Christmas wasn’t going to be much this year at the Maldonados’ tiny home in eastern El Salvador. Then 6-year-old Wilder arrived, lugging a duffel bag fat with the brightly colored remnants of his brief life in the United States — time he’d spent separated from his father by immigration authorities.
Suddenly, the two shabby rooms with dirt floors and drab adobe walls turned festive. As a pot of chicken stew simmered on a wood-burning stove, a group of barefoot children rummaged with glee through the big black bag, pulling out treasures.
Two-year-old Kevien claimed the Spider-Man pajamas and the talking Spider-Man mask that said things like, “Look out, it’s web-slinging time!” Darwin, a neighbor’s kid, posed in a pair of red Spider-Man glasses with silvery-white webs and blinking lights on the frames.
Yohana, 14 and wispy like a ballerina, picked up a glossy soccer ball that had “USA,” emblazoned on one side and called Darwin outside to play. Meanwhile, the baby, MiLeidi, 8 months old, squealed in delight at a stuffed Olaf, the snowman from “Frozen,” that was bigger than she was.
The only kid who didn’t seem to care much about the contents of the duffel bag was Wilder. He sat by himself on the only bed in the house, apart from the commotion, engrossed in games on his mother’s old cellphone. Kevien offered Wilder the talking mask, trying to entice him to come play. But, without looking up from the cellphone, Wilder shook his head and turned away.
The toys in the duffel bag were all he had left from a seven-month journey to the US with his father, Hilario Maldonado, that had taken him a world away from El Salvador and his family’s impoverished existence, to a place with television sets and hot showers, where he’d slept in a bunk bed and ate as much pizza as he wanted. They’d traveled there in a succession of trucks so crowded with other immigrants that he’d nearly suffocated, and they had reached their goal only to be separated for months in…