José García Escobar
Photography by Simone Dalmasso and Rafael Ríos
Some of these images previously appeared in Plaza Pública.
Part 4 of a four-part series.
Read part 1. | Read part 2. | Read part 3.
The next day Simone and I, alongside a group of international photographers, drove 110 miles east to Mexicali. We wanted to have a look at how the migrants that had decided to request asylum in the Calexico crossing were holding up. Halfway down La Rumorosa, we spotted two men and a woman walking under the blazing sun, aiming towards Tijuana. They looked like they haven’t had a shower in days. Their clothes looked stiff and muddy. But despite the adversity, they walked the side of the road with determination. It was a little before noon, and while the sun fell heavy on them, they argued that it was better this way.
“Once night falls, the desert gets as cold as ice,” one of the men said.
“I’m not sleeping on the streets tonight,” the woman said; she was wearing tennis shoes, a pink cap, and a pair of worn blue jeans.
After we said goodbye to them, we found other groups walking La Rumorosa. And much like the lady promised, and unlike in Tijuana, the migrants staying in Mexicali slept on the floor. As a man told me, Mexicali had not offered a shelter. The migrants had opted to sleep in a park—where locals also gathered to feed them, give them water, and old clothes—and a type of hotel/office building/palomar. That inadequacy, and the stories of an organized shelter two hours, away made people consider moving to Tijuana, despite having been in the capital of Baja California for more than a week. Uncertainty was no enemy to the caravan, only hunger and cold.
I walked the park and the neighboring streets—as rickety as the streets in Tijuana—looking for the Phillies. The last time I had talked to them, to Cynthia, was at the beginning of November when they were in Mexico City. Then Cynthia stopped answering her phone. I thought she had gone back and the group had disbanded.
The following days, as more and more people arrived at the shelter, we got news of some of migrants that had crossed and, after days in detention centers, were now walking free in the US. Alberto showed us a picture of a short guy with an ankle bracelet. “And you think it’s cold in Tijuana!” the message said.
“El desgraciado es un puto héroe,” Alberto shouted, filled with pride.
Another message read, “Cecilia just called me from the bus station. They let them out today. The kids too. They on their way now. Thank you for all your help.”
And finally, an American reporter showed us a blurry and poorly lit image of what seemed to be two people hugging at an airport.
“He left when she was seven,” the message said.
The following days similar images found their way into the phones of the migrants. They were signs of hope. Others had made it across. And while in every leg of the race someone had turned back or had been deported, hitting that home run suddenly seemed not so superhuman.
“Have you seen this, José?” Brayan said, days later, and showing me the same photo Alberto had showed me, of the man with an ankle bracelet. “I know I can cross too.”
“The next day, the Phillies, along with hundreds more, arrived at the shelter from Mexicali. Ever since I’d gotten to Tijuana, I turned to the sight of a red hat, hoping to see Cynthia, and Stanley, and Bayron, and David, and Lourdes and Javier with their little girl. I told Cynthia that I’d thought they had gone back to Honduras. ‘No,' she said, hugging me, 'I just lost my phone.’ There were only seven left. 'Seven left, but we’re going strong,' Bayron said.”
The next day, the Phillies, along with hundreds more, arrived at the shelter from Mexicali. Ever since I’d gotten to Tijuana, I turned to the sight of a red hat, hoping to see Cynthia, and Stanley, and Bayron, and David, and Lourdes and Javier with their little girl. I told Cynthia that I’d thought they had gone back to Honduras. “No,” she said, hugging me, “I just lost my phone.”
There were only seven left.
“Seven left, but we’re going strong,” Bayron said. He was fixing their tent, by the third base, and on it, he had written “La Buga Livingston,” his hometown on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. As we hugged and shook hands, there came the sound of a man’s voice coming through a loudspeaker.
“Do you remember her?” Lourdes said, standing by my side and handing me her daughter, Beatriz, wearing a onesie; she was as light and cute as ever. I touched her cheeks, which, though soft, were shedding of pieces of skin. It looked like she had been sunburnt and was not getting rid of the burnt skin. “Actually, it was because of the cold.” Little Beatriz began playing with my press ID. “Look, she remembers you.”
Again came the loudspeaker.
“Bendito Dios,” Javier, her father said. “She never got sick. But all of us did.”
“Thank you for writing that story about us, José,” Cynthia said. In time her cousin Stanley, showed up, with plates filled with rice and beans for all. “Are you staying here long?”
“I’m here until the end of the month. Perhaps longer.”
“Good,” Stanley said. “We have lots to tell you!”
