On a bright Sunday morning in September, the elusive east Durham cowboys are parading two ponies down a concrete pathway that separates the pupusa trucks at the Green Flea Market. A puppy scurries by before a woman in an oversize pink T-shirt scoops it up and clasps it to her chest.
Wildin Acosta laughs as he knocks back a swig of Coca-Cola.
"I don't understand," he says matter-of-factly. "And I don't mean to be rude. But I've noticed that gringos sometimes like their animals more than people."
He goes on about how much we care for our pets—how we let them sleep in our beds, how we feed them organic food, how we braid ribbons into their manes and tails. There's a subtle irony in his bemused commentary. Because for seven months—until a few weeks ago, in fact—this smiling nineteen-year-old had been in a private immigration jail, treated worse than a pet, treated like a criminal.
Acosta possesses an innate charisma and a razor-sharp memory. He remembers faces and how he's met them. He's kind and gracious, stubborn and unwavering in his opinions. He became a household name in Durham during his incarceration, when "Free Wildin" became a rallying cry. His case sparked urgency in this progressive community he'd called home for three years, marked by confusion about how a teenager who fit so neatly into the American obsession with meritocracy would be treated like a delinquent.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement's intervention—nabbing him on his way to school, a few months before graduation—felt treacherous and new, coming at the start of an election year that felt like a hate-filled Twilight Zone. But members of the immigrant community—Latino and undocumented especially—knew things were finally coming to a head.
"They took one of us," says Ivan Almonte, a friend of Acosta and a member of Alerta Migratoria NC, a grassroots organization of immigrants and allies fighting to stop the deportations of local residents. "And I'm almost glad it happened to Wildin so publicly, because otherwise people wouldn't have noticed. This is not something new for us. But something big was happening."