My kids had dressed themselves, indifferent as always to color clashes, and somehow, both had put on bright red t-shirts and plaid shorts. They sat in the backseat between piles of backpacks, blankets, books; and the still wet bathing suits were drying in the back window of the car. The floor was littered with sand and sea shells, flip flops, a rain boot, an unopened caguama, and the fresh green coconuts that we had bought from the roadside vendors as we left the humid heat of the coast. Heading for the mountains and plateaus of our home in central Mexico, we smelled salty and damp. Our fingers were sticky with sweet cocadas and pistachios, and we wound our way up towards Tepic. In the mountains, before Rio de Ixtlán, I spotted the first semi. The truck was piled high with people and backpacks, which I immediately recognized as part of the infamous second migrant caravan of 2018 heading towards the States from Central America.
Journeying with kids has been a completely different experience than wandering foreign countries on my own. There were times that the shower was just a cold bucket of water. Or I stayed in weird hostels with twenty strangers to a room. Once there were kids involved, my husband and I did everything differently. We didn’t want the danger or adrenaline of not knowing where we’d find a place to sleep. The uncertainty about when the next meal would be. Yet, these were exactly the fears that so many in the caravan face as they travel across Mexico. With nothing but a backpack, and maybe a stroller for the littlest ones, at the end of 2018, thousands had started walking north from Central America.
Several years ago, I was a Thursday cook in Guadalajara’s migrant shelter, back when it was located right next to the train tracks. When the train rumbled by, it would shake the walls of the whole building. The comedor ran on donations and volunteer power, but mostly, it felt held together by a precarious combination of Band-Aids and good will, a bunch of nuns who were always laughing, buenas vibras from the hippies, and precious few pesos. Young men, and occasionally women, would stop in for a meal, a shower; and depending on availability, they could sometimes get a shirt or pants. It would feel like Christmas the days that we had clean socks to hand out. There were so many skinny kids that we never had enough size 28 pants, and we’d never have enough shoes or toothbrushes for everyone who needed them.
The journeyers would shower, then most would use what was left of their slice of soap to wash their shirts and hang them to dry in the sunny corner of the upstairs patio where we’d also serve food. Sometimes, there was the right medicine for those who needed it; sometimes, someone from the team would accompany a migrant to the hospital as losing an arm or a leg was easy when riding La Bestia—the Beast—the name given to the train. Sometimes, the stories were heavy-hearted: the time a migrant girl had been kidnapped for ransom by the cartel and escaped, but not before she saw them kill another woman right in front of her. There are still unknown mass graves across Mexico, filled with people just like those who were eating at the shelter with us. Most of the time, there was silence as they ate. Then, full with the dignity of cleanliness, as well as the plate of humble rice and beans, sometimes they would laugh and joke again. But for whatever there was, or wasn’t, the people I met who came through our doors were uniformly grateful, exhausted, and hungry.
I never saw children in the shelter in those years, although the unaccompanied minors were still arriving at the border. Escaping the violent communities that the United States had Manifest Destinied onto multiple Central American countries over the past century. Award-winning writer Valeria Luiselli wrote about the migrant children, “It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.” Isn’t that just a natural human inclination: to dream, at the very least for possibility?
At closing time, the young guys, hardly more than kids, would take the bottles of spray deodorant and douse themselves liberally as if they were meeting a date: arm pits, chest, back, legs, arms, hair. More likely, it was as if they were putting on a spray of armor before heading out the door again. We’d call out, “Que les vaya bien,” and that seemed as much like a prayer as anything. May it go well for you.
Statistically, of course, it wouldn’t go well for them. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I served each person a plate of food, if they would survive crossing the desert once they made it north. I would worry about the cartels and police and railroad workers extorting them in the days and weeks of travel ahead; I worried about the women. God, I worried about every woman I met there. It wasn’t going to go well for them. Women and girls were actually advised to get a birth control injection before starting the trip because rape was more than a possibility: it was likely. What if travelling across an enormous, risky territory was the preferable option to staying in a violent community? Migrants make for the perfect victim after all: vulnerable, they don’t call for help or attention when they’re in trouble. They’re desperate.
I suspect the migrant caravan was often interpreted as a massive attack on the US border. However, was it ever anything more than a way to stay safe while crossing a country that has long proven itself to be at its easiest, traumatizing, and at its worst, fatal?
Further down the highway, we passed three more trucks, all carrying precious human cargo, piled like sand on a flatbed. I looked back at my boys in the backseat of the car, content with snacks and air conditioning, and watching the brilliant green mountains outside their windows. The starkness of the travel between my kids and those on the back of the semi could not have been sharper. Yet, witnessing injustice in the world is certainly painful, but it’s also necessary. It reminds us that sometimes life dealt us a good hand; how the dice could have also rolled the other way. I look at my boys, in their mismatched colors, and I couldn’t help but think what if it were us trying to get away?
In the migrant caravan, with practically the entire world watching, those kids—with no windows or seatbelts or snacks or a hotel to arrive to—sitting on the back of a truck that should be for transporting stuff, not humans, are safer than if they crept north, hiding from sight, jumping on and off trains, running from police. I’m so grateful that, for all the horrors and disasters of travelling thousands of kilometers with no promise of food or shelter or even an opportunity to reach the States, the caravan is a form of safety.
I remember so vividly the colored t-shirts of the people riding on the back of the truck with their backpacks and their children and their lives and hope. What if a whole country was outraged at my demand for dignified lives for my kids? That a wall would stop me from desperately needing peace and food for my boys? What does it feel like when your hope is just a thread bigger, still, than fear?
I remember my sons’ bright red t-shirts, and could only think of how I would do anything for them, too. How there are still families flowing north and the answers aren’t easy. But neither should desperation be demonized. I whispered, like always, “Que les vaya bien. Que les vaya bien.” May it go well for you.
Credit for the photo shown at the top of the page: https://www.voanews.com/a/food-water-ride-guatemalans-help-honduran-migrants/4618536.html