This article was originally published on October 1, 2011.
I am reflecting on the meaning of migration. It is the path of the poor. I am convinced that they are changing the world with their presence. From the viewpoint of God, they bring a mission. Maybe they are conscious of this. In their path, while they pass, they touch the politics, the economy, and the consciousness of society. With their very presence, they are shaking, indirectly and unintentionally, the structures of the institutions, such as the Church… . In this sense, and without intending to, they, the migrants, have begun a revolution and subversion of these things. Thus, the space where they are generating the transformations that are going to bring us into a more just and unified world is the social consciousness. Of whatever culture, politics, religion, gender, they are constructing a common denominator of humanity… . In this manner, they, the migrants, trigger two forces. One is those who cause the suffering of the migrants; they hit, torture, abuse, exploit, extort, kidnap, and kill to make a profit. Meanwhile, the other force that arises is solidarity, the globalization of love. We can conclude, with certainty, that there is more goodwill than bad and that this process of reflection and change is going to carry us to a global society that is more respectful of human rights, where we value and appreciate the humanity of each person more.
— Padre Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, coordinator of the Pastoral of Human Mobility for Mexico’s South Pacific Region and founder of Hermanos en el Camino1Interview with author, November 6, 2010.
In response to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Central American migrants who are making their way north to the United States each year and the pressing need to provide these vulnerable people with secure places to eat, bathe, sleep, and seek medical attention, over fifty migrant shelters have emerged along their unauthorized migratory route through Mexico. The shelters provide a short respite from the trains that Central American migrants ride as modern-day hobos. Most important, however, they provide a relatively safe place for migrants to congregate, tell stories, make friends, ask questions about the dangers ahead, and leave behind information so that family members can locate their trail if they disappear. Each shelter is thus a key information node in a struggle to survive as migrants run an increasingly dangerous gauntlet of crime through Mexico.
Opportunists have committed daily humiliations, robberies, and rapes along the Mexican route since people began moving north in large numbers during the Central American civil-war period of the 1980s, but in the last decade, some crimes have become more organized, brutal, and frequent, kidnapping in particular.2Kidnappers systematically abduct and torture migrants to extort anywhere from hundreds to several thousands of dollars from their US-based relatives, money that would have been paid to a smuggler for the final leg of the journey into the United States if the migrant had not been intercepted. If the ransom is not paid, the migrant may be killed or forced to work for the kidnappers, sometimes by selling sex or participating in violence. Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos—CNDH) estimates that over 11,000 migrants were kidnapped in a six-month period in 2010. CNDH, Informe Especial sobre Secuestro de Migrantes en México [Special report on abduction of migrants in Mexico] (Mexico City: CNDH, Febuary 22, 2011), http://www.cndh.org.mx/sites/all/doc/Informes/Especiales/2011_secmigrantes.pdf With this escalation of criminal activity, the unofficial shelter system has become the front line in the battle against abuses of migrants in transit, including the intensifying fight against organized kidnapping of migrants for ransom.
Each of these shelters faces challenges, ranging from public-relations problems with neighbors to threats from organized-criminal gangs, and each has addressed these challenges in their own unique way, with varying degrees of success. Some have survived, while others have closed their doors. The majority have some affiliation with or receive inspiration from the Catholic Church, but despite this similar orientation, the shelters vary in the services they provide as well as in their resources, level of organization and institutionalization, level of political activism, rules and routines, and relationship with the local community. These differences in daily practice, in part, express subtle differences in the vision of each shelter’s founder or founders.
During my dissertation fieldwork on how migrants navigate violence, I had the opportunity to visit ten shelters in Mexico for interviews of volunteers, community members, and migrants in transit. I also conducted approximately five hundred hours of participant observation as a shelter volunteer: registering newcomers, running errands, sleeping and eating with the migrants, assisting in the office, interfacing with officials and visitors, attending staff meetings, and teaching English, among other responsibilities. In this short essay, I will draw on these experiences to introduce the reader to shelter life along the unauthorized migratory route through Mexico with a profile of a migrant shelter that has leveraged international connections to survive and thrive in the face of local conflict.
