The Ordeal of a Beauty Queen Threatened by MS-13


CUNY student Karen Reyes wants to study to become a pediatrician and help immigrant children. (Photo via El Diario)

Karen Reyes is unable to stop her big brown eyes from tearing up as she remembers the days of terror she went through when the Mara Salvatrucha gang put a price on her and her younger sister Alison.

Paradoxically, Karen’s crowning as Queen of El Congo, her native town in the department of Santa Ana in El Salvador, would be the beginning of her ordeal. Members of MS-13, as the gang is also known, demanded $10,000 to spare the sisters from death.

The criminals would harass them as they came out of school, sent letters to them and even fired shots in front of their house to intimidate them. The young women had no other choice but to escape to the United States to save their lives. Karen, 17, and Alison, 11, made the journey from El Salvador, crossed the Río Grande, and arrived in New York, where they reunited with their parents, on Oct. 18, 2015.

“I want to support my family, be a professional and somehow give back all the help I have received. I want to show people that when you set your goals for yourself, it is possible to accomplish them and be an example for others,” said Karen in an interview with El Diario held at the library of Queensborough Community College, where she is currently studying liberal arts.

Karen says that she wants to reach the dreams she was unable to pursue in her country and build a life like every other immigrant.

Catholic Charities submitted the case of Karen and Alison as unaccompanied minors to the authorities and were able to get the Department of Homeland Security to grant them asylum in February 2017.

“Karen received asylum, which is an immigration status given to a person who has suffered or is at risk of suffering persecution in their country of origin. One year after it is granted, she is eligible to apply for permanent residency,” confirmed attorney Elian Maritz, from Catholic Charities’ division of Community Services. This week, Karen has an appointment with federal authorities to apply for resident status.

“In order to be eligible, people need to submit their application for asylum within a year of arriving in the United States, which is why it is so important to talk to a lawyer immediately,” stressed Maritz.

Even though she spoke no English when she entered the country two years ago, Karen is now fluent in the language and even received a grant from the Angelo Del Toro Puerto Rican Hispanic/Youth Leadership Institute to cover the cost of her studies at CUNY for two years.

“We did not come here just because we wanted to. We are here because of the violence, and to survive. We want to improve things, not cause trouble,” she insisted.

Her family may be deported

The young woman is now pondering other issues: Even though she and her sister received asylum, the immigration applications of her parents, José Reyes and Teresa Serrano, and her older sisters, Gabriela, 23, and Valeria, 21, are still pending, and the threat of deportation looms over them.

Karen’s parents migrated to the U.S. 11 years ago, and her adult sisters came two years ago when the threats of the gangs became unbearable.

“Many people could say that those of us living in El Salvador do not suffer, but the truth is that the violence there makes the situation very hard to endure,” said Karen. “The criminals see that you have family in the United States who are able to send money. They figured that they could extort us, and that is what they started to do.”


“The ‘maras’ – gangs – decided that my family had to pay a certain amount of money and that they would kill us if we didn’t. They were asking for $10,000. It was an impossibly high amount for my parents, which is why we decided that it was best to come here,” said Karen, who aspires to study biology and become a pediatrician.

“I have seen so many immigrant children in need of assistance… I want to focus on that area to give back all the support I have received,” said the young woman, who divides her time between studying, working part-time at a health services office and modeling.


“I think that the situation of many kids my age is very hard. I believe that lawmakers do not know the reasons why many of us came to this country, and they legislate without taking into consideration that every person has a different story and comes to this country for different reasons and purposes.”

Regarding Dreamers, Karen said that the decision to end DACA was not justified because the youths were brought into the country by their parents when they were children.

“Dreamers are here with a purpose. They have grown up here and they want to prove how smart they are and how far they can go. But if they are not allowed, how are they going to be able to show it?”

When she talks about all the things she left behind, Karen sighs and, her gaze set far away, says: “Time makes you remember things. When I was in my town, I did not feel this, but now distance makes me feel like I would like to go back to how it used to be. I especially miss my grandparents, José Samuel and María Lucía, because they were the ones who raised us.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *