Translation: The Void
Translated by Patrick Moseley
Daniel Alarcón: Hey, a message to musicians who follow us. Listen up. NPR Music is holding a Tiny Desk Contest to find one great unsigned musician to play the iconic Tiny Desk concert series and tour the United States with NPR Music. Shoot a video of your musical act playing an original song and submit it by January 29. Learn more at NPR dot org slash Tiny Desk Contest.
Daniel: Let’s start with Valeria Fernández. She is an independent journalist who grew up in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.
Valeria Fernández: I grew up near a coastal road called la rambla, close to the beach. In a city where the wind blows you away.
Daniel: As a child, she would visit her grandparents in Rivera, a city on the border between Uruguay and Brazil. It was almost an imaginary border –two countries united by a park.
Valeria: I loved how you could stand in the middle of a park and look at a clock in the middle of the park, and you could see that it was noon in Uruguay and one in the afternoon in Brazil.
For me it was like a magical tunnel in time, going to Brazil in a single step.
Daniel: Now Valeria lives in the US, in Phoenix, Arizona, and let’s just say it’s another world. Not just for the obvious reasons: the language, the people, the culture, the desert…
Valeria arrived to Arizona when she was around 20 and lived without papers for a while. Her tourist visa had expired. She met a lot of people in a similar situation in jobs she had…
Valeria: They were almost all Mexican. And I know that they had what they’d call “twisted papers.” So in a way, living with them was what made me interested in covering topics involving immigration.
Daniel: When she finally managed to settle her situation, the first trip she took wasn’t to Uruguay, but to Mexico. To the fence that separates Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico.
It was very different from the border she remembered as a girl.
Valeria: And seeing that wall is very striking. It was like porcupine quills on top of the mountain. A rusty fence…that follows the curves in the land and cuts across the mountains.
Daniel: And on the other side, the Mexican side, she found people who wanted to cross, but couldn’t. However for her…
Valeria: I could cross to the other side easily. And I really felt that contrast. It’s eye-opening… How some of us have the privilege to cross with documentation and others don’t.
Daniel: That has also happened to me. Often you try to protect yourself from your own privilege. In other words, you ignore it, or try to forget about it. But on the border, on a border that’s as militarized as the one between the U.S. and Mexico, well…there you don’t…you can’t. There are those who can pass without a problem. And those who can’t. Period.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. This is a story about borders. In 2014 when Valeria was already working as a journalist, covering topics related to immigration, children started arriving –waves and waves of unaccompanied children from Central America.
And she realized that the border doesn’t start in Arizona.
Valeria: It starts long before that. In recent years, all of Mexico has become a border for Central Americans.
Daniel: So in July 2016 she went south, to the border between Mexico and Guatemala. To a river called…
Valeria: The Suchiate… And the river was full of people in little rafts, crossing, some of them with their groceries, some of them maybe were migrants. It was hard to tell which people were trying to enter Mexico as immigrants and which were just doing their shopping for the day, on the other side, in Guatemala.
Daniel: It was that informal?
Valeria: It’s a natural border. On one side you have the port of entry to Mexico on an elevated bridge and a few meters away there are people crossing in rubber tubes or inflatables. I would say hundreds of people.
Daniel: In a way, the border between Guatemala and Mexico looks more like the border Valeria knew as a girl, the one separating Uruguay and Brazil.
And though it seems informal, this is just the first step. What’s in store for the migrants isn’t easy at all.
Many of these minors that Valeria saw crossing will never make it to the US. Some are going to end up in Mexican detention centers or here, in a shelter for minors run by the State.
Valeria: The shelter is on the outskirts of the city, in Tapachula, Chiapas, surrounded by a towering white wall that would be very difficult to climb over to escape. After going through the gate there is a security guard who greets you, and there is a small park inside where there is some playground equipment like slides and swings…
Daniel: There are dwarf fan palms and other big lush trees that provide a lot of shade and simple benches to sit on. And on the right hand side there are the rooms where the children stay.
Valeria: That are, I’ll say, rather sad-looking…
Daniel: The walls are covered in graffiti…
Valeria: I remember there was one that said “Hell exists” and things like that. As if generations of children have passed through here and there were several painted hands trying to cover up the graffiti.
Daniel: By that time of year, in June, about a thousand young people had already passed through. The majority of which were Central American…
Valeria: But there were at least some 20, 25 children there the day I went.
Daniel: And among them there were two transgender girls: Adriana and Alexia.
