TIJUANA — The social worker at the Migrant House in Tijuana takes me to a table where various men are making paper flowers. On the far side, Brayan Rivera, 23, is engrossed in his task. The finesse he applies to the work contrasts sharply with the roughness of the other men. His flowers are wonderfully fine and delicate.

The social worker tells me Brayan has only been there three days, and that behind the apparent shyness is an open, talkative spirit. We greet with a handshake and I notice how soft the young Honduran's hands are. His nails are perfectly cut and his long fingers sparkle with silver-plated rings. His hair is bleached and perfectly gelled. His clothes couldn't be neater.

"Do you want me to tell you why I left my country, what happened on the journey and where I am going?," he asks, as if I were a judge.

"Why don't you tell me instead why you're here," I respond.

"Because I was afraid," he says. "I still am, to tell you the truth."

Staying out of trouble

Brayan was born and raised in the Lomas del Carmen district of San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras. Various statistical lists published since 2013 cite the city as the most dangerous in the world. Yet his life there was unusually orderly, close to the violence but always a step away from its dreaded consequences.

First there was the innocence and playing, the peaks of childhood felicity and his mother's tenderness. Then came boredom, the duty of growing up and becoming someone, and its attendant pitfalls: rebellion, teenage dreams and disappointments. Everything was normal, in other words — until his 17th birthday.

That day, the violence that Brayan had somehow managed to avoid finally found him. The Mara Salvatrucha , or MS, one of several maras (hyper-violent street gangs) that plague Honduras and neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala — began stalking him, coaxing the young man into joining its ranks. For a long time, Brayan's religious faith, and a sound education he received at home, kept him away from the dark spiral of the maras, which, on average, land three of every 10 youngsters from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala behind bars, two in a grave, and force one into exile.

MS-13 Gang Photo: The Gangs Of The World

"For five years they threatened and insulted me. But it never went further that that," he recalls. "And that was unusual, because in my country it's simple: You either join the maras or they kill you."

Fate seems to have led me to Brayan. He is a serious, very serious, young man, perhaps because of what he has endured. I imagine him at eight, running and smiling on streets unfamiliar to me, and seeing things I have not seen nor will see. I also imagine him at 15, writing a love letter, alone in his study, while listening to a song in English he doesn't understand, but which stirs him inside.

Brayan talks about his life as if he were 50 instead of 23. He tells me things that are difficult to digest in a matter-of-fact way, while his green-blue eyes gaze at me with overwhelming assurance.

The maras aren't just ferocious, they're terrifying.

He studied management before working as marketing chief for a small firm in San Pedro Sula. He'd grown accustomed, in some ways, to the the extortion, and to the bewilderment of sharing a neighborhood with one of the world's most feared gangs. And so he thought he could carve himself a niche, that he could somehow live a "quiet" life amid the chaos.

His mother, wanting to help him, suggested he move to the capital, Tegucicalpa, which has its own gang problems but where it's easier to remain anonymous, easier to avoid problems. But Brayan refused. There was no way he would leave her alone.

Caught and cornered

Eventually, MS found out about his work as marketing manager, and began demanding half his wages as protection money — to leave him alone, in other words. Brayan negotiated a quota with them and duly paid up, but after a couple of months, they came back and asked for more. At first the intimidation was weekly. Then it was daily. They would bump into him at every corner, send him messages, call him. Then they threatened to harm his mother if he didn't pay.

"The maras aren't just ferocious, they're terrifying," he says.

"So is that why you left?," I ask.

No. The extortion, as bad as it was, isn't want forced him to flee. "It was when the gang found out I was going out with a boy," says Brayan, swallowing saliva. "The blackmail doubled," he add, to interrupt his silence. "I decided to leave when gang members abused me sexually. Even that wasn't enough. They beat me on several occasions because they wanted me to prostitute myself and sell their drugs."

Somehow trying to rationalize his perfectly understandable exile, Brayan concludes there were "two things" that sent him packing: Being young — "because it's a crime to be young in Honduras" — and his sexual orientation.

"Being gay in Honduras is unacceptable. They can't conceive of love between two men. They just can't," he says. "I faced discrimination on all sides. The only one who didn't discriminate there was my mother. The psychological abuse is awful and always ends in physical abuse."

