Studying “Death Trains” in Mexico: An Homage to Bravery

On our second morning in Mexico City, my son’s Matchbox convertible somehow landed in sludge. Ellen, as I’ll call her here, who is my husband’s colleague (and my closest fellow gringa mother, or comadre, here in Mexico), took off her shoes and went in after it. The car had not been recovered before it occurred to her that that dark water might in fact be leaking sewage.  Even though she backed out, my son recognized the heroics. And he believed that if his friend’s mother would go in after it, surely his parents—a toddler’s most super superheroes—would. And his parents wouldn’t fail to find his precious car.

Needless to say, we let him down.

“Ellen is really brave,” I told him.

“You not brave?” he asked with a note of incredulity.

I flinched, but I knew I would risk my lofty position in my son’s estimation before I would get near that sludge.

“Let’s just say that Ellen is a very special woman,” I dodged.

I like to think that Ellen and I have a lot in common: she’s a grad student from the Ivy League/I used to drink at Ivy League bars; she lived in El Salvador for her first year of dissertation research/I lived in El Salvador for my first real-world job after college; she is a Fulbright scholar in Mexico/I am a Fulbright spouse in Mexico. In other words, next to Ellen, I’m as miniature as my two-year-old is beside her six-year-old. Figuratively. Physically, Ellen looks more pixie than former-Army. Fortunately, like her six-year-old, she is tolerant of a tag-along.

Let’s just say that Ellen and her little family moved from El Salvador to Mexico this year in a red 1979 Toyota Land Cruiser that maxed out at about 30 miles an hour (although her husband swears it can get up to 45). It rode so roughly that during the drive their computer bounced out of the back and had to be recovered off the highway. They moved into a palm-roofed palapa on the beach in Oaxaca, and at a migrant shelter in Ixtapec she continued the ethnographic research that she had begun in El Salvador.

Ostensibly, Ellen is studying Central American migrant communities, but she’s so deep in her work right now that focus is necessarily hard to come by. In El Salvador, she interviewed those left behind, those who’d returned (by choice or otherwise), those who navigated the way for others. Even then the questions were broad: Why do migrants leave Central America? What routes do they choose? What risks are un/acceptable? How much do the migrants know about their route before they begin?

Now in Mexico she interviews migrants en route to the U.S., and the stakes her subjects anticipated are a lived, sometimes brutal, reality. Mid-route, the questions are harder to settle upon—even the topics sprawl out before her: gender violence, kidnapping, extortion, corrupt law enforcement, runs up with the international gangs or Mexico’s organized crime groups—“cartels” really isn’t the right word.

Here’s the thing: for Mexicans, crossing the border begins, well, at the border. For Central Americans, the crossing begins when they enter Mexico as illegally as they will, assuming they make it that far, enter the U.S. Ironically, until this week, Mexico’s immigration laws left as much to be desired as those in the U.S., and the treatment of “illegals” was far from exemplary. This presents a greater problem for some than for others. For $10,000, migrants can buy the deluxe “door-to-door” service, which might even include a gringo family transporting children across the border. Less safe but much less expensive is the bus, although migrants are leery of this option if they aren’t confident that they can “pass” as Mexicans (physically, or because of their accent) should they encounter la migra.

The most economical option is, unsurprisingly, the most dangerous. And here I am reminded of the Underground Railroad, with safe houses spaced along the way (although these are sometimes raided by criminal organizations, or by law enforcement, or by the community itself), including the shelter where Ellen spends every other week. It is in fact an above-ground railroad: migrants ride on the roofs of boxcars, or, because they are less likely to get routed by la migra, they ride between the cars (often tying themselves to the car so they won’t fall off—as some have done—if they fall asleep). And the dreaded Mexican migra is nothing compared to the kidnappers. Kidnappers—perhaps affiliated with organized crime, perhaps operating alone—know that the migrants are carrying money, that they have sponsors at the end of a Western Union cable, that they are risking everything. With a little sadistic persuasion—a machete, a U.S.-made gun, the threat of rape or murder or exposure—the kidnappers extract and extort whatever they can.

The subterranean status of migrants passing through Mexico, compounded by the humiliation that men in particular will experience if they are deported home again, leaves them extremely vulnerable. The numbers reflect as much: this week, CNN and others (citing Mexican Human Rights Commission figures) report 11,000 kidnappings over a six-month period last year. It has become, in short, a human rights disaster, and Ellen is there in the middle of it, trying to remain objective, trying to see the situation as a scholar, trying to apply methodologies and theories to abject fear and chaos and violence.

When groups pass through shelters, Ellen hears stories of rapes and robberies. She has seen men come in with machete hacks on their heads. And then, in December, Salvadorans began trickling into the shelter telling of a mass kidnapping. Rumor had it the Mexican authorities were complicit in the disappearance of fifty migrants; Mexico claimed there had been no kidnapping; El Salvador demanded that the missing be accounted for.

Ellen found herself, and her research, at the intersection of an international stand-off.

So you see, she’s not afraid of stepping into sludge and dark water. Since arriving in Mexico, she has met scores of women who have faced far worse for the sakes of their children and families. As I write this she is spending time with the mother of children the ages of our two boys. The mother wants her children to have the things they need. Ellen hears these stories, sleeps on the floor beside them, and struggles to see a big picture. And from where she stands, Ellen can’t even see the bravery behind the empathy she exercises.

“The migrants and the activists are the real heroes,” she insists. “I don’t stick around or do the dangerous work like the activists, and I don’t run the migrants’ risks.”

Of course she’s right—the migrants posses another type of bravery altogether. One that is beyond my comprehension. For me, passing through Mexico as if it were a completely different place from that which the migrants pass through, just as I have lived in both El Salvador and the U.S. as if they were different countries from those which these migrants know, Ellen is the closest thing I have to access to this underworld of deprivation, sacrifice, and bald risk, to these “invisibles,” as the recent Amnesty International documentary calls them. She is my guide and translator and lens; she is how I can know what I can’t possibly know.

And then last weekend, perhaps violating a few of those self-preserving impulses the more geographically sedentary among us have, Ellen boarded the train to ride alongside the migrants for eighteen scorching hours.

“It was awesome,” she messaged me while she waited for a plane. “People along the railways throw mangoes at the migrants to eat. And people share smokes and the space, and when there is a branch everyone yells ¡rama!

Security is improving, Ellen also reported. The train had a police escort for part of the route.

As for me, I don’t want to ride on trains or sleep on the floor of a church. I don’t even want to risk crossing the U.S.-Mexican border legally. But however incoherent it appears to her so close up, however dangerous it may appear from afar, Ellen’s work humanizes the phenomenon of migration. And I admire her for doing it.

Ellen generously suggests the admiration runs both ways.

“I don’t know how you keep a blog,” she remarked as we horded hors d’oeuvres during a Mexico City cocktail party being held in honor of scholars like her. “I would run out of things to write about!”

If my mouth weren’t so full of free delicacies, I would laugh. If I had her material…

Well, Ellen and I both know that there are doers and there are writers who write about doers, and the line between them is clearly demarcated.

When I feel regret that I am not more active or activist, when writing feels too small a pursuit in comparison with all the work needing to be done, I at least know that, for Ellen, after being so close to the doing of things, it will be difficult crossing over into my territory.


Short movie about Central American migrants crossing Mexico:

The Invisibles, a documentary about migrants crossing Mexico, produced by Marc Silver and Mexican actor/director Gael García Bernal, in collaboration with Amnesty International, can be seen on Amnesty’s website (English subtitles):

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