Carlos, his brother-in-law José Alfredo, and Carlos’s son Kenneth squat on the sidewalk outside Mexico City’s Ciudad Deportiva stadium complex. The three have joined other men around a power strip by the stadium entrance, where another young man is asking ten pesos from anyone who wants to charge their phone. All the men are part of what has become known as the “migrant caravan”—just under 5,000 Central Americans who have been traveling north, mostly on foot, occasionally by bus, truck, or trailer, for the last month. City authorities had arranged for the migrants to shelter in the stadium while they were in the capital. On this night, a Monday in early November, busloads arrive from Puebla, the caravan’s last stop, and the complex bustles with people setting up tents and looking for friends and family.
Most women and children are already inside, sleeping, but those outside joke around and tussle. Alfredo and his nephew toss playful insults back and forth, collapsing onto each other in laughter, while Carlos hovers nearby, every so often joining their jabs with a grin. A few men with smartphones show each other pictures and play reggaetón hits on YouTube. Alfredo flashes a laminated card distributed by an aid organization, advising migrants of their rights while in Mexico, jokingly calling it his “all-access pass.”
Most caravan members are from Honduras. Carlos, 38, Alfredo, 24, and Kenneth, 14 (their last names have been withheld because they fear reprisals against their families), are all from San Pedro Sula, an industrial center in the northwest of the country, where the caravan started and many of the migrants are from. Like most in the group, the three men heard about it on the radio, TV, and social networks. Kenya, an 18-year-old also from San Pedro Sula, told The Nation she’d heard about the caravan on the radio at 6 on the morning of its departure. “I was sleeping, and my grandmother turned on the radio, and I heard about the caravan,” Kenya said. “I got up from the bed, went to ask my mother-in-law if she could take care of my baby, and I left her there.” She showered, packed her bag, and said goodbye to her family, including her two-year-old daughter Emily. By 8 am, she’d left—alone and without a single peso—to join the journey.
Alfredo, Carlos, and Kenneth, on the other hand, left Honduras a few days after the caravan set off. They crossed through Guatemala and into southern Mexico on foot and by bus. In Salto de Agua, Chiapas, they boarded La Bestia—“the beast”—the railroad that runs the length of Mexico, infamous for the danger it poses to migrants who jump onto moving trains and make the ride north clinging to the tops of freight cars. The trio recounted their journey to The Nation as if recalling weekend escapades: that time when Alfredo dodged migration officials in the jungles of Chiapas, when Kenneth got scared and didn’t want to get on the Bestia, or when they tried to sleep in the jungle and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. They caught up with the caravan in Tierra Blanca, a city in the Mexican state of Veracruz, about 240 miles south of Mexico City, just a few days before they arrived in the Mexican capital.
Like most members of the caravan, the three cited a variety of overlapping factors as their reasons for leaving their home country. “There are no jobs,” said Carlos. It’s particularly difficult for anyone over 30 to find work in Honduras, he said, because employers have their pick of candidates of all ages. At home, he had worked in a factory during the week, and he and Alfredo sold Honduras-themed novelty T-shirts on the weekends. Carlos’s wife, Sandra (who is not Kenneth’s mother), was the only one in the family to complete college, and even so, she graduated with no better work prospects than the ones she started with. She’d worked in fits and starts toward her college degree in business management, studying while working full-time at a clothing factory and raising four, then five, then six children. At times, said Carlos, they couldn’t feed their kids because they needed to pay for his wife’s studies. Still, when she graduated, she took on the same work as her husband, managing his T-shirt sales. “It wasn’t anything easy,” Carlos said, shaking his head. “And even though she has an education, she’s ended up just like me.”
Gang violence and extortion only compounds the economic instability faced by people like Carlos. Small-business owners in Honduras are common targets for extortion by gangs, who force them to hand over a cut of their profits or stop doing business. When Alfredo and Carlos left, they were being threatened for not paying this “tax.”
