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The Women and Children of Dilley, Part Four

Welcome sign in Dilley, Texas (wikimedia commons)

Read Part Three here.

Individual Stories

As I reflect on the week in Dilley, the ongoing work I do here in the Bay Area, I wonder: Do individual stories matter anymore, outside the hearing room, that is, the courthouse, and only insofar as the boxes get checked, the requirements met, the woman in front of the judge allowed to live? Do they have an impact beyond the prurient satisfaction of momentary curiosity? Already, many of the stories I have heard have blended together. They are all the same. They are each horrifyingly different. We love to hear and tell stories. Maybe: we have all heard so many stories of so many tragedies under so many circumstances for so many centuries that they mostly blend together. Maybe: at 7.5 billion, and counting, our individual stories matter less. Maybe: we as a species have reached the point of story saturation.

According to one source, there are twice as many men as women in the town of Dilley, Texas. Also, on every bulletin board (yes, bulletin boards, with tacks and pieces of paper) there are notices for furnished rooms to rent by the day, the week, or the month “for corrections and oil workers.” Some or both of these must be itinerant, so the ratio of men to women might be even higher on any given day.

M. P. is a nineteen-year-old woman from Honduras. She has a three-year-child on her lap, then on the chair next to her, then on her lap again. She cries, sobs, gasping for breath, as soon as she begins to talk. After breaking up with her boyfriend of two months, he starts stalking her and then, with the help of three of his fellow gang members, kidnaps her and her child and takes her to a shack, which she knows is far away from everything because "all I could see through the tiny window high up the wall were a few trees and mountains and I never heard anybody.” He keeps her chained up and comes to see her once a day, sometimes skipping days, to throw food at her, let her out to do her business, and rape her while shouting insults at her and threatening to kill her. He brings other women there and has violent sex with them in front of her and the child. He came and “fucked me everywhere, making me bleed, while calling me a whore, a useless piece of trash, a nothing.” After six months, she is helped to escape by one of her torturer’s accomplices: even he cannot abide what his friend is doing. She leaves the country immediately and comes straight through Mexico to the border. She says that the last three nights, since they arrived at the South Texas Detention Center, for the first time since she was kidnapped, she and her child have slept well. She says her child told her, reassuringly, that the guards are their friends because they won’t allow “El Diablo,” as he calls the torturer, to get in there. He knows that, he tells his mother, because El Diablo doesn’t have a name badge, like they have. As she quotes her child with tenderness, she smiles, the first and only time. The prisoner’s badge: of safety, of belonging, of protection.  She has already had one session with a counselor at the center, or should we say prison, and she says she will go back because, as she says, it feels good to talk. And there is lots of food and there are hot showers (“hot water running over my head, I can’t believe how good it feels”) and places for the child to play and even prison becomes a relative concept.

It’s as if they all read the same manual or all take the same course. I’ve heard it over and over and over again. Verbatim. While they are beating, burning, kicking, raping, choking, pulling, dragging, they repeat the same words. These words, I’m certain, are accurately and faithfully repeated in every other language on the planet and under a huge range of circumstances, out of the mouths of men in a small village in Guatemala and out of the mouths of Hollywood executives and out of the mouths of privileged little white boys at Jesuit Catholic schools in Maryland and out of the mouths of Ivy League students who have had a little bit too much beer to drink. The only difference in the consequences to women is the level of impunity those men enjoy.

The hieleras and the perreras, the iceboxes and the dog kennels. All the women we talk to passed through there, though somebody said that maybe the women who cross over el puente, the bridge—those who turn themselves in at the border posts—instead of crossing el rio—illegally, and are then arrested—go only to the hieleras, or maybe are kept in the perreras for less time. Somebody must know these details. I couldn’t get it straight, and we heard conflicting reports. Both groups are being “punished,” or at least that is what most of the women report being told when they are thrown into the iceboxes and the dog kennels, where the filthy toilets are in the same room they sleep in, where their food is thrown to them on the floor, where they sleep on the floor wrapped in metallic blankets that don’t stop the cold from entering their bones, their children’s bones, their souls. Man-made cold. Freezer cold. USA cold. Where they are treated very feo, ugly, as many said. Several women reported as long as a nine-day stay in the dog kennels. All this when they are in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol. Then they are transferred into ICE custody and brought to the South Texas Detention Center, in the case of women and children, or other prisons for men or women alone or unaccompanied minors.

