“Juan was good, Juan was humble,” his mother Tránsito Gutiérrez said. “He was a good son.”
For the past two years, Juan and his family have been struggling with failed harvests caused by severe droughts in Tizamarte, a small village in the eastern area of Chiquimula. It hasn’t rained enough for the family to grow corn and beans, and the few coffee plants they had recently started dying.
“I asked him to stay because it was very dangerous but he decided to leave,” said Juan’s dad, Tanerjo de León. “He left anticipating a harsh summer.”
Juan is the second-born son of seven brothers. He had been cleaning and measuring a field for $4 a day. His mother said Juan would help her fetch firewood, jugs with water and prep the scarce family meals they have.
The family doesn’t eat breakfast regularly, Gutiérrez said. Most days they only eat once a day or only drink coffee.
On April 4, the teen left a pair of brown boots along a pile of jeans and plaid shirts on top of his bed and left. He had slept on the wooden bed without a mattress, on top of a twined tule mat every night.
He traveled with a smuggler, also known as coyote, for about 15 days before he tried to cross the US-Mexico border. He was detained by the Border Patrol near El Paso, Texas and was transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter.
A source close to the situation said the boy showed signs of distress the day after he arrived at Casa Padre, a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas. The boy was taken to a local hospital twice and eventually airlifted to a children’s hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, the source said.
Guatemala’s foreign ministry said the boy had undergone an emergency operation at the hospital after presenting with a severe infection in his frontal lobe. The infection did not improve, the foreign ministry said, even after surgery to relieve pressure in the boy’s skull.
Gutiérrez said his son had called her several times through the trip and had complained about a headache several times.
The last time she spoke with Juan, he was hiding in a warehouse and said he had taken medicine for his constant headaches but the pain would not go away. When she picked up the phone days later, the medics treating Juan tried to explain her that he was suffering from an infection.
Outside their home in Tizamarte, Gutiérrez remembers a teen who was always obedient and close to his mother.
For now, her biggest wish is to have her son’s remains back in Guatemala. It’s the only way, she said, that she would allow herself to cry for him.