José García Escobar
Photography by Simone Dalmasso, Andrea Godínez, and José García Escobar.
Some of these images previously appeared in Plaza Pública.
Part 2 of a four-part series. Read part 1. | Read part 3. | Read part 4.
It had been a hellish ten-hour drive from Guatemala City to Tecún Umán. We left at 11 am and arrived at 9 pm. Simone drove the whole way. Before the caravan, he and I had gone to Ixcán, on Guatemala’s northwest side, for four days to research how schools must teach in up to eight Mayan languages because of the small village’s diverse population. I had been working nonstop with Simone for the past two weeks. When we took a break just outside of Mazatenango, two hours away from Tecún, I jokingly said to him, “For the past twenty days I have seen your face more than my girlfriend’s.”
“Cazzo! I have seen yours more than my son’s.”
In that same pickup truck there were Andrea, Oliver (a Spanish photojournalist working for AP), Alberto (a Spanish reporter from our news outlet) and Elsa (a Spanish reporter, freelancing for Nómada). They were all smokers but me. An hour after we set off from Guatemala City it started raining. I repeat: they were all smokers. And I was sitting next to Alberto, the world’s heaviest smoker.
I should be thankful that as soon as we reached San Marcos, Simone let people onto the bed of our pickup and Alberto sat next to them, to interview them.
This was far from the only group of people we found on the road. Even if the caravan had abandoned the idea of walking all the way to the US, portions of the trip had to be done on foot. We saw hundreds by the side of the road. There were women and children with their hands up in the air, pleading to be rescued from the rain, from the wet and dark highway, and be taken to the nearest town, to civilization, further north, closer to los USA. Families huddled together under coconut trees. I saw men sharing a piece of nylon to hide from the rain even if their feet were deep in the mud. And since proper rest stops in Guatemala are a rarity, most pleaded to the humanity of drivers out in the open, under the rain. If the people outside of Esquipulas were sunburnt and dehydrated, those hoping to reach Tecún before sundown were soaking wet and desperate to find a roof—Guatemala’s microclimates are both fascinating and unforgiving. The group we found had been waiting for a ride for over an hour. And none wanted to talk, Alberto told us later. Except for one: 52-year-old Miguel Ángel Hernández.
“I come from Azacualpa, Santa Bárbara. My wife and two children are still there,” Miguel Ángel said. “When I told them I was joining the caravan they all cried. But they must know that I’m doing this for them.” Miguel Ángel has a thin mustache, the brown, leathered skin of a veteran campesino, and fingers as big and thick as bananas. Miguel Ángel left Honduras because he was robbed and left for dead. “I used to work selling vegetables, me and my partner. One day we found a man on the road asking for a ride; he had a guitar case. We let him up and he pulled an AK-47 from his case. ‘Stop the car or I’ll kill you both,’ the man said, aiming at my friend’s head.” The road to Tecún is filled with holes, so the people sitting on the back, Miguel Ángel included, clutched the railing with ferocity. “The man took all of our money. He tied us, beat us, and ditched the car on the side of the road. That’s when I knew it was enough. I was living in constant fear after that. So I left.”
An hour before reaching Tecún, we stopped on the side of the road, bought tortillas, fried chicken, and bottles of water. We shared them with Miguel Ángel and eight other men and women that were riding with us. After the meal, Alberto gave Miguel Ángel a cigarette.
Tecún Umán was a pool, una piscina, caused by clogged drains and soft, yet unrelenting rain. The streets could only be walked on the tips of one’s shoes. Located on the country’s southwestern border, in the department of San Marcos, Tecún is the last village before reaching Mexican soil. Divided by the Rodolfo Robles bridge, Tecún is home of the now famous balseros—men build rafts using pieces of wood and tractor tires to take migrants, merchants, and tourists across the Suchiate River. For the undocumented, Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, North America is less than two dollars away.
We took our things to the first shitty hotel we could find, grabbed our notepads, and headed to the central plaza, where hundreds of Hondurans—and now Guatemalans—sat wringing their clothes, flipping their shoes, and lining up to get coffee and cup noodles from a Hilux. There was an improvised fútbol court, marked by two goals made with piles of hats, in the middle of the park. The universal sound of players asking for a filtered pass or a cross, next to a couple of flimsy speakers shouting the freshest reggeaton song, filled the plaza that had shifted from a refugee camp to a coliseum, a dance floor, a feria patronal.
Police cars roamed the area, coughing their loud sirens as rain ceased.
I took a walk across the park, not really intending to find someone to talk to. I merely wanted to take it all in, the colorful signs, the bare feet, the smell of wet clothes and fried beans, the way children played and jumped; the normalcy of it all. Across from the park, the Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Últimos Días housed another group of migrants and offered its restrooms to those who needed them. Andrea, Elsa and I went in.
Inside, I ran into Sergio, smiling, sitting on his wheelchair.
“Sergio! You’re here!”
“Ah,” he said, looking up. “It was all by the grace of God.”
There was Paola, rocking her nine-month old daughter Eliany too. Mario, wearing a pair of oversized orange Crocs that he said he had gotten in Guatemala City, was going through a pile of second-hand clothes. The normalcy of it all. Suddenly I felt my phone buzzing. Alberto was calling. “José,” he said, “is Andrea with you?” I told him she was in here somewhere. “There’s this girl who wants to talk to her.”
