El Camino | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

El Camino

It was in the detention center that Milton Mejia learned how to make the rings. Hiding from the guards and the New Mexico heat, he'd lie in the farthest bunk of the center's single, gymnasium-like holding room. There, he'd wrap strips of plastic cut from a garbage bag around a mold made from a plastic soda-bottle cap. Colored with flecks from a Doritos packet, the finished ring could be traded to other inmates for soups and coffee. Or it could be hidden -- waiting until he would once again see Stephany. 

Stephany Mejia still has the ring, although lately it's been replaced by the golden wedding band Milton placed on her finger in July. It will be one of the few tangible reminders of Milton she'll have when he leaves Pittsburgh on Sept. 3 -- the day he will board an airplane and return to the small town in Honduras he fled five years ago, at age 16.

But Milton's journey -- his camino -- will not be forgotten here. Stephany will carry the memory of it, as will Milton's friends and allies. And thanks to the work of a group of dedicated local theater artists, it will also be at the heart of a new staged work, El Camino

The brainchild of two Carnegie Mellon University-affiliated theater artists, El Camino is a collaboratively written play about Milton's experiences, created to provoke a discussion about immigration issues. Like the rings that Milton made in New Mexico, it's fashioned from the humblest of materials -- and fused together by hope.

El Camino
Milton and Stephany Mejia, and the playwrights who are bringing their story to the stage: Anya Martin and Michelle Carello

The men teeing off at Eagle Pass Golf Course that July afternoon in 2005 had likely seen it all before. For a moment, they paused to watch Milton Mejia -- soaked, muddy and frightened -- pull himself out of the Rio Grande and onto the oasis-green fairway. But only for a moment.

"They just looked at me," Milton recalls, "and then kept playing."

They might've been more impressed if they'd known that, just a few years before, Milton couldn't pull himself out of bed. 

At first, it was just a funny feeling in his feet. But soon, the 11-year-old Milton couldn't walk. His grandmother, with whom he lived in mountainous central Honduras, took him to the hospital in the capital city, Tegucigalpa. She slept under Milton's bed as the boy's paralysis deepened. The diagnosis was grim: It was Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder attacking the nervous system. A case this advanced could be fatal.

But lying in his bed alone one evening, capable only of turning his head, Milton looked out the window and saw the statue of Jesus that overlooks the city from El Picacho Park. He simply decided that everything was going to be all right. Soon afterward, the paralysis began to fade as it had come on, and Milton began to teach his atrophied muscles how to do the most basic tasks.

"I had to teach myself to walk all over again," says Milton. "I had to start just with rolling, like a baby.

"I always say, if I can do something by myself, I do it."

He went home, and by age 14, ran a furniture business with two older cousins. When the cousins decided to close shop and travel across Central America to enter El Norte, young Milton boasted he could do the same. 

It wasn't just pride that spurred him on. Milton had lived with his grandmother, a teacher and coffee farmer, since the age of 1. (His mother, a widow, had handed Milton over at the insistence of his deceased father -- who visited her in recurring nightmares.) His grandmother had been prosperous, but "I saw things getting worse," says Milton. "She'd lost everything," when a relative defaulted on a loan borrowed against the value of her land. Milton felt that his best chance to help his family, and himself, lay in the U.S.

Milton's grandmother knew a "coyote" -- an immigrant-smuggler who, for the equivalent of $5,000, would shepherd Hondurans across the Mexico-U.S. border. So Milton boarded a bus with a backpack of clothing and a belt stuffed with whatever U.S. currency they could afford.

Milton and dozens of other would-be immigrants got as far as Pelenque, Mexico, where they hid in a shack as the coyote arranged passage. In the middle of their second night there, they heard the stomping boots of Mexican immigration police. The travelers broke through a back wall and scattered, running through the nearby woods in the dark.

When his eyes adjusted, Milton -- 16 years old and two borders from home -- was alone. 

"I was thinking all the time, 'Oh, I shouldn't have done this.' But [then I'd] think about my Grandma -- 'I'm on it, I can't give up now.'"

Milton also remembered the coyote's travel itinerary: Mexico City, Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras, and then the Texas border. "So I just started looking for a road."

Through a lucky series of hitched rides, bribed cabbies and bus tickets, Milton continued his journey alone. He found help in unexpected places -- like the woman on the bus who, although she'd never spoken to Milton before, told a Mexican immigration policeman that Milton was her nephew. 

And once he reached Piedras Negras, he found two locals who showed him where the Rio Grande is shallow enough to wade across -- a good thing, since Milton couldn't swim. The strangers held hands in a human chain, guiding Milton through the currents halfway out into the river. He reached the U.S. side on his own. 

