A BriCO perspective: from the Migrant Refuge in Salto de Agua

Every morning we would walk for 10 minutes through the town of Salto de Agua to arrive at the Casa Betania migrant refuge center. Passing through a mix of confused stares and friendly greetings during our route, we would cross over the tracks of La Bestia, the same cargo train that thousands of migrants have used in their journey north. And though the train has not run this way for some years, the passage of migrants can still be found in tattered clothing, old water bottles… or on occasion, a cautious (and often shy) greeting from a fellow traveler on the tracks. Not soon after we would be met by our first companion from Casa Betania, a dog missing half of his tail, always excited for a little attention. The remaining half of his tail would wag anxiously as we approached. The second salutation arrived from a gate that read: “Bienvenido, Bienvenida, hermano y hermana migrante.” It was a telling phrase that provided insight into the mission of Casa Betania, a welcome respite in perspective for those who took the perilous journey to leave their homes behind in search of a better life. 

Sometime after we would be greeted by the warm smiles of migrants and a chorus of buendias.  And then, to breakfast. A consistent routine of rice and beans. The hermanas would await us then, with various tasks or stories of the day. Some of these sisters hailed from Mexico, and others from across the ocean. All worked every day tirelessly to support this mission of giving these migrants a home, even if it was temporary. For the hermanas, this refuge too had become their life now, their new home. Only a few of the staff originally hailed from the areas around Salto de Agua. I thought then of the guiding words of the refuge, “Fui extranjero y me recibieron.” “I was a foreigner, and they welcomed me.”

For almost a month I was a human rights observer in Salto de Agua, Chiapas with Frayba Human Rights Center. Upon my return to Anchorage, Alaska I have had time to reflect on these memories. And though it may seem a bit of a stretch to link the deteriorating situation in Chiapas to Alaska, it could not be further from the truth. Our communities include families from all over Latin America and beyond… even if the political apparatus seems to disagree with the decision. During my time in Chiapas, I could not help but consider these same migrants now  living over 5,000 miles away in the Alaska winter as I worked near the beginning of their journey in Chiapas. It was near impossible to consider the stark differences between them.

And here were other migrants in the tropics, maybe a few with the same destination, pausing to rest for a couple days along the route of La Bestia, surrounded by the constant threat of danger and harassment. It is no exaggeration to say the Casa Betania refuge center is under constant siege outside its walls. A siege fueled by the mal gobierno that seeks to curb immigration at the behest of foreign policy from other nations, primarily the United States. This government is complicit in a campaign of harassment and abuse that turns a blind eye to violence and allows organized crime to do its dirty work. It is no big secret to the locals, to the hermanas working in Casa Betania, or even to extranjeros (such as myself) that Salto de Agua is a town ruled by corruption and cartels. Each group seeks to make their own profits from migrants while using or abusing them towards their own ends. The very image of a migrant has been reduced to that of livestock. Independent polleros (literally chicken handlers) deal in the business of moving migrants, their “cattle,” through the hostile environment of government forces and organized crime, often one and the same. Frequently men women and children are extorted, killed, or trafficked into forced labor or slavery. 

Amid all this we continued in our daily routines. Of rice and beans for meals, constant humidity, flooding, constant fiestas and firecrackers in the streets (sometimes until 2 am at night), and the gallos that arose us at 5 am.  As with all these formerly unfamiliar things it was possible to adjust. And likewise, it had become all too easy to adjust to the news of constant crimes against the migrants in this town. There is a threat to normalizing such brutality, and so it is necessary to remember these realities and speak of them, as we should never allow such crimes to fade into abstractions and statistics. Nor the reasons for their existence.

Because there was one thing I found that could never be normalized, a simple and often quick moment that carried so much weight: the moment these migrants left Casa Betania, stepped out the door, and said goodbye. Sometimes they would gather in prayer, while others would leave in silence with nothing but shoes and clothes. Sometimes we would only find out the next day they had left at night or early in the morning. And we might never know why.

Perhaps we knew them well, had a few days to hear their stories. Or perhaps some were only passing through. It didn’t matter. After some time as a volunteer in Casa Betania, with time  to listen and understand the hardships these people faced, there always existed a dread as to what awaited them outside those doors. Knowing full well the situation which I have described. 

It was beyond valuable then, to know of their individual stories, to listen to what they had already endured to arrive at this refuge center across the border from Guatemala and Mexico. To hear their fears, their anxieties, their hopes, their dreams; before wondering about their fates in the following weeks, or days. Cold reality lay on the other side. A world of walls, violence, and indifferent apathy. And all I could do was give them a hug, a handshake and wish them well. 

Que te vaya bien.  

And as they left, I would remain with a final thought. This dream they sought, this new home, would it be worthy of them when they arrived? Of course, it was safer. Of course, there existed more opportunity, more work. But what of respect? What respect was there for these people who endured mountains, bands of gangs, military/police harassment, blazing heat, dehydration, starvation, and all other perils of this road?  And all to arrive in the same space that I am able to call home.

This is the question I now ask, when they arrive to my home… will it be worthy of them? What kind of community awaits them? How do we best assist them in making a new home, so far away from everything they have ever known? I think of migrants from Guatemala or Columbia that now drive taxi cabs or work construction throughout the winter storms of Anchorage, Alaska. There are many similar situations in locales all over the globe, and with them many opportunities to welcome migrants and their voices to our communities. How do we continue this work and offer a welcoming experience amidst the perils of a racist hostility condoned by the state?

These are the questions that loom in my mind, but I know the answers will not only be my own. Much as the Zapatistas have shown within their own communities, in raising these marginalized voices and perspectives we will find these solutions. I urge everyone to look to migrants in their own communities, to recognize their dignity and the trials they have endured. To take part in projects that offer social, political, and economic support for them.  Anyone can help create these spaces of inclusion; strong communities that celebrate diversity and work towards answers together. Because ultimately the perspectives needed to answer the most pressing problems facing all of us, whether in matters of migration or not, will also come from these same people. 

It is my job, our job, to help them in their journey.

Our sincere thanks to Lalo Morales for spending a month in the service people in movement and for taking the time to write this account. If you have the time and inclination, we highly encourage you to volunteer with Frayba in the BriCOs as a human rights observer. You can apply to join the BriCOs here!

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