The One Who Got Away

I love this photo. And yes, I realize that for you it is entirely useless since you can’t see the faces. But I can. I know those faces, and I love them.

Two of them are dead.

Both were murdered in acts of unspeakable brutality, and they represent just a tiny number of those who have died on La Linea in the years that we have been working there. It’s part of the horrifying reality of working in that terrible place.

The third woman in the photo, W, should also be dead; shot in the head or tortured to death like her friends. A few years ago we got word that she and her sister had done something to upset the gang that runs this part of Guatemala City. We don’t know what they did. It would be dangerous to ask. But it was serious enough that they both ran for cover, leaving behind their only means of earning a living.

When W visited us all those years ago, she was as terrified as I have ever seen anyone. Her voice shook as she tried to whisper her fears. Telling us nothing as she tried to tell us something. We told her to leave and never come back. Just shut the door and walk away. We gave the same advice to the other two in the photo. Like many others, they chose to stay on La Linea and they paid a terrible price.

But W did leave. She didn’t leave prostitution, but she tried.

Last year she enrolled in a nursing program. It hasn’t been an easy walk with her. Still isn’t, to be honest. We love her, but she’s a lot of work. Destroyed hearts don’t heal with a hug and a few pithy, encouraging talks.

While we were back in Canada, W went wildly off the rails. She hid from us, refusing to answer Shawn’s texts. We knew there was trouble.

Less than two weeks ago, we sat with her in a coffee shop where she finally confessed what she’d done. She’d blown it spectacularly.

There were tears, excuses, and a lot of pleading. It was a really sad conversation.

She also didn’t have a job. There were lots of excuses and justifications. Fear is a powerful reason to justify staying in the place you know best, and she was letting fear dictate all kinds of passivity. Broken hearts and minds are messy. Really messy.

At the end of our hard conversation, we told her she had to find a job.

And she did. Three short words, but oh so powerful. SHE DID. Not only that, but she found a job in a prestigious hospital in one of the fanciest parts of Guatemala City. Fancy matters because it means really good doctors and really good medical services.

It’s staggering.

This week we took her out for dinner; our first chance to celebrate her graduation from the nursing program.

“So, darling, how does it feel to be a professional? What’s that like?”

“I don’t have words,” she said. “I’ll just cry.”

But she did have words, and she did cry. It was beautiful. Snotty, but very beautiful.

Unless you’ve walked La Linea, or sat in these women’s homes, it’s almost impossible to understand what this means for her. This isn’t just a job. She’s gone from the dirtiest, most depraved and dangerous place, where she was abused and humiliated every day, to putting on a uniform and walking with her beautiful head held so high. It’s like climbing out of a sewer and walking into a palace.

It’s still not an easy path. All of the women who leave have to accept an extreme drop in income. She will struggle to pay her bills. She will fight to provide for her children. But she is so deliciously proud of herself. And we are so proud of her.

And can I just remind you…she should be dead. She should have been just another body, dragged away by the city authorities.

I love the photo. I love these women. Always will. Every so often I pull it up on my phone to remind myself, to see their faces and think about how wonderful they were. This week I pulled it up for W. She stared at it for a while.

She understands.