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The long road to nowhere

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Courage, devastation, anger and sorrow all mix together in these stunning stories that represent the migration struggle in South America. Luis Eduardo Barrueto reports from Guatemala the tragedy of crossing the Mexican border that immigrants have to face, bravely risking their lives to reach the ‘American dream’.  

The Faces of Migration 
The producers of the Mexican film, The Golden Cage (La jaula de oro, 2013), decided to portray the story with more than a dash of hyperrealism when they searched for their cast in Guatemalan communities with a high degree of emigration. The selected cast portrays the two Guatemalan youngsters – a boy and a girl – and a Mexican tzotzil boy in their route across Mexico towards the United States.

The cast is composed of non-actors. According to producer Inna Payán, they were very much aware that the story they were portraying was all too real, all too painful.

The action portrayed is thus on the dividing line between fiction and documentary but it struck a cord with European critics when it was presented at the Cannes Film Festival. Its possible that analysing a story that takes place across the Atlantic Ocean allows Europeans to fully understand the logic of the migration that takes place, in a different guise, within their own borders?

La arrocera
One work of non-fiction however, is the story of Paola, interviewed by Oscar Martínez in a project called “On the road”, by the regional digital newspaper El Faro.

Paola, a Guatemalan transexual, was 23 when she narrated the story of unbuckling belts and whispered negotiations behind her back on board a train recently into the Mexican border in her trip (“You go first, then it’s my turn”). These raw comments did not disturb her upheld posture when she decided to interrupt them and without even turning her back to see their reactions, she told them to do whatever they wanted with one condition : “Look, do whatever you want but wear condoms. There are a few in my backpack, the red one over there. I recommend you do that because I have AIDS”. She added a not-so-veiled threat: “I though you were too manly and only fucked women”, despite the fact that she had by then effectively switched identities at the time and did not recognize herself as anything but a woman.

Paola didn’t have AIDS, but what she did have after five years of being a prostitute, was a precise intuition of men’s measure, added to a self-earned resilience. She was left alone, not without being robbed and insulted profusely first, but this demonstrated that her false threat had been effective. Tall and victorious, she took what was left in her red backpack, put on some makeup and a black blouse, and was then certain about that which she had only previously ever been warned of: something always happens in La arrocera. All 45 of her companions were assaulted in this short section between Tapachula and Arriaga, a danger zone for migrants that consists of barely 28 ranches and takes its name from an inhabited rice warehouse that is falling apart in the road.

Unspoken kidnappings
Barely across the border from Guatemala, la arrocera is one of the first hardships that travelling across Mexico presents the migrants with, but it is hardly the only one. Tapachula, Tenosique, Ciudad Hidalgo are all frontier towns in the south of Mexico where abductions are common practice, as Oscar Martinez reports for the newspaper El Faro. Migrants fret, alarmed, asking for someone to do something, as well as asking for anonymity when they speak to journalists as they describe what happens daily in that territory. The Zetas and their allies, in broad daylight, kidnap dozens of Central Americans and place them in houses that are well known to many people – including the authorities.

“The commercial logic is simple”, writes Martínez, “It is better to kidnap 40 people over several days in order to get a ransom of around $300 per person [from their relatives in the United States, usually], than kidnapping just one businessman, who despite delivering the money in one go, may call up the attention of the press and the police”.

Those are the kidnappings whose stories are untold and whose victims remain without proper recourse or compensation. They wouldn’t denounce it even if they could, because that may put them in danger of deportation, setting their whole journey back to the starting point.

The beast
José Luis Fernández, 17, took every precaution, survived the assaults and the perks of such hard travelling. He never imagined fainting from the heat in the last train he boarded from Torreón to Juárez. He boarded and he was sitting in a small juncture where the wagons couple together, and he tells journalist Alejandra Gutiérrez for news website Plaza Publica that “I was sitting, but my feet were hurting from the swelling caused by all the walking. I was thinking about that when the lights turned off and I fell. It was like a faint. Imagine that. I took care of not falling asleep, from not being caught by the migration police, from the assaults, but I never thought that I would faint. The heat in Chihuahua and the fact that I hadn’t eaten in three days made me fall. The train pulled me and I woke up, the train cut my leg and the pain made me reach for it with my arm, which also got caught. I wanted to die because I didn’t even lose consciousness and couldn’t even move to get myself killed by the train […] I’m only alive because a man passed by and immediately called the Red Cross”.

His story is representative of yet another danger posed by migration, caused by the crossing of Río Bravo in the US-Mexican border or in the process of climbing aboard and getting off moving trains, regularly between 10 and 15 trains in total across from Arriaga, Chiapas, towards different points in the northern border. The whole network is dubbed The beast or the Death Train because the falls and deaths are not uncommon, due to a mix of tiredness, famine, and emotional stress. The question remains open regarding what states could change towards their migration policy to make it more efficient, and also, more humane.

A global phenomenon
Though these stories are an attempt to portray migrants’ reality, they are all but fragmentary bits and pieces of an incredibly complex phenomenon with scarcely any systematically compiled information. The way that their episodes are framed in this piece avoids the usual narrative provided by most media’s treatment of migration.

Inasmuch as their accounts can be fully provided with context, they are a representation of a story that is familiar to Central Americans and Mexicans en route to the United States, but also to Cuban balseros, groups of Africans arriving to land in the European mediterranean coasts or Iranians crossing, via Indonesia, towards the Christmas Island in Australia in harsh sea. Despite differences in transport mode, hardships faced and outcomes achieved, the reality of migration is this one: they leave because to die trying is preferable than to remain living, in a land deprived of opportunities.

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