by Eli Saslow
Originally published by The Washington Post, 7 September 2014
LOS ANGELES — The caseworker told Alex Ramirez he was being released from the immigration shelter, so the 10-year-old packed what was left of his belongings into a donated shoulder bag. He put on the rubber Tony the Tiger bracelet he wore for good luck and sneakers emblazoned with red flames. Then he visited a nurse for the last of eight mandatory immunizations, and she asked a version of the question he had been hearing for the past six weeks.
“Can you be brave?” he would later recall her asking in Spanish, and he told her that yes, he could.
He had been brave ever since leaving El Salvador at night in the company of a stranger and traveling more than 2,500 miles to cross into the United States. If there was one skill he had acquired during his long journey, it was how to affect toughness — how to stiffen his shoulders and spike up his wavy black hair with gel to make himself look a few inches taller and a few years older. “Estoy bien,” he remembered saying, again and again, to the trafficker who brought him and abandoned him, the Border Patrol agents who caught him, and the caseworkers at three government-run shelters who asked if he was okay. “I’m fine.” But in fact he was tired from the stiff cots, nauseated from the strange foods and anxious even now, as he waited at the shelter to be picked up by a mother who had left him behind six years before.