Hermanos en el camino (brothers in the road)
Since it opened its doors in February 2007 in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, the Hermanos en el Camino migrant shelter has linked the local and international politics of migration. Padre Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, a soft-spoken priest with strong words, came in 2005 to this city on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.3Padre Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, interview with author, October 19, 2010. Since precolonial times, the geography has generated a transit economy in Ixtepec, in which the movement of goods and people has shaped local society. With the construction of the Tehuantepec Railroad (facilitated by British capital and immigrant labor), completed in 1907, Ixtepec became the site of “ceaseless train traffic,” perhaps servicing as many as sixty trains per day.4Guillermo Bernal Gómez, Ciudad Ixtepec: Su gente y su cultura [Ixtepec City: Its people and culture] (Iztepec, 1996). Despite the decline in trade that followed the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the closure of passenger-train lines over the last twenty years, the region has remained a major crossroads for Mexican shipping railways and continues to have military significance. Today, legal and illegal cross-traffic through the isthmus as well as a military base support the local service-based economy; the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is still the southernmost bottleneck for Mexican land routes north.
For migrants, Ixtepec represents a major transition point, where the dangers of the route to the United States change. It is the first train stop in the state of Oaxaca. In Chiapas, to the south of Oaxaca, migrants cope with Central American street gangs and roving bands of local Mexicans that attack people, raping and stealing, as they trek around migration checkpoints or ride the trains. In Veracruz and Tamaulipas, to the north, migrants face organized mass kidnappings, which carry the prospect of torture.Opportunists have committed daily humiliations, robberies, and rapes along the Mexican route since people began moving north in large numbers during the Central American civil-war period of the 1980s, but in the last decade, some crimes have become more organized, brutal, and frequent, kidnapping in particular.
Shocked by the vulnerability of the hundreds of migrants passing through on each train, Padre Solalinde founded Hermanos en el Camino. From the beginning, the priest had a larger vision for the shelter, not only as a place where migrants could find safety, but as a place where the peaceful, loving culture of Jesus could grow from its grass roots. In 2006, he purchased enough land to build a compound, with room for fruit trees, a soccer field, and a garden plot. Construction has been going on ever since, and migrants themselves have built most of the simple cement structures erected on the site. However, Padre Solalinde understands the physical building of the shelter as part of the construction of a larger social movement, and he couples his duties as shelter manager with a hectic schedule of political advocacy for migrant rights. The large, open space reflects his optimism for the future of both the shelter and humanity, two destinies that he views as inexorably tied and improved by advocacy for migrants’ rights.
Padre Solalinde maintains this optimism about the migrants’ peaceful revolution despite the surrounding community’s continual resistance to the shelter. In 2007, municipal police arrested the priest along with eighteen migrants who had searched for their kidnapped travel companions in a nearby house, throwing them in jail for hours and causing national public outrage. In the summer of 2008, the community rose up against the shelter following allegations that a Central American migrant had raped a local girl. Approximately thirty to fifty people, including a few area police officers, charged the compound armed with gasoline, a tire, rocks, sticks, and insults, demanding the closure of the shelter and threatening to burn it to the ground. Padre Solalinde, dressed in his vestments, confronted the mob, raising his arms in the form of a crucified man and offering to sacrifice himself before permitting the destruction of the shelter. The mob, startled and silenced by this image, backed down. In retrospect, Padre Solalinde reflects, “I understood one thing: if I had run, they would have burned me and the migrant.”5Padre Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, interview with author, October 19, 2010.
The padre’s stance before the community aligns with his larger vision for the shelter, which has recognized, from an early stage, the need for transparency and communication, a courtship of the press and the international human rights community, and aggressive political activism to protect migrants. Just as the imagery of a crucified priest frightened away would-be attackers, Padre Solalinde has become adept at projecting the image of the shelter for protection, spreading the gospel of the migrant to far-flung audiences and finding safety in the spotlight. He publicly denounces the corruption and complicity of Mexican officials in migrant kidnappings, and he calls on politicians by name in the national Mexican media to protect the oasis of safety for migrants that he has constructed. The padre’s selfless work at the shelter lends him the moral authority to make such statements, and the international human rights organizations that he cooperates with, such as Amnesty International, have a notoriety that will ensure his martyrdom in the event of a counterattack.
Despite their own economic dependence on sales and services to unauthorized migrants, many local critics continue to complain that criminals use the shelter as a refuge and that migrants bring social ills (such as begging, drinking, drug use, and littering) to the community. They resent the powerful national and international protection that Solalinde has acquired through his advocacy.6Author interviews of townspeople, October 2010–June 2011. And not without reason as, particularly in the absence of the priest during his travels, the shelter struggles to maintain security and order within its walls while serving a transient population. Of all the shelters I visited, it was among the least regulated, offering migrants an unprecedented freedom to come and go.
This freedom comes with tradeoffs. On the one hand, rules can be difficult to enforce with a large, relatively open physical layout and daylong movement in and out of the facility. Shelters that restrict the movement of migrants in the community can more easily reach an accommodation with their neighbors and discourage traffic in contraband, such as drugs and weapons. And some migrants themselves complain about their physical insecurity within the Ixtepec shelter.7Author interviews of migrants, October 2010–July 2011. Furthermore, the priest’s reliance on motivational talks, rather than organized, assigned, and enforced duties, to prompt migrants to help with daily chores and cleaning has led to sanitation problems.
On the other hand, migrants often avoid stricter shelters for fear of missing a train. Information about train schedules and security risks on the route can be scarce or inaccurate in the absence of circulation in and interaction with the larger local community, an opportunity for survival foreclosed by highly regulated shelters. Their hesitance to enter these shelters encourages many migrants to sleep on the tracks, where they are most vulnerable to criminal predation. Some shelters have dealt with these problems by closing their doors during the day or limiting their services to food and a very short respite, but with a tandem increase in migrant vulnerability when refuge is not forthcoming.
Regardless of the tradeoffs, the freedom and trust that Padre Solalinde grants to migrants in his shelter are consistent with his underlying belief in their agency and the ability of love, rather than rules, to motivate human behavior. Internal crackdowns occur periodically when this liberty undermines the priest’s ability to advocate for migrants by threatening to tarnish the image of the shelter. However, discipline “from above” is not the modus operandi, a marked difference from many other shelters along the route.
This loose approach extends to the volunteer staff of Hermanos en el Camino, which functions without clear hierarchy within the shelter, beyond the universal acknowledgment of the priest’s authority to decide disputes. Many members of the semi-permanent staff arrived at the shelter as migrants and then chose to stay and serve the cause for a period of anywhere between months and years, a great number of them after receiving legal support from the shelter following their victimization by corrupt authorities and other criminals. Other volunteers and activists arrive from Mexico and around the world, motivated by curiosity and good will. Without formal training, this motley, multinational crew runs the office, procures supplies, cooks, builds, advocates for individual migrants, provides basic first aid, interfaces with local authorities, and organizes protests.
When the priest is away, uncertainty of command can cause frustration among shelter volunteers. However, the shelter team is at its best during a crisis, responding to events with flexibility and passion. For example, when in December 2010, a handful of victims of a nearby mass kidnapping managed to escape and arrived at the shelter, a plan of action was quickly pulled together. And when the Mexican government denied the kidnapping had occurred, the shelter team invited media attention and staged a protest march to raise awareness of the crime, linking up with other shelters and human rights advocates. Central American governments forcefully expressed their frustration with the lack of Mexican governmental response, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ultimately criticized the Mexican government and called for a full investigation of the crime.8UN News Centre, “UN Human Rights Chief Voices Concern Over Migrants Missing in Mexico,” news release, January 21, 2011, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=37332&Cr=Mexico&Cr1. In this situation and many others, Padre Solalinde provided an articulate voice, but the multinational team, functioning with minimal guidance, actualized his mission.
Padre Solalinde’s skillful political maneuvering has kept this special place alive, creating the space for his team to construct “a common denominator of humanity.” The shelter now even receives some donations from local benefactors, and disagreement among community members about the impact of the shelter has sharpened. High-profile visits of international human rights groups, state and national politicians, journalists, writers, researchers, and even movie stars continue, as does a distrustful stalemate between the shelter and the local community. As long as the visionary Padre Solalinde maintains his celebrity status, the shelter seems assured of its future, despite ongoing problems of security and poor community relations.
The Hermanos en el Camino shelter remains a unique link between the local and international politics of migration, unlike any other because of the distinct character and vision of its founder. However, each of the many shelters along Mexico’s migratory route is a place that can alter the path of its sojourners, even changing the life goals of people as they make their way north. In Ixtepec, the whistle of the incoming train sends shelter volunteers running for position, ready to welcome the cold, tired, and hungry into safety at any time of day or night. As the whistle fades, hundreds of people quietly emerge from the shadows of the train tracks to have their names recorded, share stories of suffering and hope, and find a moment of peace during a dangerous journey. Visitors to the shelter with the privilege of participating in this “homecoming” inevitably come to empathize with Padre Solalinde’s vision, and they take comfort in knowing that he is not alone in this work. As the train continues slowly north, a diverse cadre of priests and activists implement their own vision with the migrants, moving us closer to “a global society that is more respectful of human rights, where we value and appreciate the humanity of each person more.”