The man shouting through the loudspeaker made his way up to first base. “Tomorrow, people, we’re going to the border,” he said, a group of men and women trailing behind him, repeating his exact words. “They’re not paying attention to us. Trun’ is sitting with his arms crossed. We must remind him we’re here!” The crowd cheered. “Remember, tomorrow’s the gringos’ turkey day. It’s the perfect time for us to move.”
“They’ll be distracted,” one of the hype men said.
Not quite, I thought. San Diego’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection had announced they would be doing a military rehearsal early in the afternoon.
In the morning, a week after Simone and I got to Tijuana, a group of about 150 people left the baseball stadium at 10 AM. They had all their stuff, like they were getting ready to actually make it into the US. They were headed to the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing. “We will stay there until there’s a solution,” the man leading the group on Wednesday said. His name? “My name is not important,” he said to his attentive crowd.
“Carlos,” Maya, from the New York Times whispered in my ear. “That’s all I got.”
“We will camp there if that’s what takes,” another man said.
As the people began walking out of the shelter, a bitter and fetid smell reached my nose. It was as if the portable bathroom hadn’t been emptied once. And while they were located by the first base, with every gust of wind the odors locked inside found their way out, into the streets, and around the many rooms and passages of the sports complex. Newcomers were forced to set up their camps inches away from them, from the smell of shit and days-old piss. When I walked out, I also caught a whiff of freshly baked bread and black coffee; a group of nuns had driven to the shelter to feed the migrants.
The group walked out with the same vigor and potency they had when they first left San Pedro Sula, a month and half earlier. They waved the flags. They sang the anthem. As we made our way up Puente Chaparral, I caught a glimpse of a man wearing a suit and a bow tie. He had gotten the suit the day prior, on his first day working as a security guard at a local mall. I had seen him at the shelter, after sundown. His elegance, amid the devastation and poverty, was blinding; his smile, uplifting.
I went up to talk to him. His name was Wildmer.
“We’re too many at the shelter now. And more people are coming. We must make room for the others,” Wildmer said, smiling. His things were packed inside a white plastic bag. “I went to the job fair. There are many jobs for us. They don’t pay that well, but it’s a start. I got offers working as a salesman at a shoe store, or a convenience store, at an OXXO. But I found this job as a security guard at a mall. That’s what I did in Roatán. The owner gave me the suit. My salary here will be similar to what I was making in Honduras. But I want to see if I can get across today. Let’s see what happens. If I make it to the US today, that’s okay. If not, my shift starts at 4.”
“First came 200 strong men, armed with rifles, Tasers, handcuffs, and wearing military helmets and bulletproof vests. Then came the white smoke. The concrete barriers were already there, topped with concertina wire. The same black helicopter from before circled the area. Once the smoke faded nothing else happened. The men stood there, shifting their weight from one leg to the other. No one moved. No one talked. People in their cars looked worried, frustrated and bored. Rightfully so, I guess. Customs had closed down the world’s busiest border crossing at a time when gringos are only thinking of their Thanksgiving dinner.’”
Even before I finished interviewing Wildmer, the group was forced to slow down. At the end of the bridge, federales were blocking their path, keeping them from getting nowhere near the pedestrian crossing. 12:00 PM and a black helicopter circled the area. “Yours?” I asked one of the officers.
“Nah. Es de los güeros,” he said, looking up.
“We’re making you nervous, right?” a migrant said, also looking at the helicopter.
And the cops didn’t move. People sat on the ground. An impromptu fútbol match kicked off too, as Carlos Whatshisname and others tried to reason with the authorities. The cops didn’t move. Activists told the people to go to the work fair. The few that had some money to spare lined up next to a taco stand to buy some food. The kids began playing with the riot police. They touched the shields, offered their toys, high-fived them. On the other side, on the vehicular crossing, CBP announced, promptly at 2 PM, that the exercise was now under way, and they blocked the entrance. “You better call your sister; we’re going to be late,” a man peeking out of his van said, as Simone and I made our way up front, in between the parked cars.
First came 200 strong men, armed with rifles, Tasers, handcuffs, and wearing military helmets and bulletproof vests. Then came the white smoke. The concrete barriers were already there, topped with concertina wire. The same black helicopter from before circled the area. Once the smoke faded nothing else happened. The men stood there, shifting their weight from one leg to the other. No one moved. No one talked. People in their cars looked worried, frustrated and bored. Rightfully so, I guess. Customs had closed down the world’s busiest border crossing at a time when gringos are only thinking of their Thanksgiving dinner. At 2:20 a robotic voice coming from inside the building said, “The exercise of CBP has been completed.”
It took an extra fifteen minutes for the crossing to resume its regular fluency.
That night, as those who walked the streets of Tijuana hoping to put some pressure on Trun’ returned to the shelter, we caught a glimpse of the first group of Hondurans traveling with the second caravan, one that had left San Pedro on October 30th, two weeks after the first, jogging towards the baseball field. Disappointment and zest crossed at 5 de Mayo Avenue. Many of the newcomers were forced to set their tents out on the sidewalk.
As Simone and I returned to our hotel, I got a call from Brayan. “José?” he said. “I’m crossing tonight.” He said that a relative had sent him money to pay for a coyote.
“How are you?”
“Do you know what time are you—?”
“No. I just got here.”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes. I’m here charging my phone.”
“No, I mean. What happened to your friends?”
“They’re at the shelter. I said goodbye to them. We cried.”
“I came here last night. I walked out of the shelter and came here.”
“Yes. There are families here too.”
“Are you close to the shelter?”
Brayan laughed. “I can’t tell you.”
“There’s an OXXO close by. But they’re not letting us out.”
“Are they going to give you any food?”
“No. I don’t think so. We’re on our own here. I wanted to go out, to buy some food. But they didn’t let me.”
“Are you hungry?”
“A bit. I should’ve left later, after grabbing some lunch.”
“José, we’re going through a tunnel.”
The next day migrants began selling fruit salads. Cristofer asked me to find him a new coloring book. It was the birthday of one of the Phillies. We sang Las mañanitas. I got a piece of cake and one of their hats. “You’re one of us,” Cynthia said, smiling. The next day, Cristofer and his family were gone. I ran into Sergio, still in his wheelchair, selling cigarettes. “I have to start making a living,” he said, smiling. People were getting ready to protest again. Outside the shelter a small tent with information on how to get back to Honduras by plane appeared. Many were lining up.
“In Choluteca I used to work as a house painter. I was making 6,000 lempiras a month and paying 6,600 in rent. I was always falling behind. To survive, I also worked as a mechanic. My wife and two-year-old daughter are back home. I get sad if I think about them. I miss them. But I know that all this hardship will be worth it to give them a better life. Whenever I talk to my wife, she asks me to go back. I tell her no.”
“I’ve been here eight days. If I can go back in two or three days, then I’ll go. But if this process takes weeks, maybe by then things will have changed, so then I’ll stay,” 28-year-old Jonathan Canal said. “In Choluteca I used to work as a house painter. I was making 6,000 lempiras a month and paying 6,600 in rent. I was always falling behind. To survive, I also worked as a mechanic. My wife and two-year-old daughter are back home. I get sad if I think about them. I miss them. But I know that all this hardship will be worth it to give them a better life. Whenever I talk to my wife, she asks me to go back. I tell her no. But now we’re in trouble. Before leaving Honduras, I managed to pay two months’ worth of rent: October and November. I imagined that by now I would already be in the US, working and sending them money. If we don’t pay the rent soon, they might kick my family out of the house.”
“I’m tired. My daughter is sick,” Rosa González said, rocking her baby who was sleeping in her arms. “I don’t even know what we should do. I’ve had enough. I just want to get some rest.”
According to Juan de Dios, an IOM (International Organization for Migration) representative with perfectly diced eyebrows, there were close to 20 migrants that had signed up to make their way back to Honduras. Inside the shelter, however, people didn’t move. There were, after all, many who couldn’t go back to Honduras, to Guatemala, to El Salvador; their life depended on never setting foot again in Central America, people like Elsa Patricia and her daughters.
One day I was talking with Rafael Ríos, a Guatemalan photographer living in San Diego, and a friend of a friend when little Elsa, still wearing her Maya traditional garments came up to us, and introduced herself.
“Elsa Patricia,” she said. “I’m from Quiché.”
Did she know we were Guatemalan? I thought. Maybe she had heard us sayings words like “ahuevos” and “cerote” and “pisado” and felt the need to talk to us.
“My husband joined the mara. He lived in the city. He’d go back to Quiché only sometimes. So he joined the mara. I told him it was a bad idea. Then he told me one day that he wanted me to join the mara too. I told him no. He said that if I didn’t join him, he would kill my two daughters and me. So I left. I can’t go back, or else he’ll kill me.”
There was a pause. I looked up, thinking she was about to cry.
“How long have you been here?” I said. “When did you come—?”
I’ve seen you before,” she said. “You were in Ixcán in early October. You and that gringo, the one with the camera. I saw you two.”
I was baffled. “I— I—,” I stammered. “He, my partner, he’s not gringo. He’s Italian.”
“I used to go to Ixcán every other week. I worked picking potatoes. They would take me on this small plane. And I saw you two.”
After talking with Elsa, I went back to the baseball field. I was tired and surprised in equal measure. Tired from Elsa’s story, and pleasantly surprised that she had seen me, that we had crossed paths before. So when I reached the home base, I was simply looking to pass the time, to wait for the volunteers to tell us reporters that we needed to leave, when a large lady, sitting on a piece of nylon in the middle of the field, smiled at me.
“Can I sit here?” I said. She said yes. “My name is José, I’m a reporter from Guatemala.”
“Marta Alicia González, from El Salvador,” she said.
I didn’t even pull out my tape recorder or my notepad. However, she started talking.
“Many things happened to us,” she said. “One time I saw a murder. The mareros killed this boy who went into our neighborhood to sell cotton candy. I was on my way to the church, so I hopped on a bus. My son was with me. There was no one else on the bus.” I noticed Marta’s right foot was wrapped on a bandage. “I was about to pay the driver when two other boys got off their bikes, climbed up and went past me. The boy selling cotton candy was sitting on the second row of the bus. The mareros shot him twice. One here,” she said, touching her chest. “Another one here.” She grazed her face. “Then they left. My ears were ringing. My son said to me, ‘Mama, let’s go. We can’t stay here.’ I end up going to the church either way. I needed that. Plus, it was my turn to do the cleaning. I told my pastor that I was feeling bad and that I was worried because they knew I had seen the whole thing. As soon as the mass ended, I went back to my house.” Here I reached for my recorder. I asked her if I could record our conversation. She said yes. “One of our neighbors said the police was looking for me because a kid had seen me walking out of the bus after the shooting. ‘I wasn’t there,’ I told the police. ‘I didn’t see a thing. I was at church. You can ask my pastor.’ I had to say that, you know. In El Salvador, we always hear that ‘ver, oir y callar—see, hear and keep quiet.’ The maras demand silence from us. So I told them I wasn’t there, out of fear. At that time my husband had a bike shop. He was just starting out. One day the killers went there.” Marta’s plump cheeks dropped, inverting her smile to a weightless pout. “They told my husband that they wanted to talk to me. ‘Hello, son,’ I said to one of them,” she said. “He smiled and nodded his head. ‘Can you tell your husband not to change the color of the bike?’ he said. I told him yes. ‘And about the other day, you didn’t see a thing, okay?’ I told them I had no problem with them. ‘But please ask forgiveness and repent,’ I said. A week later the boy was shot dead too.” A pause. “I’ve lived through a lot in that neighborhood. Another time a man punched my son-in-law because…well, because he didn’t like him. One day I saw the man’s wife, and I told her that her husband shouldn’t be doing that, that it was wrong. So she went and told the mareros that I had gone to the police.” Marta licked her lips. I gave her my bottle of water. “So one day, as I was walking back to my house, a group of mareros surrounded me. One broke a bottle and pushed a piece of glass to my throat. ‘You must trust us, not the police,’ he said. ‘You’ll be dead before the police arrive.’ We moved out after that. But not only that. My sister wanted to come with us too. Years ago, her daughter called her one night, telling her that in a drawer there were a bunch of letters. The maras had been threatening my niece. My sister tried calling her daughter after that, but she wouldn't answer. They disappeared her. We haven’t heard from her since.” Marta took a breath. “They killed her, most likely. My sister wanted to come with us, but her two kids are too young. I told her no. Plus, she’s diabetic.” Marta drank from the bottle. “Years ago, my son witnessed an armed robbery too. This happened in the same neighborhood. He told his friends what he saw. The mareros wanted to punish him for that. I told them I would punish him for them. They said okay, ‘But you must let us watch,’ they said.” A pause. “I had to let them into our house. And they gave me a metal bar. ‘Hit him, ten times,’ they said.” Here Marta started crying, she, much like I had seen my own grandmother do countless times, wiped the tears using the collar of her shirt. A man, announcing tomorrow’s march, walked by our side. “‘Don't worry, mama,’ my son said. ‘I’m strong.’ So I hit him. ‘Harder,’ they said. So I did. I’m too scared to go back there. I can’t. They’ll kill me.”
“Suddenly I felt a tingle in my nose. Quickly the tingle became an itch. And as soon as I heard people coughing, my eyes began to burn. The federales had actually fired tear gas at the migrants when they neared the abandoned train tracks on Ferrocarril Avenue. And while we were far from the tracks, the wind carried the invisible gas to where we were. Simone hid his nose inside his shirt. Maya covered her face using a scarf. I reached into my bag to get a black bandana to help me hide from the burning.”
The next day was November 25th. And we weren’t expecting it.
You have seen the footage. There’s that powerfully devastating photo by Reuters photographer Kim Kyung Hoon, where we see a mother and her two small daughters running away from the tear gas. There’s that video Spike Lee did for The Killers too. Coverage from media across the globe. The truth is, we weren’t expecting it.
As soon as the first march returned defeated to the shelter, on Thursday, those who embodied it decided they would give it another try, on Sunday. Quickly Sunday arrived and up to 500 people walked out of the shelter. Again they took all of their stuff. Again they thought they might be able to reach the crossing. Again, the police was waiting for them. They took the same route: Benito Juárez, 5 de Mayo Avenue, Fernando Sánchez Street, and Puente Chaparral. But unlike the last time, when the Mexican police positioned their units at the end of the bridge, this time they were at the start of it. The 500 didn’t get to set one foot on the passage leading to the crossing, so at 12:50 the energized crowd simply stopped walking; they couldn’t go any further.
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Alberto said, sitting lazily on the curb.
It truly felt that way.
I, alongside a friend photographer, began walking up the bridge, talking about nothing in particular. How she moved to Brooklyn more than ten years ago. I told her I lived in Manhattan from 2015-2017. “I feel for you,” she said, clearly exhausted of New York. We reached the top of the bridge, where we could see people from the march arguing with the police. At the opposite end of the bridge, there were two police cars and more federales. The sun fell heavy on us. Much like Alberto had said, it felt like nothing was going to happen. But then, suddenly, at 1:10, the people, somewhat comically, simply ran past the police, away from the bridge, into the canal, and jumped over the dried Río Tijuana. The cops were guarding the bridge, but not its surroundings. Pendejos.
I took out my cellphone and began recording.
People ran and cheered as if they were reaching the finish line, as if the doors to the US were open momentarily and only the fastest got a chance to cross. There were young men, of course, rushing down the canal, and dodging those in front. But there were families too. Mothers hand in hand with their children. There were husbands and wives, holding hands, jumping over the puddles of a river that looked more like someone had hosed the canal than an actual watercourse. People cheered. People whistled. People ran like potros. People screamed, making fun of the federales’ amateurish strategy. ¡Viva Honduras! Obviously, however, no one knew what to do or where to go. Many, as the police cars by my side rushed down the bridge, turned left at El Chaparral crossing. They must’ve seen cars driving out of the government building and decided that the US was inside. They ran in between cars, as police officers, notoriously outnumbered, chased them. “Son unos putos amos,” I overhead Alberto say. Civilians stopped and aimed their cellphones at the exodus. Some even encouraged the crowd. I got scared. I thought that their running would result in bloody noses and fractured limbs. But then I imagined they must’ve gotten lost inside that concrete maze because, within minutes, the riot police managed to bring all the runners back into the streets of Tijuana. I saw one pushing a man with his riot shield violently. Cobarde. Since I knew my way around the area, I ran to the vehicular crossing only to find that CBP had closed all the lanes. I got a call.
“José, what’s going on over there? They’re saying we have to leave, for our own safety.” It was Rafael Ríos, the Guatemalan photographer I was with when I met Elsa Patricia. Rafa and his wife were protesting at Larsen Field, a few feet from the fence when the migrants rushed to the crossing. “There are a lot of CBP agents. Hang on. Let me call you back. I’ll see if I can get closer.”
Then came a siren.
“Warning, this is a federal restricted area,” a voice said. “The entry beyond this point will result in arrest, processing and possible use of force.”
Four helicopters buzzed in the sky.
“¿Dónde estás?” I texted Alberto. He sent me his location. He was on Ferrocarril Avenue, minutes away on foot. Except for the ambulances and police cars, the streets of Tijuana were empty. Even some taqueros had left their stands unattended. It looked like the scene of a shooting.
“There are approximately 60 people on the fence,” Rafa said, over the phone, as I was running. “They reached the fence. They’re holding signs. They’re asking the police to let them cross. They’re pushing their heads through the bars, but there’s razor wire. Some of the people protesting on Larsen Field are here too.”
“What do the signs say?”
“El tercer mundo ya está aquí,” he said. “The third world is here.”
I found Simone and Maya, next to a woman, on Ferrocarril Avenue. “Get out of here, señora,” Simone said, frowning. Suddenly I felt a tingle in my nose. Quickly the tingle became an itch. And as soon as I heard people coughing, my eyes began to burn. The federales had actually fired tear gas at the migrants when they neared the abandoned train tracks on Ferrocarril Avenue. And while we were far from the tracks, the wind carried the invisible gas to where we were. Simone hid his nose inside his shirt. Maya covered her face using a scarf. I reached into my bag to get a black bandana to help me hide from the burning.
Soon we crossed the river again.
As dozens of migrants and I were walking back to the shelter, still clearing out throats and walking over the highway, a man wearing a pair of black jeans and no shirt appeared by my side, coughing. “Are you okay?” I said to him.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I thought we were going to make it.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“I can’t go back to Honduras,” he said, looking at the other side of the river.