Andrea was interviewing a woman, so I walked outside, found Alberto’s light brown hair and hunched shoulders, and waved at him. Heidy, with her orange hair up in the air, emerged behind Alberto and ran into my arms. I reached for her hand and took her to Andrea. Andrea, eyes closed, hugged her too. It was, after all, no small feat. The last time we had seen her was in Esquipulas, 270 miles east. And Heidy, like a small child, grabbed our hands and took us back to the park, to Jayden, to her mother, Mayra Orellana. We talked about the trip from Esquipulas. We talked about Jayden. We talked about how they had gotten to Tecún Umán on Wednesday on top of an eighteen-wheeler, and how they had slept at a nearby shelter. “And now you’re sleeping in the streets?” I said, confused.
“We must give other people a chance to sleep on a bed,” Heidy said, smiling, as people walked right by us, with steaming black beans served on Styrofoam plates.
“We went there a few hours ago, to take a shower,” señora Mayra said.
Heidy, Jayden, and señora Mayra had had dinner by then. Even if the president of Guatemala had failed to acknowledge the caravan or help its people in any way, locals offered their food to the migrants selflessly.
We talked with señora Mayra about el incidente: how local gang members, mareros, had punched her in the face, pushed her to the ground, and told her they were going to kill her and Heidy if they didn’t pay the impuesto. Mayra’s right cheek was mostly brown, much like her daughter’s, but a purplish hue marked her cheekbone down to her jawline. She showed us a photo on her daughter’s cellphone: her eye was red, and the right side of her face was swollen as if she had a piece of bread in her mouth. The purplish hue, in the photo, was as black as Heidy’s eyes.
“This was last week, I kept the police report,” she said, her voice calm and without a hint of sadness or concern.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not anymore.” She smiled. “Do you want to hold Jayden?”
The normality of it all.
“I’m traveling with my mother and my baby boy, Jayden. We’re going north because right now things are awful in Honduras and too expensive,” Heidy said. She talked slowly, considering all her words, as if she wanted to make sure I was able to write down her whole story. “I used to work with my mother. We used to sell baleadas, but we couldn’t afford to buy the ingredients, and also the gangs began asking us for the impuesto de guerra. They told us they were going to kill us if we didn’t pay. They even punched my mother. She’s 52.” A pause. “And Jayden’s father used to hit us too. We needed to leave. I can’t come back. I know we’re going to find a better future in the United States. All we’re asking is for the president to let us in, to let us work. We’re not criminals. I can work cleaning dishes. My mother and I can cook too. Anything for my Jayden.”
By 6 am people began rallying at the park. Some sat by Elektra’s front door, waiting for it to open so they could withdraw the money a relative, possibly in los USA, had sent them via Western Union. I caught the eyes of a mother combing the hair of baby girl. The girl’s expression was of total cluelessness and doubt, like that found in the portraits of dying saints.
I elbowed Simone. “Madonna,” he said, and took the picture.
I walked around the park looking for familiar faces. There were none. Or perhaps they were all familiar faces. All the people at the park had the same worn down yet potent faces I had seen in my barrio in Guatemala City. A barrio filled with single mothers, unemployed young men, and storeowners forced to pay for security guards in case la mara comes lurking in. I thought of my grandfather and how he, working at TIPICSA and earning minimum wage, managed to feed, clothe, and school my mother and tío Canche, and how he had always dreamed for more. “Perhaps in the US,” my mother said he used to say. These people went to bed in Honduras to the sound of bullets and sirens, much like myself. After realizing time and time again that they couldn’t find prosperity in their own land, they fled, much like my grandfather. So, I wondered, what if my grandfather had stayed in San Juan instead of taking a bus to Guatemala City? What if my mom, like many of her cousins, had married there too? What if I had become a welder, like my grandfather? Would I have followed his footsteps and given my life to el oficio? Or would I, fed up by inequality, enraged by poverty, have had fled the country like my tío Oscar, tía Magda, tía Bertha, tío Tito, and the millions of other Central Americans who head up north every year? Would I have joined the caravan? My grandfather’s hometown is only two hours away from Tecún Umán. Me and my family, I decided standing in Tecún Umán’s Parque Central, are not that different from Arely’s family, or Sergio’s, Brayan’s, Mario’s, and Heidy’s. And as I treaded on the wet floor of the park, Heidy’s mother woke me up from my stupor.
“Buenos días,” she said as I sat by her side. “People didn’t sleep. They’re too excited.”
I let Jayden up on my legs. He began playing with my press ID.
“And your daughter?” I said.
“Finding us breakfast.”
I looked around. People were gathered next to locals handing out rice and beans. The police was there as well. The army too. They’re always there, like a stubborn itch.
“Buenos días,” a young man said, sitting by my side. I took my ID from Jayden’s hands and asked the man if I could interview him. He said yes, taking out an orange out of his backpack. Representatives from UNHCR began handing out sheets of paper with information on how to apply for asylum in Mexico.
“Your name, amigo?” I said.
“I am Carlos Orellana, and I am 23 years old,” he said, and he pushed an orange slice inside his mouth.
“Where are you from?”
But perhaps Carlos didn’t hear me. “I don’t know why there are all these soldiers here. People say there are many more on the Mexican side. God is not war, He’s peace, and God is walking alongside us. God is always on the side of the poor. I am poor. I am one of five brothers; we can’t find a job. There aren’t any jobs left in Honduras. The politicians keep all the money. But I was the only one who left. I’m from Trinidad, Santa Bárbara. I’m 23, and I can’t find a job. But I can do a lot of things. I can work the land, I worked as a bricklayer, but what I like the most is welding. I know how to use a welding gun. I’d love to find a job as a welder in the United States.”
