Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sonia Orozco: A Reporter's View

Posted By on October 26, 2011, 11:33 AM

Sonia Orozco was a hero to many, including me. She was a voice of outrage for children brought to this country by parents seeking work. Through no fault of their own, when they became 18 they had become criminals—“illegals,” according to the parlance of the anti-immigrant rhetoric. ---

Sonia knew the emotional and psychological impact of being undocumented better than most, which made her betrayal of those children and adults all the more grotesque.

Cover stories for City Weekly are, by their nature, heavy lifting. When I sign off on one, I am glad to see it gone. But this story felt different. I keep hearing of victims, more information about Sonia’s alleged connections with the drug world. Before all this blew up, I would have asked her what she thought of such betrayal, but then I remember it is she who did the betraying.

When I first met Sonia, four years ago, she struck me as connected, a vital force for the betterment of the life of those who have no one guarding their back. The youths I interviewed who left the Midvale Boys & Girls Club frustrated by their treatment all spoke so highly of her. “She had our back,” was a common refrain.

In the ensuing years, we talked occasionally as I sought other stories on undocumented Latino youth, particularly those with gang affiliations, those who by chance, fate or decision found a community in the gang world.

After the death of Jose Hernandez, a drug dealer and gang member turned anti-gang advocate, I met with her at Arctic Circle in Midvale. She didn’t know Jose had been murdered and broke down in tears at the news of the loss of someone she had mentored at the Midvale Boys & Girls Club. She told me about a wave of suicides among undocumented children. One image haunted me: a bare-chested 12-year-old girl Sonia said she found wandering State Street at 2 a.m. after the child had done a lap dance for an old man at the behest of her mother to get money for meth. Sonia raged about how undocumented parents had betrayed their children in favor of meth and money.

Cops I spoke to rubbished her assertions, yet The Salt Lake Tribune did a piece in fall 2010 on a number of teen suicides in the south end of the valley. Even while I was talking to Sonia, she received a call from a crisis team that another child had taken their own life. “When’s it going to fucking end?” she said.

I tried to pursue the story with Sonia, pestering her by text—her preferred method of communication—and phone, having the occasional meeting where she dangled possible interviews in front of me but which never happened. She would arrange to meet, then not show up, then ring up hours later, claiming she had gone to bed late the night before after another student emergency had her scouring the west side in search of a missing teen.

If I had listened carefully to her rants about being in a fight with her superior at Jordan School District, perhaps I would have seen a different woman. I even missed the teeth and lower lip discoloring that others argue indicated extensive meth use.

Over time, I realized the stories we had talked about—including one about a young man she claimed was wrongfully convicted of rape—would not come to fruition. At least, not if I relied upon her. When Walt Hunter told me Sonia had been arrested, that allegations of extortion linked to meth use had been made, something clicked into place and with it a sensation of terrible sadness, of something lost irretrievably.

I have wondered since the story was published why it affected me so much, why I still mourn something I cannot put into words. As an immigrant to this country of just six years—albeit legally—I have always felt a kinship with these undocumented youth. I too come to this country fleeing economic hardship, in search of a better life. Married to an American citizen, however, I did not have to steal into this country under the cover of darkness, nor follow my parents blindly across a border. But I understood the thing they most craved, the thing they so yearned for, the green card that I have. Not only had that green card been denied them - even though they had spent most of their lives here - the reason for that denial was for rooted in a decision their parents had made to seek out better circumstances. Worst of all, the country they loved, the country they grew up believing theirs, the moment they turned 18, turned its back on them.

Sonia, I came to realize, symbolized that country, that acceptance they craved and received, only to have it taken away in the cruelest manner possible.

Back when I started these stories, those children-turned-youths had no one to cover their back but Walt Hunter and Sonia. Now, only Hunter stands for them, a 68-year-old white guy with a heart condition and a flat tire, who barely makes it to the end of the month, but counts himself as rich as can be when surrounded by his friends from the barrio.

Whether, as one friend argues, the allegations facing Sonia are interpretable as the actions of meth, or whether they reflect deeper issues drawn from a well only she can speak to, the tragedy for those who loved her, looked to her for guidance and support is unquantifiable.

Toward the end of the story, I met one evening with a young man in a car park who was so scared to talk to me he about to jump out of his skin. But he had something he wanted to say. “Sonia knew nobody would say anything. We don’t belong here, we can’t trust nobody. She speaks perfect English, perfect Spanish. She was somebody on our side, somebody here to help and yet she screwed us like that. People feel it's like she spit in our face." His voice trailed off as he said,  "Just when people think there’s hope …” and  then he walked away, back into the night's shadows.

Read more about Sonia Orozco, the Midvale Boys & Girls Club, and Salt Lake City's undocumented youths.

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