"I was all muddy, and happy just to get out of the river alive," he says.

But when he started up a nearby street, he saw a white van with green lettering on the side: Border Patrol. It had taken 23 days and 1,500 miles to get to the U.S. border. It took him only five minutes to be caught once he crossed it. 

"I was tired -- all my energy [had gone into] trying to get out of the river. I didn't want to run," says Milton.

The border-patrol agent demanded that he empty out his pocket, Milton says, but "All I had left was 10 pesos, $150 and my Bible."

El Camino
The rings Milton made in detention and the wedding bands that have replaced them

Even today, Milton looks younger than his 21 years, all smiling eyes and a wisp of mustache above his lip. Before coming to Pittsburgh, he spent three months in a Texas detention center for minors, but it doesn't seem to have touched his face or personality. Or if it did, Stephany healed the damage.

At just 19 years old, Stephany is on her third surname. Born Stephany Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, she moved constantly as a child, before being adopted by an American relative. She came to Pittsburgh 10 years ago as Stephany McMullen, and is now a permanent legal resident, seeking full citizenship.

And it was here in Pittsburgh she met Milton.

When Milton was apprehended, he became entangled in an immigration system overburdened by detainees and paperwork. Because he was 16, Milton was a special challenge, according to his attorney, Jacqueline B. Martinez. Rather than hold a minor in a detention facility pending a deportation hearing, Martinez says, the system does whatever it can to place the detainee in the hands of a relative or guardian. 

In Milton's case, that was an aunt in Pittsburgh -- even though she hadn't been in touch with her Honduran relatives for over a decade. As Martinez notes, it couldn't have been easy to host a 16-year-old "who doesn't speak English [and just] dropped in." And soon after Milton's arrival, that aunt moved to Virginia -- leaving Milton behind. He moved in with a local contractor who'd provided him with some work. In time, the now-17-year-old was able to move into his own apartment and enroll himself at Allderdice High School. 

For Milton, the real challenge wasn't working, studying and fending for himself in an unfamiliar country. It was high school.

"I started working so young, and I liked to work for what I want," says Milton. "I wanted to come here and lean another language, and because the [education] was good." On the other hand, he says, "It's crazy over here! My second day at Allderdice, this guy came up to me at my locker [with a joint] and said, 'Try [this] and tell me if you can get something like this from your country.' I'd never even seen it before!"

The summer before Stephany's senior year, a mutual friend introduced her to Milton, simply so they could speak Spanish to one another. They didn't hit it off immediately. 

"He said I was immature," Stephany says mockingly. 

"Well, you were," says Milton. "You can't tell me that wasn't true."

And in fact, Stephany says she liked Milton for his maturity -- a better bet, perhaps, than his romanticism: Theirs is a tale not of country walks and candlelit dinners, but of bowling alleys and PAT bus rides.

That September, just a few months after they'd met, Milton switched from Allderdice to Stephany's Schenley High School, and their relationship deepened. Their first kiss came at a school bowling party -- and was projected by a camera onto the alley's life-sized TV screen. They broke the kiss off at the sound of their classmates' jeers, and Milton asked Stephany to be his girlfriend. 

Much of the rest of their lives together has been documented as well, thanks to Anya Martin. 

Martin wasn't connected to Pittsburgh's Latino community when she moved here three years ago: Indeed, this young Central Pennsylvanian Mennonite can't so much as roll her "r's," much less claim an ancestor from La Raza. "People assume my husband must be Latino," says Martin. 

Before moving here, Martin worked in a wealthy, mostly white private school in Lancaster, Pa. -- a stark contrast to the nearly half-Hispanic public schools nearby. But as she was seeking subject matter for her theater class, debate was raging over the strict (and, as it turned out, unconstitutional) anti-immigrant laws passed in Hazleton, Pa.

The Hazleton debate reminded Martin of the migrant workers her congregation brought food to when she was a child, and the Mexican men she'd worked with in a Manhattan restaurant -- an Irish pub which, ironically, treated its Latino back-room staff as poorly as many Irish immigrants would have been treated 150 years ago.

"It's the same story over and over," Martin says. "Why isn't empathy passed from generation to generation?"

So Martin took her white students to Ellis Island, and introduced them to New York's inner-city theater groups. She then had them create a performance about immigration issues. When she moved to Pittsburgh, she picked up where she left off, creating a similar work through Unseam'd Shakespeare Company, and with the help of Latino students in local high schools.

"Anya's got an unbelievable reserve of energy," says Carnegie Mellon University theater designer Michelle Carello, who partnered with her on the project. "The key is, she really does care, and she doesn't pretend to be anything she's not."

