In Search of the Promised Land: Hope and Despair in the Migrant Caravan
In search of hope
I found the migrant shelter at the end of a side street, in the shadow of the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. An open door cast a pool of light onto a courtyard where a group of young people milled about quietly, beneath a simple sign: Casa del Peregrino. I asked the shelter’s security guard if I could interview the supervising priest.
The distant accents of Central America filled the air. Street lights cast deep shadows on the faces of young men from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, hunched over paper plates. The rhythms of reggaetón and bachata music softly bumped from the tinny speakers of two cell phones.
It was November 23, and winter was already setting in across central Mexico. In much of the country, the temperature drops below zero at night. As I stood in the courtyard, the cold crept through the soles of my tennis shoes, icy wind finding an open gap in my jacket. I pulled my scarf tighter.
Many of the migrants walked around in donated sandals, having worn their shoes bare on the journey up here. They looked every bit as weary as you would expect people to look after a 2,000 mile journey; still, there was a cautious jubilance to the crowd. The young men and women sat on a low wall at the edge of the courtyard, smoking, joking, and laughing. A married couple played with their toddler girl, adjusting her beanie with fabric cat ears. Everyone was in remarkably good spirits, considering the circumstances.
After a while, a thin young man with glasses poked his head out the shelter’s doorway. “I’m Guillermo, a volunteer with the supervising priest. He will see you in a minute.” I thanked him. “What brought you to this shelter, anyway?”
I said something about solidarity, which was true, although I omitted the main factor that had inspired this visit: an online argument.
It was one of those moments that made me despair for the fate of humanity, wondering if there was any hope for us at all.
I awoke one morning in my apartment in Mexico City and checked my Facebook feed. This was a few days after the caravan of Central American migrants had crossed Mexico’s southern border. In this annual November event, thousands of refugees from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala march across Mexico together, seeking visibility for the cause of the migrant, begging for mercy and compassion.
Amid the many posts about the caravan—news articles, photos from the border with Guatemala, expressions of sympathy—one angry rant stood out. It was written in Spanish (translation mine):
I’m sick of hearing everyone treating these Hondurans like saints. There are tons of criminals in their caravan, and they’re just here to take our jobs. Why is the Mexican government even taking care of them?
The author, Adriana, was the person I would have least expected to post this sort of thing. A children’s illustrator living in Mexico City, I have known her for several years. She always struck me as the textbook definition of “New Age peace and love.” We have chatted about travels through rural Oaxaca, her mystical journeys with hallucinogenic mushrooms, the wisdom of indigenous cultures. Her profile describes her as “a humble aspiring candidate for sainthood.” Yet here she was, regurgitating the tired old claim of, “They took our jurrrbs!”
Normally I try to avoid online arguments, but this one caught me off guard. Of all people—Adriana, really?
I engaged her, sticking up for the Central Americans. Adriana replied that they were good-for-nothing freeloaders. I responded. It got ugly, as arguments often do online. She called me “intolerant” for not tolerating her xenophobia. It ended with her telling me to “fuck off, you arrogant prick.” I unfriended her, after taking screenshots of her nastiness and posting them for everyone to see.
When the flame war blew over, I felt ashamed for letting myself get dragged into it. The last time I engaged a toxic online argument this deeply was in late 2016, when a friend from California posted a series of “build the wall” messages. This was different, though. This was coming from Adriana, someone I thought of as a free-thinker, a friend, and colleague. More significantly, it was coming from Mexico.
It was one thing for a prejudiced gringo to go on the typical anti-Latino rant. Trump had been wailing about the “invasion” of the caravan for days—nothing new there. But Adriana?
She wasn’t the only one, either. Many of her friends chimed in on her posts, claiming that the Central Americans had no place in civilized Mexican society, that they disturbed the peace, threatened Mexican citizens, were feckless and diseased. When a friend from Guadalajara posted a news article about the caravan, her cousin replied:
They throw out the food that’s donated to them, they demand pizza and soft drinks from us, they’re a bunch of ingrates! If you want to donate, give to your Mexican brother, not to some foreigner.
Racist memes appeared on social networks, calling the refugees troublemakers and criminals. The most viral of them was related to a Honduran woman who allegedly turned down a donated plate of beans.
