who, like Pineda's roommate, are also from San Pedro Sula, have lost their residences to Hurricane Mitch floods. But the brothers aren't at home; neighbors say they have taken second jobs at night to get more money to send to their wives. The elderly man is not at home, either.

We return to Jose Antonio's apartment, which has no heat. Jose Antonio is too broke to buy a coat, so I ask him how he stays warm.

"Aguanto," he says, which means, "I endure."
To keep himself occupied, he has recently started the practice of cutting out pictures of saguaros and desert lakes and pine forests from old issues of Arizona Highways. Then he glues them on his lampshade for decoration. On the wall near the door, he's put up two magazine pictures of cherubic gringo children so wholesome that they look like they were clipped from fabric-softener advertisements.

Two small American flags decorate his coffee table.
"Honduras is destroyed," he tells me. "The people who are still alive are going to succumb to cholera and other diseases. If my family is dead, there is no reason to return to Honduras. I will stay here and learn English, I'll become bilingual. With two languages, I can get a job, maybe at a grocery store.

"I will endure," he says.
He flicks on the television. It's almost time for the news.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at tgreene@newtimes.com

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