Editor’s note: Valeria Fernandez is a former Feet in 2 Worlds reporting fellow.
Originally published by Phoenix New Times.
Darlin Adonay Peña has a headache.
On a Wednesday afternoon in May, he takes a break from his job flipping burgers at a McDonald’s on Central Avenue in Phoenix to sit down and talk, sipping a frozen caramel coffee drink and rubbing his almond eyes.
A brown rosary peeks from beneath his shiny black uniform. He’s shaved both sides of his head, taming a few meticulous black curls atop with gel.
A few pimples on his forehead give away Peña’s age. He is just 18. This is his first job since coming to the United States from Honduras last year, and he wants to do it to perfection.
He makes $7.95 an hour. The work is stressful. Sometimes, there are discussions in the back about how many burgers should be grilled at a time. Peña follows the rules carefully. Then he draws the ire of those who don’t. And that’s a headache, too.
“Me duele el cerebro,” he says. “My brain hurts.”
He gets headaches all the time. He doesn’t know why. It might be the beating he took in Nogales, Mexico, just before he crossed the border almost a year ago. It might be the memories of a terrible childhood. Or it might be the stress of the better life (though it’s a hard one) that he’s found in the United States.
Peña traveled alone as he risked his life to flee his home country of Honduras, crossing Mexico by hopping trains for two months before jumping the border fence in Nogales.
When U.S. Border Patrol agents caught him, his face was violet from the sun. He wore a pair of white Reeboks he got at a migrant shelter and carried a gray backpack containing two pairs of jeans. And he had no money in his pockets.
He left behind a childhood of forced labor and a family he barely knew without a clear plan of what to do once he reached the United States or even knowing whether there was a chance to get papers allowing him to work.
What happened after he arrived was a surprise. Border Patrol sent him to a shelter with hundreds of kids alone and scared like him. He met attorneys there who listened to his story and told him there was a way to help him stay in the country legally.
An immigration judge granted him a green card. He got to live with Americans who cared about him in a way no one ever had. He then got a dormitory room in a transitional-living program, a place supported by federal funds and private donations for youths who are getting back on their feet. He enrolled in school and found the full-time job.
He’s grateful. But, still, he’s a lonely kid who misses the family he barely had.
Although he has access to healthcare, Peña has not yet visited a doctor. He procrastinates like an 18-year‑old on his own, and he knows it. It’s not because he spends too much time partying with friends; he keeps a tight schedule between work and school.
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Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.