In the fertile ground of internet gossip, it morphed into an archetypal story of “the ungrateful migrant.” Trolls across Mexico’s cyberspace claimed that if the Central Americans could reject such humble food, they must be spoiled and overfed. Adriana later posted a photo of a bag of beans hanging over a doorpost, with the caption: HONDURAN REPELLENT. I couldn’t help but notice the irony: beans, long an icon of anti-Mexican racism in the States, were now being used to fuel Mexican prejudice against Central Americans.
I was saddened to see how far the ugliness had spread, bleeding over the borders of the internet into the real world. When the first migrants reached Mexico’s northern border, the Tijuana mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum described them as “invaders” and “criminals.”
“We’re not going to put up with them for long,” he said in a statement to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. “Until Tuesday or Wednesday at most. Then we’ll ask the Secretariat of the Interior to turn their shelter into a processing station for our immigration authorities.” 1 A group of middle-class residents of Tijuana gathered to support the mayor’s statements, marching through the streets chanting, “Mexico first!”
Miguel Urbán Crespo, a member of the European Union’s Parliament, described Tijuana as a cauldron brewing a dangerous cocktail of xenophobia. Tijuana’s municipal government, he said, was playing “sorcerer’s apprentice” to Trump’s xenophobic discourse. 2 Meanwhile, here in Mexico City, word came out of a neo-fascist student group appearing on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Their spokesman announced that they would be organizing minutemen-style brigades to hunt down immigrants, under the appropriately horrifying name, “The Iron Puma.” 3
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Could none of these people see the irony—after years of hearing Trump demonize Mexico—of repeating his arguments almost verbatim?
Sure, Mexico has never been immune to discrimination. This nation has a long history of systematic oppression of indigenous people and Afro-Mexicans. Still, let’s put things into perspective: there has never been a Ku Klux Klan here. No history of racial lynchings, anti-miscegenation statutes, or Jim Crow Laws. Slavery was outlawed here long before the U.S. Civil War, and one of the nation’s first presidents was of African descent.
Not to mention, Mexico also has a long history of welcoming immigrants from around the world. From the Lebanese families that invented the taco al pastor to the waves of Jewish refugees from Europe, to people fleeing fascist dictatorships in Argentina and Spain, foreigners have been part of the fabric of Mexican society for centuries.
Now the spectre of xenophobia, long crouching behind the northern border, appeared to have finally extended its claws southward. Trumpismo a la mexicana. I despaired. Was it really that easy for people to give in to hatred of immigrants? Was this the new face of Mexico’s conservative middle class?
Ever since the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S., Mexico had felt like a safe refuge from such hatred. Now, it felt like the moment in the horror movie when the heroine thinks she’s safely escaped the demon, only to discover that it followed her home. No place is safe. I thought of the quote from Father Merrin, the older priest in The Exorcist: “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as... animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could ever love us.”
The more I scanned social media and fell into online arguments, the more my hopelessness grew. This was more than sadness—it was something that needed a proper exorcism. I needed to dispel the idea that a handful of angry xenophobes represented all of humanity. I needed to free my soul from the clutches of despair. I needed a priest.
So I went looking for the Casa del Peregrino shelter. I knew that the Central Americans who had stayed in Mexico City were living there, and I wanted to know how I could help them. Rather than stewing in the cesspool of online arguments, I decided to do something positive. I needed a personal encounter with the people who still sympathized with migrants, who offered them support rather than condemnation.
Sure, I wanted to help them out however I could. But I also hoped that in meeting them, I would help myself to exorcise this despair. When I reached the shelter, I asked for the priest in charge. I wasn’t expecting to meet an international hero.
Searching for the promised land
Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest, has been defending Central American migrants for years. Mexico has long represented a daunting gauntlet for them, a journey plagued by brutal gangs, predatory immigration officers and corrupt police. The southern town of Ixtepec, Oaxaca is a regular stop on the trek from Central America to the northern border. Since 2007, Father Solalinde has operated a shelter there, taking in the weary travelers. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and regularly receives death threats. When the Caravan crossed into Mexico this year, Father Solalinde was on the front lines of aid. Talk about an “aspiring candidate for sainthood.”
Despite this fame, he is extremely humble. I had never even seen a photograph of him, and had no idea what he looked like. I watched this unassuming, bespectacled, bald priest in his white sweater for a good twenty minutes, with no idea that I was staring at a human rights hero. I didn’t figure it out until Guillermo came back to me.
“The Father is almost ready to talk to you now,” the young assistant told me. I asked him for the name of the priest in the white sweater.
“Father Alejandro. Alejandro Solalinde.”
“Wait… the Alejandro Solalinde?”
When the priest came over to shake my hand, I suddenly got stage fright. “Uh, tell me, Father…” I stumbled over my words. “Tell me about the Caravan. What is the situation like?”
“This caravan has taken on different dimensions this year,” he replied in a soft voice. “Many of the places people are coming from have become virtual war zones. They can’t go back there. This is no longer just a caravan—it’s an exodus. These people are looking for their promised land.”
As we talked, a steady stream of volunteers walked past us, carrying enormous boxes of donations. Different colored name tags dangled from their necks, announcing a collection of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and charitable organizations. Many more volunteers had come on their own, with no motive other than empathy. They heard that the migrants needed food and toothbrushes and soap, and they brought it. I asked Father Solalinde how this year’s caravan compared to past events.
“Things changed this year. In the past, the organization ‘Pueblo Sin Fronteras’ was able to coordinate the Caravan. They would get the migrants to the U.S. border, declare themselves and start processing requests for asylum. It was a very orderly process, all by the books. But now, with Trump, people are being denied the right to request asylum. Children have been torn from their parents, put in cages. This is unprecedented, and it’s against international law. So, many of these young men have stayed here in Mexico City.”
Solalinde had overseen the group since they arrived, recently setting them up in this shelter by the Basilica. On the evening I met him, there were approximately 400 migrants living there. A larger group had continued northward toward Tijuana. They were going to try their luck on the northern border.
Thanksgiving tear gas
Meanwhile on the border, the dark side of humanity unleashed its claws. As the migrants reached Tijuana, President Trump deployed nearly six thousand U.S. troops to the border, spending 200 million dollars of taxpayer money. On Thanksgiving Day, he announced his authorization for the U.S. military to use lethal force against the migrants.
The editors of La Jornada expressed their profound concern,
The idea of setting the world’s most powerful military against a group of unarmed, particularly vulnerable people is unconscionable, to say the least. However, it is also alarming, as it sets a precedent of responding to those who seek asylum and a better life with murder. 4
The fact that this took place on a U.S. holiday which commemorates immigrants being welcomed into a new land was not lost on the editors. The whole thing was very dystopian, like something out of the film Children of Men: unarmed refugees staring down the barrel of a gun. Of course, Trump promised to protect people throughout the ordeal—he just redefined the word “people.”
If we find that it’s uncontrollable,” he said while in Mar-a-Lago, “if we find it gets to a level where we are going to lose control or where people are going to start getting hurt, we will close entry into the country for a period of time until we can get it under control. 5
In other words, U.S. citizens who fear the migrants are “people.” The migrants are not.
As the new year approached, the situation for the Central Americans grew increasingly desperate. Two Guatemalan children, ages seven and eight, died in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol. The International Organization for Migration issued statements regarding the consequences of detaining minors in such conditions. Regarding the death of the seven year old girl, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Migrants’ Rights, Felipe González Morales, requested an exhaustive investigation. 6
On the first day of 2019, the U.S. Border Patrol again fired tear gas onto Mexican soil. Around 150 migrants were attempting to cross the fence—notably, in order to immediately turn themselves in to Border Patrol and request asylum. They thought that the night of the New Year would be a fitting time to try a new start. 7
European Parliament member Miguel Urbán Crespo condemned the actions of the U.S. and Mexican governments, comparing them toward Europe’s treatment of refugees. “Not only have we failed [migrants],” he said, “but we have trampled on any inkling of humanitarian international law, as well as the right to seek asylum and refuge.” 8
Despite all this, the border region has seen an outpouring of solidarity on both sides. With the arrival of the caravan, hundreds of first-time volunteers flocked to the shelters of Tijuana, bringing donations and aid. Even the authorities of Baja California eventually came to the migrants’ defense. The First District Court of Appeals and Federal Trials of Baja California issued a ruling against the Tijuana mayor’s xenophobic statements, ordering him to “abstain from making public statements that had the implicit or explicit purpose of transmitting a negative message about migrants.” 9
In San Diego, California, those migrants who have managed to cross and begin the asylum application process have been met with open arms. Several nonprofits and churches have opened their doors to offer them shelter. Weeks after my visit with Father Solalinde, the yearly event Posada Sin Fronteras took place at the border. Dozens of churches from Tijuana and San Diego gathered at the fence to sing Christmas carols and commemorate the migrant’s journey. Despite the extra layers of barbed wire and Border Patrol vehicles, they gathered.