I nodded. “Where are you from?”
“Ocotepeque,” he said. “I worked as a mechanic, but I barely made a living. I used to make more money as a welder.”
I smiled. “My grandfather was a welder.”
“Was he?” he said, suddenly more relaxed. “It’s a nice job. I like using my hands, you know? I wish I could get a job as a welder in the US, or here, I don’t care. I just can’t go back.” The man coughed and spit. “What about you? Where are you from?”
“I didn’t like Guatemala City,” he said, laughing. “I’m sorry, man. It’s too crowded.”
“I understand, I—”
“And do you have any family there?”
“I do,” I said. “All of my family’s there.”
“Wife? Any kids?”
“I got a girlfriend.”
The man nodded. “I’m sure you miss her,” he said. “Why didn’t you bring her?”
I paused. “I’m— I’m not. I’m a reporter,” I said, and I showed him my press ID, and suddenly felt ashamed of having a visa and having flown to Tijuana, instead of walking or hitchhiking three thousand miles to Benito Juárez. Had I actually earned the visa, or that flight? “But I’ve been with the caravan since it crossed into Guatemala—”
Suddenly I heard a crack.
I turned right. A group of people was on the other side of the canal, near the fence, when CBP began shooting through that same fence, from San Diego, and into Mexican territory. I heard the cracks, they sounded like fireworks. I heard people screaming. Women and children. I listened to the sound of sirens. Some men grabbed the projectiles and threw them back at the CBP agents, but soon they found themselves surrounded by the white smoke. I stood there, in silence, next to several migrants, watching the scene, terrified, staring as people ran desperately away from the fence, from the venomous smoke. You’ve seen the footage, you’ve seen the smoke, you’ve heard the tears, and you have seen the comments. I actually uploaded a photo of the migrants running towards the fence. Soon after someone left a comment. “All it takes is one bomb, to get rid of them all.”
Kadare, Kadare, Kadare.
When we finally got back to the shelter, there was a man on top of his jeep singing Christian songs to dozens of people that had gathered to clap, pray, and cry.
The next day 81 people signed up to go back to Honduras. The day before there were only 10 names on the list. The gas worked. Even if people had signed up to fly back to Honduras as early as Friday, OIM and UN representatives explained to me that the first flight wouldn’t leave until they had enough people. The 71 that signed up on the morning of November 26 suddenly hastened the process.
“I’m going back because I can’t take it anymore,” I heard a man say. He was standing the in the line. “But I’ll be back. I just need a few months to get some money.”
“Please send Juan Orlando my regards, maricón,” someone else said, taking the lid off a cup of instant noodles.
And as the men laughed and spit and shoved each other I held the gaze of a woman sitting on the sidewalk. Her name was Dilsa. She was wearing a pink shirt and black pants. She had a pair of black tennis shoes with blue laces. She looked as sad as Arely, when I first saw her, in Esquipulas. She, Dilsa, was 36 years old and was two months pregnant. She and her husband Carlos Alberto, 32 were heading back to Honduras.
“To our two sons,” she said, visibly tired.
Carlos looked more relaxed.
The couple had been in Tijuana for a little over two weeks. They were part of the original caravan, the one that formed in San Pedro mid-October. They left Honduras because the money wasn’t enough. Carlos made 300 lempiras a week, and they paid 100 lempiras a month in rent. Sometimes, Dilsa argued, they would only eat once a day to pay the rent. Dilsa’s husband used to work the land.
“I would collect maize, fix the barns, milk the cows; anything you can thing of,” he said with warm smile on his face. “And this year my son began working with me. He’s real good with the hoe.”
“He is,” Dilsa said.
“He sure is. But I wish I could pay for his education,” Carlos said. “But I can’t. That’s why we came here.”
That’s why they got burned in Esquipulas. That’s why they slept on the floor in Guatemala City, they got wet on their way in Tecún Umán, they got burned again at the Rodolfo Robles bridge. That’s why they walked Chiapas, got sick in Mexico City, and withstood the smell of shit in Tijuana. For their children. Their two children, and the one that was on the way. But, like many, Dilsa and Carlos grew impatient. They walked out of the shelter with the rest. They ran from the police. They skipped over the river. They ran towards los USA. They swallowed gas. They ran. Coughed. Cried. And they decided it was time to go back.
“They’re not going to let us through,” Dilsa said, on the brink of tears.
“But it’s okay. We’re fine,” Carlos said, smiling. “I’m ready to see my kids again.”
“I thought that we were going to be in the US by now,” Dilsa said. “That we were going to spend the holidays there.”
