By Krista Amira Calvo
Forty pound knapsacks, the stench of garlic on leather boots to ward off rattlesnakes, and the scrapings together of U.S. currency stuffed into mayonnaise jars. These are just a few of the staples a migrant must burden themselves with on their trek to what they believe will be a better life.
Oaxaca is 2,860.7 miles from Arizona. 32 hours by car, and 24.29 days on foot under a blazing sun. The typical migrant seeking work in the United States will take a series of buses, trains and car rides until they are close enough to the border to cross on foot. The majority of them hop a train just north of the Guatemalan border, in a town called Arriaga. These trains, aptly called El Tren de la Muerte (the Death Train), carry upwards of 500,000 migrants toward the border a year. They ride atop these high-speed snaking monstrosities, risking life and limb on a journey that will hopefully end in America – yet, often ends in death.
I tried to imagine what being on El Tren de la Muerte must be like, the dusted wind roaring in my ears, the sun beating down on my skin and the gut wrench experienced at every turn of the barreling beast. But I knew no matter how tightly shut I squeezed my eyes to drop into that moment, I could never feel the fearful rush they felt. Not because my imagination is lacking, but because I am not them.
The migrants that ride these ‘beasts’ through the country are easy targets for abuse at the hands of corrupt officials and violent gangs, namely Los Zetas, a group of renegades who kidnap migrants, placing incredibly high ransoms on their heads. If the families don’t pay, the migrants are murdered. Considering these families have little to no income, the migrants usually fall victim to Los Zetas, their bodies left in the desert, bloated and vulnerable to scavenging coyotes. Often they are thrown in mass graves where they may never be found – invisible in life and invisible in death.
“As I understand, the United States is investing billions of dollars on that wall. Why invest in something that is inanimate? It’s a dead investment. Why not invest in human beings?”
(unknown migrant worker)
The issues that these migrants face, whether Mexican, Guatemalan or Honduran, are just as perilous on either side of the border. Their non-optional poverty, the gun battles between rival criminal organizations taking place on day-lit streets and the death of innocents caught in the crossfire are part of many of their daily lives. It is easy enough for the privileged U.S. traveler to just avoid places of high conflict until things ‘die down’, an ignorant hope many tourists have. But this is the sun-up, sun-down reality for the people who inhabit these areas. They are among the groups of the marginalized who will never have the option of a ‘good death’, and leaving to find work across the border seems the only answer to the question of how one saves their own family from a bad death to give them a better one: you must risk experiencing your own bad death in an attempt to reach the land of milk and honey.
“You could say it’s a decision about death. Death is what you come up against most on the road. From one day to the next you decide that you’re off. You go with the hope that you’ll actually reach the USA.”
(unknown migrant worker)
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, Arizona is the final resting place for many of the migrants who encounter death on their journey across the border. From recent, fleshed bodies to sun-bleached bones, they all arrive in white bags, tagged with a number. This number will, too often permanently replace the names given to them by their mothers, heirlooms lost in the unforgiving desert on the trek to the equally unforgiving system of structural violence and systemic racism they would have faced as workers in the United States. Working in the strawberry and blueberry fields on the West Coast also often ends in a slow and painful death from injuries acquired on the job, the lack of healthcare available to migrants and the inability for some western medical professionals to adjust to properly treating indigenous peoples and the undocumented. Often this inability doesn’t stem from the lack of experience, but from the disdain for the people that these clinicians cannot understand, neither culturally nor linguistically, as well as the misconception that these peoples are abusing the healthcare system. In truth, only 10% of the indigenous Triqui peoples of Oaxaca who cross the border utilize the healthcare system, and in 2014 a mere 29% of migrants bothered with insurance or clinics at all due to mistreatment of the body, which translates to mistreatment of the soul. Thus, the death of migrants is exacerbated, and which of these deaths is truly worse?
Padre Alejandro Solalinde is a priest who has set up a facility at the halfway point where El Tren de Muerte stops and the journey by foot begins. Padre Solalinde knows these migrants better than anyone; he sees their hopes and the worn out photos of children who may never see their brothers again, never smell the familiar sweat on their father’s necks, never again safe in their embrace. “Migrants are not a threat.”, says Solalinde. “They are an opportunity. They come with values and great things to offer. Poor people are the spiritual reserve of the world.”
I come from a very mixed heritage. I am part Mestizo, part Indigenous Central American, and part Caribbean West Africa. Thus, my connection to these migrants is not just through my desire to share their story. The string that ties me to these peoples is the blood in my veins and my love for the country that I come from. When I was writing this piece, I imagined my family’s hardships moving to the United States. Extreme vetted and burdened with financial struggle, they managed to migrate to Miami to give us a better life. Marginalized communities experience varying levels of suffering based on socio-economic contexts, the ways they feel about the soul, and the value they put on their own lives in hopes of something better. At some point between the beginning and the end of this piece, I desperately attempted to channel my ancestors to gain some sort of understanding of what these migrants actively experience, and the past tense of that for those who met a horrific death on the road to something they imagined to be greater. The realization that I came to is that these migrants are heros.
“They are like rays of light shining on the things we must change. They are heros who not only fight for their families, they are fighting to change the story of the US and Mexico.”
(unknown migrant worker)
Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies by Dr. Seth Holmes
Krista Amira Calvo is a Caribbean-Latinx Bioarchaeologist, writer and avid necropolitical activist. She currently heads the organization The Black Veil Coalition, a vessel she uses to promote communication, intersectionality and activism in the death positive community in regards to race, gender and feminist issues. She has conducted osteological research in Transylvania and is currently focusing her work on the bioarchaeology of women and children, exploring pathological abnormalities caused by stress and malnutrition in historic orphan girls. She enjoys talking about bones, writing about bones and generally just hanging out with bones. She has two fluffy cats and currently resides in NYC.
Krista is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.