Ministries of Accompaniment
Marta Figueroa began to cry as she described her last conversation with her son Miguel:
“He left three years ago because there were no jobs for him here. He left behind his wife and two children to go find work. He didn’t want to go. Now I care for my grandchildren, and they are growing up without their father. I am afraid for him. I am praying that we will find him.”
I met Ms. Figueroa last summer when I did graduate research in Honduras on the lives of immigrant families. I learned about immigration from the mothers, spouses, children and neighbors left behind by those who went north. I witnessed firsthand the economies ravaged by “free trade” and the families broken by poverty. I listened as people described what sociologists call the “push factors” that drive Central Americans to leave their families to support a sick parent or pay a child’s fees for school classes and uniforms.
Central Americans migrate to many places including Canada, Europe and other Latin American countries; but most aim for the United States, and to get there they are willing to risk everything. For many, the cost is years without seeing their children and families. For some, the cost is death — at the hands of traffickers turned kidnappers in Mexico, in accidental falls under the steel wheels of freight trains or from any number of natural health risks in crossing a desert.
Some migrants simply disappear on their way north. They don’t arrive where they were headed, and their families never hear from them again. Such uncertainty is a terrible burden for the migrants’ families, and some have organized to search for their loved ones along the migrant trail.
In July 2011 I was invited to join a caravan of migrant family members who traveled from Central America to Mexico, looking for their loved ones as they traced the principal migration route. They also used their presence in Mexico to demand better attention to the human rights of migrants.
Most caravans are comprised of family members of the desaparecidos —migrants who have disappeared on the journey north. Although it’s a sending country for many undocumented immigrants, Mexico can also be a brutal place for the tens of thousands of Central American migrants who pass through every year en route to the United States. They face a litany of dangers, including death or dismemberment on the cargo trains, robbery, murder, arrest and detainment, human trafficking, and the specter of violence and kidnappings by Mexican gangs.
Female migrants are particularly vulnerable to all these threats and also face high rates of rape and forced prostitution. Mothers who go searching for their daughters who have disappeared often find them working in Mexican brothels.
I accepted the invitation to accompany these concerned relatives because I wanted to serve as a witness to their struggle. It wasn’t an easy experience, for several reasons.
For me, accompaniment means living in the knowledge of another’s pain. It means removing yourself from the spotlight, giving over control, and hoping that your presence will bring some benefit to the people who risk so much to battle their deepest fears, people like Ms. Figueroa who are afraid for their young sons and daughters.
In order to meet the caravan on the Guatemala/Mexico border, I traveled from Honduras through Guatemala with two women who had become my friends during my two months volunteering in Honduras. As we traveled through Guatemala, I watched groups of young men board the crowded public bus and felt a twinge of unease. I had been robbed recently, and I got nervous easily. But my Honduran friend Emeteria leaned toward me and whispered, Se van mojado, “They are migrating without papers.”
I began to listen to their conversations, and it was true. All these young men were headed north, without documents, hoping to cross the 1,000 often hostile miles of Mexico before entering the United States, where they hoped the American Dream awaited.
I leaned back and prayed that they would find some kind of safety, some kind of blessing. I didn’t know specifically what to pray for. Success in their journey? Welcome on American soil?
How do you pray for something so complex, so nuanced, as the journey of a young migrant desperately crossing foreign borders to arrive at some future full of promise? So I prayed that they not become desaparecidos, that humanitarian workers would not find their corpses in the Arizona desert, and that their mothers would hear regularly that they were safe.
In the strange solitude of that crowded bus, I was the only passenger heading north toward my home. The rest were setting off to find lost pasts or imagined futures.
I discovered that accompaniment can mean discomfort, like sleeping on a concrete floor. It meant holding back my Type A impulses and not offering advice or demanding to see a schedule. It meant letting the stories flow and simply listening. But I wanted to be helpful, so I took notes. I wrote names and phone numbers, promising to look up daughters, sons, brothers and cousins in U.S. detention centers and prison registries.
I looked at mother after mother and told them I would carry their stories with me, that I would pray for them, that I would work to find their lost children. I asked them when they got the last call from their daughter, the last mention of their son’s location by someone who’d seen him on the journey.
They comforted one another with stories and shared the photos of their children they’d brought along. They told me that they knew, without a doubt, that their sons and daughters were alive.
Some asked what I thought, what I believed. I could only offer the same hope they gave one another: “I pray he is well. I pray she is safe. Perhaps,” I offered as a twisted hope, “I will find him incarcerated.” Ojalá que sí, they would reply, giving up to God the idea that their child might be “safe” within prison walls, locked beyond communication but not beyond hope.
I filled my notebook with names and stories and prayed.
The caravan was also a pilgrimage of protest. In Tapachula, in Mexico’s southernmost province of Chiapas, we formed a human chain across the entrance of the largest immigration detention center in the world, calling for an end to lengthy detentions and lack of family contact.
We also rallied at the railroad tracks, boarding a cargo container to wave the flags of our countries and to project hope into the Mexican sky. I felt torn. My mission was to be a witness, but the women were clamoring for me to come with them. So I took hold of a Honduran flag, and I climbed on the train.
I felt both an intense pride and a feeling of out-of-placeness. It’s one thing to protest in your own country, but where did I fit in here on top of the train? I am the embodiment of a gringa: tall, blond, blue-eyed. I am so obviously born into the privilege that young migrants risk everything to achieve.
But there I was, flag in hand, my Honduran friends yelling for me to take pictures of them, and for me to wave the flag. So I did, and I prayed again and again: somewhere, in all this pain, let there be mercy for those who travel in dangerous times and places.
My time accompanying the caravan ended with enormous sorrow. Ms. Figueroa cried when I hugged her goodbye, and I cried as well: huge, red-faced gringa tears for a cause not intrinsically my own but now so wrapped up in my own heart. A man pulled me aside and thanked me, telling me that it was important that I had been there, that I could tell the world about their cause. He said he would pray that I would never forget them.
The people I met in the caravan accompany me now. I can feel them as I write these words. This is a prayer, a tribute and an act of contrition. I don’t advocate any particular policy. I simply ask that we search for a manner in which we can live guided by mercy for the strangers among us.
Katie Dwyer is a member of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and a graduate student at the University of Oregon, where she is a member of the Wesley Center.