No Service to Dreamland: This Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

Despite the grueling conditions, more than a thousand migrants from the impoverished, gang-ridden nations of Central America, primarily Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, set on their journey from the humid, sweltering town of Tapachula, Chiapas, which neighbours Guatemala and has become a port-of-entry (POE) for U.S.-bound migration through Mexico.

The cargo train used by the migrants to travel within México, known as The Beast. Arriaga is the first stop of the route along the Pacific coast. Photo by Anna Surinyach. / Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières

EVERY STORY STARTS WITH A SINGLE STEP. A breath, a word, a smile, a tear. Or literally the sound of footsteps, from brown-washed Oxfords to leather loafers to low-heel Jimmy Choos that pound the sidewalks – or the streets – of its cities firmly engaged in the pursuit of something. What you’re wearing doesn’t really matter when every step is walking towards a dream just as it is running from a nightmare. Brisk, vigorous strides make their way through the main conurbations of a territory that is as real as it is fictitious, but that for many still stands by the name of Dreamland. Its cardinal points: Los Angeles. Miami. Chicago. New York. Its alternative sobriquets: The U.S. of A. La USA. ‘Merica. The land of fulfilled dreams, or the land of broken ones. That place. Where we are all and we are nothing.

Hopes ascended and countenances were lifted in the spirits of more than a thousand migrants from the impoverished, gang-ridden nations of Central America, primarily Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as they set on their journey from the humid, sweltering town of Tapachula, Chiapas, which neighbours Guatemala and has become a port-of-entry (POE) for U.S.-bound migration through Mexico. The march, that went by the name of Viacrucis and was organised by the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, exuded the tune of faith and enthusiasm beating rhythmically to the steps of 1,200 pairs of feet, some traversing the edge of bareness and others wrapped in boots designed for climbing and mountaineering. If the road is uphill, better to be prepared.

SAUL HERNANDEZ knows what it’s like to endure that strenuous route. As someone who has embarked into the risky venture of daring to cross, not one, but seven times, he grasps as he follows the caravan through the news, recounting the rite of passage of his gamble. The first time, he succeeded, back in 1998. “I didn’t have a particular dream or ambition, I initially thought it would be easy,” says Saul, who reminiscences of the steep hills and sheer drops of La Rumorosa, a borderline, mountainous area through which he first conquered the illusion of entering the United States of America to work. “Surveillance was way scarcer back then,” echoed Hernandez, in reference to the tightening security measures that have been implemented at the border since the presidency of George W. Bush, who in 2006 signed the Secure Fence Act, and now, under Donald Trump, who seems to delight in the daily provision of threats – as caricaturistic as they might seem now – about his “tall, beautiful, Southern border wall,” which is still unrealised.

“The worst enemy of a Hispanic abroad is another Hispanic,” says Saul, full of conviction, when asked about his experience in the United States as an undocumented worker.

As a part of the Caravan, Laura R. is one of those who hopes to cross. Undertaking the perilous trek after a gang in her neighbourhood in Honduras set her house on fire, she wants to “reach the border and seek asylum”, she told CNN. She spoke about the illusion of “having my children attend school without the worry of gangs,” and states that her daughter still has burns from the incident that cover parts of her body. Lilian Mejía, a mother of two, will also attempt to cross, and she does not hesitate to respond to Donald Trump’s insensitive tweets describing the caravan as a potential invasion and a major security risk. “He’s not poor, fighting for his family. This is what he doesn’t understand”, she said, explaining that she, together with her husband, will pursue the journey with only “a purple hoodie, a second pair of sneakers, and an extra pair of clothes,” as reported on-field by CNN.

The heart-wrenching stories of the expedition members have generated waves of reflection. How dreadful and atrocious are the living conditions in Central America, that thousands of people are exposing their lives to tremendous danger in this hazardous odyssey? “If our countries were safe, we wouldn’t leave,” said to The Guardian Isabel Nerio Rodríguez, one of the constituents of this group and who fled El Salvador due to the extortions she and her family received, and who followed up posing the question: “Who would want to leave and suffer like this?”

VISIBLE CARDBOARD BANNERS reflected the anguish and consternation of the dissidents, who protested outside the Embassy of the United States in Mexico City with demands that ranged from “Justicia para los migrantes” (Justice for migrants) to “Viva Guatemala” and “Fuera JOH”, referring to Juan Orlando Hernández, the recently-reelected President of Honduras, a sign that both reflected the Honduran majority of the traveling convoy and reiterated the pervasive disenchantment with a president that many claim came to power in a rigged election with the support of the United States, which leads us to the inevitable argument: What role have the interventionist policies of the government of the U.S.A played in the instability of nations where gangs control many facets of people’s day-to-day lives? “If foreign aid was working there wouldn’t be so many Hondurans coming here,” said to The Guardian Joselyn Amador, a native from San Pedro Sula, in response to Trump’s threats of cutting foreign aid to the battered Central American nation.

Photo: Creative Commons.

Yet even more uncertain than the consequences of a failed foreign-aid policy and than the ultimate road fate of the migrants that have chosen to partake in this caravan, is whether those who reach their destination will find the conditions that they expect to attain on arrival. Will they encounter the kindness of America’s ordinary citizens or be affected by those who have embodied and amplified the hate message fed by its crippled government? “I lived for a while in America without documents, in the Greater Los Angeles area, and found Americans to be good-hearted people”, said Lisandro G., one of the many Hondurans who is now looking forward to get back into the promised land. In one way or another, the wayfarers face several tests and unknowns. They will also, potentially, have to deal with fellow Hispanics who, after emigrating, echo the social mobility challenges of their places of origin.

“THE WORST ENEMY OF A HISPANIC ABROAD IS ANOTHER HISPANIC,” says Saul, full of conviction, when asked about his experience in the United States as an undocumented worker. He describes how his nightmare began from the very beginning. “A man approached me in my hometown, and offered me the chance to go to the United States. He asked me if I had any family members there, and I had my brother,” he recounts, stating that “once we were on the road they told me I would need to pay a certain amount of money, which I didn’t have. So while my brother managed to fit the bill they held me captive at a security house in Los Angeles. I was there for a month, where I witnessed the worse of the worse. I saw girls get raped because they couldn’t pay what was demanded of them. I watched our smugglers torture some of the people that were held with me. And it was a Hispanic woman running all that show.”

“I lived for a while in America without documents, in the Greater Los Angeles area, and found Americans to be good-hearted people”, said Lisandro G.  

His ordeals continued throughout his stay in the United States. He talks about one of his most distasteful labour incidents, washing dishes at a restaurant in Dallas, Texas. “My boss, also Mexican, started insulting me all of a sudden. I had parked my car right across the restaurant, so as soon as he left the kitchen, I crossed the door and I just walked out on him. Of course he never paid me the money I was owed for my last weeks of work, which was long overdue.”

He recalls his experiences with the American society as mixed. “Don’t get me wrong. I also lived a lot of good moments. One of those is teaching a ‘gringo’ how to play basketball. It was very funny, because he thought he was the best of the pack. And I flat out beat him,” cites Saul, who doesn’t mince words to express his gratitude for those who welcomed him with ample generosity. “There was this man from India that really helped me. His name was James. He allowed me to stay in his house while I managed to get my act together. He gave me a job and room and board. To this day we are still friends, we speak on the phone very often.” Nevertheless, he informs about the menaces that many migrant workers face when first arriving to America. “There were also harmful people. In Atlanta, where we went to find jobs, many Americans would pick up workers just with the purpose of turning them to Immigration. Just as everywhere there are people who are good and people who are bad,” he says, reinforcing the fact that the fate of migrants, primarily those who arrive to the country undocumented, ends up falling on the lap of the perennial battle between the delusions of right and wrong, in the eternal fight between good and evil.

Photo: Creative Commons

BUT TRY TO FIND A GLIMPSE OF EVIL in the buoyant faces with broad smiles that ride atop the rusty wagons from La Bestia, the freight train also known as The Death Train, who stand oblivious to the fact that their emotive wave could be their final legacy. There is an underlying sadness in their heartwarming farewell gesture – “Gracias Mexico” – as they ride the railroad cars in Tultitlán, in the State of Mexico, continuing their march to the sound of hopes and dreams, with the ultimate goal of reaching the United States despite Trump’s scare tactics and his failed displayal of military lavishness. As of now, only 400 of the 4,000 border security promised troops have been committed – by the governments of Texas and Arizona –  in what represents a withering move that aimed to stop the caravan as if the Death Train could suddenly suspend its service and paraphrase Elton John’s iconic song: This train doesn’t stop here anymore.

EVERY STORY ENDS WITH A SINGLE STEP. And for the migrants of this caravan, and for its organisers, and for the many Mexican and American and Central American and worldwide citizens that stand in solidarity, their wish is that this treacherous trek ends with the more than five hundred souls that climbed onto The Death Train in Tultitlán taking that first step north of the border, symbolizing their prosperous cross into the United States of America. Dreamland, after all, for many, is still Dreamland, a fact confirmed by Saul’s eagerness when I ask him if he would choose to go back. Having returned impromptu to his hometown in Mexico after a failed love affair, he attempted the crossing six more times, one of which resulted in a sixty day detention. “I would definitely try to. It is a good opportunity to give economic stability to my family, and to be able to pay for a better treatment for my daughter, who has a heart disease.” He, also, hopes to mark his footsteps once again into American soil. But since that step often defines the pilgrimage as a whole, why not admire the journey while contemplating one of the universal principles of life: the same step that ends a story often begins another one, and when it comes to dreams, it is worth to take that step, even if that means to risk our lives trying.

Javier Ortega-Araiza
Born in Mexico, re-born in Canada, and a global citizen and part-time digital nomad, Javier Ortega-Araiza is a serial entrepreneur who has founded companies in the tourism, education, and financial technology space, always with the intent of building bridges and increasing the social impact engagement of the business community. He is also an engaged community leader serving on the Board of Directors of several not-for-profits in the GTA and abroad and a Visiting Professor in Social Entrepreneurship in Universities in Canada, the United States and Colombia. Javier Ortega-Araiza is a lifelong traveler, writer and documentarist who contributes on business & innovation, politics, travel, sports, and stories of people being people.