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    The Faces of Our Sons

    In Guadalupe, Mexico, three generations of women feed migrants riding the trains north.

    By Monica Pelliccia

    January 30, 2023

    Available languages: español

    • Ann

      Wonderful to read of these Mexican women who have taken the plight of those on the migrant trail to their hearts. I saw a documentary of the unbelievable suffering of those migrants and it has haunted me ever since. Courage to those brave women who have heard their desperate calls and are trying to help.

    • Jensine Lee

      A very important article showing the migrant's story from a different perspective. This makes me want to find a way to help.

    In two hours the cargo train called the “Beast” will reach the rural Veracruz town of Guadalupe, in eastern Mexico. Julia, Norma, Bernarda, Teresa, and other volunteers – Las Patronas – begin to cook rice, beans, and eggs with chili. They heat tortillas and fill bags with the food. Some prepare water bottles that will have to be thrown to the people on the cargo train, where hidden migrants make the dangerous journey north, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

    Around 8:30 p.m. a whistle blows, and the women run to the railroad with their boxes of food. But the engineer doesn’t even slow down; most of the food bags land on the ground.

    This is a daily routine for Las Patronas; not even Covid stopped them in the work they have been doing for almost three decades, since Valentine’s Day, 1995. That day a group of Central American migrants shouted from the train to sisters Bernarda and Rosa Romero. “Madre, tenemos hambre,” they called. “Mother, we’re hungry.” The sisters and their mother, Leonilia – they are sugarcane farmers – began to prepare food for migrants fleeing gang violence and poverty, and seeking opportunity or family reconnection in the United States.

    “It is a huge satisfaction to help people who need it,” says Bernarda. Over the years, she adds, with word-of-mouth reports and media attention, they’ve expanded their project. “When we started twenty-seven years ago, migrants were not so much in the line of fire of criminal and police extortions,” explains Norma Romero, a coordinator. Every day, Las Patronas prepare food bags to give to the migrants on trains and take care of those in their shelter. They treat their wounds, help with bureaucracy, and give them shoes, clothes, and a safe place to regain strength.

    three women standing at a kitchen counter

    Julia Ramírez, Maria Teresa Aguilar, and Norma Romero of Las Patronas. All photographs courtesy of Monica Pelliccia.

    “Migration is a business: we are a business,” says a Honduran father hosted in the shelter. “The gangs kidnapped us and asked our family for ransom,” adds his son, who is helping clean beans in the kitchen. “They covered our eyes, then beat us with a cane for four days. Why is it easy to move for some people in the world but not for us?”

    “We saw our sons in the faces of the migrants,” remembers Julia, who has been part of Las Patronas for twenty years. “Before I joined, one day, a sixteen-year-old migrant boy entered my patio and asked me for a taco. He had not eaten for three days, and reminded me of my son the same age,” she continues through tears. “His eyes were looking at me so deeply.”

    “That changed everything,” she adds. “I decided to dedicate myself totally to the migrants and I came every day. Knowing them helps us to break the narrative that they are criminals.”

    Keeping going year after year hasn’t been an easy task. The women faced criticism from some neighbors: “Why are you helping those criminal people? Why don’t you stay at home taking care of your husbands?” some asked them, suggesting that their charity work could land them in jail.

    But for all this time they’ve worked as a mostly female team, trying to overcome stereotypes about migrants and raise support through donations and volunteer help.

    Over the years, Las Patronas – a play on the town’s full name, “Guadalupe (La Patrona),” which in the plural means “female bosses” – involved their families, friends, and neighbors. Patronas like Nancy Mota, twenty-five, and Maria Teresa Aguilar, thirty-eight, are part of the third generation. Both of them have family members who immigrated to the United States. “I see my father in their eyes. He left when I was seven,” says Nancy, who joined two years ago.

    “I was working as a housekeeper, seeing the train go by every day, with people asking for food. I was wondering to myself: What can I give?” says Teresa while she cooks chilaquiles, corn tortillas cut into quarters and lightly fried. “I hope that we can inspire others.”

    a woman holding a bag of food next to a train track

    Julia Ramírez awaits the oncoming “Beast” train, holding a bag of food for the driver in the hopes that he will slow down.

    Local support for Las Patronas has grown stronger over time; local donors offer rice and beans, and long-term volunteers help out. Uriel, Alejandra, Edgar, and Itaviany help with tasks from cooking and delivering food to administrative support. And humanitarian donations and support come from farther away as well – donors include the International Committee of the Red Cross.

    “I feel the bittersweet impact of this humanitarian work,” says Itaviany, while cooking rice and beans. “This is the second time I’ve come; they are like a family to me.” It is a feeling shared by other volunteers such as Edgar from Mexico City. “Here,” he says, “I learned that doing things without expecting a reward is a way to work toward a better world.”

    “After twenty-seven years, there is still a lack of governmental policies for migrants: they are left alone in the streets and exposed to abuse,” says Norma Romero. She is sitting on the kitchen patio, in front of a mural map of Central America. Los sueños también viajan, it says: dreams travel too. The mural has portraits of migrants Las Patronas have helped over the years. Some, like Gonzalo and Jaime, reached the United States; others, like Kelvin, died falling from the trains.

    Among them, the most vulnerable are the women and girls. “A lot of women decide to cut their hair, bandage their breasts, and inject contraceptives before migrating,” writes Alejandra Uribe Aguirre, volunteer and researcher in rural development at Autonomous Mexican University of Xochimilco. “Some of them prefer to make pacts with one person during their journey to offer sex in exchange for protection rather than be raped multiple times by different persons.”

    Though there is a lack of official data, the Mexican National Commission of Human Rights and Amnesty International estimate that six out of ten migrant women are raped as they make their way through Mexico. These numbers are drawn from complaints; no one knows how many times it happens to women who are too afraid to report assault, or those who don’t know how to.

    As witnesses of human rights violations, Las Patronas work without any state support to shed light on migrant stories. In 2013 the group won the Mexican National Human Rights Award; it established a reputation as human rights defenders and members often give talks to universities and schools. “We never expected to share our experience in public,” says Julia. “I’ve lost the fear of talking in public: we always invite people to help migrants and learn their stories. There are so many little things that everyone can do.”

    The hazards of the migrant trail remain immense: in 2021 the disappearances of Central American migrants in Mexico quadrupled, with more than a hundred thousand people on official lists. This year Las Patronas hosted a group from the Caravan of Central American Mothers, who were traveling the route of the “Beast” in search of their missing sons and daughters.

    Las Patronas continue to ask for national policies with greater respect for people’s lives and dignity. After the deaths of nearly fifty migrants in a trailer in Texas, during the late June heat wave, they wrote to Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador: “How many migrant lives do we need to lose before national and international institutions can work to bring dignity to people who are migrants?”

    “We dream of a change in migration policies,” concludes Norma. “We will continue to dedicate our lives to this mission. We invite people to know and help migrants. Any one of us could find herself in their place.”

    Contributed By MonicaPelliccia Monica Pelliccia

    Monica Pelliccia is an Italian freelance multimedia journalist who covers environmental and social issues such as biodiversity conservation, women’s issues, climate change, Indigenous Peoples’ rights, food security and agroecology.

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