The immigrants themselves have coined the names for these places. And the names have stuck. It’s remarkable that people so downtrodden, so powerless, somehow retain the power of naming. When I interpret, I do not need to render these words into English—even lawyers with no Spanish at all immediately understand and are comfortable using the Spanish terms. Though I begin to wonder: maybe we should insist on translating them to ICEBOXES and DOG KENNELS, maybe the English words would convey more truth to the English-speaking listener. Maybe those words in English would make us less tolerant of their existence. Maybe they would make it harder for us to turn away.

By profession, I am a literary translator and have been for many years. I have, arguably, translated some of the most nuanced, refined, and beautiful prose written in Spanish in The Americas in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These days, the sentences I interpret most often from Spanish into English are:

He hit me. He beat me. He kicked me.
He pulled my hair. He pushed me down the stairs.
Since I was little…
He raped me. They raped me. They left me in the hills.
They told me if I told anybody I’d be sorry. They told me…
The police don’t do anything. The police are afraid. The police are working with them.
They said they’ll kill me if…
He told me I was a whore. He told me I was garbage/ugly/useless/a piece of shit.
He told me he was doing me a favor by raping me.
The gangs. The gang members. MS-13. 18th Street Gang.

He was drunk. He was angry. He accused me of having lovers.

And from English to Spanish:

What did he say while he was raping you?
What did he say while he was beating you?
What did he hit you with?
Where on your body did he hit you?
Why was he angry?
Did he beat your child?

Do you think he thought he owned you?
How often did he rape you/ beat you/ untie you to use the bathroom?

Many people have told me I am brave to have gone to Texas, to do the work that I do with immigrants in the Bay Area, that they are proud of me. I appreciate those words but am embarrassed by them, ashamed to think that I have had any part in perpetuating such a perception. First of all: many of the people telling me this have spent their lives in service, in healthcare, in education, in directly alleviating suffering. Also, compared to the women and children of Dilley, Texas, I am not brave at all. Being alive, being in that prison, caring for their children, often having left several more behind, is a manifestation of incalculable courage and intelligence and strength. Incalculable because neither I nor nearly anybody I know has been tested in this way. We do not know if we would have the courage of the women of Dilley, of the women I work with in Oakland, of the women who tell their stories over and over again, who must, for their own and their children’s survival, tell over and over again the very worst things that have ever happened to them, the traumas they try to forget. So, really, I mostly feel fortunate to have a skill that is useful to those in need.

Make no mistake about it: the gangs, the cartels, the narcos, the assorted bullies and assholes, they are also terrorists and have effectively terrorized much of Central America and Mexico. Their violence and brutality is arbitrary enough of the time to call what they do terrorism, and their threats do not even need to be spoken. The impunity they enjoy is total.

Speaking of terror and the arbitrary use of force, of government forces causing grave harm and no authority being able or willing to control them: there are many people in certain communities in these United States who would probably qualify for asylum. Ask a black man or the mother of one…

One woman, O.G., begins by telling us the story of the immediate circumstances that led to her flight. Something doesn’t add up for me and the lawyer I am working with, not just in terms of what is needed for her to receive a positive in the CFI interview, but emotionally, the strength and urgency of her fear. The threats were directed, somewhat indirectly, toward her fifteen-year-old daughter, something somebody said to somebody else, a look, attention paid. We ask her if she herself has ever been abused or raped. She grows silent, her face swells and falls. I ask her if she would like to talk without her five-year-old hearing. We ask staff for a set of headphones and a computer and we play a cartoon on YouTube for the little girl.

What is the word or phrase that describes what happens to a face when a long-held secret, a deeply suppressed memory, a pain that has never been shared, comes to the surface and becomes articulate?

O.G., still crying after telling us of her own sexual enslavement to a gang member for six months when she was fifteen, says she has never told anybody the things she just told us, “not even my own mother.”

I have learned to say quite fluently in Spanish some variation of the following:

We are very sorry for asking you questions that force you to remember the most terrible events in your life. The strange thing about the circumstances you are in, however, is that the very worst things that have happened to you are the very things that are going to work in your favor through this process, and most importantly, for this interview. If you can tell the officer about these terrible things, you will have a better chance of being released and allowed to live in the United States while you apply for asylum.


Katherine Silver is the former program director of the BANFF International Translation Centre. She has been translating Spanish and Latin American literature for over thirty years and has more than twenty-five books and countless other publications to her name.

The Women and Children of Dilley, Part Five

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