Saturday night at a migrant shelter in southern Mexico
Our driver stops about a mile away from the Guatemalan border, refusing to go deeper into the mud. Friar Tomás González Castillo steps out of the passenger-side door and surveys the farmland. Two teenage boys pull up in a Ford F-150. Seeing our predicament, they grin. “You won’t make it,” they tell us. “Only horses and people can pass — and our truck.” As if to prove their point, a man on a horse, laden with two sacks of what looks like rice, trots past. The boys giggle. With the F-150 in neutral, they turn their gaze down the road and wait for something. A few minutes later, from behind trees several hundred feet beyond us, two migrants emerge.
“It’s La Raza — the people,” González says. The F-150 plods through the mud to reach the migrants, who wear backpacks and baseball caps. The boys in the truck get out and speak to them. “They’re negotiating a price,” González says. Money changes hands. The migrants hop into the flatbed and the F-150 is off, back the way it came, deeper into Mexico.
“The smugglers don’t even try to hide what they’re doing here,” González says. The rest of the migrants’ thousand-mile journey to the United States, though, has gotten much more difficult over the past year. At the behest of the U.S. government, Mexican authorities have launched a program dubbed Frontera Sur — Southern Border — which has increased the number of checkpoints throughout the region. Deportations have jumped nearly 80 percent. Most of those deported are fleeing Honduras, a country suffering from horrific gang violence. The program has significantly reduced the number of migrants who make it to the U.S. border, even as the number of people fleeing Central America in 2015 is on track to be the second highest on record.
For the past five years, González has run a migrant shelter called La 72 in the town of Tenosique in the state of Tabasco. Housing sometimes as many as 250 people, it is one of the largest shelters in the country, which has made González a vaunted figure among human-rights workers and anathema to criminals and law enforcement. Over the years, local gangs have threatened to decapitate him, and local officials have accused him of human trafficking. González, who is 42 and burly, has an intense stare. He seems much bigger and more imposing than he is. Even the migrants are intimidated by him.
Born in Mexico City to a middle-class family, González entered the Franciscan Order at 19. “All of a sudden, I grew close to the church,” he tells me. “It happened very quickly.” When asked if he felt the hand of God when he made the decision to become a Franciscan, González scrunches his face with annoyance before admitting that he did. He quickly adds, “I also know that life can change its direction in a moment.”
Earlier in the day, we’d stopped at La Palma, a small town on the bank of the San Pedro, a tributary of the river that demarcates the Guatemalan border in this part of Mexico. The San Pedro snakes through lush hills, punctuated on both sides by rickety wooden piers. González stood beside the water and pointed to the old fishing boats slowly rowing upstream. According to González, a year ago migrants filled the boats. They paid 200 pesos, or about $13, for a ride to Mexico. The migrants rode safely and cheaply. The government crackdown ended these trips. Now the migrants must cross by land, walking for days through mountains and wilderness in heat that can reach 95 degrees.
González and I return to La 72. When the Franciscan Order assigned him to work with migrants in Tenosique, the shelter consisted of a few beds in a spare storage space behind a church. It has grown into a compound of a half-dozen cinder-block buildings. Murals cover the walls. Che Guevara. Scripture. The Virgin of Guadalupe with a Zapatista bandanna around her face. A map of routes through Mexico marking which areas the cartels control. In the chapel hang 72 crosses, each one representing a corpse found after the 2010 San Fernando migrant massacre from which the shelter derives its name.
La 72 takes in women, children, and the elderly, but the vast majority of its inhabitants are young men, their testosterone suffusing the shelter. It is a Saturday, and the migrants are eager for the evening to come. After dusk settles, González directs a group to clear the central square of tables and chairs. Someone rolls over a 3-foot-high speaker, a volunteer DJ plugs in his phone, and soon cumbia thumps.
González believes that, even without alcohol (which is forbidden), dancing on Saturdays helps distract the migrants from the conditions at the shelter, where sometimes there aren’t enough beds and pregnant women compare due dates to determine who’ll get a mattress for the night. Although law enforcement recognizes the shelter and its surrounding fields as a sanctuary zone, the migrants know that authorities are waiting to arrest them. Most stay for only a few days, but a semipermanent population of asylum seekers awaits the government’s response to their applications, which takes anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Saturday is also when González occasionally lets loose, sometimes dancing for hours alongside the migrants.
Before the dance begins, word circulates that two transgender migrants will perform. No one knows what they are planning, but curiosity and boredom have stoked anticipation to a high pitch. The two strut onto the dance floor wearing big red wigs, tight dresses, and bright makeup that the staff helped apply. The crowd of 150, mostly men, hoot and whistle and take selfies with the pair. The show consists of a lip-synced performance of Pimpinela’s “A Esa,” a melodramatic duet in which a spurned woman instructs her man to tell his lover of the horrible life she should expect from him. The performers lip-sync poorly, the acting is wooden — and none of it matters. The crowd whoops at every toss of hair. In the front row, González sits on the ground, grinning.
Behind the main square is a mural that depicts González in his Franciscan habit providing food to migrants. Above his head floats a train, racing straight at the viewer. The Beast, the infamous train that migrants hop onto when they head north, stops a few blocks from the shelter. Standing atop the men’s dormitory, one can see the train coming. When it arrives, migrants rush out the shelter’s gates to catch it. González tells me that the worst thing he’s seen since founding La 72 was a migrant cut in half by the train’s wheels. The man bled out in his arms. “Now when I see the migrants approach the train,” he tells me, “I get very nervous. If it’s going too fast, I scream for them to not jump on.”
After the song finishes, migrants pack the square. In torn shirts and frayed jeans, the men dance, many alone or in small circles, waiting for another woman to step onto the dance floor. As I watch, a 20-year-old from Honduras named Luis strikes up a conversation with me. He wants badly to participate. However, the walk from the Guatemalan border to the shelter had destroyed his shoes. He’d arrived wearing plastic bags on his feet. Now he wears undersized flip-flops he’d taken from the donations heap. Fine for walking around the shelter, but, as he points out, no good for dancing. They’ll be even worse for the hundreds of miles of Mexico he still has to traverse. We part, and I leave the shelter. On a whim I return, wondering if González has decided to join in. He hasn’t, but in the middle of the square is Luis, dancing with abandon.