World Mexico & the Americas

Mexican town offers illegal immigration simulation adventure

Gunshots ring out and sirens shriek, mixing with the ragged breath of muddy, panting humans. Suddenly, the full moon sweeping the ground like a searchlight reveals a disturbing scene: a group of illegal immigrants being handcuffed and led away by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

But the U.S. border is about 400 miles from this rugged municipal park in Hidalgo state, a three-hour drive north of Mexico City. The spectacle unfolding here isn't an actual border crossing attempt but a live simulation-adventure that attempts to give participants a taste of what it's like for the thousands of Mexican and other Latin American undocumented migrants trying to enter the promised land of el norte.

Dubbed the Caminata Nocturna (Night Hike), the three-hour simulation is a combination obstacle course, sociology lesson and PG-rated family outing. Founded in 2004, it's run by members of a local village of Hñahñu Indians, an indigenous people of south-central Mexico. The village's former population of about 2,500 has been decimated by migration to the United States.

Every Saturday night, dozens of the several hundred remaining villagers take part in the Caminata. Many work as costumed performers impersonating Border Patrol agents, fellow migrants and masked coyotes and polleros, the Mexican guides who escort migrants for a fee.

The 7 1/2 -mile hike, which involves quite a bit of running, costs about $10 per person. The money raised from the Caminata, and other park activities such as cabin rentals, rappelling and boating trips, is shared evenly among the villagers.

Since it opened, the Caminata has drawn thousands of visitors, the majority from Mexico but others from Europe, the United States and Asia. Several of the roughly 50 participants in last Saturday night's outing said they were hoping to gain some insight into what migrants endure during their trans-border odysseys.

"It's part of our culture, and it's important to know it," said Sergio Mendieta, a secondary school teacher from the state of Mexico.

Marcelo Rojas, a Mexico City biologist, knows "many, many Mexicans, some of them my relatives," who have crossed back and forth between their country and the United States. "What pushes them is to have the prospect of a better life," he said. "I know at least three people that went and didn't make it, that wanted to cross the desert. They died there."

Apart from the occasional sprained ankle or cactus spine lodged in a hand, the perils of the course are entirely make-believe. But the Caminata isn't without challenges.

The route takes participants up steep mountains studded with spiky cactuses and sharp-edged maguey plants, along the banks of the swift-flowing Tula River, through cow pastures and ancient Indian burial grounds. For much of the journey, participants are pursued by the ersatz border guards (a.k.a. la migra), racing along in pickups, barking commands to surrender and firing guns loaded with blanks.

Some artistic license comes with the price of admission. In reality, border guards seldom use their sirens or discharge their firearms.

Although the simulation can only approximate the dangers and physical hardships of crossing the border, it reflects a harsh economic reality. Most of this village's residents spend all or part of the year working illegally in places such as Phoenix; Tampa, Fla.; and Las Vegas.

They created the Caminata as a cooperative business to help compensate for the collapse in the last generation of the local farm economy from crops of tomatoes, corn and chiles. As in many parts of Mexico, mass migration from this area began in earnest in the 1980s, when Mexico's farming sector went into decline. Since the late 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement has further aggravated Mexico's job losses as small farmers have been driven under by competition from industrial farming.

The hike takes place within the 3,000-acre Parque EcoAlberto, a recreational park and campsite that's owned, operated and staffed on a rotating basis by the Hñahñu. The complex was developed by villagers without any government help, said Delfino Santiago, 33, a Hñahñu who is among the park's current group of overseers.

Santiago said he first crossed the border when he was 16 and now regularly shuttles between his home here and Las Vegas, where he is legally employed with a landscaping company. Speaking in English -- his third language, after Spanish and Hñahñu -- he said that his fellow villagers wished they could work legally in the U.S. but that Washington's current immigration policy makes it extremely difficult and time-consuming to obtain legal status.

"I pay taxes. I understand the laws," he said. "But they don't allow us to become citizens."

A few media reports have raised the question of whether the Caminata is a kind of boot camp that trains Mexicans and Central Americans on how to sneak into Brownsville, Texas, or San Diego.

Hike organizers pump up participants with vaguely worded speeches about Mexican national pride and solidarity with migrants. The Caminata reflects the assumption that poor, desperate migrants have a right to seek work in foreign lands, an attitude shared by most Mexicans, who adamantly oppose extension of the U.S. border wall. But the Caminata seems intended more as a homage to migrants than an overt political statement.

Even so, the Caminata probably prepares one to cross the border about as much as playing a game of paintball would prepare one to take part in a Marine sweep of Sadr City. Santiago bluntly spelled out the difference between this "border crossing" and the real thing:

"There, they truly suffer, and here you don't suffer."

Last Saturday's hike began, as usual, with a convoy of pickups ferrying participants and guides into the center of the village. One villager, wearing a Dodgers cap, estimated he had crossed the border 15 times.

The group convened outside the walls of the village's crumbling church. (The building has been all but abandoned because the Roman Catholic diocese no longer could supply a priest.)

Among the participants were two middle-aged Mexican teachers, an Ohio college professor, several extended families and small clusters of giggling teenagers snapping cellphone pictures. Several men in black ski masks materialized, the evening's tour guides. One, a stocky, garrulous fellow who declined to give his name, gathered the crowd together and launched into a rambling 40-minute monologue.

"This night is perhaps a little magical, because we speak of the theme that is the theme of immigration," he said in Spanish. "And in this night, perhaps, it is evoked in tribute and in honor of all those immigrants who have nurtured a dream." He then produced two Mexican flags from his knapsack and urged the crowd on in singing the Mexican national anthem.

Within a few minutes, the entire pack was off and running: slipping on muddy riverbanks and mushy cowpats, scrambling under wire fences, crouching behind bushes, inching along a narrow wall above a 15-foot drop, stumbling over rocks in the moonlight.

"Vamos! Vamos! Más rapido!" the guides yelled. Let's go! Let's go! Faster!

Most participants quickly entered the role-playing spirit of the occasion. Hours later, recapping the evening, several appeared to find the experience almost too intensely realistic.

"I learned that it's very difficult. It's awful. I can't survive this, I think," said Tamara Vazquez Hernandez, a 15-year-old from Mexico City.

Another participant, Alfonso Najera, said he felt motivated to help support migrants in whatever way he could and suggested that other Mexicans should do likewise.

But Rojas said he hoped that the experience would encourage Mexican participants not to invest all their hopes in migrating northward. Better, he suggested, that more of them should stay and fight to improve conditions at home. He also believes that Mexicans should be more open about addressing their country's political and social failings.

"I agree that Mexicans suffer a lot when they cross," he said. "But on the other side, we Mexicans aren't the best example of good hosts toward foreigners. [At] the southern border, which is the border we almost never look at, we Mexicans treat the Central Americans very badly."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

Special correspondent Deborah Bonello in Mexico contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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