The best of humanity continues to shine through the darkness.
“I can’t go back”
Guillermo invited me to come inside the shelter and chat with the migrants. It was sparse but clean, filled with the scent of fresh bleach and detergent, along with the familiar smell of hundreds of tired human bodies. Volunteers and journalists continued to walk in carrying large boxes of donations.
Most of the migrants were young men, many of whom spoke into their cell phones in hushed tones. “I miss you too, my love. Yes, I am fine. Don’t worry.” Some young couples held small children in their arms. (According to the regional director of UNICEF, seven million children in Latin America and the Caribbean are migrants. 10) Some of those children were in this very shelter.
Guillermo introduced me to four men of varying ages. Two of them ate from paper plates as we chatted. I noted that, contrary to the xenophobic memes I had seen online, nobody turned his nose up at the beans.
“How did you decide to join the Caravan this year?” I asked the group.
“My country’s on the verge of a civil war,” said a man from Nicaragua.
“Mine still hasn’t recovered from one,” a Guatemalan said.
A gray-haired man from El Salvador said dryly, “the gangs want to kill my family.”
“Our president is a dictator,” said Oscar, an otherwise upbeat young man from Honduras. He described his homeland as chaotic and virtually uninhabitable. “If you vote for the ‘wrong’ party, you can’t get a job. And it’s become so dangerous. You can’t even walk down the street at night like you do here in Mexico.”
Honduras hasn’t always been this way. The recent instability started in 2009, when President Zelaya was overthrown by a U.S.-sponsored coup. Since then, thousands of Honduran activists have been killed by death squads. The murder rate there is one of the highest in the world.
Indeed, the men’s testimonies read like a laundry list of the effects of violent U.S. interventions in Latin America. The recent coup in Honduras is simply the latest event on this list. While pundits and politicians debate building walls and “securing the border,” the U.S. military has crossed southward fifty-six times over the past century. A disproportionate number of these interventions have taken place in Central America.
Nicaragua was invaded and occupied twice in the early 20th century, then devastated by the CIA’s Contra war in the 1980s. Guatemala’s President Árbenz was ousted and replaced with a brutal military dictatorship. U.S. dollars prolonged El Salvador’s civil war for years, funding the horrific paramilitary thugs who would later mutate into the Mara Salvatrucha gang.
“I can’t go back,” a Salvadoran refugee named Marcos told me. “The Maras are looking for me. They killed my brother a couple years ago. They had my house staked out, waiting for me. When I was coming home one night, they gave me this.” He pulled up his pant leg to show me a jagged, ugly scar on his calf. “Came at me with machetes. I can’t go back.”
After a century of U.S. intervention, it is a marvel that Central America isn’t more unstable than it is. Democratic governments have been overthrown, elections tampered with, paramilitaries armed and trained, entire nations occupied, all to keep cheap consumer goods on our supermarket shelves. Political and economic control has been maintained over the region by any means possible. Power purchased with bloodshed.
At a recent meeting of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, politicians of the border town addressed the issue of migrants. Supervisor Dianne Jacob myopically commented that the crisis of Central American refugees was “not a problem of our making.” 11 The tired old “why don’t they fix their own countries” complaint has never been more inappropriate.
I recalled my friend Dirk’s comments about immigration policies. A veteran of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he matter-of-factly stated, “Of course we should take in refugees. After all, we started the wars that turned them into refugees in the first place.”
After chatting with the migrants for a couple hours, I had almost forgotten about the online argument that brought me there in the first place. Then one of them mentioned Facebook, and I remembered my friend Adriana.
