A Photo Exploration of the Central American Humanitarian Crisis
Words and photos by Vanessa Ceceña
In late 2012 I decided to travel back to México to visit el pueblo de las nubes, Oaxaca. I had visited twice before but mainly stayed in the central valley and Oaxaca City. This time I stopped in Tezoatlán in the mixteca and made my way to Ixtepec in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
This border region with its high level of humidity and tropical climate is home to a vivid culture, bright hand embroidered tehuanas, to the muxes (a community of transgender Oaxacans), and the sones zapotecos de Juchitan.
While its cultural attractions bring many visitors, its geographic location, which neighbors Chiapas to the southeast, places it as the prominent pathway for Central American migrants making their way to el norte (the north).
Many migrants coming from Central America travel to Mexico by riding atop of a freight train, which has been coined la bestia (the beast). La bestia makes its way through Chiapas and makes multiples stops, one being in Ixtepec. This has transformed the city into one of transit; many migrants stay for a few days awaiting la bestia in order to continue on their journey.
I arrived to Ixtepec on New Year’s Eve. A friend at the time had made arrangements for a few of us to stay at a migrant shelter, Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers on the Road), which was founded on February 26, 2007.
The shelter is run by a Mexican Catholic Priest, Alejandro Solalinde, widely known for defending the rights of migrants passing through the region. Due to his activism and critique of the Church, he has received numerous death threats and unsuccessful attempts to excommunicate him. After an attempt at burning down the shelter and becoming a target for the drug cartel groups, Solalinde was assigned two bodyguards by the Mexican government.
Migrants passing through this region are faced with numerous dangers; kidnappings, extortion, rape, murder, human rights violations by Municipal, State, and Local police, organized crime, as well as by Mexico’s National Institute of Immigration (Instituto Naciónal de Migración).
Apart from institutional corruption and the presence of narco groups, the locals of Ixtepec have a sort of anti-Central American perception. According to the volunteers at the facility, many of them attribute the high levels of crime in their city to the Central American migrants.
Hermanos en el Camino serves as a secure place for migrants to take refuge, to give them a sense of hope and to keep them alive as they wait for the next freight train. It is surrounded by barbed wire, security cameras, prison-style bright lights, and guards securing the premises and Solalinde 24 hours a day.
A few weeks before we arrived a migrant was found murdered up the street from the shelter; we were all reminded not leave the shelter, especially in the evening. There was a constant reminder about the stark realities of the city with a picture of the deceased migrant outside of the main office and a security guard watching the front door every minute of the day.
During my time there I joined a group comprised of six men and a woman from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. For some this was their first journey to the United States and they held a certain level of optimism in regards to their near-future experience. For the rest, this was a trip they were no strangers to, but they did point out the increased risks compared to previous attempts at reaching the U.S.
To one Salvadoran, Manuel, the trip was an adventure. He had no real need to risk his life during the journey and was completely aware of that, a self-proclaimed adrenaline junky.
This of course is rare, as the factors pushing migration towards the north continue to be high levels of poverty, a lack of employment opportunities, and high levels of violence in the countries of origin.
The lack of employment opportunities and violence were the common push factors this group faced. David from El Salvador was involved in a community radio station in his hometown, but his lack of formal education made him a poor candidate for the competitive community organizing positions he was interested in. With a family to support, his goal was to make it to Northern California where he was told there was work.
Guillermo from Guatemala shared that he had worked at maquiladoras for 15 years. He approximately made 100 Quetzales in two days; that’s equivalent to $12.90 USD. It was nearly impossible for Guillermo to financially support his family on his wage and he decided to try his luck in the U.S.
Guillermo was the father of the group he traveled with, a reserved man who periodically shared words of wisdom and faith. For him, like for most, deportation brought on extreme financial hardship, as he could once again no longer provide for his family.
During a talk with Father Solalinde, he spoke about how Central American migrants suffer more than their Mexican counterparts. There is not a support system for Central Americans traveling through Mexico.
Most travel with solely the clothes they wear and a small backpack. They are harassed, robbed, and cannot obtain formal employment since they do not have work authorization to do so nor do they have the proper documents to have authorized stay in Mexico.
Many are kidnapped and held for ransom by the coyotes or members of organized crime, such as the Zetas. Therefore, by the time they do reach the U.S., if they make it, they are already in debt. The debt multiplies if they are deported. They are therefore no longer able to send remittances and are unemployed, making them once again victims of their circumstances.
On my last night spent in Ixtepec la bestia was due to depart towards Veracruz. After dinner they gathered their belongings, put on the warmest garments they possessed and made one last stop at the chapel.
At around 9:30 pm we all walked to the train tracks. It was bittersweet. The reality of the dangers that they would all face quickly sank in. I climbed onto la bestia with them and exchanged some last words.
They demonstrated how they best positioned themselves while the train is moving to avoid falling off, how to remain as warm as possible when traveling at night, and what to do to avoid wasps and bees that are in the tunnels.
Before climbing off of la bestia I recorded them reflecting on the short time spent together. This 3-minute video captured the excitement, fear and nervousness they were experiencing.
After exchanges of suerte and que Dios los bendiga, a few of us volunteers made our way back to the shelter. While walking along the track, a few feet from the train, we caught a glimpse of two cars parked with their lights off.
The men in the cars were watching the migrants every move. It’s as if they were stalking their prey. For the first time since being there I was scared since not only migrants are targeted, but also the shelter’s staff and volunteers. I’m pretty sure my heart skipped a beat or two.
Some of us have been able to keep in touch via Facebook. Some made it to their destination. Others were not so fortunate.
The current plight of unaccompanied minors and families fleeing violence and a dire economic situation from Central America has made me relive this shared experience with these people chasing an “American Dream” that is nonexistent, but is, at times, the only other plausible option.
If the tables were turned, many of us would make the same exact choices when faced with the same circumstances. For those of you who believe that people should“wait in line” and do things the “right way”, I invite you to learn more about the immigration process, specifically the immigrant visa and consular processes.
This “line” that many refer to can mean waiting for at least 12 years in some cases for a visa to become available. The U.S. Department of State releases a Visa Bulletin every month, which discloses the number of visas per category. I recommend exploring the website as it can shed some light to this “wait in line” myth.
With this hopeless process and your family’s well being in your hands, would you stand in line?
Vanessa Ceceña is a native San Diegan who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. She received her Master of Social Work from the University of Southern California and her Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her focus has been on immigration and Mexican indigenous communities from Oaxaca. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.