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GETTING ABOARD

GETTING ABOARD
Enrique guesses there are more than 200 migrants on board, a tiny army of them who charged out of the cemetery with nothing but their cunning.

Arrayed against them are Mexican immigration authorities, or la migra, along with crooked police, street gangsters and bandits. They wage what a priest at an immigrant shelter calls “la guerra sin nombre,” the war with no name. Chiapas, he says, “is a cemetery with no crosses, where people die without even getting a prayer.”

All of this is nothing, however, against Enrique’s longing for his mother, who left him behind 11 years ago. Although his effort to survive often forces her out of his mind, at times he thinks of her with a loneliness that is overwhelming. He remembers when she would call Honduras from the United States, the concern in her voice, how she would not hang up before saying: “I love you. I miss you.”

Enrique considers carefully. Which freight car will he ride on? This time he will be more cautious than before.

Boxcars are the tallest. Their ladders do not go all the way up. Migra agents would be less likely to climb to the top. And he could lie flat on the roof and hide. From there, he could see the agents approaching, and if they started to climb up, he could jump to another car and run.

But boxcars are dangerous. They have little on top to hold on to.

Inside a boxcar might be better.

But police, railroad security agents or la migra could bar the doors, trapping him inside. If the doors closed accidentally, he might die. Migrants say temperatures inside climb to 100 degrees, and people kneel to ask God to stop the train. Some suffocate, and others stand on their bodies to reach tiny air holes above the doors.

A good place to hide could be under the cars, up between the axles, balancing on a foot-wide iron shock absorber. But Enrique might be too big to fit. Besides, trains kick up rocks. Worse, if his arms grew tired, or if he fell asleep, he would drop directly under the wheels.

Enrique settles for the top of a hopper. He holds on to a grate running along the rim. From his perch 14 feet up, he can see anyone approaching on either side of the tracks, up ahead or from another car. Below, at each end, the hopper’s wheels are exposed: shiny metal, 3 feet in diameter, 5 inches thick, churning. He stays as far away as he can.

He doesn’t carry anything that might keep him from running fast. At most, if it is exceptionally hot, he ties a nylon string on an empty plastic bottle, wraps it around his arm and fills the bottle with water when he can.

Some immigrants climb on board with a toothbrush tucked into a pocket. Others bring a small Bible with telephone numbers, penciled in the margins, of their mothers or fathers or other relatives in the United States. Maybe nail clippers, a rosary or a scapular with a tiny drawing of San Cristobal, the patron saint of travelers, or of San Judas Tadeo, the patron saint of desperate situations.

As usual, the train lurches hard from side to side. Enrique holds on with both hands. Occasionally, the train speeds up or slows down, smashing couplers together and jarring him backward or forward. The wheels rumble. Sometimes each car rocks the other way from the ones ahead and behind. El Gusano de Hierro, some migrants call it. The Iron Worm.

In Chiapas, the tracks are 20 years old. Some of the ties sink, especially during the rainy season, when the roadbed turns soggy and soft. Grass grows over the rails, making them slippery.

When the cars round a bend, they feel as if they might overturn. Enrique’s train runs only a few times a week, but it averages three derailments a month, by the count of Jorge Reinoso, chief of operations for Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab, the railroad. One year before, a hopper like Enrique’s overturned with a load of sand, burying three immigrants alive. Enrique rarely lets himself admit fear, but he is scared that his car might tip. El Tren de la Muerte, some migrants call it. The Train of Death.

Enrique is struck by the magic of the train--its power and its ability to take him to his mother. To him, it is El Caballo de Hierro. The Iron Horse.

The train picks up speed. It passes a brown river that smells of sewage. Then a dark form emerges ahead. "¡Rama!” the immigrants yell. “Branch!” They duck.

Enrique grips the hopper. To avoid the branches, he sways from side to side. All of the riders sway in unison, ducking the same branches--left then right. One moment of carelessness and the branches will hurl them into the air. Matilda de la Rosa, who lives by the tracks, recalls a migrant who came to her door with an eyeball hanging on his cheek. He cupped it near his face, in his right hand. He told her, “The train ripped out my eye.”

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