“My grandfather was a welder,” I told Carlos.
“He was?” Carlos said, suddenly excited.
“Let us not forget one thing, gentlemen,” an older man by our side said, after Jayden had found Saint Christopher, under the collar of my shirt. “The invasion.”
As the man, Omar Caballeros, 48, sat by our side, I noticed the Red Cross was on the side of the park, setting up a small tent where others would, hours later, ask for bandages, cough syrup, or a swig of Pepto-Bismol.
“Manuel Zelaya did a lot for the unprivileged, but then he was overthrown by the US government,” Omar said, taking off his cap; he was as bold as a bowling ball. “They invaded our country and wrecked our society. It’s not fair. Siempre es lo mismo con los gringos. And they must remember what’s printed on their bills, ‘In God We Trust.’ And if they really trust in God, they can’t ignore us.”
“And they must also remember that we, the immigrants, are the economic base of that country. The gringos need us,” Carlos said. “All I want is to build a little house for my family, for my mother. She has always wanted a house for herself. But we have no money. She has to skip meals to pay the rent. Life has always been hard in Honduras. I’m going through the same hardship as my mother went through when she was my age, and it’s not fair.”
“The US has helped maintain Honduras’s elite,” Omar said, visibly angry. “Now Donal’ Trun is saying he will cut the aid to our country. I say to him, ‘Cut it!’ That money never gets to us. With a president like Juan Orlando [Hernández]; he keeps all that money.” A pause. “Do you know that this is the ninth time I’m going to the US? I was 19 the first time I crossed.”
“And where have you been?”
“Los Angeles, Miami, Maryland, Washington; I always wanted to go to a new place. Soy un viajero,” Omar said, and he smiles.
“We’re all viajeros,” Mayra said, nodding happily.
“I’ve worked as a janitor, at hardware stores, in hotels. I worked for a year and then made my way back to Honduras,” Omar said. “That’s all I needed: one year. One year to work and save some money. That allowed me to help my kids. I’m a father of five, and the five of them have graduated from high school. Now, much like Carlos, I want to buy my house.” Omar touches Carlos’ shoulder. “But do you want to know the truth? Do you see that young lady over there, the one with the white hat?” Omar points to a skinny woman with curly hair and pink tennis shoes. “That’s my daughter, Sandra. She’s 17. And the maras wanted her. They threatened us. They threatened to kill us. I’m scared. It’s not fair. She’s only 17. She wanted to go to university.” Omar gets teary-eyed. His face suddenly turns red. Carlos began crying as well. “Carlos here, he’s right: life has always been hard in Honduras. And the truth is, the United States is not the answer. I don’t care about the United States. I like it there, but that’s not the answer. We could ask asylum here in Guatemala, or in Mexico, or Canada. The goal was to leave that hell we were living in San Pedro.”
Carlos wiped his face. “Ni el hijueputa de Trun nos va a parar,” he said. “God will give us strength. He will open the doors.”
“Amén. God will help us reach the other side,” Mayra said.
Heidy suddenly appeared balancing two plates filled with scrambled eggs and fried beans. “Mijo, what’s in your mouth?” she said. Jayden, halfway through Omar’s telling had begun to chew on Saint Christopher. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky.
A bus filled with people reached the park. They had spent the night in Coatepeque, an hour away. “Mi gente, I thought you were gone by now,” a man said, getting off the bus.
Tecún Umán’s main square sits only four blocks away from the bridge that binds Guatemala and Mexico, a bridge that’s meekly guarded by a couple of doors. On the morning of October 19, 2018, four days after the caravan reached Guatemalan soil, the doors were closed. In front of those doors were two armored cars, purring, and around twenty police officers. The armed cops kept the caravan from reaching the door. People began singing the national anthem, but the policemen didn’t move. At 11:20 someone said, “If they don’t let us through in half an hour, we’ll simply swim across the river.” People cheered but the cops didn’t move. “¡Viva Honduras!” But they didn’t move. Los chontes, los chepos didn’t move. The sun beat down heavily on us. I saw a father pouring water over his daughter’s head. Twelve hours after the rain stopped, Tecún had gone back to its usual aridness. I saw people under umbrellas while others huddled under the shadows casted by the stores’ signs. I saw men with their shirts off and women with cloths on their faces. I saw people fanning themselves. I saw parents pushing their kids up on the air, and away from the suffocating dampness found among the crowd. Despite the heat, the cops didn’t move. I saw Alberto, up on a roof, looking down at the people. I saw Simone, all 5’9’’ of him, sweating and taking pictures. People began getting restless. But the policemen didn’t move.
No se movieron, pero sí se movieron. They didn’t move, but they did.
Eventually, and unexpectedly, at 11:25, the first line of policemen stepped aside, and the caravan reached the gates. The people cheered. But no one opened the gates. People began climbing on the vehicles, on top of the gates and pushing them. People began asking for the doors to be opened. I was standing a few feet away, near a statue, and saw Mario standing near the front. Heidy, Jayden and her mother were close by too—Heidy had Saint Christopher resting over her chest.
“Erica, where are you, Erica?” I overheard a father say and looking around. “Erica, I’m here, mi amor. Where are you?” Erica’s father was pulling his other two daughters.
