Now that we have moved on with our journey it is time to write about Tapachula and what that city means to the migrants that pass through.
Tapachula has long been known as a central hub for the migrant journey. Historically it is the place where Central Americans hop trains for the first time on their route to El Norte (the north). It is home to another Casa Del Migrante as well as Grupo Beta headquarters and a hospital originally dedicated to migrants who have been injured by the trains.
Tapachula is located in the southernmost state of Mexico called Chiapas. This area has been known for its gang activity particularly the MS 13 and 18th street gangs which were pushed north after anti-gang laws were passed in Central American countries. Steve and I expected to find a run down Mexican city with lots of migrants and gang activity. Instead Tapachula turned out to be doing quite well compared to towns in Guatemala. Streets were clean and families came to hang out in the central square after dark.
We did see some gang markings on a few buildings but most were faded or crossed out. None of the migrants we talked to spoke of trouble with gangs in Tapachula.
After visiting the Casa Del Migrante we discovered trains had not been going through Tapachula since Hurricane Stan took out the bridges in 2005. After resting for a brief time, most migrants walk to Arriaga to grab their first train.
Even though trains no longer run there the shelter was full and Steve and I had to stay in a Hotel downtown. Every afternoon we took a cab back to hang out with migrants and hear their stories.
Everyone at the shelter was at a different point in their journey. Some were heading north for the first time. Others were on their fourth or fifth attempt after being caught and sent back. One man we talked to had lived in New York for 20 years. He was deported to El Salvador at age 32 after losing his resident alien status. While in his native country he got married and now two years later he is trying with his wife to make it back to his family in New York.
Two days before leaving we visited Albergue Jesus el Buen Pastor, a heath care facility set up for people who are not able to pay their medical expenses. Originally it was started to aid migrants who had lost limbs after falling off freight trains. Albergue still receives some migrants who have lost limbs on trains further north but many of their current patients are locals who cannot afford to stay at the hospital. Along with basic health care Albergue offers ESL (English as a second language), computer, and sewing classes to help patients learn skills they can use later on.
It was exciting to see that a place like this existed. I cannot imagine what life would be like to suddenly lose a limb instead of going to the U.S. to work and support your family. Without the chance to learn a professional skill it would be easy to lose hope. Albergue is a place committed to maintaining the dignity of people who would not have a chance at a decent job otherwise. If anyone wants to donate or volunteer with Albergue visit thier website at http://www.alberguebuenpastor.org.mx/.
From Tapachula the journey becomes much more difficult. There are eight separate checkpoints on the 140 mile road between Tapachula and Arriaga. This means taking a car or bus is out of the question for migrants without documents. The alternative is walking which takes three days for an able bodied person. Some people take the train tracks, others follow paths through the mountains. Either way they avoid all main roads which means taking on tropical forests. Most of the people we talked to were robbed at some point during these three days. Many were robbed multiple times. There is one area named ¨la Rosera¨ that is particularly known to be trouble.
Still many people along the way are also generous. There are just as many stories of restaurants giving food or people allowing migrants to work and earn some money for their trip.
Some migrants never make it to Arriaga but for those that do, a new chapter in their journey awaits. In a few days we will write about boarding the trains here in Arriaga. From what we have seen already, it will knock your socks off.