Later that night the streets erupted when the buses that promised to take the people to the airport got to the shelter.
“Tell Juan Orlando we say hi,” a man yelled to those boarding the bus.
“Stay here eating, then, you bunch of pigs,” one man answered.
“We’ll see you back in Honduras in a few days.”
“Go back to eating scraps, cowards.”
“Let’s see how much you hold up.”
I caught a glimpse of another couple crying, kissing each other. Soon they parted. The woman hopped on the bus, while the man remained there drying his tears. His name was Walter Cruz and he was wearing a New York Yankees hat. “She’s going, I’m staying,” he said, drying his tears.
“Why are you staying, Walter?” I said, as the first bus drove off to the sound of whistles and laughter.
“You write this down,” he said, looking at his wife. “I owned a workshop. We used to live in Nacaome Valle. Business was good. Too good, maybe.” A pause. “The maras noticed that I had a lot of clients, so they began asking me for money. 1,200 lempiras a week they asked. I couldn’t keep up.” Walter took off his hat. On his right temple he had a little scar, the size of a small key. And on his hands, he had others. One day, he said, he didn’t pay the maras, so they tried to kill him with a machete. He managed to hold the blade and get away. “That’s why we decided to join the caravan,” he said. “We left our daughters with one of my wife’s cousins. But she’s hitting them. She’s hitting my girls. We called them on the phone and they told us their tía was hitting them. That’s why—”
Walter’s wife, María, waiting for the people in front of her to get on the bus, called her husband over. Walter took off running. He took off his hat and reached for his wife’s waist and kissed her on her lips.
“That’s why she’s heading back, to take care of our daughters,” he said, walking towards me. “I’m staying. I’m going to try to cross soon. I didn’t tell her, though.”
Walter’s eyes were fixed on his wife’s. They waved at each other. Blew kisses to each other. Winked at each other. Suddenly, a man tapped María on the shoulder. She got inside the bus, sat by the window, pulled the window down, and waved at her husband. Less than a minute later the bus drove away.
“What kind of workshop did you own, Walter? Were you a mechanic?”
“I worked with metal,” he said. “I’m a welder.”
I nodded and put away my notepad. I didn’t feel like telling Walter that my grandfather had been a welder. I had lost count how many welders I had met along the way, welders who, unlike my grandfather, didn’t have the chance to provide for their families.
It’s hard to know how many people dropped out along the way. There are few records, and while some asked to be sent back, others got deported, and quite a few decided to remain in Mexico, in Tapachula, in Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla, México City, Querétaro, or simply left the caravan somewhere along the line to move to other cities the group didn’t walk by. They left quietly. Without much fuss or controversy. But the 81 that left Mexico on November 26, after a month and a half on the road, after being less than 400 feet from the US, did so unceremoniously and to the beat of derisive laughter. Not even the hardship, nor the heat, the lonely highways, the cold, the hunger, the aches, the inhuman conditions, or the fascists’ chants had inspired them to quiet. The gas had. CBP had.
When the last bus left the shelter, I walked around trying to find any other reporter to share an Uber back to the hotel. I found instead 30 men from El Salvador, from the caravan that had formed in El Salvador late-October, trotting to Benito Juárez.
“Over there, men,” someone told them. “Get inside. You write your name down and they’ll give you a bracelet. See if you can find an empty spot inside. Many left tonight.”
Two days later, after nearly two months of coverage, Simone, Alberto, and I went back to Guatemala.
David stayed in Tijuana. He’s working at a TV factory. Cynthia is now in Portland, awaiting trial. Cynthia’s cousin Stanley got deported back to Honduras. Bayron got caught smoking marijuana and got deported. He’s back in Livingston. Heidy, her mother, and son are in Tapachula. Mario is back in Honduras. David, Lourdes, and their daughter Beatriz are now in North Carolina, with family. Bryan ended up crossing. He got deported and is now back in Olancho. Sergio didn’t have a phone number. I don’t know what happened to him. Last year, mi tío Oscar finally started his naturalization process.
“Over the past two years, I have heard stories of people dying in the desert, people dying on the road, people dying on the hands of gangs or drug cartels. I have heard stories of cold chimichangas, of space blankets, and people spending 72 hours in handcuffs. I heard the story of Jakelin Caal Maquin, Felipe Gómez, Mariee Juárez, Carlos Gregorio Hernández, Juan de León Gutiérrez, Wilmer Josué Ramírez, Darlyn Cristabel Cordova. One cannot help but feel helpless. And after that first caravan, many others have formed and walked across Mexico’s long belly. But not all is lost.”
It’s been a year since I finished writing this piece and shit has gotten worse for Central American migrants.
