Jesus Aguilar’s Salvadoran Spanish-inflected words sounded strange, out of sync with the sumptuous sights and sounds of his Mexican surroundings. As cascades from a flower-shaped pink quarry stone fountain filled the hot spring air of the convention center in Morelia, Michoacan, with soothing sounds and moisture, Aguilar shared the kind of conversion experience that inspires immigrant activism across Latin America. “I went to the (Guatemalan-Mexican) border town of Tecúm Umán to help a 70-year-old woman find her son. “He was last seen trying to cross the Suchiate River into Mexico,”said Aguilar, who, before working as an advocate for the rights of Salvadoran and other immigrants in Guatemala and Mexico, was a refugee who himself crossed several rivers after fleeing wartime El Salvador for Los Angeles. “We had to fight with the authorities, we filed papers and finally got permission to visit the fosas comunes [common graves],” he said. “After sifting through several dirt holes filled with shoes, shirts, dresses, teeth, saguaza [dirt mixed with blood or other substances] and lots of skeletons, we finally found the one with her son.” The screams, the sadness reminded me of the fosas comunes in Chalatenango,” his home state in El Salvador. “During the war, the bodies in the fosas were of women raped, men dismembered and other people tortured and killed by the death squads because they risked speaking out. Now the bodies are those of women raped, men beaten and other immigrants who die because they risk everything to pursue the dream that becomes a nightmare. Fosas comunes mean war–a war on immigrants,” said Aguilar, adding that “we have to keep fighting to save lives, to not forget.”
Aguilar’s stories were among many migrant tales heard from more than 600 participants in the first Latin American Community Summit on Migration (LACSM). Almost all attendees arrived with tragic stories and strategies drawn from the experiences of the more than 26 million migrants throughout the Americas who live outside their country of birth. Given the way immigration debates are conducted throughout the hemisphere–shutting out voices from outside the borders of nation-states, as the current debate around “immigration reform” in the United States has done–this first continental migrant summit in Morelia was nothing less than historic.
The meeting marks the start of what organizers hope will be an ongoing forum for concrete proposals and actions to combat the rapid rise of nationalism, xenophobia and punitive immigration policy not just in the United States but also in countries south of the Rio Grande. In this sense, one of the most important accomplishments of the LACSM is the creation of a hemispheric network. It is a critical, continent-spanning activist alternative to an immigration debate that has largely been defined by governments, politicos and corporate media (consider that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation controls media assets in more than seventeen Latin countries) that frame immigrants as a threat and call for the establishment of legal, political and cultural barriers. Rejecting the narrow prism of the nation-state itself, the LACSM international organizing committee placed responsibility for the immigration crisis on the larger forces reconfiguring nations and neighborhoods: