Photographers' Blog

Stopover in Mexico: The train to dreams

October 8, 2012

By Edgard Garrido

What really happens when a man, or a woman, or even a child, abandons their home motivated by the idea of a better life? How do they imagine it? What do they wish for, what are they missing?

There is violence, overcrowded neighborhoods and gigantic infrastructure on the outskirts of Mexico City but there are also hundreds of thousands of people who walk day and night; different people every day and every night for weeks and months next to the train tracks, trying to jump on a train car filled with merchandise as the train passes. Fear is engraved in their faces and makes their feet heavy. Solitude, hunger, the cold and above all a painful uncertainty, are carried with them. They left behind their homes in a land without miracles and few joys, like the last of the deserts.

In Huehuetoca, 67 km (41 miles) from Mexico City:

Edgard: (photographer) “Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from?”
Carlos: (migrant) “Hi, I’m from Honduras, and you?”
Edgard: “From Chile”
Carlos: “From Chile! How are you Alexis (a reference to Chilean soccer player Alexis Sanchez), have you been to Honduras?”
Edgard: “Yes, I lived in Honduras for several years”
Carlos: “And you’re not afraid of migrants?”
Edgard: “No, why should I?”
Carlos: “Because people say we are thieves and gang members. That we rape girls and that we only do damage.”
Edgard: “But not all of them. From what part of Honduras are you?”
Carlos: “From Tegus… (the capital Tegucigalpa)”
Edgard: “What neighborhood?”
Carlos: “Did you get to know Little Hell?”
Edgard: “Behind the Basilica, going down the staircase. Are you a member of a gang?”
Carlos: “You’re definitely not afraid of migrants! You wanna have a beer?”
Edgard: “How far are you traveling?”
Carlos: “Well, up north, to Uncle Sam (laughs). I’ve been there and they have deported me nine times, but here I go again. I know the tracks like no one else. Come on, let’s have a beer.”

I’d been asked to cover the possible dismantling of a provisional migrant shelter in Tultitlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City. It was about to be shut down due to the innumerable complaints from neighbors. The official shelter had been shut down for just the same reason, complaints by the neighbors about thieves, drunks, robbers, rapists and drug dealers they see in every migrant.

The provisional shelter was a giant tent set up underneath a bridge. Some 100 migrants were there when I arrived. Employees from the Mexican migration office were offering migrants the possibility to return legally to their home countries if they wished to do so. There seemed to be a lot of people wanting to go home. They were tired; they had been victims of kidnappers, extortionists and sometimes even of their own travel companions. Some were injured while trying to board the train in motion, others when they fell off.

Melquiades, a 36-year old Honduran migrant, told me that a “pollero” (people smuggler) had betrayed him “I paid him $3,000 U.S. Dollars in advance and now I can’t find him, but I know where he lives and I’m going to look for him. And then… I go back to Honduras.”

The other provisional shelter in Huehuetoca was set up in an abandoned house where the migrants were being looked after by volunteers and young students handing out donated food and blankets. The town itself looked dangerous and I could see bullet holes in a billboard that functioned like a fence.

“Not everybody likes us here,” a volunteer told me. “There is graffiti everywhere warning arriving migrants that there is no more shelter in order for the migrants to stay away. Now we leave the food next to the train tracks.”

Two migrants came walking and I lifted the camera to take some pictures but they ran away desperately when they noticed it. I whistled and made a friendly sign with my hand, and little by little they came back. They were Jesus and Roberto, one of them said he is from Guatemala, the other one tried to speak like a Mexican but he sounded more Guatemalan to me. They looked afraid. I asked them if they were hungry and they said yes. I called out to one of the volunteers and they got them some food.

While we were sitting under the ruthless sun, Jesus told me that a group of men had tried to kidnap them last night. “We were around 15, waiting for a chance to jump on the train that was just arriving, but suddenly a white pickup truck appeared heading towards us. The head lights blinded us and we started running all over the place. When the truck left, we gathered and realized that two men of our group were missing. We haven’t seen them since.”

When I drove back to Mexico City that same day I saw a man sleeping under the bushes, some 400 yards away from the shelter and the train tracks. I stopped and went over to wake him up. I asked him where he was from, and he said from Honduras and that he was hungry. He looked very tired. I told him about the shelter and showed him the way.

