Two years ago, nearly to the day, I was in the southern city of Tapachula to report* on migration at Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
I vividly remember getting off the kombi for the first time outside the migration offices on the very outskirts of the city. Under the fierce tropical heat people were camped out on the pavement outside the entrance and stretching down into Nueva Esperanza (‘New Hope’), the municipal name of the neighbourhood whose main street had been transformed into a shanty town.
Sign marking Nueva Esperanza on the outskirts of Tapachula. Pic by Ann Deslandes, September 2019
Families from Haiti, Cuba, Angola and the Cameroon sat under tarps, cooking rice and beans on portable stoves, some made out of large tins of baby formula. There were groups of men drinking rum and playing cards and young people doing each others hair. All were waiting on some kind of paperwork to allow them to remain in Mexico, most with the intention to keep traveling, going northward to cross the US border. All were suffering the many perils and privations of the road, many traveling for years through South America, in order to find peace and safety from discrimination, gang violence, civil war, and/or certain poverty. In the meantime, they’d transformed Tapachula - bringing food and music and business and a diversity you don’t always see in Mexican urban centres.
Cooking materials and drying wet shoes, Tapachula. Pic by Ann Deslandes, September 2019.
One of the first people I talked to was 21-year-old Jacob, from Haiti; we met in a line at the immigration office. Like thousands of others, part of his journey so far involved crossing the Darién Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle leading out of Colombia into Panama, which provides a route into Central America. The dangers of the Gap are legendary for adventurers and explorers: for migrants, especially women, they can be deadly. Robbery, murder, and rape are common on the lawless trail; Jacob said he’d seen many people get injured and have to turn back. He shared photos with me and gave me permission to publish them. Both uncomfortable but curious enough about each other by our own calculations to keep going, we laughed about how there’s a town in Haiti called Deslandes, my surname; a moment in transnational colonial fate, named probably for Charles Deslondes/Deslandes, the leader of a slave rebellion in Louisiana in 1811. (My own patronymic ancestors are from Jersey in the British Channel Islands where, possibly following expulsion from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, they lived many generations before moving to South Australia - becoming the occupiers on unceded Kaurna Meyunna Yerta).
I stayed in touch with this sweet guy, a devout Christian full of faith in a settled and prosperous future, for a couple months before the line went dead. Now, as the news has brought images of Haitians gathered at the border - again under tarps, making food and community out of so little - corralled into Ciudad Acuña, chased and whipped by border guards, marched onto deportation flights, taking over prison buses, being anticipated (again) at Guantanamo Bay - I of course wonder if he’s there and how he’s doing. And I think of everyone I met around the immigration station - cheeky kids, hollowed-out men, fierce and funny women - and, notwithstanding the mundanity of human survival, how heroic and frankly frickin’ holy their journey is. As the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire reminds us, ‘nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark’. The Haitians being brutalised by the US right now have walked on water to get away from the shark and the US responds by pushing them under. If Mexico hasn’t succeeded first. It’s state sociopathy.
Migrants rest on the gruelling journey through the Darién Gap. Pic by Jacob, early 2019.
A while back, C, a Venezuelan pal noted to me that Mexico has become a destination in a way that you won’t read about in the travel media that at the time announced it as ‘the new Berlin’ and such. That is, there’s a lot of gringos like me who moved here if not for exotic affinity as for a kind of alternate route to the dead ends of affordable creative possibility at home. There’s also an ever-increasing number of migrants from the region and beyond - young Venezuelans like C whose only real chance at making such a life and providing for family at the same time is in exile; Salvadorians, Nicaraguans and Hondurans who came with migrant caravans and stayed; Indians on work contracts with multinationals who decide not to leave. And lately, Mexico has staged a welcome for (some) Afghans getting out after the Taliban took over their country once more.
To be sure: Mexico today is many things, among them a bottleneck and a sieve for increasing global mobility, even as and especially as the covid19 pandemic waves on.
Speaking of the rona. I recovered from it, apparently with no major lingering effects. But my brain is still so much slower than before, so once again I thank you for sticking with this newsletter. Here’s a round-up of Troubled Regions to keep you going till the next missive**:
- Bob Marley’s family to launch the first celebrity magic mushroom line
- How the role of personal expression and experience is changing journalism
- One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps
- Malaysian Mothers Win Battle Over 'Sexist' Citizenship Law
- ‘Burn It All Down’ Is a Call for Decolonization, Not Arson
- South Sea Islander community receive first formal apology for slavery
- Spinning bomb: Fighting the disinformation war
- Zapatistas, women, and gender dissidents: on the encounter in Notre Dame des Landes
- Woman condemned in Salem witch trials on verge of pardon 328 years later
- A Digital Dunkirk: Veterans Online Scramble to Get People Out of Afghanistan
- Afghanistan needs international support. But what kind?
- Wild rice sues to stop oil pipeline
*Teresa, the main subject of that story, was granted asylum in the US with her family about a year later. They have a home, a community and jobs and T is once again making trouble as a women’s rights activist.
**I’ll get to AUKUS. Defs. For now I just can’t stop laughing. It’s a coping mechanism. I got this in my inbox today.