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Venice on the Suchiate

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Crossing the Suchiate River is nothing like crossing the Rio Grande. There are no walls, no border patrols, no dogs, and no high-tech detection devices. Instead, the brief voyage might remind one of pleasure cruises through Venice’s canals, as seen in the movies – a Venice in which the gondolas are rafts fashioned from two giant tractor tire inner tubes tied together with rope. Crude seats are fashioned from wooden slats and pieces of recycled cardboard. Instead of Italians in striped shirts, Guatemalans in any old t-shirt navigate the rafts, called pangas, with long poles carved from mangrove trees. I don’t know what Italian gondoliers are charging tourists these days but I’d be surprised if it were less than the twenty-peso panga fee. Also, on the Suchiate, no one sings.
The rafts silently glide across the shallow river that divides Mexico from Guatemala, a slow-motion dance that provides a bit of breeze, a respite from the searing heat. A few of the rafts ferry human passengers. Most are piled high with smuggled goods that splash the river with color – pink Flamingo paper towels, yellow tins of Nido baby formula, mountains of shimmering Colgate toothpaste, and brown stacks of Victoria beer – with the majority of goods moving from Mexico to Guatemala, since the peso is now weak in comparison to the quetzal.
Undocumented Central American migrants usually move in the opposite direction as the goods, from south to north, from Guatemala to Mexico, as they smuggle themselves toward the United States. Their journey usually becomes an ordeal after the river crossing, as they travel thousands of miles through Mexico.
Yet today, in a reverse crossing of the Suchiate that showed how easy safe passage without violence could be, the caravan’s mostly middle-aged and elderly mothers scrambled onto pangas, joined the stream of smugglers from north to south, and gathered on the Guatemalan side of the river for a final press conference in a corner of a tin-roof and concrete-pillar structure used as a parking lot for motorcycles, bicycles, and rafts.
The culmination of their seventeen days on the road, the press conference celebrated the women’s many successes in finding family members, a record of twelve on this year’s caravan. At the same time, the forty women (and four men and one Mexican mother), mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, called yet again for safe, visa-free passage through Mexico and demanded reparations for migrants killed in transit.
The forty mothers on the caravan displayed photos of their children, most of them adolescents or adults at the time of their departure from their homelands, in the central square of every town and city they passed through, carefully laying the headshots out in tidy rows on the concrete pavement. In the sex-bar capital of the area, the border city of Tapachula, the municipal official who oversees migrant affairs glanced over the exhibit of photos and assured me that in her city the police conduct regular checks to ensure that the city’s dozens of sex workers are all working of their own free well and are treated fairly by their employers. I had to ask: But aren’t the police infamous for their complicity with the abuses of the sex trade? Not here in Tapachula, no, the official assured me, without a trace of irony. Just twenty miles to the south, however, in Ciudad Hildago, the pangero matter-of-factly informed the other passengers and me that the local police regularly collect “taxes,” in cash, for the privilege of working the river. As numerous journalists have attested, Tapachula police are no less corrupt than their Ciudad Hidalgo counterparts.
Who is responsible for the safety of migrants? Because they have the temerity to aspire to something better than subsistence-level jobs manufacturing cheap clothes and electronic gadgets for global consumers, the temerity to defy nation-state laws and cross borders without passports or visas, are they then fair game for organized crime in cahoots with corrupt authorities? The mothers don’t think so. “No somos criminales, somos trabajadores internacionales!” [We are not criminals, we are international workers!] they would chant everywhere they went during their sojourn through 23 cities in 14 states.
The mothers knew that the life of their migrant children and husbands had always been marked not only by family separation, dangers during travel, rejection and exploitation in the host society, deportations, and returns laden with frustration of failure. During the caravan they learned from the migrants they met at shelters that many had also been victims of theft, robbery and extortion at the hands of Mexican citizens, human traffickers, and even the police or immigration authorities. Now migrants traveling illegally on foot, freight trains, or hidden in trucks, face also much more extreme levels of violence – mass kidnappings, rapes and massacres, such as occurred in San Fernando, Tamaulipas on August 23, 2010, when 72 migrants were tortured and killed.

This year the mothers marched through overcrowded prisons and unmarked graves in untended cemeteries. Yet they were nevertheless at times shielded from some of the starkest realities of what might be happening to their children. At a shelter in Celaya, Guanajuato, for instance, a male shelter worker took us aside to show us the cuts on his arms from kidnappers who recently held him and tortured him for several days. They wanted him to relay the message to the shelter’s director and other workers that they must turn over three migrants per week – strong men or attractive young women – to a group of men who identified themselves as part of the organized crime group that originated in the Mexican military, the Zetas. A second shelter worker kidnapped more recently was still missing. The unsuspecting mothers, meanwhile, enjoyed soft drinks and snacks and politely sat through an uplifting hymn from the shelter’s director, who accompanied himself on an electric piano.

Systematic violence against migrants is in part a consequence of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, which has opened the door for organized criminals to take control of the transport of undocumented border crossers. In the past, the guides known as coyotes were often from the migrants’ own communities; today, only guides with ties to criminals have the necessary level of organization, financial resources, and ability to corrupt police and immigration authorities in both countries. For years, the United States has been pressuring Mexico, primarily through the Merida Initiative, to deport undocumented Central Americans and militarize the Guatemala-Mexico border. Structural violence in Mexico functions as a kind of “deterrence policy” that attempts, without much success, to force migrants to desist, return home, and stay in their countries of origin. Yet further militarization is already evident, such as contracts with private companies to build more border area detention centers and the recent announcement that 400 additional federal police will soon be stationed on the southern border.
Before they boarded their bus back to Central America, the mothers scrambled onto the pangas once again, floated back over the river from the Guatemalan side onto the Mexican shore, and made their way to the International Bridge. On both sides of the bridge, immigration officials from Mexico and Guatemala carefully checked their visas and stamped their passports. At the bridge, the authorities make a show of legality and control while just down the river, they turn a blind eye to the obvious trade in people and goods, perhaps frustrating U.S. officials but delighting those of us who believe in a world without nation-state borders.
As we floated across the river, I was amazed by how simple it can be to cross a national border in peace, without a passport or a visa or person in uniform emanating authority. Unfortunately, because of pressure to seal Mexico’s southern border, Venice-on-the-Suchiate may not exist for long. The United States and Mexico governments are obviously more interested in sealing borders and less interested in protecting the people they force to cross them without documents.
By Ana Elena Puga with Víctor M. Espinosa


Breathe, Remember, Imagine

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December 12, 2013
By Ana Elena Puga
The mothers had many reasons to feel stressed in Mexico City. First, they arrived to a capital even more frenzied than usual, shaken by both demonstrations against the government’s move to privatize the oil industry and protests against a planned metro rate hike. Their chants of “Dónde están?” (Where are they?) “Migra cochina, racista, y asesina!” [Migration (police are) pigs, racists, murderers!] and “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” [They took them alive and we want them alive!] were not entirely ignored amid the controversy surrounding “reforms” to allow for more foreign investment in PEMEX, the state-run oil company. But even the newspaper that has been most attentive in its coverage of the mother’s search for their migrant children, La Jornada, ran the story of their arrival in the capital on Monday night on page 20 of Wednesday’s paper, with an oil-spin to its headline, citing Bishop Raúl Vera’s prediction that privatization of the oil industry will make Mexico poorer and thus spur migration to the United States.
In the city’s central square, the Zócalo, on Wednesday, the mothers took photos of their children (and in some cases husbands) to a three-dimensional representation of “La Bestia,” the migrants’ nickname for the dangerous freight trains that carry many Central American migrants north: a kid-size cardboard train on rubber wheels with a paper-mache skeleton at its helm. The skeleton was shaped as a glutton, with a big pot belly and a drumstick in one hand, as if to underscore the voracity with which it chews up migrants. On the outside of one train car, migrant passengers were drawn as stick-figures with backpacks covered with dollars signs, a reminder of their value as commodities to kidnappers and corrupt officials. The mothers, along with a couple of fathers and a brother, papered the remainder of the train with photos of their disappeared children and husbands.
Some passersby expressed horror; others seemed confused. “Does this have to do with the metro?” one woman asked.
As they pushed the train around the square, past the fancy offices and hotels, past the national palace, and past the national cathedral, the mother’s chants seemed lost in the enormous space glittering with giant Christmas decorations and Happy New Year’s wishes written in massive tinsel script across the façades of the historic buildings. Many visitors to the square had come to see the giant Coca-Cola themed Christmas tree. An organ grinder cranked out happy tunes so loudly that at times they drowned out the mother’s chants entirely. One old Revolutionary War song, however, unintentionally evoked the theme of disappearance and search: “Si Adelita se fuera con otro, la seguiria por cielo y por mar…”
Second, there was the stress of the reunions and near-reunions with missing relatives. Caravan organizers highlight the happy moments: the moment in Guadalajara, after ten years apart, when a Nicaraguan mother, Narcisa, was reunited with her missing son, Eugenio Marcelino, and he brought her a bouquet of white lilies; the moment when the Salvadoran women’s rights activist Noemi embraced Sonia, her only sister, who she hadn’t seen since the age of seven; the moment when 72-year-old Lucila discovered that her daughter Ana Julia had not died on the road to the United States some twenty years ago, but rather had started a new life in Mexico, complete with a partner and three children. In Mexico City, Lucila was reunited with her daughter and met Ana Julia’s nine-year-old daughter Alexa, a new grand-daughter for Lucila to get to know.
Yet there was also the mother who was told by migrants in a shelter that they thought they had seen her son in another shelter, several hours away. She temporarily left the caravan to follow the trail, only to find that her son was not there. For hours she poured through photographs of dozens of young men who had passed through the facility, but was not able to identify any of them as her son. With every reunion and near-reunion, the anxiety of the other mothers increased: Would it turn out that their son or daughter had just failed to maintain contact? For some that was a realistic possibility, but for others the last phone call strongly suggested that the migrant had been kidnapped or abandoned by his or her guide while crossing a US-Mexico border desert.
So the mothers were more than ready for the three-hour relaxation session scheduled for them by caravan organizers. About forty women gathered in a circle in a large room on the top floor of an American Friends Service Committee hostel, urged by a female facilitator with flowing curls to temporarily take off the photos of their loved ones that they almost constantly wear round their necks, to stretch, take off their shoes, sit or lie on the floor if they wanted, breathe deeply.
At first I inwardly rolled my eyes a bit at the touchy-feeliness of it all but decided to go along with the program. I took off my gym shoes and stretched my feet. I stretched out in my plastic chair and closed my eyes, letting myself imagine what we were told to imagine: You are walking down a long path toward the cave of a wise woman. In the distance, in front of her cave, you see a small fire burning. You can barely distinguish the figure of the wise woman. As you get closer, the details of her face, her body, and her clothing become more defined. You look into her eyes and ask her a question…
Not surprisingly, during the discussion after the visualization exercise, several of the women told the group that they had asked the wise woman whether their child was alive. Priscilla, from Honduras, last heard from her daughter Yesenia six years ago when she called from Nuevo Laredo to say that she was going to attempt to cross into the United States with a guide but was fearful of the crossing. The wise woman told her that her daughter is “asleep” Priscilla told the group, then burst into sobs so intense that the facilitator asked a Reiki teacher standing by to intervene. The Reiki teacher put her hands on Priscilla’s forehead and over the top of her head to help calm her.
Another Honduran mother, Ana, voiced what many women in the group might have been thinking: “I am not ready to receive bad news about my son.” Ana’s son Oscar went missing in in 2010 in San Sebastian, a small town in the western state of Jalisco, even after she paid what she suspected was a ransom to some men who called her in Tegucigalpa to say that because her son had crashed their pickup truck she must therefore wire them the money he “owed” them. Similarly, Carmen, a Nicaraguan who now lives in Costa Rica, heard four years ago from a sister in Florida that her son Alvaro had called from Tierra Blanca, Veracruz to say that kidnappers were holding him and wanted $2000 to release him. He had called his aunt in hopes that she might pay the ransom. But Carmen’s sister was not able to raise the money to pay, causing a longstanding rift between the two women. The son was never heard from again. Carmen spoke after Ana: “I’m not ready either. I’m not ready.”
