Migrant voices: On journey to north, ‘you can’t smile because there is no reason to’

Migrants from Central American have found it increasingly difficult to cross Mexico to reach the United States. Berfilio Hernandez, 21, from Peten, Guatemala, walks along train tracks in Tultitlan, Mexico, last year.

Migrants from Central American have found it increasingly difficult to cross Mexico to reach the United States. Berfilio Hernandez, 21, from Peten, Guatemala, walks along train tracks in Tultitlan, Mexico, last year.

(Sarah McClure / AFP/Getty Images)

The Vatican has said that Pope Francis’ journey through Mexico, which takes him from the southern state of Chiapas to the northern border with Texas, symbolically traces the route of migrants trying to reach the United States.

Five Central American migrants attempting that journey reflect on their faith and the pope’s visit and explain why they left their homelands. They asked that their last names be withheld because they crossed into Mexico illegally and fear gangs will retaliate against their families back home.

Daniel, 45, Honduras

Translation: “I feel happiness, and I feel as if I’m closer to the help that God gives to migrants, because I believe in that, because I believe in the Catholic Church and in God. I have always believed that the pope is a disciple of God on Earth -- no, he is the maximum authority of God on Earth -- and he’s also a disciple of God, a missionary of love and peace.”

Daniel used to own a little farm in the Honduran countryside. He raised chickens, cows and pigs, and grew vegetables and fruit to feed his family. But over time, he’d sold a chicken here, a piece of land there, to fund the education of his three children.


“It happened slowly,” he said. When he was a child, Daniel’s parents didn’t have the money for him to continue his studies. As he watched his land and animals being depleted, he accepted that the cost if it meant his kids would have something different. “I was left with practically nothing. But it doesn’t bother me, because I’m a responsible father, you know? I did it all for my kids.

“Every one of us who leaves our country has a story, a bitter story, you understand?”

It’s Daniel’s first time attempting to migrate to the U.S., and he didn’t slip away in the night, as so many from his country have done, because they were fleeing gangs. He was headed north for work. The decision was one he and his family made together.

Daniel doesn’t want his kids to leave their country despite its problems. He wants them to grow up with their family, to study at a university. There’s crime, but “he who walks on a bad path will come to a bad end,” and he knows his kids are on the right path, if he can afford to keep them there.

This week Daniel found himself surrounded by a roomful of other migrants in a Mexico City shelter — the same week Pope Francis arrived. It was a happenstance that matters to him not so much as a migrant, but as a Catholic.

The presence of Francis, he said, is like a small crack of light, some “good luck,” on a lonesome road. Would he join the millions who waited on Mexico City streets to see the pontiff pass by? Probably not. He had found a bit of work, some day labor, and he had to take it even if it meant missing the motorcade.

Janet, 33, Honduras

Translation: “If the pope comes to talk about [immigration], well, how lovely.... That way people have to see that we don’t emigrate because we want to… [but] because we need to, you know? Like in my case, I come escaping a gang, because they have killed my three loved ones. The two fathers of my children and now my sister. That hurts – it hurts a lot. And it hurts to know that the gangs are becoming empowered in our country. [In] El Salvador and Honduras [with] the gangs, only a little is needed for them to be [the top power].”

When another death threat came at the end of last year, Janet and her two young daughters left Honduras in a rush and without a plan. The leave-or-die warning came from the notorious Mara Salvatrucha street gang, which Janet described as a “plague” in her hometown of San Pedro Sula.


It was the same group that had killed her sister in 1998 and her boyfriend a few years later. Two years ago, her youngest daughter – 5 at the time – watched as gang members shot the little girl’s father in the chest.

“They kill anything,” Janet said. “It’s like killing an ant.”

She sold her belongings, packed a few bags and sobbed as she said goodbye to her two older sons, who stayed behind. Then Janet and her daughters, 7 and 11, took several buses through Guatemala and then into Mexico. On Dec. 18 in the Mexican state of Tabasco, immigration officials stopped the bus and asked for identification papers. Janet and her daughters were detained that day and held for a month.

From there, they went to a shelter run by nuns in Mexico City and are still waiting to hear whether they’ll be granted refugee status in Mexico. Janet said she’s given up on trying to make it to the U.S. — at least for now. The journey is so risky, she’s heard.


A devout Catholic who falls asleep most nights while reciting the “Our Father” prayer, Janet praised the pope’s focus on immigration and said she hopes it creates more compassion for migrants, especially in the U.S. When Americans arrive in Honduras, she said, people celebrate.

“But when we emigrate, we’re treated like trash,” she said. “We’re looked at like cockroaches.”

David, 34, Nicaragua

Translation: “There are many Mexican people, most of the people are Mexican, and some of them will help and give you a little food, or something, water, because you are walking or taking the train and you’re walking very long distances. Sometimes you don’t have water and when you get to a town you have to ask for help from your Mexican brother for a little food or some water. Because we don’t have money. We come on foot. We come completely in God’s hands.”

Since leaving his hometown, David can’t remember smiling.