Using contacts at local churches and activist groups, Martin began seeking young Latinos to participate in theater workshops. Among the recruits were Milton Mejia and Stephany McMullen.

Neither one was able to carry on to the performances last summer: After graduating, each had hectic work schedules -- he with a contractor, she at a restaurant. But "I really connected with Milton as this mature, artistic human being," says Martin. "The [theater] exercises, which are really difficult, he was able to really let go and explore them -- he's [charismatic] and incredibly physically poetic, as well." 

The result of those workshops was Teatro Latino de Pittsburgh, which debuted at Open Stage Theater on June 16, 2008. The play involved everything from a chorus-like character reading from U.S. immigration statutes, to young actors running through the audience, waving Terrible Towels. It played to a full house, made up of an audience that is probably unique in Pittsburgh theater history: half theater regulars, half first-timers from the Latino community. 

A week later, Teatro's second and final performance drew another standing-room-only crowd. But the success was bittersweet. Days before, the Teatro family had been wrenched apart by the very issues it sought to explore: Milton was gone.

El Camino
Actress Kellee VanAken with "Camino," a puppet used in El Camino

On a Tuesday evening in June, Milton and Stephany were moving Milton into his new Friendship apartment. He was thrilled -- a nice neighborhood, the deposit and first month's rent paid, and $300 in groceries in the refrigerator. 

But while they were cleaning, a thought struck Milton: "I told her, 'Hey, grab my family's number [in Honduras] and put it in your phone -- just in case anything should ever happen to me.'"

The next day, Stephany was on a bus heading Downtown to meet Milton after work. It was their six-month anniversary, and they were going to the movies. "I got a call from my friend," says Stephany. "'Something happened to Milton.'"

Milton had been painting an apartment in West View. The tenants hadn't moved their boxes out, and the landlord told Milton and his coworker to put them on the sidewalk, so he could put them in storage. 

It could've been Milton's brown skin, or maybe just the sight of a stranger removing appliances from the house. But someone called the cops. 

"We called my boss," who came and explained the situation to the police, says Milton. "The policeman said, 'OK, but I need to see your papers.' I gave my [school I.D.], and they said, 'You've got to come with us.'"

Milton didn't know it, but while he'd been putting together a life for himself in Pittsburgh, immigration officials were preparing to send him back to Honduras.

Detainees are supposed to have hearings in which a judge decides whether to deport them. As near as Jackie Martinez can tell, those notices never reached her client, having been sent to his aunt -- or to her old address in Pittsburgh. "We're not sure what happened to those papers," Martinez says. "Milton never knew about them."

Eventually, Milton Mejia was given a hearing "in absentia," and a deportation order was issued. It was waiting in his file when the West View police called the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

In theory, only federal authorities have the right to question someone's U.S. residency status. And nationwide, local police departments are deciding that's as it should be. Questioning someone's immigration status because he looks Latino, not surprisingly, often creates distrust between police and residents.

That's how the city of Pittsburgh's police see it, anyway. "We've done a lot of work with Pittsburgh police, especially [chief of police] Nate Harper, and he has been great," says Alfonso Barquera, a Mexico-born psychologist who works with the Community Justice Project. "But there are more than 100 municipalities in this region, and [Latinos] work all around here."

But once the feds had been notified of Milton's presence, it was too late to argue about whether local police should have asked about his status.

"They put me in handcuffs and into the car," he says. "I was just thinking about Stephany, and about -- what am I going to do back in Honduras? I don't got -- practically nothing down there."

El Camino
Mark Staley, Anya Martin and Michelle Carello collaborate on staging El Camino.

Out of the four months Milton spent in detention last year, there's one moment Michelle Carello and Anya Martin keep coming back to. 

He's on a bus in West Texas. Having been shuffled around three Pennsylvania jails since his arrest, he'd been flown with dozens of other detainees -- each shackled at the waist, ankles and wrists -- to the Lone Star state. There, he was placed on the bus headed to a detention center in Chaparral, N.M. By that point, Milton needed to go to the bathroom.

"So I asked the guard, 'Can you just take one hand out [of the chains]? I don't need nothing else.'" Milton recalls. The guard's response: "You tell one of your friends to take you to the bathroom and somebody else can clean your ass. Or [you can] wait. It's just, like, 10 hours more." 

Some of the detainees couldn't wait: Before the end of the journey, Milton says, at least one passenger had defecated himself.

"When I first became involved with Teatro," says Carello, "I had a lot of those same questions that many people had about immigration. Why don't [the immigrants] do this legally? What's so hard about that?" But trumping those issues, she says, is "just the basic human rights" of how they are treated once caught.

