Tuesday - Jul 16, 2019

My conversation with 8-year-old international pawn

­by Esther J. Cepeda

As Mother’s Day approached, I sat with eight-year-old Saúl in the courtyard of St. Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, where he lives with his mother, Elvira Arellano, who has avoided the reach of U.S. immigration officials for nine months now.

Away from a small group of other parishioners who were also enjoying a barbecue lunch, we engaged in some serious conversation.

Saúl is a U.S. citizen by virtue of being born here. His mother isn’t. She arrived in the United States from Maravatio, a small town in the central Mexico state of Michoacán, without papers 10 years ago. On Aug. 15, 2006, she defied a federal order to report to the Chicago office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings. She had been swept up in a raid at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where she had worked for a year as a cleaning lady at O’Hare International Airport.

Last fall, long separated from Saúl’s father, Elvira took the boy, then 7, and sought sanctuary in their church on the city’s near west side. Her hope was that ICE agents would not raid the church, and time would bring an avenue for her to stay in the United States legally with her son. ICE agents have stayed away, in part perhaps because of the Arellanos’ celebrity status in the community.

During the May Day immigration march, pro-immigrant organizers took Saúl to Chicago’s Grant Park to address a crowd of thousands. Always thin and shy, he has grown, by his mother’s measure, five inches since August. But around adults his speech remains guarded.

I have spoken with mother and son on several occasions while reporting on their status. I have a son Saúl’s age, which I hoped would guide me in moving our conversation.

Framing his predicament carefully, Saúl told me he was content living in the church but felt confronted daily by his mom’s lack of freedom. “She can’t take me to the store and can’t take me to school. It makes me feel a little bad. My friends — they have their moms and their dads,” he said. “It’s different for them.”

He described how he and his mother used to go to the park and run around together. Now they settle for watching movies on TV in the room they share in the sanctuary church.

On special occasions Elvira does her best to bring the party to Saúl. “For my birthday we invited all my friends over. We played and ate,” he said. “We had pizza, hot dogs, nachos and apple juice.”

The boy is growing up much faster than he wants. He has traveled across the country accompanied by advocates for his mother’s cause, speaking to countless radio, television and newspaper reporters about her situation, using the spotlight to plead for a compassionate law that would let families threatened with separation stay together in the United States.

He has appeared on talk shows, gone to Washington, D.C., multiple times to meet politicians, and even traveled to Mexico City, his first trip across the border, to ask that nation’s legislators to lobby the United States government on his mother’s behalf. They quickly obliged.

He relishes the things his mother does for him, like his special meals during her 25-day hunger strike which ended May 1. “She fixes good soup — with vegetables and meat and small pieces of corn on the cob so they fit in the bowl.” He fantasizes about walking out of the church with his mom to get pizza at his favorite Chuck E. Cheese.

He describes their daily routines, hanging out and doing homework at the table where Elvira works on the computer. They watch TV together, play with his action figures, and practice vocabulary for his weekly spelling test.

For Mother’s Day, he explains, “We made cards at school. They have different hearts on them and I wrote something on it but I can’t remember what.”

How else might he show his love for her?

“I think she likes flowers.”

Then one more wish tumbled off the child’s tongue. “I want President Bush to end the deportations so my mom and other families can stay here in the United States.”

(Esther J. Cepeda of Chicago is a contributing columnist with Hispanic Link News Service. She may be reached at chihuahua33@hotmail.com). © 2007