“The trip makes you sad,” he said. “You can’t smile because there’s no reason to. There’s no happiness.”

In Nicaragua, things were different. There, David’s 6-year-old daughter laughs and smiles all the time. She loves music. She’ll listen to anything she can find.

When he thinks about traveling for his daughter, his hopes for her are simple: That she won’t have to wonder where her next meal will come from. That she’ll have dignity. That she wouldn’t find herself on the same journey one day.

Because migration, David said, was hardly a choice. “One doesn’t make a decision to go, one is obligated,” he said.


The last day he spent there, before setting out, his family prepared him some food. Though his manner these days is usually reserved, he couldn’t stop the tears when he thought about the humble meal they made before taking the first bus with three neighbors. How was that final meal?

“A person leaves their house with love, that’s what fortifies you. The food that they give you in your house is the best, because they make it with love. As a poor person, they make what a poor person can.”

David is Catholic, and when he thinks about the pope’s presence, not far from the Mexico City shelter where he’d spent the last five days in temporary safety, he feels a bit of the weight lifting. He hopes that Francis will do something to create other shelters or better funding for the ones that exist. If it weren’t for the shelters, he’d have no place to bathe, to sleep, to find clothes.

David’s alone now. The three friends who began the trip with him have all separated, whether because they couldn’t run fast enough to jump onto the train as he did, or fell, being dragged until they could no longer hold on.


He was robbed after he arrived in Mexico, and lost his extra clothes, backpack and the little money he had left. At the shelter he’s received some used clothes.

“I feel afraid. They say that further north you have to pay to cross the river,” he said. If he calls home to ask his family for help, there will be nothing for him. “There’s no money.”

Javier, 27, Honduras

Translation: “For my part, I think that in this situation, if [the pope] is a great figure and he’s going to talk with presidents or people who are really important in society, what he needs to do is explain to them in an interesting way, getting a lot of answers about immigration, because immigration is a big issue. The [Mexican] president knows the law [cracking down on Central American migrants] that was put into effect last year. He has to know the situation. Why did he think he should create this law? Because now we are taking a route that’s very difficult.

“Just to get here it’s very difficult, and we haven’t even made it to the border. There are few that get there. The train is a transport that one used, not because you had money but because you had no money, you took what you could to eat. If one had money you would come by bus, you would take fewer risks, you’d take your changes with the authorities, with less risk of dying by falling from the train or getting kidnapped where the gangs would pass.”


Javier hasn’t given a lot of thought to Pope Francis. He’s had other things on his mind these days: After witnessing a killing while working as an auto mechanic, he fled Honduras, beginning a migration to the U.S. that he’s made several times since he was 12 years old.

He lived in Houston for a while, and New Mexico, but after a judge told him he’d be locked up for 80 years if he returned to the U.S. again, Javier didn’t expect he’d risk the journey. He went back to Central America, and that’s when he witnessed the killing. He had to choose between the risk of being killed himself and spending the rest of his life in prison.

“You see a lot of bodies” when you live in Honduras, he said. “But you never get used to it.”

Because he’s a mechanic, it’s not hard for Javier to quickly improve his quality of life. You can make good money. If he stayed in Mexico, he said, he wouldn’t be able to rise up the same way, so he’s taking a calculated risk.


If Francis has some sway with presidents and dignitaries, Javier hopes he will advocate for immigrants like him. Having made the journey several times, he knows that the recent crackdown by Mexican authorities on the use of the train called “La Bestia,” or the beast, has made the trip through Mexico by Central American migrants more treacherous.

He has a deep appreciation for the risks he’s taking. Gangs seek out migrants on the train tracks or by the banks of the Rio Grande when the travelers are just yards away from the U.S. If you don’t die from a fall from the train or from dehydration, you could be picked up by kidnappers who will extort your family for ransom or put you to work within their ranks. Still, death was too near in Honduras.

Norma, 36, El Salvador

Translation: “The truth is that I never get tired of saying, ‘God is good.’ He’s marvelous -- he’s been marvelous in my life. To this day, I have never lacked a roof, food, clothing. And maybe I didn’t achieve my dream [of getting to the U.S.], but I am out of danger.”

Because of her old job helping crime victims in a special unit of El Salvador’s National Civil Police force, Norma became an easy target. Gang members harassed her for five years, she said, and threatened to kill her son if he didn’t join.


In November, the mother and son left the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador. They took buses and boats and paid several smugglers. Norma repeated a prayer in her mind when she felt scared: “Protect me from all danger.”

The mother and son were eventually detained in Mexico and spent two and a half months in separate holding areas. Norma spent much of her time reading Bible verses aloud to encourage the other women. She shared Psalms 91, which speaks of seeking refuge, and Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Norma said she was recently approved to stay in Mexico as a refugee and is grateful, but wishes she were in Los Angeles, where her son’s father lives. But the idea of making it to the U.S. and getting deported, she said, terrifies her.

“I’m glad,” she said of the pope’s focus on immigration. “We’re all children of God.... We’re just people who want to see our kids happy.”



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