Good Friday: A Child Meets Jesus in Mexico

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“Who is that man?” my son asks as soon as we arrive.

The man playing Jesus is wearing a white tunic. There is fake blood on his face.

I take a deep breath and leap.

“Do you remember at Christmastime when we talked about a special baby?”

My son beheaded one ceramic Baby Jesus out of a Christmas party nativity scene and there were consequences, so he does remember.

“This man is pretending to be that special baby after he grew up.”

Other men dressed as soldiers begin whipping Jesus. My son’s blue eyes go large.

“Why are they hitting?” he asks.

The events around us are happening in Spanish, but the biggest challenge will be translating Good Friday into toddler.

Morelia, like most of Mexico, takes Semana Santa very seriously. This was suggested to me by the full two weeks that schools are closed in honor of this one holy week. Stepping out for the Good Friday parade we encountered not the usual line up of fire trucks and charros in big hats riding very nice horses indeed, but a reenactment of Christ’s passion.

For the length of one avenue, with a priest narrating at intervals representing each station of the cross, a crowd walked with Jesus. In some senses, it was a normal parade: ice cream vendors sold lemon ices, church members held out hats for donations, people snapped pictures. But whips cracked and wood dragged over stone. The air smelled like incense and sweat.

Okay, confession time. We don’t go to church. If we were to go to church, I don’t even know what denominational door we would darken (I went to a few Quaker meetings as a child, Unitarianism was the bulk of my slim religious education, and even that was mostly in how to play the hand bells, yet my sister insists we’re Episcopalian, whatever that is). Most of my knowledge of the Bible I came to through Milton.

But we’re parents now and we don’t intend to indoctrinate our children in any particular way of thinking, not even in our own ambivalence. We know that our children will have questions. We know that we won’t have answers. But while my husband and I run short on faith in divinity, we have abundant awe for the power of story.

Before us in the street where my son goes go school, we are witnessing, however bad the acting and squeaky the microphones, one of the keystone stories of our culture. And so it becomes a special day for us as a family. Building on foundations laid back in December (the special baby grew up to be an important teacher), and aided by those of us around us who are so clearly not ambivalent, we initiate our son to the greatest story ever told.

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My son is afraid of the soldiers. He wants to know why there is smoke. He looks for Jesus’s mama, played by a woman in a black headscarf who looks genuinely sad.

I tell him that the king is jealous because people listen to Jesus and not to him. I tell him that Jesus will not fight the men who hit him because he believes in peace and kindness. I tell him that Jesus is never mean.

But I leave a lot out. Above all, I leave out God. For now, Jesus is enough.

Oh, and when the ambulatory show reaches the plaza where a cross has been erected on a stage, we slip away from the crowd and cross the street to the park.

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Tips for Traveling with Children

Travel shouldn’t be torture, but it can feel that way when you have children with you. Like everything else that the parenting life throws at you, however, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Because of jobs and hopelessly disperse families, we cover a lot of miles and cross a few borders; and we bring our children with us. Here are some of the tricks we’ve picked up along the way, and I have a powerful hope that the commentariat will pitch in a few more in the comment section below.

ON FLYING

I admit, I broke down and cried the first time I flew alone with a baby. Okay, I cried, threw a fit, and had to be escorted onto a plane. The socially acceptable hazing of parents on airplanes is cruel and unusual. (Unusual in the sense that other cultures don’t shun families the way that public transportation-averse Americans do.)

But then I got better at it.

“He’s just getting warmed up for the in-flight show,” I now joke with other people in line to board as my baby fusses. “I think he’s probably the headliner today.”

And walking down the aisle, I entertain myself by making eye contact with people sitting next to empty seats (especially if they’re male and wearing suits). I cock an eyebrow, smile wryly, and then, as I pass them by, I wink and whisper, “gotcha!”

Which is to say that, along with everything else, bring your sense of humor. It doesn’t matter if no one else thinks you’re funny. After all, your responsibility is to your kids, and that’s work enough. If the people around you need a mother to make them comfortable at every moment of every day, they should have brought their own.

Another tactic I’ve picked up is pleasantly passive aggressive. Children aren’t allowed to pre-board on many airlines anymore because first-classers won’t feel special if they have to share their privilege with the snot-nosed set (or the handicapped, for that matter). This leaves the obvious alternative—board last. In addition to spending as little time on the plane as necessary, it also ticks off the airline (they can’t push back until you’re ready) instead of the people behind you in line trying to get to their seats before their arms fall off under all those carry-ons.

Now I know to ask for what I need. Sure, I can get frustrated because my car seat weighs a ton and gets stuck between each row of seats and no one offers to help even though I’m clearly very pregnant and my toddler is running away. Or I can check in with the stewards at the front of the plane, or even back at the gate, and tell them I’ll need a hand. Once—but not before I asked politely—the pilot himself carried my car seat up the 95-odd steps from tarmac to the terminal while I carried baby and everything else.

(Yes, I use car seats on planes; don’t get me started.)

On big planes, I’ve found, there is usually someone who specializes in children. And flight attendants will almost always let you in on a secret: babies aren’t the most annoying travelers, not by a long shot. Ask the flight attendant to hold your baby while you go to the bathroom, or while you get your seat arranged. It’s part of their job to help, and they’re usually happy to do it. But don’t expect them to read your mind. And don’t try to be a hero—parenting was never a one-woman job, and it’s often a stretch even when there’s two of you.

WHERE TO STAY

The rule of preemptive asking works for hotels as well. Here in Mexico, I make sure every hotel I stay in knows ahead of time that I’m bringing a toddler and a baby. Searching for a place to stay in Guadalajara recently I sent an inquiry to one hotel that replied with a personal note explaining that, while they certainly weren’t in a position to turn away business and the choice to come was mine, they were a hotel designed for adults: there is breakable folk art on display and there are poisonous plants growing in the garden, the owner explained. (I owe them a shout-out for this: La Casa de los Flores is an honest hotel for adults).

I continued my research and discovered another hotel in the same neighborhood that recommended a particular room in which they could add a twin bed for my toddler, and while they are at it, they’re putting in a play pen for the baby. In the past, hotels have made other provisions—a lollypop on the kid’s bed, a carton of milk in the refrigerator, a plastic drinking cup alongside the glass, and, once, a teething ring in the freezer.

Had I booked online, an option most hotels offer even in developing countries these days, I would not have been allowing the hotels to do their best to accommodate me (or other guests).

Don’t limit yourself to places designed for families (these resorts are usually self-contained and don’t allow for real cultural engagement), but do choose a place where you’ll enjoy hanging out (it has a pool or nice outdoor spaces), even if it consumes a bigger chunk of your budget than you once designated for lodging; your hotel is no longer just crash-pad, it’s a major part of the destination.

WHAT TO DO WHILE YOU’RE THERE

The final challenge is the trip itself. Obviously, you won’t have the typical tourist experience. I had been to Mexico City’s Papalote Museo del Niño (the children’s museum) twice before I got to the magnificent Museo Nacional de Antropología (and even then I spent more time checking out the turtles in the reflection pool than the exhibits themselves). And at the ruins of Teotihuacán, rather than climb pyramids with the rest of the tourist hordes, we explored the nooks and crannies at ground level. (What is it with travelers climbing everything anyway?)

Just think how hard some travelers work to avoid the “beaten path.” With kids, you’re already in largely unchartered territory.

And what you need to do is not extraordinary to what you do at home. Pack plenty of snacks (and butter up the guard if he tries to make you leave them at the gate). Always carry Matchbox cars, or whatever your kids’ favorite pocket-sized toy happens to be (bring extras to share when they make friends). And never overdo it—for your sake, or your kids’.

There are a few rules of engagement that we’ve developed for traveling with small children.

Know where your exits are, otherwise known as, plan your escape route ahead of time. When things fall apart and your kid goes boneless or your frustration gets the better of you, break for lunch, get an ice cream, or hop in a taxi and call it a day. Room service or taking carry-out back to a hotel room is often the solution to kids’ overstimulation and parents’ exhaustion. Most restaurants are happy to pack up a meal, so you’re not even missing out on local cuisine. Sometimes, having dinner in the room actually allows you to dine leisurely and allows the kids to strip naked or crawl around on the floor or commit whatever kamikaze acts would have made a restaurant dinner catastrophic.

Avoid forced marches. No guided tours (unless the guide is working just for you—in which case come prepared to tip big). No loop trails (you want to know that the fastest way home is to turn around, not press on). Just keep telling yourself that cliche that it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. If you don’t get to the top to see the view, or all the way through the exhibit, or even to that wonderful place you were heading to see, shrug it off.

Also, strive to counterbalance control with freedom. After keeping your kids’ behavior on a short leash (in restaurants, shops, or museums), set them free in open spaces, preferably green ones. Free play is easy to forget to schedule when you’re away from home, but an afternoon at a park or playground may turn out to be a charming cultural experience. Often we encounter these spaces where we don’t expect them: an olive grove outside an old church becomes the focus of our visit to one village; after visiting a ruins complex for all of eight minutes, we spend two hours lounging in the shade by the front gate because our kid is obsessed with collecting strips of eucalyptus bark off the ground.

PLAYING IT SAFE

Comfort zones are often compromised when traveling. You’re worried about the water. There are no seatbelts in the taxis. You don’t know the fastest route to the closest hospital if something goes wrong. And this is before you run up against surprises: a scorpion on the sidewalk; jellyfish on the beach.

On this front, your best bet is to be informed. A pre-departure visit to a travel clinic—even if your kids don’t need any vaccinations—is a never a bad idea. These clinics will help you know what the real dangers are at your destination (opposed to what a worried imagination might cook up to nag you), how to preempt these dangers, and what to do on the off-chance you face them. The State Department website also has good destination-specific information.

Keep in mind that, just like at home, your partner and you may feel differently about the risks: compromising on your sense of your child’s safety isn’t something anyone should be pressured into, especially if you’re on vacation and trying to relax. Which is to say that in a safety situation the worried parent holds the trump card. Make a safe word, or some other way to signal that you aren’t okay with x or y.

This brings me to my final suggestion. Of all the little rules we have developed to help us travel with our kids, there is only one law that my partner and I have pledged to uphold: if one of us gets creeped out, and it doesn’t have to be for a good reason, we go home.

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In any case, this is my playbook. But I’m just starting out. I know lots of you have your own carpetbags full of tricks, and I can use all the tips I can get. So, what works for you?

 

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Travel With Your Children

Tarascan Ruins at Tzintzuntzan, Mexico

Yes, it’s difficult; but what isn’t? Yes, it’s not what it used to be; but what else is new since you became a parent? Yes, you have to pack half your house; but do it anyway. Travel with your children. Travel while they’re small and programmed to explore and discover. Travel far and wide and for a long time. Even travel to hard places (i.e. beyond Epcot Center and the in-laws’ house for the holidays, even beyond your borders). Travel for your kids, for the profound experiences that come with travel, for the memories (even pre-memories), for a taste of the sheer breadth of difference that coexists upon this planet. And travel for yourself, for the pleasure, for the challenge, for the rare delight of seeing the world vicariously through a child’s eyes.

My argument is not so far off the argument for taking children to restaurants. You had a kid and suddenly white table cloths were out of the question, in part because you knew said kid would tie-dye that tablecloth with marinara, but your main reason was that you didn’t think you’d have time to finish—let alone savor—that bottle of wine. Particularly with that table next to you glowering at you because they left their kids home with a sitter. But this doesn’t mean that you have to always leave your kids behind.

With time, you adapt. You find places that work—even places without slides and inflatable jumpers—places you can enjoy with your kids: the hip wood-oven pizza place that’s noisy anyway, the cafe where you used to waste away entire weekend mornings reading the paper happens to have an array of windows overlooking a steady flow of entertainment for your vehicle-obsessed toddler. Sure, you have to leave a super-big tip because of the state of the floor afterwards, but this is an investment: with practice, your kids learn how to eat in restaurants, learn how to order and stay in their chairs and use the napkin correctly. And not just because you say so, but because they see everyone around them. This is an investment in being able to enjoy eating out: again, for you; for the first time, for your kids.

The same goes for travel. Only better, because your child can actually enhance the experience, instilling it with a sense of wonder and creating real moments of human contact across so-often impenetrable cultural lines.

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Catrinas, Day of the Dead, Mexico

I suppose it goes without saying that travel with kids is inherently an adventure, whether or not your trip qualifies as “adventure travel.” It requires stamina and creativity and supreme flexibility. But there is a pay-off to the extra work hauling all that extra baggage. Not only do your children experience a literal widening of their horizons as they experience places and encounter people different from those to which they are accustomed, but you have the benefit of seeing new places through a child’s eyes, a perspective that will shift, if not widen, your horizon too.

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Monarch butterflies at Cerro Pelon, Mexico

Of course, travel with kids takes you to different places than pre-kid travel, or forces you to experience the old places in new ways. Forget sitting in a Paris café all the live-long day; your kid simply won’t tolerate that. Or six hours in the Louvre either. And forget climbing those narrow stairs into the duomo of Saint Peter’s. No, you have to go to where the little boats are sailing, to where the pigeons are begging for bread, to where the children of that place come out to play. For all the things you might have done before that aren’t so feasible with a child or two in tow (salsa dancing all night, or lying delirious in soft sand), there are as many new ways to experience place, and culture, and landscape.

In many places, children can be your ticket into a deeper experience. Compare strolling through a broad plaza admiring fountains and a baroque cathedral and all that local color to watching as your child blows bubbles with other children, joins an old man feeding pigeons, drops a coin in a beggar’s cup, falls in love with the fairy who freezes until a coin falls in her tin bowl and wakes her for a dance. Granted, you are the observer in either case, but children aren’t ever observers. Children live in the moment, wherever they are in the world. And they can bring you with them.

If you bring them along. Which, I admit, isn’t easy. But they aren’t the only ones who get better with practice. You will too. And the reward—a return to freedom, not from parenting, but as a family—is the world itself.

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Plaza de Armas, Morelia, Mexico

While I’m being didactic, next up will be: “TIPS FOR TRAVELING WITH CHILDREN.”

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Citizen Limbo

 

The doorbell buzzes.

It is probably Alfredo, our neighborhood auxiliary policeman who is not so old but is missing a prominent front tooth. He visits periodically to collect our twenty-peso contribution to his force-of-one. More often, he drops by to ask for a donation to help him through the latest phase of his tragedy. His wife was in the hospital. His wife needed dialysis. His wife had to have her fingers amputated. His wife had died.

Now his grandchild is ill.

It is probably Alfredo, but I hope not (for his sake and mine). I hope it is the courier from the U.S. Embassy for whom we have been waiting for weeks. I hope it is certification of my baby’s U.S. citizenship.

 

W.—named for a character in a Carlos Fuentes novel—was born in December, right before Christmas, here in Mexico. As soon as offices opened again in January, we began our quest for a Consular’s Report of a Birth Abroad (or CRBA), a document that will serve as our Mexican-born son’s American birth certificate. At first we were put off because the application system was being overhauled and there was no interim process (a debacle I wrote about in an earlier post). This was mildly distressing: living in a state that the U.S. State Department periodically (right now, for example) deems unsafe for U.S. travelers, we didn’t like the idea of not having the option to return to the U.S., especially for the sake of our children. Of course, while our Mexican friends enjoy the joke about our needing to hire a coyote to go home again, it did feel a little like a suspension of the rights we assume we have as U.S. citizens. After our congressman got involved, we were provided with a phone number to call if we needed to return to the U.S. in a life-or-death situation. It was a step up from an email address.

Can you see it? Shit hits the fan and you sit down to write an email? It’s almost more ridiculous than hiring a coyote to cross. (Almost.)

And of course this minor delay is nothing in comparison to what one reads; but it all begs the question: when did banishing others trump protecting Americans?

 

The last week in February, we were given an appointment, not at the consulate in Guadalajara, but at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. With our fat dossier of ultrasounds, medical records, Mexican birth certificate, Acto de Nacimiento, passports, nonimmigrant visas, marriage license, a catalog of all trips taken out of the U.S., passport photos, photocopies of everything, and, to top it all off, the baby himself, we approached the barricaded building on La Reforma (not only is the building fortified, but in the median of the avenue that runs in front of the Embassy, two parallel chain link fences have been erected in the flower gardens. How or what this fences might be fending off in the westbound lane that wouldn’t just return in the eastbound at the next roundabout is hard to fathom.

Gringo-style, we arrived too early for our early morning appointment. Even so, along one side of the building, a line was forming. And it wasn’t short. We approached a guard at the access gate and asked if we should go in then, or wait until closer to our assigned time. He looked at our dossier and sent us to the front door. The line he guarded was for non-citizens applying for visas: the citizen-caste wait in line in chairs on the inside.

But first there was security. They threw away the unopened snacks we had brought to feed our older child if we needed, an odd choice since unfed toddlers are guaranteed to be terrorist (departing Ambassador Pascual obviously knows this since children are banned from his residence for security reasons—YES I’m mad I couldn’t go to the party). Then they confiscated the ultrasounds required for our application because they were DVDs. Then they gave us visitor tags to wear around our necks and sent us through the locked doors, upstairs, and into the first door on our right where we were checked in at a desk.

I was amused that none of this, nor any of the proceedings that followed, took place in English.

Regardless that we had, after so much effort, made an appointment, we were given a number and told to sit down. Time passed. Then the hour of the appointment passed. Eventually we were called to the agent seated in the window. Then told to sit down. Then called again.

Eventually, I stopped going up with my husband because my toddler was spinning out around the waiting room with another kid and I couldn’t understand the agent’s Spanish through the plexi-glass window anyway. More children arrived. Mostly babies, but older children too, and teenagers. My son ran laps around the seating area with a little girl dressed up in a red dress.

As it turned out, we didn’t have documents proving our residency in the U.S. (for everyone who assumed otherwise, it is not enough to be a U.S. citizen). This hadn’t been on the checklist of things to bring, and, anyway, who would know better when we have come and gone from the U.S. than the State Department, which has swiped our passports upon each entry and departure?

Apparently Social Security would know better. In the Social Security waiting room, even though numbers were issued, the guard insisted that everyone get up and scoot over to the next chair each time a new person was called. At the end of this, we were issued a printout of the years we had filed U.S. taxes. How this proved we were in the U.S., we didn’t dare ask, nor did we point out that the list included all the years that we have lived abroad.

Finally our application was deemed satisfactory and we were sent away. Leaving empty-handed, because now CRBAs, assuming the application would be accepted, must be printed at a U.S. passport office and shipped to Mexico, was more than a little bit anti-climactic. Our child remains undocumented.

At last report, the paperwork and passport had been issued. But they arrived at the Embassy damaged in some way. The paperwork has been resent. New documents should arrive, well, hopefully before the government shuts down this weekend and the nonessential people who handle whether or not someone can come home go home themselves.

Perhaps the bearer of these documents is ringing my doorbell right now…

 

But no, it is Alfredo, smiling at me, a bit shy. He asks, Señora, how are the children? He asks, Señora, does everything go well?

I smile, nod, mumble something nonsensical, and intentionally neglect to ask after his family.

It is awkward, but frankly Alfredo is the next best thing to the Embassy’s courier. Alfredo reminds me that my troubles are not troubles at all.

Posted in Living Abroad, Mexico, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Sweet Mexican Education

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(My latest Love in Mexico correspondence essay is live on National Geographic’s Glimpse.org. An excerpt is below, or read the whole thing here.)

“Dulce, dulce, dulce, dulce,” sings my two-year-old son as I stroller him over cobblestones.

Yes, “candy” is one of the first Spanish words he has learned since moving to Mexico. It turns out that Morelia, this highland city of rain-pocked stone, is to dulces and children what Jalisco is to tequila and twenty-somethings: Heaven.

As someone raised on whole wheat and homegrown everything in middle America, I can’t quite describe the horror I felt when my son came to me sucking on a lollipop at the end of his first day of daycare in Mexico. Seeing that forbidden pink between his lips was a bittersweet mothering moment: a premonition of the day I will discover his generation’s equivalent of pot paraphernalia stashed in an underwear drawer, or Playboys under the bed.

Tomorrow I will speak to his teachers, I vowed that first day.

But living abroad, like parenting, is all about adaptation and acceptance. “Tomorrow” became next week, and by then it was too late. I got used to the idea that sugary incentives were part of the school’s pedagogy (a Pavlovian twist on Maria Montessori’s method), and my routine-loving toddler expected them.

[Continue reading…]

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Welcoming Springtime in Mexico

Morelia, Mexico, welcomes springtime with this desfile de niños

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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): http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/watch-invisibles-2010-11-02

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