Saturday, 16 March 2013

Honduras - Riding El Tren Devorador

As part of my research on Honduras, I read a truly amazing book by Sonia Nazario called Enrique's Journey (2007).  Nazario was born in the US, but has Argentinian heritage and is a highly successful investigative journalist, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2003 for her work on Enrique's journey - a series of news articles for the Los Angeles Times. 

Enrique was a teenager when Nazario met him on the Mexican border - he had travelled all the way from Honduras and was trying to get to North Carolina, to be reunited with his mother, who had left him and his sister behind when he was still a child. Enrique eventually makes it across the border and is reunited with his mother. What I really appreciated about this book was that Nazario doesn't end Enrique's journey there, but also documents the experiences of Enrique and his mother as they try to rebuild their relationship after so many years of separation.

Mexican train by saguayo
I'm someone who loves to travel and live in different countries - if I'm not physically travelling then I'm mentally travelling, through my research for this blog. Nevertheless, I understand that most people would prefer not to live outside the place they were brought up in. I also sense how distressing it must be for people who aren't 'born travellers' to suddenly have to uproot themselves and go live somewhere else. Living abroad is great when you have some choice in the matter - not so great when you're forced to leave your home in search of a better future.

Some people never get up the courage to make that choice and Nazario quite rightly points out that it's mostly the optimists in societies like Honduras who decide to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Nazario does a fantastic job at highlighting how difficult the choice to go to the United States is for young Hondurans, especially the young mothers, thousands of whom are forced to leave their kids behind with elderly parents and other relatives. But often it's a choice between physically being there for their children or providing them with money so they can have a good education and a better future. Enrique's reaction to his mother, when they're finally reunited, illustrates the complex emotions felt by those children that are left behind and the bewilderment of their parents who feel they made a difficult choice but, ultimately, for the right reasons.

Train by saguayo
It's a horrendous journey between the Guatemalan border in Chiapas, southern Mexico, to Nuevo Laredo on the border with the US. Nazario did her research well and tells some harrowing tales of violence, robbery, rape and exploitation of the immigrants from Central America, as they pass along a well-established route, controlled by gangs and La Migra, the Mexican immigration authorities.

Immigrants mostly ride on the trains and I remember watching a really poignant movie about this called Sin Nombre (2009) by the director Cary Joji Fukunaga.  The train is an iconic 'being' for the immigrants. Immigrants call it El Tren Devorador (the train that devours), because of all the people who lose their lives falling off or being murdered by gangs. They also call it 'The Iron Horse' and the 'The Pilgrim Train' as it is their passage to a new life. The train sits in stark contrast to El Bus de Lágrimas - the Bus of Tears, that La Migra uses to transport immigrants back to Guatemala, where they must start their journey all over again.

I was horrified by accounts of the injuries immigrants suffer, when they fall off the trains, breaking bones, losing limbs, becoming disabled - realising that their American dream ends right there. Immigrants from Central America don't bring their passports or any ID with them, in the hope of blending in with local Mexicans and avoiding El Bus de Lágrimas. Sadly, when they fall off the train and die, they are unidentifiable and usually end up being thrown down a hole in the local graveyard, leaving behind relatives, children and parents who have no idea what happened to them.

Enrique also mentions the kindness of people along the way, especially the villagers in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, who feed, clothe and shelter immigrants, most of whom have had a terrifying and exhausting journey from the southern border. Nazario also documents the amazing work of priests and volunteers who have devoted their lives to providing some respite and humanity for people making that awful journey.

Passing between two trains by saguayo
Like many immigrants, when Enrique arrives in the United States, it doesn't quite live up to his expectations. The life of an immigrant is pretty hard - they suffer racism, work in incredibly low-paying jobs and are always looking over their shoulder and living in fear of deportation.  Enrique also suffers from the trauma of the journey and turns to alcohol and drugs, squandering his wages, instead of saving for the future.

Towards the end of the book, Nazario gives us the facts about immigration. How cheap labour allows US citizens to have a more comfortable life. How remittances sent back to countries like Honduras increase the dependency on money coming from abroad, which decreases motivation to sort out the problems at home. Most importantly, she points out how immigration destroys family life in the immigrants' home country. Like Enrique's mother, Lourdes, many immigrants think that they will only be gone for a year or so and will be united with their children pretty soon. Then they struggle to make ends meet in the US and every spare cent is sent home. They can't return to Honduras because it means leaving the US and US wages, behind for good.

It was a compelling read and I'd highly recommend Nazario's book to anyone who would like to understand the immigrants and their journey. I only wish Nazario had published other books based on her investigative journalism but, unfortunately, I think this is the only one.

Image credits:

As much as I would love to illustrate this blog post with fast-paced, journalistic images of immigrants riding the trains in Mexico, those are not the kind of images that tend to be copyright-free.

Instead I want to illustrate the work of flickr member saguayo who is from Mexico City and has shared these wonderful images taken in the Mexican train museum.  You can see more of saguayo's work on his photostream

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