As you know, I have spent this week helping the migrant caravan that has been making its way through Mexico to the US. (Well, most of them are heading for the US. Some are staying in Mexico or even going back.) The caravan has gone further north and I’ve returned to Xalapa. Now that I have the time, I’d like to give a little report on what was truly an unforgettable experience.
First, just a few comments on what the caravan is all about, since it and others like it have become international news stories. (I talked to a guy from ABC news this week.) This particular caravan is from Honduras, though there are also people from other Central American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. The people in it are trying to escape tremendous poverty and violence. And whatever Donald Trump may say, they are not criminals (with a tiny minority of individual exceptions, of course) and what they are doing is claiming their legitimate rights. These people are seeking asylum, which is a basic human right under international law and the laws of the countries they are entering, including the United States. Trump’s condemnation of the Honduran president for letting the caravan leave (people can’t leave their own country?), his condemnation of the Guatemalan government for letting them pass through (Guatemala has every right to do so), and praise of the Mexican Federal Police for committing human rights violations at the Mexico-Guatemala border are all absurd.
That being said, to be honest, Patricia and I are not fans of the large caravans, for a number of reasons. First, they tend to put caravan members in danger, and their organizers aren’t always honest about the danger. Of course, migrants are always in danger from drug cartels and the like, but the large caravans are especially inviting targets. We heard a few reports of criminals isolating members of this caravan and taking them away. Second, they tend to strain the resources of the communities they pass through. In this case, thousands of people converged on the main public square of Tapachula—the capital of the Mexican state of Chiapas and our base of operations—and there weren’t even portable bathrooms to serve them. It was up to civil society groups to make sure they got everything they needed. (And in light of the inevitable complaints about “dirty migrants,” it must be said: Before they left for the north, caravan members cleaned up the public square so thoroughly that you would never know they were there.) Finally, they generate so much publicity that they tend to give governments like that of the US—and Mexico as well—an excuse to crack down on immigration. Indeed, there were rumors floating around (with no evidence to support them) that this caravan was secretly encouraged by Republicans to get Trump supporters to the polls in November.
But of course, our reservations regarding large caravans don’t dampen in the slightest our desire to help. On the contrary, the very hardships that such a caravan can generate inspire our compassion and desire to ease the hardships any way we can. These are our brothers and sisters desperately fleeing a truly horrible situation in Honduras. They’re going to come whatever we think of the caravan concept—even with the trip’s dangers, for most of them it’s more dangerous to stay home—and it is an honor and privilege to be truly helpful to them.
So, that’s what we did. Patricia’s main way of helping, given her position with the Citizens’ Council, was to ensure that the human rights of the participants were being respected. She and her fellow consejeras did this by observing, by talking to caravan members and civil society groups helping them, and by talking to government officials. The good news is that by and large, they didn’t find too many human rights violations. There was the clash with authorities at the Mexican border and the criminal activity I referred to above, but all things considered, things were going relatively smoothly. We’ll see what happens as they go further north—Patricia and her colleagues will continue to monitor the situation. God only knows what will happen at the US border.
Unlike Patricia, I didn’t have any official status, so I just plugged in and helped wherever I could. The first day we were there, I observed along with Patricia the situation at the town square in Tapachula. I walked around, looked at what was going on, talked with caravan members and the people helping them, and took lots of photos. Patricia appreciated having an extra set of eyes and ears to report to her. Fortunately I didn’t see any human rights violations to report. It turns out, though, that the photos I took throughout the trip, which I was taking mainly as mementos for myself, will be extremely helpful for documentation and advocacy for the migrants.
Here are some pictures from the town square in Tapachula:
The next day, I joined a Catholic official who had accompanied us and a group of Catholic priests to make a plan to help the caravan as they began the journey north from Tapachula. This was the most memorable day for me. Later in the day, I saw the plan executed to perfection as we went to an aid station the priests had set up on the highway where the caravan was traveling. It was a festive atmosphere, like a parade. Many migrants were walking, while others were piled onto pickups, semis, garbage trucks, gas tankers, and pretty much anything that moved. And along the road were countless people organized by the church, handing out things the travelers needed: food, water, clothing, diapers for the babies, and more. Oddly, handing out provisions to people traveling down a road in a festive atmosphere reminded me of the people handing out provisions to us during the Mexico City Marathon, which I had run in August. Now it was my turn to give the handouts, in a situation that of course is far more serious than any marathon.
The gifts were always accompanied with a “God bless you,” “Have a great trip,” “Keep it up,” “Good luck brothers and sisters,” or “We love you,” and they were received with immense joy and gratitude. Groups of Hondurans piled onto trucks chanted “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!” to celebrate their new friends. That spirit, more than anything else, was something I’ll never forget. Set aside for a moment whatever views you might have regarding the complexities of immigration. This was human beings joining with other human beings in mutual friendship, solidarity, and love. The goodwill in the air was palpable. It was a holy encounter. I was deeply touched, and I’ll remember this day fondly for the rest of my life.
Here are some pictures of the “parade”:
The rest of our trip was marked by something else that I’m slowly learning to get used to: the sheer chaos and unpredictability of it all. The next day, I was slated to help at a migrant shelter further north where the caravan was staying, but events conspired to keep me from getting there. The day after that, I planned again to go to that shelter since the caravan was scheduled to leave that afternoon, but it turned out that it had left before dawn that morning, so the whole thing fell through. So, I next planned to attend in Tapachula a scheduled visit of another caravan of mothers whose migrant sons and daughters were missing, but it turned out that they were elsewhere. As they say around here, “Así es…” That’s the way it is.
Now I’m here in Xalapa, sitting at my computer with a cat who is very grateful for my return. It was a great trip, both unexpected and unforgettable. I love being of service to these wonderful people who are in such desperate need. I talked with many of them, and I was amazed on the one hand by just how precarious their situations are, and on the other hand by the resilience and optimism and good cheer that they exhibited. They will make me think twice when I am tempted to be inordinately distressed by the rather mild inconveniences of my own life. It was a joy to unite in love with my dear brothers and sisters, and I look forward to doing it again, in whatever form it takes.