Some days later, I got a call early in the morning. I was told the tent shelter would be dismantled that day and I went back to Tultitlan. I asked the priest in charge of the shelter if he knew anything about this and he just said “I don’t know. I don’t need the press here. I want to help these people and you journalists don’t help.”

Some hours later the police and political authorities arrived. They had been given the order to dismantle the shelter. They took out the migrants, the volunteers, the food, the clothes, and the blankets. They worked very fast; they packed up the tent, the port-a-potties and put the migrants aboard four buses. Nobody knew where they were taking them. I suspected they were sending them to the other shelter at the abandoned house in Huehuetoca.

When I got there it was already dark and the migrants were nowhere to be seen. When I asked a volunteer he said that nobody had told them anything but apparently somebody saw the buses heading to the municipal dump. I headed to the dump and saw a new tent. Some of the migrants had arrived, and others were still on their way.

They got off the buses, carrying mattresses and blankets. The floor inside the tent was just sand. It was raining, everything was muddy and it was very cold. The place was completely fenced in, amid the desolation and gloom.

Juan, a 40-year old migrant from Honduras, told me that he had been going to the United States since he was 19-years-old. “I don’t remember how many times I’ve been deported. I always go back, but it used to be easier to enter the U.S. I have a 6-year-old daughter living there and I don’t want her to grow up in Honduras, it’s too bad there. I have to strive so she can have a better life. I’d rather go begging than take away her future. She was born in the U.S. My ticket is free either way,” he laughed.

I went on looking for migrants along the train tracks. I found six thirsty and hungry men who had tried unsuccessfully to board the “The Bestia” (what the train is known as). But the train was going too fast and the “garroteros” (men who travel with the train and are hired to make sure migrants won’t get on) asked for money to let them on — another attempt, another failure.

Another migrant told me that he had been stuck in Mexico for two months, and that he hoped to make it to the U.S. border this time, because the last time he was kidnapped. The kidnappers got in touch with his family but his father said “Just kill that bastard.” He said that he begged the kidnappers not to kill him and instead to call an aunt. They finally reached an agreement with her and she paid the ransom.

Suddenly, I found Steven. He was only six-months-old and traveled with his 18-year-old mother and his grandparents. They were from El Salvador and had been on the road for three months – half of his short life.

Steven was sound asleep as he lay on an old blanket on the floor. His grandmother Mirna told me that he was going to be baptized and some of the volunteers had offered to take him to the doctor. “He turns a bit violet in his face sometimes,” Mirna said. “We had to leave El Salvador. We didn’t make enough working at the market and kids from a gang wanted to extort money from us, but we had none and they threatened to kill us all.”

The next day Steven and his family went to the parish and everybody was in party mood. The volunteers bought an outfit for Steven and food to make “pupusas” (a thick, handmade tortilla, often stuffed with cheese or meat) to serve to the migrants at the shelter after Steven’s baptism.

We waited at the parish for the ceremony to start and Mirna suddenly said she never wanted to get back on the train again. “There was my sweet grandchild, on that train, wrapped in clothes and garbage bags. Only his little nose was sticking out. A garrotero saw us and I thought he wanted money but instead he was worried about the baby choking on the smoke of the train engine.”

Ovidio, the grandfather, was asleep while we were all waiting. Steven’s mother Vicky smiled only once during the ceremony.

After the baptism, Vicky and her mother prepared the pupusas. We all went back to the shelter and they shared the food with the other migrants. It was pouring rain outside, the interior of the shelter felt damp and as the dim light illuminated their shortcomings, silhouettes and shadows were seen resting under the trees outside. Steven drank his milk and slept between other migrants, his spot had been reserved for him.

Days later, the temporary shelter was officially inaugurated. Everybody had worked very hard and it looked much nicer. During the festive inauguration the migrants were invited to sit and participate. One of them cried inconsolably while actors represented a story about migrants.

A lot of people greeted me warmly. Strangely enough, I already felt a certain degree of belonging. When I was invited to share a meal with them, I asked about Steven and his family. It turned out that Steven’s mother and her parents split after a fight between them. The grandparents went back to El Salvador and Vicky took Steven and left. Nobody knew where she had gone.

Maybe the question I was asking myself at the beginning of this blog has a much simpler answer. We are all migrants, sometimes even if we have decided to stay in our place of birth. Sometimes it’s just about migrating to another state of mind.

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Amazing article, good work.

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