In my blog about the book, The Faraway Brothers by Lauren Markham, I described the 2013 true story of two teenagers who fled gang threats in El Salvador and eventually made it to Oakland, California. Markham, a journalist who knew the boys at the high school they attended here, was able to expand on their story with her reporting on detention centers, migrant shelters, and border crossings. As we know, all of these have only gotten worse in the years since.
The title of my blog feels even more appropriate after reading the new novel by Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt, which presents another story of the journey to El Norte. Cummins spent years researching the migration and wanted to show “that the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass but singular individuals with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique.” She chose to write about it using fictional characters which allowed an intimacy in portraying the real hopes, struggles and conflicts of the migrants. And she succeeds: this book is so vivid that whole scenes flashed through my mind long after I had finished reading it.
As she said in her afterword, Cummins wanted to write about “regular people like me. How would I manage if I lived in a place that began to collapse around me? If my children were in danger, how far would I go to protect them?” Her character Lydia is forced to leave a comfortable life in Mexico as a bookstore owner and wife of a journalist. She could not conceive of the hardships she would encounter as she flees to save her life and her eight-year-old son Luca. Mexico actually was the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2017. Her city had come to be ruled by a murderous gang. Because Lydia believed the gang was pursuing her, she could trust no one. And yet she was saved more than once by the kindness of strangers.
Focused on survival, Lydia is not a superhero. She makes mistakes that gnaw at her and add pangs of guilt to her constant fear. Cautious to talk to anybody, she manages to make friends with a few other migrants. As she does, their stories reveal other aspects of the migrants’ experiences, such as those who traveled from Honduras and El Salvador. And the way was arduous. When a compassionate priest at La Casa del Migrante in Celaya spoke to their group, he urged the migrants to return home if they could, and he warned them, “Every single one of you will be robbed. Every one. If you make it to El Norte, you will arrive penniless… only one out of three will make it to your destination.”
Lydia and Luca cover most of the miles on top of the trains known as La Bestia. Riding the Beast is extremely dangerous. (The grueling experience has been captured in documentary films such as ‘La Bestia’ by Pedro Ultreras and ‘Which Way Home’ by Rebecca Cammisa.) The first time they watch some men board a fast-moving train, Lydia can’t imagine doing it. “There’s a new reverence to having seen it with their own eyes, the unfeeling crush of the wheels along their rails, the men clinging to the exoskeleton like beetles on a window screen.” Eventually they board and travel with a few other young people. They learn the tricks and cover the miles but Lydia warns, don’t let it become normal, it is not normal. “’The trains that run north from here [near Mexico City] are only for cargo,’ Lydia tells her son, ‘Not for people.’ With effort Luca manages a single word. ‘Why?’…It seems so simple when he asks it. Why? Didn’t there used to be passenger trains in Mexico, along with the freight?” The child raises a question that no one seems to be asking, but once asked, makes the point so clear, like the story of the emperor who had no clothes. What policies closed down the trains for people to ride inside, on seats, with food and drink?
The first view of the border wall in Nogales stuns Lydia and her friends. They gaze at the land beyond as the answer to all their dreams. The climax of their story occurs while crossing the Sonora Desert. Lydia and Luca leave Nogales with a group led by an experienced coyote, a guide, a man who loves the desert. To cross in safety they must totally obey him, and still it is an excruciating trek, full of intense events. They reach their destination in three very long days. But as the priest predicted, they don’t all make it.
Even with their painful losses, their passage across the desert was far less deadly than the real journey described in The Devils Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea researched and meticulously described the true story of a group of Mexicans who, in 2001, were abandoned by their coyote and wandered in the desert without direction and without water; 14 of the 26 men perished. These migrants had chosen to leave their homes in southern Mexico in search of economic opportunity, lured by a profit-driven cabal charging exorbitant fees. The book details the harsh realities of their trip, not only the agonies of the walkers but the challenges of the people they encountered from the inexperienced coyote to the border agents.
Of course, nearly twenty years later, immigrants are still heading to the United States hoping to escape extreme poverty and better their lives, but many others have no choice. Like the main characters in Cummins’ story, many of the migrants today are fleeing gang violence. It is worth noting that the United States is largely responsible for that violence by destabilizing governments in Central America (for example, by supporting the 2009 coup in Honduras and the wars waged in El Salvador and Nicaragua), promoting arms exports, and deporting gang members. This country is also responsible for trapping the huge group at the border with Mexico by changing the rules governing asylum, militarizing the border, and allowing private prison companies to profit from running detention centers.
Fortunately there are organizations that are tackling public perceptions and working to change these policies. Mijente conducts national campaigns to support sanctuary cities, to oppose lobbyists like ALEC (American Legal Exchange Council) and to fight for DACA recipients. Movimiento Cosecha and the youth-led United We Dream both fight for the protection of undocumented immigrants and work to stop deportation.
Other organizations are working at border cities to provide legal and medical assistance and logistical support (for example Al Otro Lado, and Border Angels). Donations are needed for bail and legal fees, and sponsors are needed to get people released from detention. SURJ has had two recent trips for those who can go to the border at Tijuana (see “A SURJ Member’s Eyewitness Report from the Border”).
Changing U.S. immigration policies is also going to depend on people like us. Whether it’s telling a powerful story as Cummins has done with her book, bearing witness at the border as hundreds of volunteers have done, sponsoring a migrant, attending a protest, or making a donation — we all have a part to play in supporting the victims of terror and humanizing their stories.