The girl speaks quickly at first, only half-turned to the classroom.
She and the other girls in her class were assigned to picture a woman — how old is she, where is she, what clothes is she wearing — and write about her. Her teacher, Regina Moya, gives her a few words of encouragement, trying unsuccessfully to tuck a strand of the young Latina's long, black hair behind an ear.
"En fuerte!" Moya urges. The girl's speaking slows, and she finishes reading. Suppressing a smile, she takes her seat amid applause from her peers.
The scene is common: a bashful kid who's hesitant to read in front of the class. But seeing the child act so predictably shy almost makes Moya forget that her students are indisputably brave at their core.
Moya teaches creative writing, painting and illustration to unaccompanied children — asylum seekers — who have migrated to the U.S. from Central America. All of them, from the elementary school-aged kids to teenagers, have journeyed from their home countries and crossed the border into the U.S. without their parents.
The children stay at Casa Blanca, a north San Antonio shelter operated by the nonprofit group Southwest Key. Casa Blanca houses about 45 children, where they live and take classes in a school-like setting until their court date, when a judge will decide whether they can remain in the U.S. or if they must return to their home country.
"They all think that they're going to stay. They're all hopeful. They're not adults," Moya said. "They all think 'I'm going to stay and I'm going to give money to my parents.'"
Moya's class, called the Migrant Children's Project, is funded through a grant that Gemini Ink, a local nonprofit literary and arts organization, received specifically for migrant children. The grant pays for Moya's time and for art supplies such as acrylic paint, brushes and sponges.
Listen below to Moya tell a story about a particularly brave boy in her class:
She teaches two classes per week — one for boys, one for girls — and each class lasts two hours. Each lesson needs to be self-contained, Moya said, because she never knows which kids will still be there for the next lesson.
"They don't know when they're going to be gone, and they don't know if they're going to be deported," Moya said. "Each time I talk to them, I say 'Goodbye guys, because I don't know if I'm going to see you next week.' And they don't even know. They might get the call tomorrow."
'The Same Boys and Girls from Anywhere'
Casa Blanca is one of 23 immigrant youth shelters in the southwest run by Southwest Key. It's a full-service operation, where unaccompanied minors receive everything they need — food, clothing, shelter, medical attention — while they wait to see an immigration judge and either be united with family in the U.S. or sent back to their home country.
"Sometimes when I get there, I'm very aware of their situation. But once I start teaching, I kind of forget. It's like the same boys and girls from anywhere. Humans, we act the same," Moya said.
Casa Blanca is well beyond 1604 on top of a hill. A manicured lawn sprawls around the large, white house, with a miniature soccer field (complete with astroturf) on one side of the front yard and a volleyball net on the other. It's tucked into a quiet neighborhood — if you weren't looking for the house, you'd pass right by it. The only noise outside is the chirps of swallows swooping by the front door.
The day I visited the girls' class, they met in a small but tidy classroom with white walls and tile. Flimsy plastic posters, mostly in English, line the walls. There's a map of the original 13 colonies, the solar system, units of measurement, the order of operations.
Inside the room, 14 girls, mostly of late middle or early high school age, sit. They're all dressed in unicolor T-shirts, some yellow, some gray, some blue. Their shoes are all knockoff Converse Chuck Taylor's, and most of their blue jeans are cuffed, some of them rolled up four or five inches.
Today they're learning about using a spatula and rapid brush strokes to evoke a certain style. Moya shows them Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night," and a YouTube tutorial on impressionism to guide them.
They set to work, snatching paints from the front table and rushing back to their desks. Soon, brushes flick back and forth across miniature canvases, like a set of metronomes all following different beats.
As they paint, they periodically hold their works up to Moya. She weaves in between the rows of desks, stopping to give advice or hold up examples for the rest of her class. The room's filled with music piped in through her iPhone, a playlist of instrumental pop songs done in orchestral fashion ("Clocks" by Coldplay, "Bittersweet Symphony" by The Verve). Slowly, hazy skies, beaches, birds and waves of grass emerge on the canvasses. Moya photographs the paintings, but lets the kids hold onto them. The art they create in the class are among their only possessions.
"To be able to be with them at this point in their lives, it's really amazing," Moya said. "They have a special courage and they're willing to do anything, anything at all."
If you would like to support the Migrant Children's project with a donation or learn more about it, click here.