The news was splashed all over the front pages of the international, and in particular, the North American press halfway through 2014: a wave of undocumented minors from Central America was being arrested after crossing the Mexican border into the United States. When they actually managed to do so, that is: in other words, when the violence of criminal gangs or police forces didn’t catch up with them at some wretched point along their journey. It was not, of course, a new phenomenon, but what was new was the scale, which brought it close to a humanitarian crisis.

I was following it all from a distance (I was living in Brazil at the time), via Mexican radio, especially thanks to the excellent coverage provided by Carmen Aristegui and her correspondent in the States, Dolia Estévez – both of whom, incidentally, ended up being fired by the station, yet another illustration of the climate of censorship in Mexico at the moment (but that’s a topic for another article).

Thinking about these kids, looking at the few photos of them slowly filtering through into the media, touched a very deep nerve in me: it made me compare their fate with my own kids’, also immigrants in their own way albeit, luckily for them, ‘luxury immigrants’. Making such a comparison might seem frivolous, crass, even, but I’d like to defend myself and say that every child should have the same opportunities and enjoy the same rights; nevertheless, this is not how things are (they are very far from being this way) and there is, in fact, a chasm between the realities of these young immigrants and of my children.

Around then, a few timely coincidences came together when Michael Benoist, editor of Medium’s Matter magazine, suggested I travel to Los Angeles to interview a few of these kids and tell their stories. Mike had read my novel Down the Rabbit Hole, in which the narrator is a boy trapped in the violence of the drugs trade, and he wanted me to tell the story of these boys in their own voices, from their perspective, ‘erasing myself’ as a writer.

I went to Los Angeles, and with the invaluable help of the NGO Carecen (especially Tessie Borden) I met Alex and Cristhian, who told me of the odyssey that took them from Guatemala and Honduras to the United States, where they were arrested by the immigration police. Alex had run away from an alcoholic father and a life with no hope in a poor village in Guatemala. Cristhian was fleeing the gangs of San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities in the world. I met them in the homes of the families who had taken them in. Despite their messy legal situation, they were calm and content; they seemed to think that the worst was behind them.

On their journey, accompanied by a coyote – as the person who smuggles people across the Mexican border is known – they had to deal with (among other things) regular harassment from corrupt Mexican police, who did nothing but extort them repeatedly in return for allowing them to continue their travels.

Incredibly, neither Alex nor Cristhian feel at all bitter towards Mexico, and nor do they speak or act like victims, perhaps because their story was on track to have a happy ending, and managing to escape violence and most probably an early death has given them a perspective that we, from our safe, secure positions, do not have: a perspective that plays down the negative and in which the hope of a new life seems to justify any suffering.

‘I’d be dead by now,’ Cristhian said to me on more than one occasion as he recalled that, shortly after he left, two of his best friends were murdered on the football pitch where they used to play together. He said it with the sadness of someone who’s lost a friend and with the relief we all feel when we think, ‘It wasn’t me, I escaped.’

Something very serious happens when the fate of a great number of children and young people in Latin America is divided between ‘the ones who managed to escape’ and ‘the ones who didn’t live to tell the tale’, when their only options are ‘flee or die’. We are doing something very wrong when we deny the most basic of rights to entire generations, whether it’s in their home country or the one they emigrate to: the right to a decent life.

Read Alex and Cristhian’s stories on Medium, in Spanish or English.

Buy Juan Pablo Villalobos’s books from Foyles.