José Jacinto Reyes is educate.‘s Cultural Advisor and Problem Solver. This story was co-authored by José and educate. board member Antonia McGrath
I grew up in a place where humanity is trumped by ambition for power and territory. From a young age, I watched people get shot and collapse lifeless in the dust. When that kind of violence surrounds you, life becomes meaningless. But that is how my life was built: amongst violence, power and poverty – things that can corrupt anyone.
At a very young age, far too young to know how to make the right decisions, I lived on the streets of San Pedro Sula and had to fend for myself. I lived with a friend of mine, who was like my brother, and together, we would walk around the city all day and well into the night. We shared whatever we had, protected each other and survived together. Sometimes that meant assaulting people with a knife and forcing them to hand over whatever money they had, but more often than not it was stealing a mango here, some chicken there, pickpocketing a telephone to sell for a few lempirasat the city market. I’m not proud of it, but I was young. The streets of Honduras are a rough place to grow up, but it was all we knew. It was fun, exciting even! We had ultimate freedom. Running through the dusty streets of San Pedro, we were carefree in our own special way. We had a river to bathe in, a sky full of stars to lie and watch as we fell asleep each night, and a moon guiding our path.
But one day, things started to turn sour. My friend had started stealing more expensive things and selling them. It made good money, but it was risky and he made many enemies.
One night he returned with a lot of money. I didn’t ask how he got it; it was obviously stolen. The following evening, while we were sitting together on the street, a car screeched to a halt in front of us, and before we knew what was happening, several armed men got out. They grabbed us, hands over our mouths to stop us from crying out, and forced us into the car. The doors slammed shut and the driver started driving off at high speed. I was in too much shock to move, and I heard a skinny bald man next to me say, “We need to finish this mission quickly, we have another one in the other neighbourhood tonight. We have to eliminate these pests!”
Panic gripped me, my whole body was trembling and I felt tears of terror in my eyes. All I remember from the car ride was paralyzing fear and the bodies of the men surrounding me and my friend.
Several minutes later the car stopped, and someone cried out, “blindfold them!”
They had taken us to a bridge over a river in a place far from the city. Roughly, they pulled us to the edge. A lantern lit up our faces. I heard someone flip the safety off on their gun. I was sure I was going to die that night. Suddenly my friend whispered to me: “Tienes que saltar!” You have to jump!
He ran towards the men and shouted back to me, “Salta!” Jump! As I heard the first gunshot, I leapt off the bridge. As I fell, I heard three more shots and then the water engulfed me. I swam, down, down, down, my arms pushing me forwards as fast as I could, still holding my breath and traveling along with the river’s current so that I would go faster still. After a while I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and I came up for air. I heard more shots, directed at me from the bridge, and I dived down again. I swam further and further away, disappearing into the darkness, and eventually swam to shore, gasping for air. My heart was beating fast, my legs and arms shaking and my thoughts were barely coherent. I had no idea where my friend was. But I couldn’t stay there. I decided my best option was to walk through the fields, hidden by the darkness, and try to find somewhere to rest.
I didn’t realize until I tried to stand up that I was injured. My right foot was on fire. I bent down to touch it and felt blood – everywhere. I didn’t know where to find help. I was seven years old and alone in the darkness with a bullet wound in my foot. The pain was excruciating, and I made slow progress
I spotted a small house and the woman inside helped me. The next day she took me to the hospital. The doctor patched up my wound and told me to go home. And so, with my foot still in bandages, I went back to the streets.
I never found my friend.
Now I am a cabinet maker and I have a daughter to take care of; I want to give her all the opportunities that I never had. It has been a long process to get to where I am now. Most kids who grew up like I did don’t make it past 18. And if they do, they become drug addicts, criminals and gang members, because it’s the only choice they have. I got lucky. One day, I’d love to go to university, but right now it’s too expensive. But I’m happy. And, somehow, I’m still alive.
José believes the men that tried to kill him and his friend were part of the death squads that used to operate in Honduras. The killing of street children was purportedly part of a “social cleansing” program.
Now, alongside his work as a carpenter, José volunteers for the charity educate., believing that only education can create long-lasting change for Honduras’ youth.
*This article was originally published in Leiden University’s BAISmag.