Valeria: Who stayed in a separate area, but not very far from the where the boys stayed.
Daniel: Why did you want to speak with them?
Valeria: It seemed like an important opportunity to understand why they came from Guatemala and also understand how they were being treated in Mexico, or how Mexico was dealing with addressing their specific needs.
Daniel: So Valeria asked Adriana why she came to Mexico.
Adriana: Because I had problems in my country. So I decided to run away from my country so that my life wasn’t in danger.
Daniel: Adriana is 16 years old and grew up in Guatemala. Ever since she was very young, her sister helped her to accept herself as she was.
Adriana: Because my sister was the only one who knew I was this way, she started to tell me not to live in fear, to face the truth and to face my mother as well.
Daniel: So Adriana, little by little, started to express who she really was…
Adriana: And thank God, everyone accepted me.
Valeria: Even though her family accepted her and that was easy for Adriana, she had another kind of problem, because in order to be independent, in order to get her own apartment, buy herself clothes… she had to get a job. And that was not easy. She was rejected out of hand because of the way she looked.
Adriana: They asked me for a lot and they asked me to dress like a man again. I didn’t want that.
Valeria: And since she couldn’t get a job, she resorted to prostitution. A year before she spoke with me, Adriana started to get threats from gang members.
Adriana: And they asked me for a lot of money. I gave them what I could. Then the amount they asked for started going up a lot, they started to send threatening messages to me and the other girls. And they started telling us that if we didn’t give them the money they were going to kill us.
Valeria: And eventually they shot her friend Alexia.
Daniel: This is Alexia.
Alexia: The last time they hurt me, because they did several times, they shot me a few times with a shotgun. Well, that’s why my hand is still in bad shape. The only time they hit me it was in my hand.
Daniel: And Alexia was one of the lucky ones. Many of her friends were killed.
Valeria: It’s very common for gangs to ask people who have businesses or companies to pay a share of their earnings, like a toll fee, for existing.
Alexia: Fearing that we would be next… that’s also why we left. Uh-huh…
Daniel: They packed up their things and left Guatemala. When the made it to the Suchiate river, the migration authorities found them and detained them. And that’s the questions, isn’t it? What happens when the Mexican authorities find unaccompanied minors?
Well, there’s the law, and there’s the reality…
The law says:
Valeria: Underaged children, especially those travelling alone, must be transferred to a state shelter for underaged children, because that is the appropriate place for them. It’s called DIF.
Daniel: DIF, which stands for the Integral Family Development System, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Spanish. It’s like the family institute in Mexico. Well, that’s the law.
Valeria: But that’s not always what happens. Really in most cases, according to the statistics I compiled, they enter the custody of a migrant holding center, which is in effect a detention center. They put them in a unit for children and they stay there until they get a visit from their country’s consulate. And they deport them.
Daniel: Before making it to the shelter where Valeria met them, Adriana and Alexia first went through one of these migrant holding centers. And they put them in the unit where the men stay. In part because they didn’t know what to do with them.
Adriana: They put us in a dark room, just the two of us. And there were guys there…they came and they…they insulted us. They never attacked us because they couldn’t with the security there but they did insult us. They put us…showering wasn’t very comfortable.
Valeria: They had to share the bathroom with the men. Not necessarily at the same time, but it was in a partially open space…
Daniel: Adriana felt very uncomfortable.
Adriana: I was like traumatized because I felt like they could jump in [the shower] or they were going to harass us… I, I couldn’t shower.
Valeria: Along with everything that had happened to them in Guatemala: being attacked, the gang members threatening them, now they were in a detention center where they felt they could be harassed. Now [Adriana] was even more affected by everything.
Adriana: I’m even more scared now. I feel like I want to run because they’ll grab me or do something. Yes, I’m very afraid.
Valeria: She thinks that, well, these are things she’ll need to learn to overcome and get past, you know?
Adriana: I’ve always told myself that I have to learn to live with…with my fears. And hope I can fight them…and stop having that fear I felt and still feel.
Valeria: It was very interesting to see how, sometimes, these kids try to get rid of this weight they carry inside.
Daniel: You mean, their traumas.
Valeria: Yes… They make it seem like these things are things that they should get over, you know? So they come with this heavy load, with this trauma and they try to minimize it…because it seems like that’s their last resort, or the only means they find to survive and keep going on their journey.
Daniel: When you met Adriana and Alexia, how long ago had they escaped from Guatemala?
