Those walking to the US to seek asylum have been demonized by Trump, who sent more than 5,000 soldiers to await them at the border. Bryan Mealer traveled with the most vulnerable among them.
By the time I reach the migrant caravan in late October, they had been traveling for two weeks since leaving Honduras, having covered over 600 miles. Leaving from San Pedro Sula, one of the deadliest cities on Earth, they had set out over mountains, through forest and rivers, and along the way became both an international menace and a symbol of hope. Most days, they tell me, afternoon rains had soaked their belongings. Ants had bitten them where they slept. Crossing into Mexico, riot police had attacked them with clubs and teargas.
But for the most part, they say, people had displayed extraordinary kindness. Farmers had greeted them on the roads with sliced oranges and bags of water and strangers had given them rides. Every day brought these tiny, unexpected miracles: a plate of beans when their children were crying, a pickup when their legs could go no further. And for that reason, they believe that God is traveling with them on this journey to America.
I discover them in San Pedro Tapanatepec in the southern state of Oaxaca, traveling along the Pan-American highway, on what turned out to be the toughest day of the journey. The towns had been small, and few vehicles had passed along the country roads. Most of all, it had been hot, with temperatures reaching 95F (35C). Families with children had walked over nine hours and, once arrived, had collapsed into every nook and crevice of the town.
A caravan of 4,000 people doesn’t simply visit a town, it swallows it whole, figuratively if not physically, and takes it hostage with its energy and chaos. Migrants move through the streets stalling traffic. Their bedrolls occupy every open porch and sliver of shade. Near the market, lines of them spill out from the internet cafe and the Western Union. A crowd overwhelms the merchant selling cellular plans, and for about two hours they bring down the network. Along the streets, residents peer out though closed shades and many businesses have closed.
Hundreds of people have staked camp in the town plaza, pitching their tents and crude shelters atop the hard cobblestone – a landscape of muddy blankets and plastic sheeting strung from tree limbs, poles and whatever mooring against the weather they can find. Hundreds more, mainly families with children, have taken refuge in an adjacent gymnasium. It’s here where I find my group: a pair of single parents traveling to America with their children, who have severe disabilities.
María Cáceres’s son Javier, who is 15, has Down’s syndrome. He’s a tall, chunky kid, with short dark hair, a missing front tooth and eyes that are permanently crossed.
María tells me how they fled San Pedro Sula after gang members constantly harassed her family for bribes and “taxes”. When they couldn’t pay, some men burned down their house, then murdered her two brothers. María had just finished burying them when – on 12 October – the caravan formed in the center of town. Traumatized, she left her two other children with relatives and told Javier it was time to go. The two of them joined the exodus with only the clothes on their backs.
The journey has been difficult for Javier, his mother says. In addition to Down’s, he was born with hydrocephalus, a condition where excess fluid collects in the brain. He easily gets dizzy and complains of headaches. Doctors have told María that he needs surgery, but she’s never had the money. He also suffers regular seizures, yet it’s been weeks since they could afford his anticonvulsant meds.
The previous day, Javier collapsed from the heat while walking the highway, and María worries he will have a seizure so far from a doctor. She points to his ankles that are swollen from wearing flip-flops, and says the food donated in the camps is making him vomit. He hasn’t been eating, she tells me. “He’s very weak. When he gets tired he just sits down in the road.”
Next to them is Juan Antonio and his six-year-old daughter Lesly, who has severe cerebral palsy. Unable to walk or speak, she is bound to a stroller that is too small and showing wear. Her big brown eyes slowly look across the room, monitoring the action.
Juan is an aberration in the caravan – a single father traveling with so many women. A soft-spoken man, he hails from the mountains of western Honduras, where he worked in the coffee fields until the crops kept failing and forced his family to the city. In Ocotepeque, he found work as a security guard, but it paid little, and the streets where they lived were ruled by gangs and thieves. “One night they found us,” he says. “When I was at work, a man broke into my apartment and raped my wife.”
Lesly had sat in the room and witnessed the whole thing. For days his wife stayed home and cried. The rapist was a notorious gang member, and Juan knew that he would die trying to avenge her. Instead he called the police, who did nothing. When the man discovered Juan had snitched, there was no choice but to leave – but there was Lesly, who was all but paralyzed since she was two.
Caravan marks one month on the road: ‘We keep on going, laughing or crying’
He’d recently gotten custody of the girl from her mother, his first wife, after he discovered she wasn’t being cared for properly. So along with his new wife and their one-year old baby, they latched on to the caravan. Lesly didn’t have a wheelchair or even a stroller, so Juan hoisted the long-legged girl in his arms and started walking.
When they reached Mexico several days later, his wife turned around and took their baby home. “It was too difficult for her,” he says. “The lack of food, sleeping on the ground. She went back to her family.” Now it was just him, Lesly and Juan’s brother, who had joined them. They were trying to join their sister who lives in the United States, yet Juan isn’t sure where. He says this somewhat embarrassed – an admission I’d find common among asylum seekers.
Lesly sits in a stroller that someone had since donated, one of her feet scabbed from getting caught in the wheel. Just then, some kids set off some fireworks outside to celebrate the Día de los Muertos. The explosions send her into spasms. She arches her back and straightens her legs, then opens her mouth and emits a silent scream.
“Loud noises scare her,” Juan says, stroking her hair to calm her.
I look at this group, so fragile and helpless, and think how on Earth are they ever going to make it?
Each day, the caravan’s movements are planned on the fly. No one person leads the charge, although members of the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, who have organized similar movements in the past, assist with support and logistics.
As the group heads north, advance brigades are sent to scout locations, speak to local leaders, and assess how best to shelter 4,000 men, women and children. Often the next destination isn’t announced until many are asleep. In the late evening we learn that tomorrow we travel to Santiago Niltepec, another faceless town on the long journey north.
In the morning darkness, the migrant city comes alive. It awakens with a low murmur, a reckoning with the dawn. Babies fuss and mothers whisper. A thousand throats clear their phlegm from a nasty cold that is spreading through the ranks. And within minutes, all you hear is the sound of stroller wheels and restless feet as the shadows lift and move toward the highway.
The shoulders of the road are like swift-flowing currents. Lose track of someone in the darkness and they’re gone forever. I manage to find Juan and Lesly in the crowd, only to have them vanish as hundreds surge around me. I search but cannot find them, then surrender to the human wave. We find a rhythm.
The morning is cool and the stars bright overhead. I walk behind a mother and her two kids. The boy stares up at the big half-moon, then turns to his mother.
“Why does it have a halo?” he asks.
She has to think a bit.
“It means it’s looking at you,” she says.
“When we stop, the moon stops. It’s always watching over us.”
We walk until the moon disappears and the sun peeks over the blue mountains. The daylight reveals the scale of the caravan, stretching a mile in both directions, along with items it’s lost or discarded along the way: a child’s shoe. A pair of pantyhose. A sleeping bag. A banana peel draped carefully across a tree limb.
By late afternoon, the caravan has doubled the size of Niltepec. It was only last September when an 8.2 magnitude earthquake shook this entire region, killing dozens and toppling buildings in every town. Nearly every one of the town’s 1,720 homes was damaged, while more than 500 were completely destroyed, says Zelfareli Cruz Medina, the town’s mayor.
Many people remain homeless, she tells me. But still, when residents received news of the approaching caravan, they banded together to welcome them. She starts reciting all the food currently being prepared – more than 4,000 sandwiches, fried fish, clean drinking water, while next to us, a group of women stand over a steaming vat of tamales.
“We know about suffering in this town,” the mayor says. “And we don’t want these people going through the same. It’s not a burden for us to help them. And besides, many of our own families have made this same voyage.”
As we talk, I receive a text saying that Donald Trump has just ordered over 5,000 troops to the US border. A soldier for every migrant, waiting with a gun.
The families are being housed in a large community hall, where the plaster remains split from the earthquake. I find Juan and Lesly. It’s been a tough day, he says. “We walked for seven hours, and no one would give us a ride.” That’s because it’s easier for women. When drivers or the police scan the crowd and choose who gets aboard, all they see is another man, not this fragile girl obscured by bodies.
Lesly sits listless in her chair, wilted from the heat. They had just come from the makeshift showers where Juan had bathed her. Now brushing her hair, he notices her head is full of lice. He sighs and keeps on brushing. Right now, they just need to eat. Some volunteers outside are serving plates of food to women and kids, so Juan picks up his daughter and joins the growing line. The only way he will get served is by actually presenting her in his arms.
I find Maria and Javier on the other side of the room. Javier is sprawled out on a blanket, fast asleep. His mother watches over him, pained.
“He couldn’t breathe,” she told me. “We were walking, and he started gagging.” They had just set out from San Pedro that morning when Javier had a mild seizure. Luckily, they managed to find an ambulance, who could do little except give him water. It was my driver Rey who found them hours later, limping in the heat, and gave them a ride. A doctor with the Red Cross said Javier desperately needed his medication – Phenytoin, an anticonvulsant – but no pharmacy in town seemed to carry it.
“I don’t feel good about this,” María says. Like us, she heard the caravan was leaving again at 3am, bound for who knows where: north. “I don’t know how we can walk.”
But around nine o’clock in the evening, we receive wonderful news: families with kids won’t have to walk at all. Someone has provided a fleet of buses that will take them to straight to Juchitán Zaragoza, some 50km up the Pan-American.
Like everything else about this caravan, news of the buses proves controversial. After I post a small item about them arriving to town, conservative followers demand to know who’s paying for them?
Others had asked the same on Twitter. In fact, every Facebook post I had made from Mexico had quickly produced a rotten trail of hate from both sides, with friends and relatives accusing each other of racism. All of this after Trump’s suggestion that Democrats were probably behind the caravan, and Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida wondering if the Jewish philanthropist and Democratic funder George Soros had financed them.
Fox News repeatedly referred to the migrant “invasion”, and one Fox anchor asked the homeland security secretary, Kristjen Nielsen, if there was any scenario under which US troops could just shoot them when they arrived. On 27 October, as I joined the caravan in San Pedro, a conspiracy-crazed gunman had walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people – including a 97-year-old woman – convinced Jews were helping facilitate this “invasion”.
So, after arriving to Juchitán, I have to know. Who’s paying for the buses?
One of the volunteers leads me to a small woman in a bright floral dress delegating an army of women prepping for the arrivals by stirring vats of black beans and chicharrones over two roaring fires. “It’s her,” the man says, yet after consulting with her in private, he returns and tells me: “Just say it’s a local woman who’d like to remain anonymous.”
The festering paranoia in the States is confusing to most migrants, who haven’t figured out their role as political tools in the lead-up to an election. “Why is Donald Trump so afraid of us?” a farmer from Ocotepeque asked me. “Doesn’t he have children? Doesn’t he know we’re leaving some of our kids behind?”
Many of them ask what will happen to them once they reach the border. I’m always surprised when they haven’t heard about detention centers and family separation. I inform them, then add, sheepishly: “But who knows with you?”
Juan steps off one of the first buses to arrive. He’s holding Lesly in his arms, but there’s no sight of his stroller. “They wouldn’t let me bring it on the bus,” he says. In the chaos of boarding, he’d given the stroller to his brother. This plan worried Juan, since a week ago his brother had vanished for two days, lost in the movement of the crowd.
The migrants are being housed in a half-finished bus depot on the edge of town. Local crews get busy raising tarps for shade as families begin to arrive. Without his blankets and bedding, Juan has only a plastic sheet for Lesly to lie down on, and the hard concrete makes her agitated. Her body seizes, clearly uncomfortable.
“She’s got a high fever,” Juan says, feeling her head. The cold and flu going around has affected everyone, but he has to be careful with Lesly. Sitting on his bottom, Juan hoists his daughter into his lap and cradles her like a baby, then rocks her gently back and forth. The security of her father’s arms causes her to go slack. Her face relaxes, her eyes slowly close, and within minutes she is asleep.
I turn around and see 15-year-old Javier. He’s a bit cross-eyed so it is hard to see where he’s looking, but he runs straight over and wraps me in a hug. It’s the most energetic I’ve ever seen him. “Sancho!” he shouts again. For whatever reason, that’s what he has been calling me.
The previous day, my driver Rey had scoured the area and found a pharmacy that carried his medicine. Just a couple of pills and Javier was a completely different person. “He’s been hugging everyone,” María says, smiling.
But the following morning when I return, María looks stricken. Sometime in the night Javier began having seizures. The ambulance at the camp rushed him to the hospital, where she thought he was going to die. “His fingers and lips were turning blue,” María says. “He was barely breathing. I thought it was the end.”
Javier sits beside his mother now, all of his old energy drained. He droops, listless. The doctor said he was horribly dehydrated. He also needed to triple the dosage of his medication, which contributed to his seizures. But the hospital had no medicines to give him, not even an IV. “They said I need to get him to Mexico City,” she says.
It will be days before the caravan reaches the capital. Yet from the looks of it, everything has stalled.
The migrants remain in Juchitán for the next two days, stewing in the heat. The Red Cross tent is full of people suffering flu, diarrhea, respiratory infections, dehydration and lots of blisters and twisted ankles. At night, the camp sounds like a tuberculosis ward.
One of the things stalling them is geography. Staying north-west along the Pan-American highway takes them through the mountains, where the road is narrow and winding and full of blind curves – ripe for accidents. But the road north is desolate with few large towns, and once they reach the state of Veracruz, it’s cartel territory all the way north. The organizers need time to plan.
Geography is a puzzle. For a poor farmer unschooled about the greater world, the map of the mind cannot accurately account for distance or terrain, for histories and peoples, much less a well-fed American soldier holding an M4 rifle.
Inside the depot, a trucker steps up. He’s traveled the whole country, he says. “If we go through Tamaulipas, the cartels will kill us,” he says, referring to the embattled Mexican state along the south Texas border – currently the shortest route.
“Then how far to Tijuana?” a man asks.
“Three thousand kilometers.”
“Híjole. If we keep stopping like this, we’ll never get there!”
“And Mexico City is dangerous,” the trucker adds. “No one will give you money. There, you’re invisible!”
“Do the organizers knows this?” another asks. “Do they know anything?!”
Night and day under the tarps, the temperature is blazing. The toilets begin to smell, along with every tree line that’s been used as a latrine. Garbage piles up. People become restless, and boys start picking fights. It’s as if the natural order of the caravan has been betrayed. “We need to move,” Juan says. “Only bad things can happen if we stay here.”
The organizers’ reticence to share information fosters much speculation. Fear creeps into the idle mind, and soon many rumors are hatched.
“If we stay here we must be careful,” he adds. “I’m told there are criminals going around kidnapping children, and they sell their organs to the cartels.” María had told me the same thing the previous day.
People become paranoid that the caravan will never leave, that it is a plot by Trump and the Mexican president to keep them in Juchitán forever. This theory is apparently supported by an evangelical prophet who preaches one afternoon, warning the crowd if they break from the group, death will follow. “If you leave,” she tells the restless ones, “it will be without the protection of God.”
So, it’s with both trepidation and relief that we hear the caravan will be moving north toward Veracruz, to a town called Matías Romero.
No buses will be provided. At 4am the next morning, we set out on foot.
We’re not even to the highway when Javier stops and throws up. We sit down to let him rest, while María pats his back and grimaces. But within five minutes, he is smiling again and wanting to move. He stands, takes hold of my hand, and we walk.
María carries a garbage bag of their belongings slung over her shoulder. She wants to talk about her brothers, Francis and Manuel. “I told you they were murdered because they couldn’t pay the gang,” she says. “That’s because all of their money had gone to help Javier. Francis and Manuel died helping my son.”
She tells me that just last year, her brothers had joined a similar caravan from Honduras to Tijuana, where they’d found work in a restaurant and earned decent money. They had stayed four months but had to return after their mother became ill.
“And now I’m traveling the same road as my brothers,” she says. “I feel them walking beside us. They give me strength to keep going.”
I think of all the migrants who came before, all the other ghosts now walking beside us. Migrants from El Salvador and Cuba, Russia and Germany, from the killing fields of Sudan, Iraq and Syria. Cotton pickers from Texas and sodbusters from Oklahoma. Hebrews wandering in the desert; a woman from Nazareth, with her newborn, fleeing a tyrant.
I can see my grandfathers and uncle who, in 1931, fled the dust-blown cotton fields of west Texas and headed for California, seeking jobs and a better life for their kids. They hopped freight trains, joining over a million young men riding the rails to find work. Riders often died from suffocating in boxcars, falling beneath the wheels, or being scraped off the roof when the trains entered the tunnels. Firemen soaked them with water so theywould freeze once they gathered speed. Railroad police beat them, oftentimes to death. And when the poor farmers finally reached California, they were met at the border by cops who detained them and turned them away. Those who crossed the border faced resentment, hostility and squalor.
This is what I think of as I walk with Javier and María. How, save for a few details, we have all been strangers on our own migrant roads.
We stop near a pasture so Javier can pee. He hoots and hollers at the cows behind the fence and cries: “MOOOO!” Seeing him in a good mood and feeling strong puts María at ease. I ask her if she’s learned anything while on the road, if the wilderness had taught her any lessons as it had for so many others.
“I’ve learned that I can trust myself to take care of my kids,” she says. “After my husband left me, I felt like a piece of trash that someone tossed away. I was self-conscious and full of doubt, boxed in by four walls in a room by myself. Now that’s gone. For the first time ever, no matter where we end up, I feel really strong.”
I find Juan and Lesly at another junction about a mile away. Back in Juchitán, Juan’s brother had managed to return the stroller, but one of the wheels had broken. Now as Juan pushes Lesly, who is heavy, the wheel strains under her weight and threatens to collapse. They can barely move.
“It’s all I’ve been thinking about,” Juan says, staring at the stroller. “What am I going to do?”
By now it’s hot and the crowds are getting agitated. When a pickup appears with an empty bed, Juan pushes the stroller as fast as it can go but he’s too late. A swarm of men shove him aside, leap over Lesly, and climb aboard. The crowd scolds them:
Twice more it’s the same. Juan gets the stroller close to a truck but is easily overcome. Women push him, and drivers and police overlook him, seeing only a man. But he takes it in stride; there is nothing he can do.
Finally, there’s a break: a lineman in a utility truck appears from the gravel road behind us and Juan makes his move. He practically drags the stroller to the truck cab and the driver motions him inside. Juan opens the door and quickly lifts Lesly into the seat. He climbs in, takes a breath, and they pull away in a cloud of dust.
In Matías Romero, I find Juan and Lesly lying in the grass as workers erect tarp shelters above them. You made it fast, I say. He tells me the trucker could only drive them 10km. It was hot. Lesly was looking faint, and the stroller was all but useless. So, he wound up hiring a moto-taxi, which drained the last peso of his savings.
“I can’t stop thinking about the stroller,” he tells me. “Today I thought about turning back, but I keep telling myself: one more day. I’ll give it one more day. But if the chair breaks tomorrow, I think we’ll go home.”
A food line forms, this one just for women, so Juan hoists Lesly in his arms and pushes directly to the front. The server looks up, sees his daughter, and hands Juan a plate. But only one.
That night, as I’m asleep in my hotel, a thunderstorm rips over Matías. The soccer field where the migrants are staying quickly floods. When I return early the next morning, the camp is eerily abandoned and quiet. Garbage covers the grass, along with hundreds of sleeping bags, clothing and blankets – all soaked and trampled into the mud.
Most of the caravan is already on the highway, headed for Donají, 46km north. Rey and I spend the morning driving the road and scanning the crowd, until finally we spot Juan pushing Lesly in the stroller. It’s wobbling, held together by a prayer. They both look ragged.
“When it started raining we all ran for the park,” Juan says. “So many people were in a panic. We lost most of our things.” Gone were their blankets and most of his clothes. He had even lost his boots; he now wears a purple pair of Crocs. “These are someone else’s I found.”
I examine the stroller wheel. There was no way they would make it 46km, much less five. I have Rey make room in the truck and we drive them all the way to Donají.
It was time for me to go. But before we say goodbye, Rey reaches into the back of the truck and pulls out a brand-new stroller we’d purchased at the market – thanks to a generous friend back in Austin who had seen some of my posts. It wasn’t the sturdiest chariot, but at least it would get Juan and Lesly to Mexico City. As we’re assembling it, a single mother and her little boy walk past and stop. She looks at Juan, then at the old stroller.
“Have it,” Juan tells her, and with glee the mother loads her son inside and wobbles off.
I think of the previous day when Juan was talking about going home. At some point, he had caught himself and seemed to remember why he was there. “If we can just reach the US,” he’d said. “That life, finally having a real home for my daughter, that’s what keeps me going.”
That simple wish was also his greatest gamble. He lifts his daughter into the stroller, straps her in, and starts pushing her up the highway, north toward America.
• On 15 November, the first members of the caravan finally reached Tijuana, Mexico. The group had splintered as they passed though Mexico City and continued west. Juan and Lesly safely reached Tijuana several days later. They’re now staying in a shelter for asylum seekers, waiting to apply. María and Javier stayed in Mexicali for a week before continuing to Tijuana, where they also wait for asylum.
26 November 2018
by Bryan Mealer in THE GUARDIAN
Click here for original article.