A young Guatemalan woman from highlands province of Quitché, Lucia, confessed that she hadn’t done the visualization exercise at all. Instead, she had fallen asleep and dreamed that she saw her husband Mateo standing by the side of a road, looking healthy and well-dressed. “I liked the way he looked. It was like I fell in love with him again,” she said, smiling. In 2011, his regular calls from the road north in Mexico to report home abruptly stopped. The last call was from Leon, Guanajuato. A few months later two men Lucinda thought looked like narcos out of a television crime show visited her in Quiché to tell her that her husband had somehow mysteriously died en route to the United States. For 80,000 Quetzales, they would bring her his body, they said. For a mere 40,000 Quetzales, they would bring her his ashes. She sent them away.
At the end of the relaxation session, many of the women declared that they felt better, cured for the moment of headaches, tightness in their shoulders, pains in their necks. Yet before they left the room, they gathered up their photos and hung them around their necks again. I gathered up my notebook and pen, and lifted my backpack onto my shoulders. I hadn’t been able to come up any question for the wise woman that seemed any more important than Dónde están?

A Moving Exhibit

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Wednesday December 4, 2013
By Ana Elena Puga with Víctor M. Espinosa
My partner and I are following the caravan of forty Central American mothers now traveling through Mexico (December 2-18) to learn more about how undocumented migrants advocate for their human rights. The mothers are searching for their children, most of whom were young adults at the time of their disappearance, along the migrant routes that the undocumented travel in hopes of making it to the United States and earning a more decent living for themselves and their families.
Yesterday, on the second day of the caravan, as the mothers covered hundreds of miles through the southern Mexican cities of Tenosique, Tabasco; Palenque, Chiapas; and Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz; we were struck by the encounters between them and the current young migrants, mostly men, but also sometimes young women, and even couples with children, who they meet at the shelters that receive them along the route. For the migrants who are trying to make their way north now, the mostly older women bring both reminders of their past, the folks they left at home, and warnings about their possible future, the harm that could befall them, as it most likely befell the young men and women the mothers are still nevertheless hoping to find alive.
From four of the poorest countries in Latin America, countries that have long borne the brunt of U.S. Cold War imperialism and post-Cold War neoliberal imperialism – Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua – the women have come together on a single large tour bus provided by a Mexican non-governmental organization, the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano. At each stop along the route, often at or near a church-run shelter for migrants, the mothers (as well as a few fathers and brothers) display large laminated photos of their children that they hang on a string around their necks. Because many more parents wanted to come than the Movimiento could fund, some mothers also wear portraits of the children of friends around their necks, or over their shoulders, as if to give these other children a position along their bodies, yet also indicate that they occupy a greater remove of kinship.
At the La 72 Hogar Refugio Para Personas Migrantes, a shelter in Tenosique run by Franciscan friars, a young migrant mother with a blind baby girl appealed to the mothers to take her with them on the bus. Movimiento organizer Marta Sánchez Soler gently explained that by Mexican law she is prohibited from taking any migrants on the bus other than the pre-authorized Central American mothers. The young woman walked away with her baby in her arms. Her male companion standing nearby muttered something about how it’s too bad you have to disappear before the government is willing to help you.
That sentiment was also expressed by a young man who made the very valid point to Víctor: Why not transport us on a bus north out of the most dangerous areas now so that our mothers don’t have to come looking for us later? Or, as Mexican migrant rights advocates have been arguing for years, why not provide a transit visa to switch the status of the undocumented to documented and make them less vulnerable to shakedowns and violent assaults? Imagine what it would look like if the mothers’ caravan were one day joined by hundreds of undocumented migrants themselves.