This is Alfredo’s second time heading to the United States, and Carlos’s third. Carlos had first gone about seventeen years ago, before he had a wife or kids. Carlos and Alfredo went together the second time, a little more than two years ago, riding the more-than-3,000 miles north over 24 days on the Bestia. They crossed the border in Los Algodones, Mexicali, near Yuma, Arizona, and were apprehended immediately. They spent several weeks in various detention centers in Arizona before being deported back to Honduras. This time around, Carlos left his wife behind with their six children. Along with his eldest son and brother, he told The Nation he plans to request asylum at the US border. None of them know where in the United States they want to end up—they only know they need to work.
By Thursday, the trio finally got out of the complex to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, taking advantage of the free metro access for migrants. The Basilica, Latin America’s most significant pilgrimage site, was a major attraction for members of the caravan during their stay. One young Honduran man, who said he writes Christian music and hoped to reach the United States to work on his music there, told The Nation he visited the Basilica on each of his four days in Mexico City.
That night, on the far part of the field, under the harsh stadium lighting, several soccer games pop up. Kids play board games and color with donated crayons. Throughout the night, groups of volunteers, many from churches or NGOs, many just concerned civilians, arrive offering shoes and clothing. Sneakers and backpacks are a hot commodity, as are strollers for the many mothers in the group. (A census during the week found that the caravan included about 1,700 children under 18, and 24 pregnant woman.) The migrants quickly gather, ordering themselves in a neat line.
Carlos, Alfredo, and Kenneth, however, are antsy. Like many in the caravan, the five-day wait in Mexico City had caused them to get frustrated with the group’s inertia. A few hundred migrants, worried about their prospects of reaching and crossing the US border safely, had already grown discouraged and started back to Honduras, boarding buses provided by Mexico’s National Migration Institute. Carlos, too, is beginning to feel desperate. “I need to feed my family,” he said, referring to his wife and five kids back home. “If I’m going to stay here and not work, I should go home and work, even if it’s just for beans.”
Earlier in the day, a group of a few hundred had marched to the Mexico City headquarters of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to request buses for transportation to the US border. When the group re-entered the stadium, they heard whistles and cheers, and chants of “¡Sí se pudo!”—“yes we could”—with all the fanfare of a World Cup victory.
Spirits are high. Throughout the journey, the migrants have convened nightly to decide on their next steps, and during Thursday’s assembly, a series of speakers stir the crowd from an impromptu platform in the middle of the stadium, alternating between explaining logistics and fervently exhorting those gathered with chants of “The people of America are one!” and “We are covered by the blood of Christ!” (Many members of the caravan are devout Catholics or evangelical Christians. The assemblies include repeated admonishments to pray and adamant reminders that God is on their side.) Carlos moves closer to the stage to hear better. Meanwhile, Alfredo and Kenneth oscillate between listening to the fuzzy audio system and joking around with new friends.
The UNHCR had declined the request for buses, but those who’d become the ad hoc leaders over the course of the journey announce the march will resume tomorrow. The group has decided to head to the north-central state of Querétaro next, and then to cross the border to the United States from Tijuana. (The route to Tijuana, though more than twice the distance of the route to the nearest port of entry in Reynosa, is far safer than the alternatives.) When the meeting finally ends, someone begins playing reggaetón over the sound system. A nearby cluster begins to dance.
Carlos has gotten a haircut and a crisp, new, donated white T-shirt in the last few days, and he’s ready to move on. Mexico is nice, he said, and maybe if he were alone, he’d stay and try to find work here, but he has a whole family to support, and worries he wouldn’t be able to earn enough in Mexico to send money home. Carlos said that, eventually, he wants his wife and the rest of his children to join him in the United States.
And despite the threats of troops at the border, and the possibility of another deportation, he’s hopeful that will happen. Sandra, his wife, dreams of studying law in the United States, Carlos told The Nation, and he wants his children to have better lives, too. “I don’t want my children to say, ‘Oh, I want to work in a factory,’ or ‘I want to be a vendor,’” he said. “I want them to see my wife and say, ‘I want to study.’”
“I see my children as engineers, as people with degrees. I see them in the US.”