Simone pushed through the crowd and got to the front.
“Erica, where are you?”
On the other side of the bridge, on the Mexican side, Andrea confirmed via voice note, that there were three hundred federales, in full military gear, waiting, palming riot guns. The silence on the other side of the bridge, in Ciudad Hidalgo, was ominous.
“Erica, please, follow my voice!”
The people stopped moving. There was no room left for anyone else.
A single chopper circled the area, fluttering loud, but not as loud as the people’s voices. “¡Honduras! ¡Honduras!” they said, while those at the front of the group kept on pushing the doors with the practiced passion of fútbol fans. It occurred to me then that perhaps Olimpia fans and Motagua fans had put aside their differences and decided to push against a bigger threat: entrapment. Vamos leones. Vamos águilas. Viva Honduras. There was no dialogue, no exchange between the authorities and the caravan. The cops simply stared. The men at the front, with their practiced severity, simply stared straight ahead. Even those sitting inside the armored cars, watched uninterested. And so, even if the gates didn’t move, and even if the cops did nothing, after half an hour of restless pushing, one of the first two doors gave in. The other one, a minute later, at 12:03, surrendered and let the people leave Guatemala, at least partially. I saw a family of four going by, a piece of string keeping the four backpacks close to each other. A sea of people charged out of Guatemala and into the bridge.
“Erica, por Dios, follow my voice!”
The first group ran excitedly down the bridge. “¡Viva México!” they said as people living on the houses by the bridge tossed them bottles of water. Soon they reached the second set of closed doors. And soon the pushing began. Men climbed over and in between the arrow-tipped gates. Others crawled over the tin roof of the crosswalk. People were getting crushed. Just recently Andrea told me that many of the reporters on the other side were crying. She saw Heidy with one hand in between the bars crying for help.
“Andreita,” she yelled, holding a limp Jayden with her other hand.
Instinctively Andrea took Elsa’s bottle of water. “Give this to her,” she said to a reporter that was closer to the gates and pointing at Heidy.
Heidy took the cap off and poured all the water on her son, bringing him back to life.
The migrants kept pushing. The gates gave in as well; they cracked as if they were made of rotten wood. Next were the barricades. The metal structure the Mexicans had built crumbled like a house of cards. A man with a Honduran flag in one hand flung his fist to the open air, almost as if challenging the helicopter above. There were murmurs and shouts. A few jumped over the fences. The federales responded with pepper spray, tear gas, and riot shields. Murmurs turned into wails and screams. The children began crying. People fell to the ground. After minutes of struggle, the Mexican police was able to contain the group and close the doors. The caravan moved back. A few minutes later they simply sat on the ground, under the hot sun. Those who had managed to reach the other side were put in detention.
“I’m here with Mario and Heidy,” Andrea texted. She later sent us a video of him.
“They hit me,” Mario said in the video, and he shrugged. He had no shirt on and his eyes were red and misty. “I ran across the bridge, but they hit me. A police officer grabbed me and pushed me to the ground. ‘Outta here,’ he said. But I will keep going, in God’s name.”
Friday, October 19, four days after the caravan reached Guatemalan soil, the caravan was put in limbo, indefinitely, outside Tecún Umán, but not quite in Ciudad Hidalgo.
It didn’t take long, however, for the balseros to emerge and begin telling those at the bridge to jump. People trapped, desperate to reach Mexico, climbed the fence and dived into the brown waters of the Suchiate River.
“He who drops has no chance of getting a visa,” someone on the bridge said.
“Have no fear, perros,” one of the balseros shouted. He was shirtless, as were his colleagues, and there were three rafts around them. “We’ll catch you.”
“If I were traveling alone, I’d jump. But I got my wife and kids here with me,” another man said, with his hands on the bars and looking down.
“Trust us, perros,” one of the balseros said. He had climbed the fence. “They’re not going to open.” He talked to the crowd with the stern determination of an angry priest.
“The water’s not that deep, you see?” another one said, touching his belly; the man’s belt peeked ever so slightly over the river.
Many men surrendered to the siren song of the balseros. They climbed the fence, dropped their bags, let go, and five minutes later they were on the other side, resting up and wringing their clothes on the mossy hills of Ciudad Hidalgo. The federales did nothing. The helicopter had left. Mexico, with the severity of Sauron, had one eye fixed on the bridge, while completely ignoring the tired bodies that swam its waters, reached its shores, and happily crawled up its green sides.
But then there were those who, fearing deportation, remained on the bridge. I took a walk to talk to people.
“There’s no work in Honduras. Then the government raises the price for the market basket, they come up with new taxes,” a man who introduced himself as Jaime González said. “My wife and I, we used to sell clothes. We used to make 1,000 lempiras a month; that’s good enough to pay for the electrical bill. That’s it! There are no opportunities in Ocotepeque. I can’t keep suffering like this, so I will wait.”
Later I found a young woman with glasses on. She was sitting feet away from the door leading to Migración. Her name was Magda Rodríguez, 18, and she was a student.
“This has been an arduous journey for me. I’m on my way to the United States. Now, this is a problem, the fact that they’re not letting us through. But I know that God will open the doors for us,” she said. “We’re on our way up north, looking for a better life. We’re risking our lives to achieve that. I have a daughter. I’m a single parent.” A pause. “I had to leave my daughter behind; I didn’t want to put her through this. But I’m willing to keep going because of her. There are no jobs in Honduras. I was working as a waitress at a restaurant that had to close down because the maras began asking for money. My daughter, she’s only two years old, and she’s back in Honduras.” Here she choked up. “I left her with my father.”