Valeria: They had left Guatemala two months earlier.
Daniel: And what’s their legal status?
Valeria: Fortunately, Adriana and Alexia requested asylum in Mexico. But they didn’t understand the details of the process very well.
Valeria: And who’s representing you? Who is your lawyer in the case?
Adriana: No one.
Valeria: Are you going to get one or…
Adriana: No. We only came here because migration agents brought us.
Valeria: So if you want to follow up on your case, who tells you how things are going?
Adriana: No one.
Valeria: No one.
Daniel: We’ll be back after a short break.
I’m going to be very honest: I listen to the news almost out of a moral duty, but they depress me. One fun way I stay on top of the news is by listening to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the NPR News quiz. It’s really funny and very entertaining, and on the weekend of January 14th, Tom Hanks is guest hosting. Listen on the NPR One app and at NPR dot org slash podcasts.
Daniel: I’m Daniel Alarcón. You’re listening to Radio Ambulante.
And this is the voice of a volunteer at a shelter in Chahuites, Oaxaca. He’s calling out the names listed for a group of migrants who are requesting a humanitarian visa. And here’s the thing: all of these people, everyone, had been assaulted.
Valeria Fernández, who we’ve been following on her journey through southern Mexico, was there that day. She spoke with Jessica Cárdenas, the shelter’s coordinator. And Jessica told her that in the past two years in Mexico…
Jéssica Cárdenas: There have been at least nearly 1,500 reports of attacks.
Valeria: The people who are assaulting the migrants are criminals: people who hide along the way while the migrants are traveling, and Jéssica explained to me that they from inside the community…
Jéssica: They come down from the hill, with weapons, with machetes or rifles. They ask them to get undressed, to take off all of their clothes and then they go through the clothes themselves to see if the migrants have any money. They start touching the women’s breasts and all that… They’re completely naked. In that sense there is also sexual abuse, you see?
Valeria: And of course, there is the problem of impunity.
Jéssica: Unfortunately the Attorney General’s Office has not been efficient nor effective in detaining these criminals, and sadly these crimes have been increasing over the last two years.
Valeria: And that is precisely what caught my attention. If we want to understand the situation of those who are migrating, we need to understand the vulnerability they are exposed to. Chahuites became a new route, because that is where you can get on a train. That’s why I wanted to go.
Daniel: At that shelter in Chahuites, Valeria met Abel, a 17 year old Guatemalan boy. It was his third time trying to cross.
Valeria: Abel told me the same story a lot of young people had told me. They come hoping to get a better job. It was for economic reasons. He, like many others, has a relative in the United States, in his case it was his brother living in Washington, who told him: “Why don’t you come up? Here you can get a job pruning trees, and you can make a lot more money here than there”.
Daniel: In his previous attempts, Abel never made it into the United States.
Valeria: On his second trip, he was detained by authorities from a municipal police department near Veracruz. Some friends had told him that it was going to get cold on the way and so he went to a small shop with some money his mother had sent him to buy a coat.
Abel: I was trying on a jacket, to see if it fit…
Valeria: He was trying on one that was thicker, another that was a little thinner…
Abel: I liked one and I had it on when the police arrived.
Valeria: And they said to him:
Abel: “Your documents, please.”
Valeria: Documents to identify himself…
Abel: “No, we don’t carry any, we’re migrants.” “Where are you from?”, he asked. “We’re from Guatemala.” And then he told everyone: “Come with us to the patrol car.”
Valeria: Of course, Abel and his friends didn’t want to go in the patrol car, but they were practically forced in and they told them -which was strange to me- that if anyone asked why they were detained, to say nothing.
Abel: “You’re not going to say anything,” he says.
Daniel: Why did they ask him for his documents?
Valeria: I guess because they saw the way he looked, maybe because he wasn’t dressed very well, maybe because of his appearance, his physical features. That’s why they asked him for his documents. They thought maybe he was in the country illegally.
Daniel: So the Mexican police does exactly the same thing the US police does in many cases…to Mexicans. Except they do it to Central Americans, like Abel.
Abel: They took us to where they keep the detainees. That’s where we were locked up for 11 days.
Valeria: And then they deported him. He returns to Guatemala and only stays there for two days before it occurs to him -suddenly- that he has no reason to stay in Guatemala. And that the chance to maybe make it to the United States and change his life was ahead of him, you know?
