The Face of the Surge

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turk. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

October 2011. Luis Chamagua woke up, showered, ate cereal and headed for school. Typical morning. "I always left early because I wanted to play soccer," Chamagua says, smiling.

A block into his usual route, Chamagua ran into Pablo, his cousin's husband, and Cuca, a close friend. "It seemed strange to me that they were together," Chamagua says. "I thought they wanted to make plans for after school."

Pablo walked toward him with a little grin and then walked away. Cuca shoved Chamagua against a wall, drew a knife and held it to his neck. Chamagua was an above-average student, as his report cards from El Salvador show, and mentored children from around his neighborhood. Joining MS-13, the notorious gang that rules the streets of El Salvador and is sending thousands of kids streaming for the Texas border, was never an option.

What do you want? Chamagua asked.

Someone wants you dead, Cuca said.

He directed Chamagua to the outskirts of the school's soccer fields. He covered Chamagua's mouth and thrust the knife into his throat twice.

Chamagua fell and rolled down into a ditch.

Blood gushed.

Chamagua sat still for five minutes so Cuca would leave him for dead. He felt weak, and for a moment he thought about giving up. But he thought, Why should I die if I do good things?

He stood up and unbuttoned his school uniform oxford shirt and wrapped it around his neck, a tip he picked up from watching Grey's Anatomy. He climbed out of the ditch and managed to get on a bus to a nearby clinic, where doctors and nurses cleaned him up.

An ambulance transported him to a hospital. He suffered two strokes, one of which left his brain without a steady blood supply for four minutes. But he survived.

That winter, Chamagua's mother, who lives in Dallas, paid a lawyer in El Salvador to orchestrate the passage of Chamagua into the U.S., with the help of Los Zetas, the drug cartel that controls some human smuggling through Mexico. He arrived in Dallas, where the Human Rights Initiative helped him win reprieve from the immigration system.

The attack affected Chamagua's motor skills. He has to use a walker to get around now. He sometimes finds himself short of breath. But he's quickly learned English and excelled at North Dallas High. Last year, he took part in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's Ready 2 Lead program in Washington, D.C. In April, he was invited to Molina High School as a guest speaker for DISD teachers and administrators. After his speech, Chamagua says several administrators invited him to their schools to speak with students.

Chamagua is still nervous about speaking in front of large crowds, but he makes himself do it, because he knows his message is a positive one.

"Despite everything, I never gave up," Chamagua said. "They shouldn't give up either."

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