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​The Beast that crosses Mexico

· Las Patronas and their help to migrants going north ·

It seems impossible to think that people are still leaving when death along the way has become a common story. And yet thousands every year take a dramatic route that begins with a leap and a single aim: the northern border. There’s a train which crosses Mexico from the south to the north, passing through 4,000 km of woods and deserts, as far as the Rio Grande and which takes the majority of migrants to the station that is the last obstacle to their dream. With its load of trains and suffering La Bestia, “The Beast”, as this railway line is called, deserves its name. Death and mutilation caused by accidents are on the agenda, as well as extortion, murder and rape. Migrants who simply disappear into thin air are numbered in their thousands. Children and women are the most vulnerable to the risks of the journey. “In order to understand, it is necessary to experience poverty. The need to believe that there is something more than wretchedness and abandonment is stronger than any wall, any river, any mafia, any crisis”. It is the strength of those who have nothing to lose”.

These are the words of Norma Romero Vásquez who is speaking beside the railway track, holding three bottles tied together with string. The Beast screeches on the rails as it enters the station and the noises are amplified. Tension mounts. The human load that has arrived here had already crossed hundreds of kilometres by every possible means, on foot, by boat or by bus. It is one of the railway lines connected to Mexico City, a main transportation route for hundreds of migrants from Central America, heading for the United States.

There are hundreds and hundreds of people clinging to the train, on top of the wagons and also on the side that Romero Vásquezis facing, hanging on to windows and door handles they extend as far as the eye can see. The train whistles and she busies herself: a few spoonfuls of rice in a firmly knotted plastic bag and a bottle of water. This is all expertly thrown from the edge of the railway line through the open doors of the wagons with their load of men, women, children and hope. Amid the misery of their journey, this woman, a citizen of Guadalupe (which is also called La Patrona), is a breath of hope and refreshment, in the State of Veracruz, Southern Mexico. There are fewer than 4,000 inhabitants living here among mountains and forests and a state highway links the small towns of Amatlán de los Reyes, Coetzala and Cuichapa. Las Patronas, the name that the community has given to these women, work together to offer simple meals to the hundreds of migrants who cross their territory on board the freight trains that run daily from south to north, bound for the United States.

Norma Romero Vásquez is the group’s leader. The documentary Las Patronas, filmed by Javier García, is the story of a group of Mexican peasant women who did not pretend not to see the freight train that passes through their village and carries thousands of people from the Central American countries to the border with the United States. In little more than 15 years Guadalupe has become the Latin American Lampedusa; a small village but a crucial point for migration between Central America and the United States. “Many years ago the train did not carry people”, the oldest woman recounted. She is thin with the wrinkled skin of a life spent cutting sugar cane. “Then they began to climb on to it, more and more of them. They looked like flies stuck to the wagons. I think that what we do for them is due to what our parents taught us: to respect people and above all to love them. Loving doesn’t cost anything”.

The lens zooms in on a boy: he is on the roof of the train that is leaving, he is sitting on the moving wagon and the wind ruffles his t-shirt. “When one can’t afford to support one’s family one leaves. We come from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. I want to go to the United States to work and to feed my children. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have a residence permit, only that they should have a future”.

Getting on to the train is not easy. On these trains raw materials and agricultural products travel together with those who have helped to extract or harvest them and who will go and work in the great factories of the north. Those who have done it tell of boys left mutilated or who succeeded in avoiding the train’s wheels by the skin of their teeth. There is also the story of Carlos María, 26 years old, hospitalized in Mexico. His right leg was severed below the knee by the moving train when, like so many other companions of his, he fell exhausted on to the rails. He was dreaming of rejoining his family in California. A dream shattered and brutally smashed. Sitting on the chair beside his hospital bed, he tells of that little accident which will always prevent him from leading a normal life. The film shows a close-up of him hopping on his good leg, as if nothing had happened, and saying “I’ll go back to Los Angeles”. And the scene in which a mother and father are trying to get on to the moving train and pass their little girl, only a few years old and screaming, from one to the other, gives one the shivers.

“One day”, Norma explains, “we had come close to the train and men shouted to us, ‘Mother, we’re hungry’. I went back home and I said, ‘We must give them some food’. We had no idea who they were”. They were migrants who were facing a 20-day journey towards hope under the sun and the rain. Some of them hadn’t eaten anything for five days, they were worn out and starving. Norma’s family set to work: bottles of water, rice and tortillas were prepared. They cooked beans with tomato to give them a better taste. Then they went to the railway. “When the driver saw us and the train started to whistle the people leant out. We started throwing the food and the water to them”.

Their neighbours wanted to report them. “What was wrong with giving our food to hungry people? There were no humanitarian organizations”. It was 1995. It took them almost 20 years to gain recognition. Bishop José Raúl Vera López, pastor of the Diocese of Saltillo in Mexico, was one of the first to request international recognition for this group of women who work for nothing on behalf of migrants. For Las Patronas passing from word to action has meant challenging the commonplaces regarding the emigration of their fellow citizens: in addition to cooking food for the indocumentados [those without documents], the women frequently give hospitality to migrants whose health is in a critical state after travelling for days and days exposed to bad weather. No aid was forthcoming from the Government. The comedor [soup kitchen] set up by Norma and her sisters was built on land belonging to their father, without any municipal or state funding.

To escape controls the illegal immigrants attempt to cross the Arizona Desert where the temperature reaches as much as 50⁰ C., or the river, which has very strong currents. This has increased the number of deaths by dehydration or drowning among those who attempt to enter the United States illegally; that is, if they do not fall prey to the schemes of the so-called polleros, the traffickers of human life. “The ‘guides’”, adds Rosa, a volunteer in the group for more than 10 years, “having pocketed enormous sums, frequently rob them and abandon them in the desert”.

In the meantime other people arrive to help, such as Norma’s sister-in-law: “I used to think ‘why should I do it?’ until one day a train with a load of more than 500 people stopped here. I was frightened. Many of them started getting off the wagons and surrounded my van. At that moment I didn’t understand whether they wanted to steal something from me or to beat me up. But what they were seeking was help. They were asking me for help. I shall never be able to forget seeing that woman kneeling at the door of my house. One should kneel only before God and, instead, despair forces these people to beg for help”.

Norma was moved as she remembered a story she had been told of a boy who, worn out after days of cold and lack of food had fallen asleep happy because thanks to them he had been able to appease his hunger. But the train braked suddenly and he fell. His travelling companions said that he died grateful, knowing that there are kind-hearted people in the world. “If it wasn’t for us”, Norma commented, “they might think that there is no more hope”.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 10, 2019