Daniel: And when you met him, what was his perspective? He had tried twice already, he had failed twice. And he was going to try a third time? Why?
Valeria: He told me it was different this time because he’d met other young people who were doing the same thing. So he didn’t have to travel alone that time, because traveling alone is very hard and very risky. He thought that maybe if he traveled in a group it would be harder to be attacked and it would be more enjoyable. He had friends, so he wouldn’t feel so alone on his journey.
Daniel: Abel met a lot of young people who were requesting humanitarian visas, and under law, he could request one as well. But…
Valeria: Abel told me that he didn’t want to. He wanted to keep going, get on on the train rather than wait. And the last time I saw him, that’s just was he was doing: getting on the train.
Abel: That’s migration, right up there…
Migrant: How long is it there?
Abel: Where? There by that…that yellow machine over there.
Migrant: But how long is the train going to be here?
Abel: I’m not sure… Sometimes it stops for 10 or 15 minutes.
Daniel: This train is “the Beast”, the one you hear about so often. And getting on requires some physical strain, some athleticism. It’s very dangerous.
Valeria: If you don’t know how to grab ahold of the train to get on, you get sucked under… And well, plenty of people have lost legs, feet, arms.
Daniel: Did you see him get on?
Valeria: Yes. And I think at that moment I thought: What’s in store for him? Will he run into the Zetas? Will they try to kidnap him? How many things will he still see… And will he be the same Abel I know know when we makes it —if he makes it— to the other side.
Take care of yourselves!
Daniel: About 10 days after saying goodbye to Abel, Valeria found herself in Mexico City, the city that many migrants consider the midway point.
Valeria: They feel triumphant. They feel like…like now that they’re there, they’re a little closer to the United States.
Daniel: There Valeria visited one last shelter. One that happened to have just opened.
Valeria: The shelter is in a neighborhood. It’s like a house. And it’s different from the others because it isn’t a transitory set-up, it’s a place where you can stay for a long time. Obviously they have shared rooms and a dining room where people spend time together. And the night I arrived they were having a kind of meeting with one of the organizers in the church-library, you know? It’s like multipurpose room.
Daniel: The room had a lot of echo, with an altar on one side and bookshelves on the other.
Valeria: And the shelter’s coordinator, who is Father Alejando Solalindes, a very well-known priest, said: “Ah, Valeria! Don’t wait out there. Come in. Come in.” And he tells me “you can be here, you can interview them here.” And he puts me in a room with about 20 teenagers so I could interview them all at once.
Daniel: The young boys and girls were in a circle sitting on some white plastic chairs.
Valeria: They’re all talking at once. They all talk at the same time, talking over one another, and I think to myself: “How am I going to interview all of them at the same time?” I didn’t have the chance to pull out my recorder at the time because I was introducing myself and I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable by taking out my recorder at that moment, you know?
Daniel: So Valeria tried to break the ice.
Valeria: So I told them: “I’m also a migrant like you.” And they shouted out: “What? No way! No, no, no, no. You’re joking,” they said. “What do you mean a migrant? That’s not migrating,” one said. “That’s not migrating. Migrating means going through a lot.” “A migrant is someone who deals with everything.” “A migrant is someone who suffers along the way…to get there.”
And the truth is I was a little embarrassed… And it was a small lesson in humility because I was trying to relate to them with the best intentions, and, right away, they throw it back at me or make me check that privilege. That privilege of taking a plane. That privilege of having a passport to cross the border. That privilege of having studied English. That privilege even in the color of my skin, in looking more Anglo-Saxon or more European, that keeps me from getting detained like Abel was. That privilege of making myself invisible, if I want to.
Daniel: In the next episode of Radio Ambulante: What happens to unaccompanied minors who do make it to the US?
Óscar: After everything that I’d gone through, now came the nerves: what was I going to do in a different school, in another language, and all that?
Adela Toledo: A lot of them have a sort of mask on, and they don’t want to show themselves or they don’t want to show their weaknesses…And since many of them have gone through pretty horrible things, they try to protect themselves by turning away from others or by causing trouble.
Daniel: Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona. She took the trip she shared with us in this episode with the support of a grant from the International Center for Journalists. We’ve leaving a link to her documentary, Two Americans, on our website.
This story was edited by Silvia Viñas, Camila Segura and me. The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Luis Trelles, Fe Martinez, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Barbara Sawhill and Caro Rolando. Our interns are Emiliano Rodríguez, Andrés Azpiri and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.