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Juan Carlos Peña lived in the District for about five years, although much of that time was spent in the D.C. Jail. He was jailed at least twice after first arriving from his family farm in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, in 1995. He was twice charged with simple assault and assault with a deadly weapon; the second time, in 2002, he was convicted. After each brush with the law, Peña, who was an undocumented immigrant, was deported.
Last year, thanks to his second sojourn through the D.C. correctional system, Peña, 27, returned to the farm with less than he had left with. “I was very physically well when I left my country, and I came back with half my finger missing,” he says, in Spanish, by telephone from El Salvador. “Yes, it’s embarrassing.”
On a Wednesday evening in October 2002, Peña was on the way to the chapel for the jail’s three-days-a-week Spanish-language services, and Peña and other inmates were waiting in the holding cell outside the chapel. The guard ordered Peña to put his hands up against the bars for a routine pre-prayer pat-down. Without warning, the cell door opened, according to Peña and an internal jail report. The door slid across Peña’s hand and severed the left middle fingertip at the base of the nail.
Peña was escorted to the infirmary. His fingertip followed some minutes later, in a paper cup filled with water.
According to medical records, it appears that the cup accompanied Peña to the George Washington University Hospital emergency room. Nurses bandaged Peña’s bleeding finger, but for unknown reasons, doctors didn’t reattach the fingertip, and Peña doesn’t know the fate of the missing flesh. “They didn’t tell me anything that happened,” he says.
Peña contacted an attorney and sued the jail. But last year, while his negligence claim was being litigated, he was deported. His deportation gives extra leverage to District lawyers, and Peña’s attorney, Geoffrey Allen, says they’re playing hardball: “I think they’re trying to exploit his absence.”
Juan Carlos was the second of three Peña brothers who in the mid- to late ’90s made their way to Washington from Cojutepeque, a dot on the map about an hour from San Salvador. Saul came first, followed by Juan Carlos, and then finally Rigoberto, all of them finding work in construction. Juan Carlos’ recent travails register low in the scheme of family tragedies.
At 39, Rigoberto is the eldest of nine Peña siblings and has been the family patriarch since he was a teenager. Over 20 years ago, during El Salvador’s civil war, his parents were shot to death at their home, a case of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Rigoberto in Spanish. He adds that Juan Carlos, who was 7 at the time, witnessed their murder. Last summer, Saul was a bystander in a drive-by shooting in Mount Pleasant, seriously wounded and almost killed by bullets to the stomach and hand. Rigoberto, who lives in Silver Spring, wishes his brothers avoided D.C. as assiduously as he does. “He is quiet,” Rigoberto says of Juan Carlos, “but when someone bothers him, he’ll react violently.”
Juan Carlos reports that he’s working on his sister’s land, cultivating corn and beans. Although he is right-handed, the fact that he can’t control the movement of his left middle digit makes it difficult to grip tools and cut wood. He says he would rather be in Washington, making $300 on his best weeks, than in El Salvador working for $5 a day. But given that he’s already been deported twice, Peña doubts he’ll return legally, or, for that matter, illegally. “I won’t come back as a mojado again,” he says. CP