Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico
The smell of burning wood and plastic hits us as we step out of the van. The smoke from the campfires meets the cloud of dirt kicked up by our tires, which stings our eyes and leaves a scratch on our throat. In the distance you can hear children splashing and playing in the Suchiate River, which separates Mexico – where we are – from Guatemala.
We head towards the murky brown water, walking under tall, thick trees that protect us from the day’s brutal sun. We are conscious of where we step, avoiding pieces of cardboard used for beds and getting under clothes hanging to dry, careful not to invade someone’s personal space or their modest belongings. Interestingly, it feels more like a community rooted here for centuries, rather than a migrant camp.
And after the assault on the senses, comes the assault on the mind and heart.
Stories abound from the people here, most originally from Venezuela, about why they left their homes and what they have been through so far on their trips to Ciudad Hidalgo. Adults sometimes get emotional, but what’s most impactful is the children’s calm, matter-of-fact storytelling.
They had seen many dead people in the treacherous and muddy jungle pass of the Darién Gap, from Colombia to Panama, a group of young cousins told me.
“I saw a woman who had yellow hair and that part of her face was covered in blood,” says Mathias, 9, pointing to his right cheek.
I surprise myself halfway through interpreting from Spanish to English and realize that I am talking to children between the ages of 6 and 12 as they describe in vivid detail what they have experienced along the way.
“You get desperate in the jungle and think you’re going to die there,” says Mathias.
Her cousin Sofía, 12, adds: “We ran out of food. We spent a night starving. … We all lost weight.” His little brother Joandry lifts his shirt to show us his belly, as if to corroborate the stories of his sister and his cousin.
“It was hell,” says Sofía. “And every time we saw the end of the road, there was more to walk and we saw some dead people… lying on the ground.”
“It was hell,” 6-year-old Joandry confirms again, looking at me with eyes that have seen much more than most adults.
United by experience, where they have been and their hopes.
The trauma of the journey they have already endured, combined with shared dreams of reaching the United States, unite many of the people on the banks of the Suchiate, especially the children.
Sofia was the first to catch our attention as she asks with confidence and curiosity what we are doing here. We tell him that we are journalists. Her attention is focused on the water and she excitedly points to the river and one of the many rafts. “That’s my dad!” she tells us proudly. “He is helping others understand.”
A few meters away, sitting on the ground and leaning against a tree, is Sofía’s mother, Susana. She holds her 2-year-old son while Sofia’s other younger siblings play near her. At first, Susana is more reserved and nods so that Sofía answers our questions instead of her. But little by little she begins to open up, apparently wanting to share her story.
Still chatting with Sofía and Susana, I sit on a concrete step beneath an open-air structure used to store goods being moved illegally across the river from Mexico to Guatemala. Sofia sits next to me as we watch the armada of rafts come and go, with dozens more chained and ready to deploy. They are made of two large black inner tubes, tied with ropes and wooden planks to hold goods and people.
Sofia’s father, Jeandry, is one of the men who, like a gondolier on the canals of Venice, stands in the back with a long piece of wood steering the raft. At any given time, you can see across the river toward Guatemala as up to a couple dozen migrants climb aboard and make the roughly 8-minute trip, crossing illegally into Mexico. Police are stationed a few hundred meters away and the official crossing is in sight downstream, but there is no surveillance along the border, just a nearly constant free flow back and forth.
Video shows what it is like for migrants to cross into Mexico in search of the US.
Sofía and her family say they took one of the rafts five days before. They stayed on the riverbank instead of immediately continuing north to save money, while Sofía’s father worked on the rafts and the family asked for donations in the nearby town.
When I take out a microphone and my team starts recording with their cameras, Sofía’s siblings, aunt, uncle and cousins, who made the trip with them, crowd around me. Little Joandry doesn’t want to miss it and rushes over with the shampoo still in his hair, laughing as his older sister tries to clean it.
“We are thinking about Philadelphia (or) Chicago,” Sofía tells me when I ask her where in the United States they would like to go. Her cousin Mathias, 9, chimes in: “I’m thinking about New York or Florida.” Her parents look on, smiling as they had told me moments before that they had no idea where they would end up; They just want to request asylum and enter the United States legally.
The children also smile as they talk about their dreams of going to school. Sofía and Mathias want to be doctors, although it is possible that Mathias also wants to be a lawyer, she tells me. When I ask them what it’s been like traveling as a family, their faces go blank for a moment. Solemn blank stares.
The families have been traveling for almost two months, after leaving Colombia, where they lived for the last six years.
“We had to leave,” says Sofía. “We couldn’t continue being poor there because we ate the same thing every day. There were times when we couldn’t eat anything because there was no money.”
Before Colombia, families fled Venezuela, to get away from corruption and crime. “And a bad economy,” Joandry explains, taking the microphone from my hand as if taking charge of the interview.
As we talk and film, my team and I recognize a subtle difference in the tone of migrants here in southern Mexico compared to those we have met on multiple trips to U.S. border cities hundreds of miles further north.
‘The trip has been like going through hell’: Migrants arrive in southern Mexico
Despite all they’ve been through, those in the south have yet to experience extortion and threats from cartel-backed smugglers or treacherous rides atop freight trains. Looking into the parents’ eyes, I can feel that they have heard whispers of what is coming. Their loved ones and friends beat them to it and warned them of the horrors.
But they manage to give a hopeful tone. “It’s better than what’s left behind,” Mathias’s mother tells us. “We do not retreat; We move forward with the blessings of God.”
While we thank the children and their parents for their time, Sofia and Mathias enthusiastically ask us if we want to swim with them. “I have to stay dry to work,” I tell them. “OK!” they shout, running towards the water like any other rambunctious child, their trauma buried, for now. Each echoes the other as we part: “See you! See you later!”