Jul 09

The Journey of an Illegal Migrant

The migrants climb aboard the train heading north.

The Green Hell

Tenosique, located deep in southern Mexico in the state of Tabasco, 60 km from the border of Guatemala, is not a very hospitable place.  Its primary claim to fame is that it is the most humid place in all of Mexico – thanks to the largest river in Centro America that winds its way out of Guatemala and wraps itself around this small Mexican city in a hot, sweaty embrace.   Temperatures here are in the high 30s with a strong direct sun cooking the land, and a layer of sweat becomes like a second skin; always with you, day and night.  Being situated far from any coast means that the slightest whisper of a breeze, or a cloud passing in front of the sun are both events that merit grateful comments and murmurs of pleasure.  Even in hell, the shortest and slightest respite feels like heaven.

A gorgeous sunset in Tenosique. This town has its charms.

At the end of a long boiling day, as the heat finally passes, the sun finally sets, and darkness falls, at 8pm like clockwork the mosquitoes come.  Swarms of them, straight from river, zip across the land and attack in raging hordes.  There is no warning.  One minute you are enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures, and the next you are doing the Tenosique dance – slapping and hitting and smacking in every direction and on every part of you body in a futile attempt to keep some of your blood for yourself.  After 15 minutes you are ready to run, run anywhere, just to try and get away.  It is no wonder that Tenosique has earned itself the nickname El Infierno Verde – the green hell, – as to one not accustomed to the natural challenges of living here, it is a very fitting name.

I, of course, conveniently managed to forget about this nickname when I  told Jose Carlos, Oscar and Sofia in Oaxaca that Tony and I would see them there in a month.

And so, a month later, I arrived in Tenosique looking like a rubber chicken who had been tossed in the oven by mistake.  Shortly after arriving I was reunited with Jose Carlos and Oscar and – as we sat down to best hotdogs in all of Mexico – they filled me in on what they had been doing here for the last four weeks.

Lining up for food being delivered by Grupos de Beta

The path of the Migrant.

They had been spending the last month helping out at La 72 Casa de Migrantes, a refuge for illegal migrants passing through Mexico on their way to the United States.

You see, everyone hears about the 150,000 Mexican migrants that illegally cross the border into the US each year, but less is heard of the 170,000 migrants from Central America that cross Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala each year on their way to the  US in search of work and a better life.12  Tenosique is a popular crossing point as the dense jungle makes the border impossible to patrol, and so many migrants opt to foot the 65 km journey to get into Mexico.

Roadmap to the US of A

The migrants come from countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.  After arriving in Tenosique they then wait for the next freight train to pass through town, and then hop on and continue their northward journey.  The trains at first all head to Lecheria – in the centre of Mexico more or less – before branching out in different directions.  Some take the train through Guadalajara and then up the Mexicali, others through Salamanca on their way to Ciudad Juarez, and others through San Luis Potosi on their way to Nuevo Laredo or Reynosa depending on their final destination in the US.  Most seem to be heading to Houston.

Without a doubt, passing through Mexico is the most dangerous part of their journey and can take

The only really "complete" building on site is the church. This is where the migrantes sleep at night. At times over 200 people sleep in here.

anywhere from 15 days to 4 months to complete.  Let despite the danger people are willing to risk all in search for a job.  Some have even undertaken the same journey 2, 3, 4, or even 9 times as they keep getting deported from the US and end up back home to find themselves in the same circumstances.  Every year unknown numbers of illegal migrants are taken advantage of, kidnapped, or killed simply because they are vulnerable and “non-people” – people off the books.  Sadly, that’s where La 72 Casa de Migrantes gets it name from.  It has been named “La 72” in memory of 72 migrants who were murdered on August 24, 2000 in San Fernando Tamaulipas.

This is exactly what La 72 wants to avoid.  The goals of La 72 are to protect the human rights of the illegal migrants, give them a place to rest before they continue north, provide them with information about the journey ahead of them, and to try and convince some of them to stay and work in Mexico (which has become a migrant destination in it’s own right.)  They see a very small percentage of the migrants that pass through, at the moment about 5,000 to 10,000 a year.

Marta working in the kitchen. Rice and Beans are the order of the day. Rice and beans are the order of every day.

It’s all a bit backwards… or is it?

As soon as I arrived at La 72, it struck me that something seemed completely backwards.  I tried to imagine a church-run, government-supported initiative doing the same thing in the US.  “Welcome to the US, how’d that trip through the desert go?  Not too many blisters I hope?  Ok, great, let’s register you and then you can shower and get something to eat before we tell you the best way to get to Houston.”  Somehow I don’t think that’s how it works…

Illegal immigration is a hot topic in US at moment as November draws closer and both democrats and republicans are doing their best to claim the favor of the Hispanic community in the United States.  It’s in the news every day and as it is a controversial topic

The sustainable garden being built/planted by Amanda and Kat, two volunteers from Canada/USA here for 6 weeks. More food!

opinions on it can vary dramatically.  For unemployed Americans looking at the numbers, illegal migrants are those Mexican guys hanging out in front of Home Depot in an unfair and underhanded attempt to steal construction and farming jobs from good local citizens.  For the economists, cheap illegal migrant labour is what is continuing to keep US exports competitive on the global level.  For the hispanic community living in the US, these people sneaking across the border are cousins or childhood friends trying to make a better lives for themselves.

The controversy is in a large part being fueled by a massive disconnect between the Non-hispanic and Hispanic communities in the USA.  Considering that every day these communities are inextricably intertwined, there is very little human interaction between them.  Differences in class, race, and

The "compound" also has Goats, ducks, chickens, and turkeys.

language – three of the greatest social dividers in the history of the world – all come into play here.  Take a fairly typical middle class white american:  Migrants cuts his grass, pick his fruit, stock his supermarket shelves, built his house, clean his house once a week, they look after his children, cook his food when he eats out, and take away his garbage.  Their kids might even go to the same school and still these communities manage to live world’s apart from each other.

So for the average non-hispanic American, the term “illegal immigrant” remains a bizarrely vague concept and this perhaps explains a relative lack of empathy for the journey that hundreds of thousands of migrants undertake each year, and the hundreds of thousands of human stories, of real people, behind those faces.

Marta and I. Gonna miss her.

Real People

In my short time in Tenosique I had the opportunity to talk to many of the migrants, hear their stories, talk football, dig trenches, or play a game of checkers with them.  The migrants are mostly young men, aged 18 to 30, though there are some women and older men as well.  In particular, a lot of the migrants come from Honduras where work is almost non-existent.  Most of the men have very little education – though they are literate – and they describe themselves as “manual labourers”.  Even if they could find a job in Honduras, this work would earn them only about 10 to 15 dollars a day; not much to support a family on.

Here are a few of the people I met in my time there:

It took a bit of practice but with Marta's guidance my flour "hand-slapped" tortillas began to look like... well... Tortillas!

Amanda a volunteer from Canada, and Jose Carlos a volunteer from Mexico city play with the Turkey

Marta left her children behind in Guatemala to go and try to find work in the US, She is an excellent cook, has a huge heart, and taught me how to make flour tortillas by hand.  She has been in Tenosique for a month and just recently got permission to work legally in the southern states of Mexico.  She still intends to make it to the United States, but for now she will be able to work for a while in Mexico to save up some money for the journey and to send some money back home to her children.

Most of the migrants are extremely talented checkers players

Carlos is 25, from Honduras, and is on his way to Los Angles to reunite with his ex-girlfriend who made the journey 3 years earlier whilst pregnant with his son.  His son was born in the US and is now almost 3 years old.

Joe Luis is from Honduras and is a hard working brute of a man who has a thick moustache, quick smile, and totes a bright white Panama hat on the top of his head.  He has been at La 72 for over a month helping with construction of the women’s dorm in exchange for a dry place to sleep and food.  He left his country to search for work and to escape a drink problem.  A smart man, he can talk to you about everything from football to the intricacies of Cuban politics.  T

They are real people.

The women's dormitory under construction. Labour provided by migrants a volunteers, many of the materials get donated or sold at a reduced price.

No easy answers.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to the issue of illegal migration to the US.   It is tempting to say that the US should open its doors to more migrants, welcome them with open arms, and in this way play a more positive role of leadership in the Americas.  However, the US already takes in more immigrants each year than any other country and local communities are feeling threatened by the rapid influx of hispanics, especially since work is hard to find at the moment.

At the very least what is needed is a change to the debate.  Currently, the debate focuses almost exclusively on the numbers, and looks at Right & Wrong from the perspective of US law and the US economy.  Instead I suggest that more weight needs to be given to the human element of what is, in fact, a human problem.  Perhaps then priorities will change and the longer-term opportunities of a newer more united and integrated Americas will reveal themselves.  Or not.

Meanwhile the US can keep doing what it’s doing: paying to deport illegal migrants back home only to have them turn up again the next year.  And in the meantime organisations like La 72 will keep doing their best to help the migrants survive the journey.


La 72, does fantastic work helping people.  They accomplish a lot on very little money, thanks in large part to the generous people of Tenosique and the other volunteers that help out.  That said, there is still a lot of improvements that need to be made to the refuge and a lot more immigrants that could be helped.  If you would like to help out in some way, you can email La 72 to ask how you can help here: la72.direccion@gmail.com or for donation information you can go here: http://la72casademigrantes.wordpress.com/donativos/

A special thanks goes out to Jose Carlos and Oscar who invited me to come to Tenosique to see the shelter and meet the migrants.  Also a special thanks goes to Friar Tomas, who is in charge of the operation. Finally, many thanks go to Rosita, Paco, and family who put me up in their house during my time in Tenosique.

For more photos go here


La 72′s website: http://la72casademigrantes.wordpress.com/

Beta Group: http://www.inm.gob.mx/index.php/page/Grupo_Beta

More on the “desaparecidos” - disappeared – migrants  http://www.diariowebcentroamerica.com/regionales18.html


1 Pew Hispanic Center, 2010 “US Unauthorised Immigration Flows are down Sharply since Mid-Decade”: http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/126.pdf.

2 Mexican Federal Government figures, as noted in the Beta Group brochure.

1 comment

  1. Cindy

    Great story, Zack. Good to get the first hand experience. I love the mosquito dance.

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