Two months after I left Tijuana, in January 2019, I went to Yalambojoch to do coverage of the burial of Felipe Gómez—the second child who died under CBP care. I say second because, after him, six other children died under similar circumstances. In February, as part of Solitary Voices, a project put together by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, I interviewed a man who spent seven days in solitary confinement at an ICE detention center in San Diego. Other people interviewed for the project spent up to a month in solitary.
In July, our former presidente signed a Third Safe Country deal with president Trump which would allow the US to send to Guatemala anyone seeking asylum in the United States. The deal was made in the image of the Remain in Mexico policy, which has put migrants in the hands of drug cartels. After appeals and public outcry, the deal was renamed ACA (Acuerdo de Cooperación de Asilo). Same shit, different name.
In January, I had the chance to hear some of the people that were moved because of ACA. I remember a woman from Honduras who was traveling with her five-year-old grandson; the maras in Honduras had killed her daughter because she didn’t pay the extortion. The woman fled to Mexico, where the maras found her. She and her son crossed into the US to ask for asylum. In less than three days, they had been sent to Guatemala. But after only a month living in Guatemala City’s Casa del Migrante, the woman got a message from her sister: the gangs knew she was in Guatemala. Safe country my ass.
Over the past two years, I have heard stories of people dying in the desert, people dying on the road, people dying on the hands of gangs or drug cartels. I have heard stories of cold chimichangas, of space blankets, and people spending 72 hours in handcuffs. I heard the story of Jakelin Caal Maquin, Felipe Gómez, Mariee Juárez, Carlos Gregorio Hernández, Juan de León Gutiérrez, Wilmer Josué Ramírez, Darlyn Cristabel Cordova. One cannot help but feel helpless. And after that first caravan, many others have formed and walked across Mexico’s long belly. But not all is lost.
I knew I had her number.
Every once in a while, I’d run into the text messages we exchanged in October of 2018.
“Can you please tell her to buy a phone? We’re awfully worried.”
“I will if I see her. I’m a reporter from Guatemala. I’m not with her right now.”
“Please, it’s an emergency. She said she ran out of money.”
Arely Orellana. I knew I had her number. But I kept putting it off. I was scared.
What if she had gone back to Honduras? What if the boys got lost? What if the Guatemalan police took her grandchildren? What if she and her little boys got killed along the way? What if their bodies rest on the arid limbs of the Sonoran Desert? Gloomy, uh? But how could I not be gloomy? She was 65 when I met her. After every step her torso swung out of balance and her knee caps looked to be a push away from coming out of their sockets. We saw her roaming the streets of Esquipulas with two little boys trailing behind her and I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother.
I remember one time when I was five years old and my grandmother had a doctor’s appointment. Both my parents worked. My grandfather, the welder, was away, visiting family in Quetzaltenango. We couldn’t afford a nanny or a maid, and perhaps she didn’t fully trust any of our neighbors, so one sunny day, after breakfast, she told me to put on my tennis shoes. “We’re going to walk a lot today,” she said. We took a bus. We went to the doctor’s office. The doctor prescribed my grandmother some medicine. We took another bus. We couldn’t find the address. We walked across the teatro nacional. We found the drugstore. We had just enough money to pay for the bus, but I was hungry, so my grandmother bought me a bag of chips and a juice box. We walked back to the house. She cooked for lunch, took a nap, and spent the afternoon watching Univisión. Twenty-four years later, I saw Arely roaming the streets of Esquipulas with two little boys trailing behind her and I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother. Maybe that’s why I let her use my phone.
“All I want is to get to Houston to give my daughter her children.”
But after the caravan reached Guatemala City, October 17, 2018, Arely and her boys were nowhere to be found. I had to know. I wanted to know. So a few weeks ago I finally worked up the courage and wrote Arely’s daughter, in Houston.
“Good mornings, señora,” I wrote. “This is José García, I’m a reporter from Guatemala. Perhaps you don’t remember me, but I helped your mother, Arely, when she was in Guatemala, in 2018. I let her use my phone. She called you asking for money. I recently found your number again and I was just writing to check up on you. How are you? How’s Arely and the two little boys?”
What if she died?
Three hours later my phone buzzed.
“Thank you for thinking of us. Everyone’s okay. How are you? And I do remember you, and that big favor you did for us.”
Big favor? Carajo. It was nothing. I could’ve offered her a ride. I could’ve let her keep the phone. I could’ve given her some money. I could’ve—
“I’m fine, señora. So, Arely and your children are in Houston, then? They are there with you?”
What if the boys got lost? What if she died? What if—?
“Yes, she’s here. Arely is here with me. And my boys are in school now. They’re learning English. They’re on the honor roll, can you believe that?”
Arely is in Houston. Carajo.