Saturday, May 31, 2008
On May 18 we left Tapachula and took the bus to Arriaga which is where we were told migrants board the freight trains heading north for the first time. Arriaga is a quaint Mexico town. The streets are clean and buildings well kept and in many ways it reminded me of my home town in Iowa. The train yard splits the town in half with the North side shoved up against a bluff and the south side trickling out across the plain.
Our first evening we took a stroll to see if we could find anyone we thought might be migrants. As the last threads of daylight faded away we approached the train yard and discovered dozens of groups strewn about in circles of five or ten. Some laughed and played cards while others lounged on railroad ties. Under the only tree in the yard a few people had built a campfire and were cooking something in reused coffee cans.
Quite a few people took interest in the white boys walking around but no one seemed too concerned. We had thought it would be tricky to approach migrants outside of a shelter but our pale skin and better than average stature made a good ice breaker. As we walked around people shot questions at us, curious about who we were and why we were there. After humoring the interrogations we continued on.
We found a man named Elmer hanging out with a group of Hondurans. He said he was in charge of the train yard so we asked him if the crowd we saw that night was normal and why the people were not worried about the police. He said the local police didn't give migrants any trouble ("why would they?") and that Immigration officers only come around occasionally. The train company was obviously not raising a stink either so migrants were free to hang around the yard.
Later that evening we were walking through the town square when we ran into Dennis. Back in Tecun Uman Dennis hung out with us as we went around taking pictures (he is the guy cutting bananas with a machete) and we were glad to see he had made it this far in good shape. We invited him to dinner and he told us about the walk from Tecun Uman to Arriaga. Like so many others he had fallen victim to the bandits that prey on migrants as they pass through "La Rosera ", an area between two small towns known for harboring lots of thieves and small gangs. Fortunately, he said, he only had 70 pesos (U.S. $7) on him at the time so he did not loose much. Others he was with had much more and lost it all.
Despite being robbed Dennis was still in good spirits and was excited but slightly nervous about the train ride ahead. We gave him a little money so he could find food in the next town and then said good night.
The next morning we got up before the sun to see the train off. We were told it would leave at 7:00 am and didn't want to miss a moment.
The train yard was a buzz of activity. The groups from the night before had multiplied to hundreds (300-350 we estimated) all anxiously waiting to get on their way. People were crawling all over the train, throwing water bottles and backpacks to those already perched on the top, and trying out different locations for the safest, most comfortable ride to El Norte. Local vendors walked up and down the tracks selling food, water, candy, and Popsicles to migrants. Some of the more prepared groups dressed in plastic bags or cardboard to stay dry from the morning drizzle.
Around 7:45 the railroad workers finished their final preparations and the train, dragging empty cars and eager migrants, slowly made its way out of town.
The next few days we talked to residents and business owners about the constant stream of migrants going in and out of their town. They didn't seem to mind too much one way or the other. Some were slightly annoyed by people constantly coming to beg for food but no one held much resentment. Yes, they said it made the town a little dirtier but Arriaga has its fair share of emigrants as well. It is hard to see migrants as just an issue when you know their reasons for leaving.
Steve and I hung around Arriaga four more days until the next train came and went then we grabbed a bus and headed to Ixtepec where the freight is reshuffled before heading further north.
at 5:37 PM