I heard a man talking over the phone, in English. He said something about clients and money upfront.
“Can I talk to you?” I said, in English, as soon as he hung up.
“Hey,” he said, happily. “Where are you from? But more importantly, where are you going back to?” But then he saw my id and apologized. “Perdón, hermano, I thought were a deportado, like me.”
“You got deported?” I said. I know, silly question. He nodded. “And your name?”
Osiris was clean-shaven, he was wearing a green Mexican jersey, had tattoos up and down his arms, and had both ears pierced. He talked an unaccented English, a percussive Spanglish, and his tongue seemed to have never known the definition of restraint.
“My family lives in Houston. There I got my wife and three kids. I lived more than twenty years in Texas, but I had no papers. The police stopped me in 2016. And since I’m not an American, and I didn’t have any aseguranzas—any insurance, so they deported me. So where did you learn English?”
“In school,” I said. “Listening to music. I lived in New York for two years.”
“So you did get deported?” he said, laughing.
“No.” I smiled. “I was a student and my visa expired, so I went back.”
“Got it, got it. So, as I was saying, I went back to Colón. I was born in Colón. Ever since I’ve been working in whatever I can. Just last year, my wife Susana flew in to marry me. And the U.S. government recognized our marriage. I was very excited. But things move slowly. I had an interview scheduled for the end of October. But then my cousin attacked me.” Osiris lifted the sleeve of his jersey and showed me a long scar that went from the tip of his right shoulder to his armpit. “So I had to leave urgently. I followed the caravan. I missed my appointment. The borders have changed a lot from the first time I crossed with my sister, in ’99. But now that I’m almost out of Guatemala, I feel closer to my wife. I was born in 1987. My sister Valeria was born three years later. Our parents used to work the land; they worked at a banana plantation. They used to carry the bananas to where other people packed them. But then Hurricane Mitch hit. Y’remember that? My parents got the TPS—Temporary Protected Status—and so they left. ‘We love you, mijo,’ my mother told me, the night they left. ‘Take good care of your sister,’ my father said. My sister and I stayed with an aunt, in Colón. My parents sent us money for food, for our school supplies.”
“Follow us if you want to cross, compañeros,” a shirtless balsero went by, followed by a group of ten.
I noticed that the few people that were still standing up had begun to sit down.
“When I turned 11, they got me a brand new bicycle: a purple Bacini. But I barely got to use it,” Osiris went on. “A few weeks later my parents told us they had the money to pay for our coyotes. I crossed this same river when I was a kid, with my sister, on a raft,” he said, looking down. “And they look just the same. Then we took a bus and a train. We were still in Mexico when the coyote handed us over to a fake couple. Our fake parents took us across Matamoros and into Brownsville. Then we took a Greyhound towards Houston. There our parents met us at the station. They took us to have dinner at a Chinese restaurant. We barely spoke any English. But Miss Rodríguez was nice. She helped me a lot. Y’know? I was a straight-A student. My papa worked washing houses, my mother at a thrift store. But they never took me to the courts. I never got the TPS. And when I got to middle school, my father began drinking and started hitting my mom. So I started skipping school. Cops began taking me to detention centers when I was seventeen. I was in and out of jail. But then in 2010 I met my wife. Three months later and we were living together, brother. I got her pregnant real fast.” He smiled and his friends—among them, one of Osiris’s cousins—laughed too. “Back then I was working in remodeling and junk removal. We had been living together for eight years when they threw me back to Honduras. Back in Colón, I worked the land, like my parents. But I barely made a living. 6,000 lempiras. I was lucky enough to stay at a house my parents had built years ago. So, no rent. Then we got married, in Colón. I bought her a ring and a dress. We ate Chinese food. I have to go back, man. I need to be with her.” A long pause. “One day, after work, I was with my cousin—the same I had given that bicycle years ago—and suddenly I felt the blade on the back of my head. He had a machete in his hand and was looking at me, but didn’t seem like himself. He wanted to kill me. He swung the machete again and managed to hit me in the shoulder. We started fighting. I ended up covered in blood. I went to the hospital. They sowed me up. I packed up my bags the next day. I don’t know what got into him. I just want to see my wife and kids.”
There they remained, the people, on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. There they spent the night, occasionally moving to find food or water. Suddenly and unexpectedly the locals also reacted. I remember cars driving up the bridge to deliver food to the people waiting. I remember a woman riding her bicitaxi up as well, to hand out tamales and bottles of water. I remember a young man climbing the fence and delivering a bag full of oranges. “It’s for the kids,” he said. There I ran into 18-year-old Brayan Sánchez, who left his house in Olancho and was the first person we had interviewed in Esquipulas. There, in the limbo, I met 23-year-old César Mejía, who, in San Pedro Sula, was a member of Honduras’ LGBTQ community and worked at an NGO called Unidad Color Rosa. He didn’t want to talk, but he let me take a picture of him, holding the rainbow flag. “Gang members beat me up in San Pedro for being gay,” was all he said. There, in limbo, I saw, for the rest of the afternoon, how people kept climbing the fence to join the balseros. The heat had become unbearable. Even I, over the course of the afternoon, headed back to the town to buy water. Even if Hondurans were used to the type of heat, no one in their right mind would stand under the blazing sun for a whole day, unless their lives depended on it. And in this case, their lives did depend on it.