“How have you been treated since you came to Mexico?” I asked the group.
“Mexico is a wonderful country,” said Oscar, the smiling young man from Honduras. His eyes teared up. “I want to thank this nation from the bottom of my heart. Mexico has given me everything. Even now, Father Solalinde’s people are helping me get my immigration visa. Gracias, México.”
Others were in the process of requesting political asylum in Mexico as well. Many had no immediate plans of even trying to cross the northern border into the U.S.
“Why would we?” Oscar commented. “Mexico City has everything. Safety, work. You can walk down the street in peace here. Just look at the map—the country is even shaped like a big horn of plenty. This is a warm, welcoming nation.”
As I asked people about their reception here, many of them brought up the unpleasant memes that accused them of being ungrateful.
“Let me tell you, by the way,” the gray-haired man from El Salvador said with a smile, “we do eat beans. We have no problem with beans. I don’t know where this whole ‘bean’ thing on the internet came from, but we aren’t picky.”
The specter of xenophobia was fading back into the shadows. Common human decency burned bright in the hearts of thousands of Mexican citizens. Here, as in the U.S. and in any other country on earth, the immigrant-bashers did not represent the majority. There was still hope for humanity. Our diabolical side would not have the last word.
Oscar invited me to walk with him to a local general store to buy a Coke. “How did you decide to come here to the shelter, anyway?” He asked as we clinked our glass bottles together.
“I want to help,” I said. “Lots of people do. Friends, compañeros from here in Mexico City, we care about what’s happening here.” The words rang true as I said them, and I could feel the despair releasing its clutches on my heart, drifting back into the abyss. “Thousands of people want to help.”
Before I left, I approached Father Solalinde’s assistant one more time. “Tell me, Guillermo: what sort of donations does the shelter need?” I looked across the courtyard at a young married couple. The mother held a baby in her arms. The husband stared at the horizon, brow furrowed.
Guillermo gave me a list of articles: toiletries, soap, toothpaste. “Honestly, though, you may want to wait until these migrants are divided up into other shelters. For now, we’ve received hundreds of donations already.”
“What about people who are far away?” I asked. “Readers of mine in the States, for instance. Can they send a monetary donation to this shelter?”
“Absolutely not.” He was dead serious. “We can’t take cash donations. It’s a matter of principle.”
“What if they want to help, though? What would you suggest they do?”
“I’d say, ‘You have migrants in your own city, don’t you?’” He gestured toward the dozens of young men and women in the courtyard. Hungry and tired, yet hopeful. “Look for ways to help them. The Christmas season is coming up soon. See these migrants for who they really are: the Holy Family, wandering in the desert. See your brother in the face of the migrant. See yourself. See the infant Jesus in the migrant’s arms. The migrant’s face is the face of Christ.”
With these words, Guillermo exorcised the spirit of despair from my heart for good. Love, hope, and grace would have the last word. They always will.
- “Rebasó cupo albergue de Tijuana, continúa arribo,” La Jornada, November 25, 2018. All translations mine.
- “Hay un cóctel peligroso en Tijuana: favorece los brotes xenófobos: Urbán,” La Jornada,November 25, 2018.
- “Puma de hierro”: grupo neofascista en CCH Sur llama a crear brigadas antiinmigrantes,” La Izquierda Diario, October 29, 2018.
- “Trump: licencia para matar”, La Jornada,November 23, 2018.
- “Donald Trump Again Warns He May Shut Down Southern Border,” USA Today, November 22, 2018.
- “Preocupa a Unicef efectos de deportación en menores,” La Jornada,January 2, 2019.
- “Agentes fronterizos reprimen nuevo intento de migrantes por cruzar la frontera hacia EU,” La Jornada,January 2, 2019.
- “Hay un coctel peligroso en Tijuana: favorece los brotes xenófobos: Urbán,” La Jornada,November 25, 2018.
- “Prohíben a edil de Tijuana ofender a los migrantes,” La Jornada, January 2, 2019
- “Siete millones de niños en AL y el Caribe son migrantes, dice Unicef,” La Jornada, November 28, 2018.
- “It’s “home first” for the Board of Supervisors,” San Diego CityBeat, January 9, 2019