She ran away from home early this morning, showed up at my friend Aracely’s house at 6 a.m. asking for shelter, and is now quietly hunched in a plastic chair, munching cookies while I question her about her situation.
“I had to leave. It just got to a point when I couldn’t listen anymore” she says. Her family calls her the stupid one, the child they wish hadn’t been born, the worthless good-for-nothing girl. She’s been the family whipping block for years. Aracely was the only one she confided in.
“When I leave,” she told her, “I’m going to disappear forever. And you’ll be the only person who knows where I am.”
She is hoping for a job as a live-in maid in San Salvador; a good salary would be 100 dollars a month. But it’s late morning now and her potential employer hasn’t called her yet.
Her agitation is visible as the minutes tick by. I have my cheerful, encouraging grin on as I make her eat some hastily cooked lunch. I leave the house at noon. Still no word.
Until this morning, I didn’t realize that running away was a relatively common thing among rural Salvadorans. Aracely tells me that she’s, ‘had luck’ with these kinds of situations.
“What do you mean you’ve ‘had luck,’” I ask confusedly.
“Well, people always show up at our doorstep asking if they can stay until they figure out what to do,” she replies, “first there was Monica and before that, Sandra, and a few years ago Yesica … but Carmen makes me sadder than they did.”
“Why?” I ask, staring at Aracely’s newly painted toenails.
“The other girls had places to go. They went to live with their grandparents or aunts or someone. Carmen has no one and she’s trying to work full time in the city. She must feel like she’s on the edge of a cliff…I would be terrified.”
A day later I return from a trip to a far-off village, expecting to hear about Carmen’s new employer. Instead, Aracely confides that Carmen’s mother broke into Aracely’s house this morning screaming for her daughter. Luckily, Carmen wasn’t there. The employer still hasn’t called and Carmen spent all day in downtown Ahuachapán, looking for work and getting desperate.
I think back to the first time I ran away from home. I was maybe seven or eight, tied my blankie to a stick, grabbed enough cookies to last me a week and took off.
I found a good camping spot and hunkered down, enraged at my family’s lack of understanding and darkly satisfied with their approaching pain in the face of my permanent departure.
I was almost happy in my imaginings by the time my little brother came around to the other side of the garage and found me. By then, I was ready to go back home anyway; it had been a lot of work to leave.
Day three and Carmen is still at Aracely’s house. The dream of a job is dimming; Aracely says she can stay as long as she needs to, “We’re poor here,” she tells Carmen, “but we always have enough food to share.” Carmen nods her head silently and looks at the ground. She is remarkably composed for a homeless sixteen-year-old.
She tells us that her dream is to make enough as a housemaid to rent her own room in the city. We both smile and look at the ground. Neither Aracely nor I know anyone who can find her a job. We keep brainstorming and coming up empty.
“What a small dream,” I think to myself, “and I can’t do anything to help her get it.”
It’s tempting to look at Carmen as she sits quietly in a plastic chair and bemoan the lack of education and job opportunities in this country.
There certainly is a lack, and she definitely needs a job. But I think, watching her, that the real sadness lies back in her adobe house, where her sisters and parents sit waiting for her, willing her to come home to them.
Whether it’s the shame of her disappearance or dormant love reawakened by her absence that spurs their emotions I don’t know.
But it shouldn’t be like this. Carmen has so much stacked against her already: she comes from poverty, from the country, her skin is dark in a culture that glorifies a white complexion, and she left school after the fifth grade. Now she’s adrift and the tie that’s supposed to be the strongest was the first she had to sever.
What does the world look like after growing up with so much pain? Does she see horizons as she looks silently at my cement floor?
She must somehow because she decided three days ago to pack her bags without a word. If she could walk away determinedly then she can walk forward the same. And maybe, someday, after the pain has dulled and lessened, she’ll be able to retrace her footsteps and find some kind of peace where she started, at home.