Things didn't get much easier for Milton once the bus reached its destination. The Otero County Processing Center is a privately owned, for-profit center for holding detainees prior to hearings or deportation. Run by the innocuously named Management & Training Corporation, the facility had opened less than a month before Milton arrived there in July 2008. Unlike the Pennsylvania jails, where Milton gained favor by acting as translator, there was nothing he could do about his situation here. Conditions were harsh, and he had little communication with the outside world.

Desert temperatures topped 100 degrees and even the drinking water could be tea-hot, Milton says. The 60-some inmates slept in a single gym-like room where they were watched constantly. 

Back in Pittsburgh, Martinez was arguing that because Milton never received notice of his hearing, he should have a new one. Instead, Milton remained in limbo. There was never a dispute that he'd entered the country illegally, and Milton could've left at any time if he'd dropped the fight and agreed to deportation. "If I hadn't had Stephany, I'd just [have been deported] and come right back" illegally, says Milton. 

Deportation triggers an automatic lengthy bar from legal re-entry -- which Martinez says leads many immigrants to just come back illegally again and again. Milton wasn't likely to stay in America: He merely sought the chance to come back someday, in good legal standing.

"He went through all of that because of me," says Stephany during a videotaped interview with Martin and Carello. "He had a choice. ... He took the risk because of me."

And it paid off, sort of. This winter, Milton was released on $10,000 bond -- posted by one of his Schenley teachers -- to await a new hearing held this past April. 

At that hearing, Milton was granted a voluntary departure order. He must leave the country for Honduras on Sept. 3, at his own expense. But doing so on his own -- rather than through deportation -- means it will be easier to return legally in the future. He hopes that within three or four years he'll be able to return to live with Stephany -- who is currently a permanent legal resident, but by that time should be a naturalized U.S. citizen.

"I want to have a future with her," he says -- and for a moment his voice sounds uncharacteristically despairing. In the 19 months he's been with Stephany, he's spent four months in custody. 

But it was worth the time in New Mexico, he says, because "I didn't want to lose all the hope we have."


El Camino is about that despair, and that hope. It focuses on a young undocumented immigrant named Andoni (Milton's middle name) being held in a detention center. He speaks to Camino -- a mythical bird which may or may not be in Andoni's imagination -- and to a documentary filmmaker interviewing him about his experiences, while his girlfriend Estrella struggles to help from the outside.

Upon Milton's release, Carello and Martin began a 10-hour series of interviews with Milton and Stephany. As a result, the artistic team behind El Camino will know everything from what ran the neighbor's TV Milton watched as a child (a car battery) to what kind of pet the couple shares today (a hermit crab named Crabby).

"Some of what we've told her is really personal," says Stephany, "but we trust her. She and Michelle want to do something -- not only to help [us], but to help other people understand the situation with [immigration]."

El Camino is a work in progress -- the same kind of workshops that created Teatro Latino de Pittsburgh are underway now, with local theater artists such as Mark Staley, Erika Cuenca and Kellee Van Aken working out their roles. And they have an expert script consultant: Milton himself.

Milton's experiences won't comprise El Camino word for word, but they inform every aspect of it -- right down to the construction of the Camino puppet (Honduran materials like palm leaves and un-dried coffee beans).

"For example, when they were in the detention center, the lights were never turned off," says Anya Martin. "That's something I couldn't have learned reading anywhere."

"In most respects, [Milton] is just a teen-age kid," says Joel Ripka, who plays Andoni. "But he's been through this harrowing process, and he has this sense of detachment. At one point, he said [of his time in the detention center], 'Well, it'll be a good story to tell my kids.' He's got that teen-age cool, but also is kind of beyond that."

El Camino will make something of a debut Aug. 26, in a staged workshop designed to get input from local theater artists and members of the local Latino community. The hope is to establish a conversation about immigration in Pittsburgh -- a place, as Carello points out, where people often say, "What Latino community?"

"It'd be phenomenal if these two white girls -- a Mennonite from central PA, and a nomadic third-generation-Italian introvert -- could somehow provide that bridge," says Carello. "We can offer this connection; to get people in the room, and invest them in a longer process."

And while the play won't be fully ready by the time Milton has to leave, Martin wants him to see at least some of the work he's inspired. 

"I hope that Milton and Stephany feel that their stories are important enough for people to listen," says Martin. "And maybe, somehow, this can be a part of getting Milton back to us sooner."


The workshop performance of El Camino [a work-in-progress], sponsored in part by a Sprout Fund Seed Fund, is on Wed., Aug. 26, for an invited audience. A full production is planned for the fall of 2010. For more information on these productions, please contact [email protected].

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