Rape and refuge

It was November 2016 when Brayan left Honduras. He crossed Guatemala without stopping until he reached Tapachula, on the Mexican border. The first thing he did in Mexico was to ask for asylum. There he met a person who promised to help him.

"But after a few days, the person began saying he was in love with me," Brayan recalls. "I didn't like him that much and so I rejected him several times. Then one day he came with two friends and the three of them raped me."

He recounted the incident to Mexican migration authorities during his second interview, showing evidence. It seemed to make an impact. "I think that's why they gave me permanent residency," Brayan tells me.

Tijuana Vista Photo: Bolt158

Feeling unsafe in Tapachula, he decided to leave for Mexico City. He sought work there and found jobs for rock-bottom wages. The money he earned in a restaurant barely allowed him to rent a room in the city center. Someone told him things were better in Monterrey. Once he'd cobbled up enough money for a bus ticket, he left.

In Monterrey, in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, he arrived at a hostel for Central American and Mexican migrants called Casa Nicolás. There, while he was looking for work, the notorious Zetas cartel tried to kidnap him twice. "I couldn't understand what was happening to me or the world. It was too much," he says.

Brayan next decided to go to Tijuana, south of San Diego on the U.S. border. He didn't have any money left so he had to hitch a ride. That provoked an absurd detour to San Luis Potosí, in central Mexico, which took him further rather than closer to Tijuana. He'd been told that from San Luis Potosí, it would be easier to get to Torreón, in the north, and from there to Tijuana. But once in San Luis Potosí, poeple told him he was crazy — that it was much better to go straight from Monterrey. "So I hitchhiked back to Monterrey," he says. From there Brayan finally made it to Torreón, then Chihuahua and finally Tijuana.

"I calculated that this was about 3,000 kilometers, not of traveling, but of anxiety, since I was with people I didn't know and took paths that could lead to anything. I was lucky," he says.

California dreaming

Brayan doesn't plan to stay in Tijuana. Like so many migrants here, he wants to enter the United States. But he wants to do this legally, as a refugee, the way he did in Mexico. "I have all my papers in order," he says. "Proof of everything that happened to me. I know it's difficult but I don't see how they could say no."

It's dinner time and Brayan is evidently tired. He has not eaten anything, not because there's no food, but because he's been busy with daily tasks, including looking for work in the city. The Migrant's House asks its guests to leave no later than 8 a.m. and reopens its doors at 4 p.m. The early evening is a difficult time of the day: Brayan sits alone, mulling over the past, thinking about how much he misses his mother.

"I told my mother I'm fine, so she wouldn't feel bad," he tells me. He says he called her from Tapachula to say he wanted to stay alive — even if it meant living far away —so he could hear her voice whenever he wanted. "She began to cry and I hung up," Brayan says. "I was crushed."

They tell me it's the world's most tolerant city.

Like most Hondurans, Brayan has quite a few relatives in the United States. But he doesn't know if there's anyone he can really count on since they're all ashamed of his sexuality.

"What do you think is the source of the violence in your country," I ask.

"Poverty obviously, and the lack of opportunities," he responds. "Young people prefer to earn 1,000 lempiras ($60) killing someone in an operation that lasts 15-20 minutes to doing honest work for a week for the same amount."

Brayan is alright in the refuge but even there some of the migrants mock him. He sleeps lightly, fearing someone could enter his room to abuse him. "I am a devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and with her blessing, I am certain the United States will take me in," he says. More than anything, the young man wants to go to San Francisco. "They tell me it's the world's most tolerant city."

Later, in the courtyard, I wait for Patrick Murphy, the Catholic priest and Scalabrinian missionary who runs the place. I peer through a window into the dining room. About 20 men are eating in silence, wolfing down their food without looking up. I observe Brayan sitting at an end table, holding his knife and fork and chewing with the same delicacy he used to turn the plain sheets of paper into pretty flowers.

I imagine vainly that I understand his loneliness and suffering. But then I deplore my idiotic desire to understand everything, because there are things, certainly, that one simply cannot grasp. Days later, I realize that what I felt for Brayan was admiration — admiration for his resilience and majestic sensitivity, a kind of unabashed admiration I hadn't felt before for anyone.


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