July 14, 2011 - 7:34 PM
Every day, dozens of Hondurans set out to migrate North. They often take buses through Guatemala, and when they cross the border into Mexico, they are already in danger of deportation for illegal entry. There used to be passenger trains running north through Mexico, but now the most common means of arriving at the border of the United States is by riding on cargo trains, jumping on and off in towns along the way.
In the past three days, I have interviewed four men who lost limbs to that train ride.
Many here call the Mexican cargo trains the "Tren de la muerte" or "Train of Death." This is not an exaggeration. Although many thousands ride these trains in relative safety, the migrant population is at risk for all kinds of physical dangers. In addition to the many accidents, there are also robberies, kidnappings, and murders along the rails. They are victim to extortion by authorities, and violence from the gangs and drug cartels. They are also victim to the elements-riding exposed to heat, cold, and hunger. Many hundreds do not make it. Here in El Progreso, twenty-six men are without their arms or legs.
Of the four I interviewed, two had lost a leg below the knee; one had lost both his legs above the knee, and the fourth had lost his left arm and left leg. I interviewed them about their accident, and about the larger context of their lives and their attempted migration: why they left in the first place, what they experienced on the trail, how the accident happened, and what their lives have been like since that moment.
Nothing prepared me for the range of emotion and experience I heard during my interviews. No research methods class can prepare you for that depth of feeling or that profound of a loss. Tonight, as I am reviewing my notes, I am speechless again by what I learned from these men.
All four left for financial reasons. They told me of the crushing poverty here, and the desire to help their children finish school, or their families afford houses and food. As all four pointed out in one way or another, they left to seek a better life, and instead nearly lost everything: and are left damaged with little hope for a stable future.
Two of my interviews were extremely bleak. My first, with Jose, took place in his home. An uncle was currently paying the rent, but he had to ask other relatives for clothes for himself, his wife, and his daughter. He had lost both legs, and was in a wheelchair. He told about his severe dehydration after fifteen days on the trail, and the moment of slipping under the wheels of the train. When I asked him if he had hope for the future, he told me "no."
Bernardo also felt an intense lack of hope. He had lost his left arm and leg, falling at almost the exact same time as his friend also fell. The friend died, and Bernardo spent months with a group of nuns in Mexico, recuperating physically while suffering a deep depression. He can't find work, and spoke of often waiting for hours for a bus that will stop to help him aboard. Although he spoke with great bitterness and resignation, he also spoke movingly of the kindnesses he had seen in Mexico, and his regret in never having the opportunity to thank the couple who picked him up off the tracks, and saved his life by taking him to the hospital. He said that the "normal folks" in Mexico are wonderful, and do a great deal to help migrants and people in need. But he had also witnessed gang robberies, and the dangers of the journey when a woman fell to her death. After hearing his story, I was honestly amazed he had pulled through his depression and was able to continue on.
My other two interviews contained similar elements of the pain and dangers of the trail, and the difficulties of life since their accidents. However, these two men also expressed a good deal of hope. My second interview, with Roberto, was actually quite uplifting: after reporting his whole painful story and sharing the details of his financial stress, he wanted me to take pictures of him riding his bike with a prosthetic leg. We laughed and joked, but he also spoke of his fear of becoming a burden to his family, and his sense that the political situation in this country will continue to mean that people make the dangerous decision to migrate, and others will be left injured.
My final interviewee today was Miguel. He had lived in the states for over five years, working in construction and sending money home to his mother and sister. After being deported, he spent five years in Honduras and started a family, until financial pressure drove him to migrate again. The group he was traveling with was robbed on the train, and when he tried to escape he was pushed, and his right leg was mangled. He spent weeks in the hospital while they tried to save his foot, but it was amputated. In this fourth interview, I finally saw a crack in the machismo that the men usually demonstrate. Miguel briefly broke down when I asked a question about his children, leading him to describe what it was like when his youngest daughter of five first saw his severed leg.
I don't have words to describe how it felt to receive these stories. I feel a kind of shock and paralysis tonight: an astounding awareness of my own healthy body, and the awareness that I have never risked life and limb for the vast privileges I enjoy. Nothing I have seen or studied prepared me for these interviews.
For now, I am trying to imagine that the sharing of their stories might have a meaning of its own. I like to think that, by showing my interest and sympathy, I am somehow lightening some burden of silence or isolation. All four thanked me for doing the interview. But I feel a deep responsibility to take their stories and create some chance, somewhere.
I feel very grateful for this opportunity, and very called to further action. I don't know what will result, and I don't even know where to start. Except that maybe this blog is a start. Maybe I've told a story you haven't heard before. Maybe this is an opportunity for better understanding and future social action. And by writing their narratives, I have reminded myself of the intensity of these interviews, and the profound impact this had on my soul.
Hopefully in future days, some course of action will become clear. For now, I leave you with the stories as I received them: a small example of the terrible costs suffered in pursuit of the American Dream.
(Names of interviewees have been changed to maintain confidentiality)