“We live in a world full of hate. I live in Pequeñas Rosas, in Honduras, which is close to El Bordo. El Bordo is one of the most dangerous places, because they kill you, attack women, and follow you when you aren’t looking.”
The words are those of 15-year-old Katerin Marisol, taken from the beginning of a poem she wrote under the guidance of award-winning poet and Episcopal priest Spencer Reece. Marisol is one of 72 girls who call Nuestras Pequeñas Rosas (Our Little Roses), an all-girls’ orphanage in Honduras, home.
Our Little Roses is located in the city of San Pedro Sula, which, since 2011, has been branded with the grisly title “murder capital of the world.” Long since burdened with the legacy of colonialism, Honduras, and more specifically San Pedro Sula itself, has become a flashpoint in the bloody cocaine trade that wends its way through South and Central America, on to Mexico and into the United States. The city’s homicide rate in 2013 was 169 murders per 100,000 residents; by contrast, Regina, Sask., Canada’s most dangerous city, had a rate of 3.84 murders per 100,000 residents in the same year.
Reece lived in the orphanage throughout 2013, teaching poetry to the girls and to the children living in the surrounding area at the onsite bilingual school. He then compiled 12 of the girls’ poems in an anthology entitled 12 Love Poems from the Murder Capital of the World. Reece was also accompanied by film director Brad Coley, who, together with his crew, spent the year putting together a documentary about the orphanage, the girls and Reece’s yearlong project to help the girls learn how to tell their stories. Coley hopes the documentary film, Las Chavas, will premier at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016.
Reece’s relationship with Our Little Roses began in 2011. He had just become embroiled in a spiritual crisis, which stemmed primarily from his inability to speak Spanish and his subsequent failure to offer meaningful pastoral care to the mostly Spanish-speaking patients at the inner-city Hartford hospital he was assigned to do his clinical pastoral education. “I felt a fraud-counterfeit,” he said of his time at the hospital.
Acting on the advice of his bishop, Leo Frade, Reece spent two months at Our Little Roses in 2011; Frade’s wife, Diana Dillenberger Frade, founded the orphanage in 1988. Frade felt the orphanage would be the ideal place for Reece to start learning Spanish, and thereby begin to regain the sense of spiritual purpose that he had lost.
Much to Reece’s consternation, however, his stay at Our Little Roses did not produce an immediate spiritual panacea. On landing in San Pedro Sula, Reece’s initial reaction was one of utter shock. “I grew up white, male and privileged in the United States,” he said, “and I was just not prepared for what I was about to see, which was immense poverty, the likes of which I had never seen.” By his own admission, Reece was ignorant not just about Honduras but Central America in general, and the experience forced him to face a wholly unfamiliar and uncomfortable reality.
Our Little Roses is housed in a compound surrounded by 10-foot walls topped with coils of barbed wire; armed guards are a fixture on the property. But inside the walls lies what Reece describes as an “oasis” in the midst of otherwise crushing poverty. “It’s a world of nurturing, a world of girls having dreams of who they might be,” he said. Dreams they would not have were it not for the presence of Our Little Roses. Prior to its founding, girl orphans were usually sent to the women’s state penitentiary and placed in the care of the inmates. Those left behind often found themselves coerced into working as maids or prostitutes, and were particularly vulnerable to human traffickers. The orphanage, the first and only such establishment for girls in the country, offers the girls “a real chance, and genuine hope,” said Reece.
Despite this recognition, Reece still struggled to find his place within the orphanage walls. “[At first], I just thought, ‘I don’t know what the meaning of this is. I don’t know why I’m here.’ I just didn’t know what to say, how to relate to [the girls],” he said. “It just felt like, ‘this is a lark and I’ll be leaving soon.’ ” But the evening prior to his scheduled departure, Reece had an encounter that crystallized the purpose of his visit, and would go on to act as the catalyst for his return trip in 2013.
That night, a girl named Wendolin sat waiting at the foot of the stairs leading to Reece’s apartment. When he came out, she stopped him and said she had heard he was leaving tomorrow. Reece was taken aback. “I didn’t even know that they knew I was here, let alone that I’d be leaving tomorrow,” he said. He confirmed that he was going home and asked if there was something she wanted to tell him.
“Don’t forget us,” she said, and left.
“These three words pierced me,” said Reece. He went back to his room and, in tears, resolved to find a way to make good on Wendolin’s request. Eventually, that resolve took the form of coming back to Our Little Roses in 2013 to teach the girls poetry, to allow them to give voice to their own stories and to film a documentary in order to advocate for them on the international stage.
Wendolin’s sentiment can be attributed at least in part to the fact that many of the girls brought to the orphanage are unaware when they arrive that they are there to stay. That fear of being forgotten, of being disposed of and rendered invisible or irrelevant, resonates throughout the girls’ poetry; it is also revealed over the course of the numerous interviews included in Coley’s documentary.
It is equally apparent, however, that none of the girls wish to be defined solely by their circumstances. Because of this, Coley and his crew encountered a good deal of resistance when they first started filming. “Many [girls] assumed-based on years of experience-that our film, like many American stories about the conditions of poverty and violence in Honduras, would paint them as victims,” Coley wrote in a blog entry about the making of the documentary. “A word the girls hate more than any other is ‘orphans.'”
This, too, comes through consistently in the poems. There is pride, there is sincere hope for the future, and there is a marked feeling of forgiveness. “The girls, almost universally, had a sense of forgiveness about whatever had brought them to the home,” confirmed Reece.
It is a sense that is perhaps best captured in the closing lines of a poem written by 15-year-old Aylin: “When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: I FORGIVE YOU!”