I talked to people. They were visibly tired, unenthusiastic, but truly convinced that being there, at the bridge, under the hot Guatemalan sun, was something closer to purgatory than hell. They had left hell behind. And even if Mexico was no heaven, they were quick to point out that anything was better than Central America.
The sun worked hard to prove them wrong.
Because the federales had closed the border, Alberto, Oliver, and many other reporters, had to spend the night in Mexico. Andrea and Elsa, also trapped on the Mexican side, were forced to hop on a raft to go back to Tecún. When Andrea and I met again at the hotel, she confirmed that federales had taken Mario, Heidy and her family, and countless others.
“I don’t know.”
The next morning, October 20, after five hours of sleep, I saw six buses on the avenue leading to the bridge. The promise: to take the people back to Esquipulas, where another bus would take them back home, back to Honduras. As I took a walk, I noticed one of the buses had its motor running, and there were people inside. It was 7:30 am. I saw a boy with half of his body sticking out of the bus, looking at the people gathering on the stoops of a local shop. I approached him.
“I’ve had enough. I want to take advantage of what might be the only chance I get of going back to Honduras safely and for free,” he said. His name was Byron Espina and he was 17. “I lived in La Entrada, Copán. I worked picking coffee. But there’s no money there. I used to make 200 lempiras a week. Honduras is very poor, and the president does nothing. I’m going back to La Entrada. Maybe I can get my job back.”
Before I could ask Byron another question, the bus took off.
I turned to talk to some of the people who were waiting their turn to head back home.
“Mexico will not open up its doors,” a woman, Noemí Ventura said. She was traveling with her nine-month-old son, Carlos. “People did things they shouldn’t have done. Oh well, we’ll go back to our previous life: selling baleadas.”
I followed the next group of people into the bus.
There was soldier by the door, holding an AK-47 and dressed in full military gear. The seats looked rusty and they creaked whenever a person sat on them. Though there some people looked truly relaxed, as if they were simply heading back home after a quick weekend getaway, most looked sad, tired, and out of breath. Twenty-four-year-old Gustavo Chávez was crying.
“I’m worried,” he said, drying his tears and looking out. “I’m leaving my brother and his son on that bridge. My nephew is only four years old. The three of us spent the night on the bridge. I didn’t want to leave them there, but I can’t take it anymore. I’m going back to Tegucigalpa.” He stopped talking. I noticed he was scratching his thumb. “I’m worried about them.”
I texted Simone, who was still sleeping after a long night of editing photos, “People are going back to Honduras. They’re taking buses.”
Outside the bridge, a Guatemalan family was handing out fried beans and coffee to the sleepless migrants. The migrants had turned the bridge into a refugee camp. They had put up tents using bed sheets or towels or flags, there were shoes scattered on the ground, Styrofoam plates with remnants of food also on the ground, piles of trash a few feet from one another—used also as toilets—and people lying down, waiting. Just waiting. And while there were still hundreds on the bridge, the caravan looked visibly smaller: many had gone over the river. I started walking over the bridge. The balseros were already on the Suchiate, moving people from the Guatemalan side to the Mexican, and asking those on the bridge to jump.
On my way across the bridge I waved hello to Brayan. As he and I shook hands, a group of men demanded we take a photo.
“Thanks a lot, hermano,” a man said, getting up. He had a square face and the joint of his right leg moved the opposite way; his gait, though firm and fluent, didn’t keep me from thinking that he was at the brink of losing his leg and stumbling to the ground. “We can’t wait to see it on the papers.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Do you mind if I sit down here?”
“Not at all,” the man went on and he introduced himself as Fresbindo Carvajal, which I thought was a fantastic name, and he shook my hand firmly. He was 24.
“Many are already leaving on buses to Honduras, Fresbindo. Do you—?”
“Call me Fres.”
“Do you, Fres, or any of you, have thought about going back to Honduras?”
Fres turned to look at his friends. There were four of them, all as thin and underfed as he was. “There’s only one way for me: north. We’re going to stay here on this bridge, even if we have to eat nothing but beans and drink coffee,” he said. “And even if we have to wait weeks to get across. We’ll stay here. It’s better to suffer for a moment than a whole lifetime.” Purgatory, I thought. “And if we go back to Honduras, we’ll suffer ‘til we die. I used to work running errands because that’s all I could do.” Fresbindo taps the ground with his cane. “But I barely made a living. I’ll keep going up! I know that soon I’ll be able to send my mother and siblings some money. That’s what it’s all about.” Fresbindo said his congenital defect didn’t keep him from doing anything. Except, maybe, he said, playing fútbol. He was also an Olimpia fan. And despite his limping, Fres said he had no problem keeping up with his group of friends. His bent leg, as he called it, su pata chueca, even managed to get them many rides across the country. “People see me and take pity on me,” he said and laughed—from the way his friends kept quiet, I thought that Fres was the leader of the group and, perhaps, he had even inspired the rest to join the caravan.
I suddenly thought of Sergio, and wondered if he had gone back to Honduras.
Later that day I ran into Osiris again. “What’s the word, brother?” he said in English.
“Nada seguro,” I said in Spanish. “I heard that those who crossed first were taken to detention centers. But I don’t know what happens to those to cross the river.”
Osiris gave me his phone number. “Keep me posted,” he said en inglés.