As if to add to the irony of too little too late, Mexican state and immigration police have provided an escort to the mothers’ bus to try to guarantee their safe transit on roads notorious for assaults and robberies. Just a couple of days ago, on the same day the mothers crossed from Guatemala into Mexico at the lonely border community of La Ceiba, Tabasco, a freight train carrying undocumented migrants north toward the small Isthmus city of Ixtepec, Oaxaca was robbed by ten armed men who stripped about a hundred migrant men of all their possessions, including all their clothes but their underwear. Even one of the Movimiento’s own organizers was robbed early Tuesday en route to join the caravan in Tenosique: his ADO passenger bus from Mexico City was hijacked by assailants in Veracruz armed with guns who reassured passengers that they were only charging the “toll” for travel through their state, that they would only hurt those who failed to hand over their cash and other belongings.
An unconventional exhibit of photographs dreamed up by Mexico City photographer Jesús Villaseca and Movimiento organizer Encarni Pindado, also a photographer, underscores the dangers the future might hold for current migrants. Villaseca gathered 280 wall-sized reproductions of photos of the undocumented migrant journey by about a dozen different Mexican photographers, many of them taken on or around the freight trains collectively dubbed “La Bestia,” as if they form one single demonic entity. Along with Encarni, Jesús and the photographer Luz Elena Pérez Coronado brought dozens of long rolls of photographic images on paper to Chiapas in order to cover the outside of a freight train and create a moving (no pun intended) exhibit. In the Palenque train yard, Encarni appealed to a group of half-a-dozen young migrant men sitting around the railroad yard waiting for the next freight train heading north to help paste the images on the outside of the cars of the parked train. Luckily, the train yard supervisor didn’t object to the plan.
Working under a brutal sun with buckets of glue and brooms, within an hour, the migrants, the photographers, and some German exchange students who had come along for the adventure, covered the outside of almost all the freight cars with images of migrants, their belongings, and their family members. Some of the images were peaceful, others troubling: a man whose legs were presumably amputated by a train takes a shower while seated in a plastic chair in a shelter, his hands cover his face; a middle-aged woman under a large broad-brimmed hat walks through an isolated area amid wooden crosses; a woman’s high-heeled slipper embroidered with a flower lies discarded between two freight train cars, the label reads “suela sintética, forro sintético, Hecho en México” [synthetic sole, synthetic lining, made in Mexico]; and mothers from previous caravans stand face-forward, as if in mug shots or police line-ups, their images of their children hanging from their necks. This is the ninth annual caravan.
Before long, this year’s group of Central American mothers arrived on the scene to take in the display. Their reactions came slowly, in single words: “fuerte” [strong] or “bonito” [pretty]. One mother stood in horror in front of the photo of the double-amputee in the shower. “Why did they take this photo?” she wondered aloud. Another mother, Lidia Diego Mateo, was prevailed upon by the photographers present to pose in front of her own image. Lidia had participated in the caravan last year, and again this year, hoping to find traces of her daughter, Nora Morales Diego. Six years ago, at the age of 16, Nora left her home in the Guatemalan municipality of Ixcán to work as a maid in the Mexico-Guatemala border town of Benemérito de las Américas. One day she simply stopped calling home. Lidia fears that her daughter may have been forced into the sex trade. As she stood face-forward yesterday, the image of her daughter once again hanging from her neck, in front of her own face-forward image from 2012 bearing the same image of her daughter hanging from her neck, a weird kind of ghosting occurred, as if the repetitions of history were suddenly made tangible.
The young migrant men who had helped hang the exhibit stood by, mostly silent, taking in the sight of a group of mothers looking at larger-than-life images of adult children like them. Perhaps one, or more, of the young men was wondering if his own mother might one day have to come looking for him, a portrait of her son laminated in plastic hanging from a string around her neck.
Ana Elena Puga is a faculty member at The Ohio State University and is currently in Mexico on a Fulbright research fellowship.
Víctor M. Espinosa is a photographer and a lecturer at the Colegio de Jalisco who specializes in art and migration.

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