Article by Wendy Vado, the Connecting Peoples Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committe (MCC) Nicaragua and Honduras.
Migration is complicated and stories of migration, like their protagonists, are unique. What they have in common is the combination of resilience and the human desire to survive. In the countries of the Central American isthmus, the majority of migration stories involve people who have been forced to leave their homes because of a lack of access to opportunities, jobs, water, health, safety, or dignified shelter: basic rights for all citizens in the 21st century.
The populations of these countries are vulnerable to impunity and disasters like last year’s Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which seriously damaged both the infrastructure and harvests of entire communities: a clear example of how climate change affects small countries lacking environmental policies. It’s hardly surprising, then, that thousands of people in Honduras see their only hope for a better future in caravans or coyotes.
People of all races, genders, and ages migrate. Despite the fact that the US is pressuring countries like Guatemala and Mexico to contain migrants through so-called “safe third country” policies, women and children cross borders every day.
As a Central American, I’ve heard stories of migration my whole life, including those of family members and close friends have had to leave my country, Nicaragua. Some of their stories are inspiring, while others are chilling. This year, in Nicaragua alone, six women have been murdered in their journey across borders or in the countries where they hoped to start again: Costa Rica, Panama, Spain, and the United States, to name a few.
What makes a person want to migrate to another country? The reasons are many, and range from scholarships to better salaries to simple survival.
I wanted to explore this question with women who have been returned to Honduras. Thanks to MCC partner Mennonite Social Action Committee of Honduras (CASM), I was able to speak with Kennia Sanchez, 29, from the Yoro department of Honduras.
Image courtesy of CASM
Kennia is married with two children. Initially, her husband was the one who left for the United States. When he was returned after an unsuccessful attempt, he thought his wife and three-year-old child might have a better chance.
“There was no work,” Kennia told me over the phone. “We were deep in debt. We made some calculations and the coyote offered to bring me and my son for the same price.”
They managed to find 8,000 US dollars, and on Friday, June 14th, 2019, Kennia left with her son in her arms and a backpack full of diapers, kid’s clothes, and her dreams. She didn’t tell anyone in her family: only she and her husband knew about the plan.
Honduras to the US-Mexico border
The journey to Mexico was uneventful. Kennia told me that the person who accompanied them treated them well, even preferentially. But everything changed once they reached Reynosa, a city in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas bordering the United States. There, her son got sick in the warehouse where they were staying, waiting with other migrants to receive the coyotes’ instructions.
“We were in Reynosa for five days, sometimes in houses and sometimes in warehouses,” she said. “They tell you that you can’t go out because the area is controlled by the Zetas (one of the most dangerous cartels in Mexico), so we were just sitting there with 100 other scared migrants.”
Hearing about the bodegas, I couldn’t help but think about what happened in Tamaulipas in 2010, when 72 migrants were murdered by the Zetas. 72 corpses were left there: 24 Hondurans, 14 Salvadorans, 13 Guatemalans, 5 Ecuadorans, 3 Brazilians, and one Indian citizen. 58 men and 14 women. 12 bodies remain unidentified. Death is much more common than you imagine in these journeys.
Hearing about Kennia’s journey with her three-year-old son, I thought of my own four-year-old daughter, who was playing and shouting outside my house as we spoke. I wondered what she saw when she looked at her son and how he had felt, being so far away from home.
“Now, sometimes he says to me, ‘Mama, let’s never go back to that place where there were so many flies.”
Image courtesy of CASM
While her son’s memories might be foggy, for Kennia, the memory of running into the bushes with her sick little boy, looking for a safe place to cross the Rio Grande and enter the United States, are very much alive.
“We had to hide in the bushes,” she said. “A couple of kids helped me carry my son. But when we reached the banks of the river, he started to cry. Migration was coming after us. When I saw him crying, I said that’s it. I have to hand myself in.”
It’s such an intense image. I imagined the thoughts and feelings that must have come to Kennia in that moment. She must have thought of her son’s life first, like any mother would do. Like I would do.
“The river is deep. Even at the banks, you can tell the water is higher than a person. The coyote goes with you, but that’s no guarantee. Sometimes they leave you there. When my husband tried to get to the United States, he almost drowned. I just couldn’t go in with my son.”
Imagining Kennia and her son at the banks of the river, I can’t help but remember another tragic story that made its way around the world in June of 2019: the Salvadoran father who drowned with his daughter as they tried to cross the river. I’m sure Kennia had also heard this story, and knew it was a possibility.
This would not be the last time Kennia held her son close, wishing they were somewhere else. While they were being held in detention in Mexico, they weren’t even given a glass of water.
“My son said to me ‘mama, I’m thirsty.’ I asked for water for him, but they didn’t give us any. I thought to myself ‘why are we doing this?’”
Abuse and mistreatment in Mexico’s detention system is nothing new. Migrants are frequently treated like the worst kinds of criminals, whether its by ICE in the US or at checkpoints in Mexico and Guatemala. However, in the majority of cases, they’re simply brave individuals seeking a better future. Brave, yes—because it takes a lot of courage to do what Kennia did to leave her home.
Kennia was deported back to Honduras, together with her son. She told me she would never think of trying the journey again.
Today, thanks to CASM, she’s taking a cooking course and has started a food stall. At this point in the story, her voice changes. She tells me about her clients; she tells me that the work can be hard, but that the food she sells never fails. She’s even learning how to make pizza. She talks about the support she’s received from CASM.
“CASM helps us psychologically too. They’ve helped us deal with all of the anxiety we’re experiencing because of Covid-19.”
At this point, Kennia finally told me why she wanted to leave Honduras in the first place.
“They came to the house and killed my father, because my uncle was a money changer. They tied up my sister and me, and when my father arrived on his motorcycle, they thought he was my uncle. They shot him in front of our eyes.”
Kennia left because she couldn’t stand to see the image of father murdered in front of her. Anytime she saw a motorcycle or had to travel to the centre of the city, her confidence was shattered. Her sister left before she did.
Honduras has a serious security problem. Citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador live at the mercy of the gang leaders who extort them. Even from prison, they send their emissaries to decide the fate the people who live in areas under their control.
Despite all of this, Kennia still has the will to keep fighting. If she could migrate legally, she would. For now, she’s concentrating on her two sons and on managing her business. “Little by little, I’m moving forward.”
I said goodbye to Kennia, and thanked her for sharing her story with me. I came away from our conversation inspired by the resilience and courage of the women of Central America, of our people who, like Kennia, are, little by little, rebuilding their lives and their dreams.
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