I walked to the end, where the gates we still closed, where the Mexican marines stood next to the federales. There, on the other side, was Oliver, the other photographer that had come with us. “I slept on the floor, José,” he said, out of breath under the Bienvenidos a México sign. There was nothing but silence on the bridge, silence and the voice of commissioner Renato Sales, a lazy and bad-tempered representative of the Comisión Nacional de Seguridad who announced that they would be able to process 300 migrants a day. Sales also mentioned that those who agree to play by their rules would later be moved to a nearby shelter. People didn’t like the idea of getting into a bus guarded by the federales. At 9 am there came the news that a new group, a second caravan, had made it across the Honduran-Guatemalan border and were walking out of Esquipulas.
I spent the morning walking up and down the bridge.
Later that day, as I was walking, a man wearing a Philadelphia Phillies hat and a blinding smile tapped on the shoulder. “Hey, compa, take a picture of us, would you?” He gathered his friends: fourteen men, two women, all wearing the same red hat with the Philadelphia Phillies P on it. Though hatless, there was a baby girl too. I had seen them before, when they crossed, one followed by the other, into the bridge, over the collapsed doors. I took the cap off my camera, adjusted the settings, did a countdown, and they all cheered.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said. “What’s with the hats?”
Had they all met in Philadelphia and had been deported back to Honduras, and were on their way back to the East Coast? Were they a bunch of cousins looking to go to Philly to reunite with their parents who had been living there since the mid-nineties? Did they dislike fútbol, and instead of rooting for Olimpia or Motagua had become fans of Mike Schmidt, maybe after a childhood friend left Honduras and found a job in Citizens Bank Park, much like my tía Bertha had in Madison Square Garden where, she often claimed, she learned to love the New York Knicks? I suddenly thought of Todos Santos, a small village in the Guatemalan highlands where most of its migrants have resettled in Oakland, and how these two cities have become separated twins, and how, in Todos Santos, people walk around wearing Raiders’ jackets or Athletics’ hats.
“Are you all Phillies fans?”
“What’s a filis?” a man said, laughing.
“He and I are cousins,” one of the women said and pointed to a man sitting right beside her. “My name is Cynthia, and he is Stanley. I’m 22 and he’s 23. We left Trujillo on the 12th. It was a Friday. We’re both teachers but can’t find a job teaching. I’ve only worked as a substitute teacher.”
Cynthia had long hair and plum cheeks. Stanley, as tall as a basketball player, was clean-shaven, had muscular arms, and looked like he could’ve been a model.
“I worked in construction, making 300 lempiras a day,” Stanley said. “But I have a little girl. But even if we had a school teacher’s salary, that wouldn’t be enough to survive, that’s why we left Honduras.”
“We crossed into Guatemala two days later, but we didn’t stay in Esquipulas,” Cynthia said. “We got as far as Zacapa. And we found a shelter in Teculután. Corazónes Felices, that was the name of the place, that’s where we met. This is the first time all of us are going up north, and I guess you can see that in our faces.” She laughed.
“The gringos were nice to us,” another man said. His name was Oscar Cruz. He was 20 and was chewing on a tortilla con carne, as were some others.
“There was this lady, señora Karen,” Stanley said. “She was from Chicago.”
“They gave us these hats,” said another man, Bayron Rivera, 35. “They saw that we were getting along, so they gave us these hats. It was their idea. ‘It will help you find each other,’ they said. So we wrote our names and the day we met. 15-10-18.”
“We decided to stick together, find rest in the same shelters, find food for all of us; soon we started talking about our dreams,” Cynthia said. “For example, I want to send money to my family, and eventually, I’d like to go back to teaching.”
“I don’t mind working at anything, as long as I can make money,” Bayron said.
“I want to pay for my daughter’s education,” Stanley said, his mouth full of meat. “I left her back in Trujillo. She comes first. And if I can go back to teaching, I’d love to do that too.”
“That’s my way of thinking too,” a scrawny boy said, suddenly stepping up and putting his plate aside. “I have a two-year-old daughter. I want to buy her dresses, pay for her education, make sure she’s got everything she needs, make sure she doesn’t go through the same scarcity as I did. And if it’s God’s will, once I’m settled in the US, I’d love to get her papers too, so we can be together. It’s been tough, being away from her.” A pause. Stanley began rubbing David’s back.
“What’s your name, amigo?” I said.
“David Mendoza, I’m 18,” he said. “I get sad sometimes. But it’s okay. But I got my friends to keep me company.”
“That’s true,” the other woman said, cleaning her daughter’s mouth as her husband rocker her in his arms. “They help out with my little girl.”
“Tell her your name,” Brayan said.
“Lourdes Pérez, I’m 22, and my husband Javier, he’s 23.”
“And she?” I said.
“Four months old.”
“We’re a family now, you see? We take care of each other,” Cynthia said. “There was one time, in between cities, where the driver said he would only take women and children, so Lourdes, her baby and I hopped on the truck. But I didn’t want to be separated from the rest. I started crying.” She smiled. “I was very scared. It was raining, and the road was dark. I didn’t want to leave them alone. But then, a few hours later, we found each other here in Tecún Umán, thanks to the hats. Can you believe it? All these people and we found each other. It’s all God’s work. We’re all brothers and sisters in here. If one gets a meal—”
“—everyone gets a piece,” the Honduras Phillies said.
On the bridge, there was hunger and desperation. Even if this interval allowed wounds to heal and blisters to close shut, people wanted to keep on moving. People looked tired and thirsty. Their red faces, brittle lips and worn down shoes were just some of the more visible signs of the caravan’s exhaustion. Their fatigue also manifested in grim faces, pouts, tears and insults, indignation.
“Don’t you feel sorry for the kids?” a lady by the border crossing said to the federales.
And while many crossed the river, there still hundreds on the bridge, passing time. There were parts where the smell of food, rotting under the hot sun, was unbearable. Despite the uncertainty and aching silence, however, people didn’t move. Despite the acrid smell of trash and feces, people didn’t move. Despite the sun, they didn’t move. No se movieron. But some did.
Down, underneath the bridge, past the overgrown bushes, over the muddy field, where the balseros dock in, people seemed more relaxed, excited even, inspired. Two dollars US and you could get across. Simone, Andrea, Elsa, and I reunited with Alberto by the shore. He had just made the trip back from Mexico, on a raft. “There are dozens on the other side,” he said, as a group of people paid the nearest smuggler. There were people from the caravan, all right. But there were also the regulars: people who go to Mexico to do the groceries, people who go to Mexico to buy food and products they later sell in Guatemala.
Migrants, like Josef Martínez, a skinny young man from San Pedro Sula, waited alongside the merchants.
“They told us they were going to let us pass. But now they’re saying they’re going to put us in a bus and that we need to request asylum there with them,” he said. “We must show our ID and passport. But I got robbed two weeks before leaving Honduras. The only thing I got is my birth certificate. The cops are saying that those without a passport will get deported. I didn’t walk all the way from San Pedro to get thrown back to Honduras.”
“The police are on the other side,” another man said. “People say they’re ready to arrest anyone who crosses, you see? Over there,” he said pointing to the other side.
The balseros push the rafts using long sticks. It’s a three-minute ride.
Both men ended up crossing, along with three other men, Simone, Andrea, Elsa, Alberto and I. Ciudad Hidalgo era una fiesta.
On the opposite shore there were activists telling people to go to the parque central, where there were other migrants, where there was food, and, surprisingly, music. In the park, merely two blocks away from the river, there were people sitting on the floor, on the steps of the park, leaning on its violet pillars, hanging their clothes wet with the water of the Suchiate, and simply waiting. Talking. Sleeping. Eating. The image of hundreds of Hondurans casually resting on the toes of Ciudad Hidalgo pushed that of the tired and sad faces of those still at the bridge out of my mind. Allá there was despair and exhaustion. Acá, casualness and relief. Allá, heat. Acá, shade. Allá, hunger. Acá, abundance. Viva Honduras. Viva Guatemala. A young man was giving out haircuts, his electric razor plugged into a distant outlet with the help two extension cords and a yellowing power strip. There were empty plates of food. A Mexican couple handed out plates of macaroni bathed in white sauce and bags filled with cold refrescos. De fresa o piña. People had been fed. Pampered even. The local Red Cross was there, taking care of sore throats, sunstroke, and more sprained ankles. Soon music started. Reggaetón, obviously. Songs by Daddy Yankee and Romeo Santos became the caravan’s victory chant. An improvised religious service took the stage by the dance floor. People gathered around; some began to cry to the sound of a poorly amplified Padre Nuestro. The second leg of the fútbol match we saw in Tecún kicked up around 2 pm, at the top of the Square. And a local band began playing for the migrants, for free, so people started loosening up, dancing, smiling, singing. Viva Honduras. Viva Guatemala. They hadn’t been this cheerful ever since they reached Esquipulas. Y no es para menos. They had escaped death. They had successfully run away from their home country, the fifth most dangerous country in the world according to the World Economic Forum, they had evaded lockup in the sixth most dangerous country in the world, and were now in North America. And while los USA was still 2,700 miles away, a warm meal, a slow bachata, a cheap haircut, a modest prayer, a quick nap, and a penalty kick meant victory after hours under the sun and the disdainful stares of the federales. Once death was pushed aside, momentarily, it was time to celebrate. Vamos leones. Vamos águilas. Viva Centro América.
“We crossed the river because there were too many on the bridge; people weren’t letting us through. In Honduras, I can’t find a job. And we have lots of needs. We’re looking for a better life.”
On the other side I talked with Reina Lizet Fuentes, a 20-year-old mother traveling with her two daughters. “We crossed the river because there were too many on the bridge; people weren’t letting us through,” she said, drying her daughter’s hair. “In Honduras, I can’t find a job. And we have lots of needs. We’re looking for a better life.”
And there was also Andy, a tiny 13-year-old boy with green eyes—Andy looked to be Mario’s antithesis. While Mario was big and loud, Andy’s voice chirped like a tiny bird. He was, despite his boney arms, an experienced worker.
“My name is Andy. I’m on my way up north, to the United States, because back in Honduras, in my country, there is no food, and no job opportunities, and nothing else to do,” he said solemnly. “That’s why we are all on our way up. Actually, I was living here in Ciudad Hidalgo with an aunt, but when I saw the caravan, I decided to join them. I worked here helping truck drivers clean their trucks or sweeping the floors. I’m here by myself.”
“And your parents?” Andrea said.
“They’re back in Honduras, with my brothers. That’s why I want to reach the US, so I can work, get some money, feed my brothers, help all four of them. Once I’m in the US, I’d like to help my grandmother. She lives there. I’m not sure where. But soon I’ll give her a call.”