Like most little girls who inhabit this earth, Jennifer is obsessed with princesses, particularly the big-eyed, glossy-haired variety found in Disney movies. Jasmine, Ariel, Belle—she knows them all. She loves them all.
Jennifer is also a princess. Her throne is a green plastic child seat, her realm the women’s dormitory of a migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the U.S. border. Like her cartoon mentors, Jennifer is charming, vivacious, and beautiful. She’s also happy to greet people and share her few toys with them.
“Rana,” Jennifer pronounces, pointing to her picture flash card of a frog. “Elefante.” She continues. “Cebra.” She smiles when her visitors repeat the words. And then she returns to her princesses.
There are scars running the length of Jennifer’s arm, and, strangely for such a bright and alert child, she doesn’t move from her chair on the floor. Jennifer and her mother, both migrants from Guatemala, are the only survivors of a terrible car crash.
It would take something akin to a miracle, the doctors say, for Jennifer to ever walk again.
We—NJFON staff and board members—are on Day Three of our trip to the Rio Grande Valley and the border towns of McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico. We came to the border to learn and experience some small part of the migrant journey. Along the way, we’ve met with service providers, faith and community leaders, members of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, and also with migrants themselves.
Today we crossed into Mexico, and are visiting the Senda de Vida (Path of Life) migrant shelter, run by Pastor Hector Silva Luna.
Besides Jennifer and her mother, there are a few other women and children here, but most of the migrants are men. Some are still teenagers, some are much older. Some have been recently deported from the U.S. and have been forced to leave their wives and children there. Some are recuperating from injuries and illnesses sustained on the long journey from Central America, and some just need a brief respite before attempting to cross over.
Some just don’t know where else to go or what else to do.
They are men who wear defeat on their faces and despair like a cloak around hunched shoulders. They come to the shelter not just for food and a bed, Hector says, but for “soul repair.”
“We help everybody, no matter who they are,” Hector adds, as he shows us around the simple, sun-bleached buildings. “We don’t work for the government. We work for God.”
In the chapel, an American missionary is leading a small service in English. Someone is interpreting for him. The Bibles are in Spanish; there are copies in each pew, pages browned and spines worn with use.
While the shelter provides spiritual sustenance for the soul-sick heart, it also offers practical help. There is a clinic where volunteers provide medical and dental care. Other volunteers even give haircuts. Hector’s colleague, Angela Caballero Gallegos, shows us maps of migrant routes across Mexico with lists of safe places for migrants to rest along the zigzag of railroad lines and highways through the desert.
“We don’t encourage them to try to cross into the United States,” says Angela. “But we want to help protect them from danger, too.”
“We sometimes find bodies by the side of the road or in the river,” Hector grimly affirms. “Sometimes they die from accidents, sometimes they are murdered by the gangs.” He looks off into the distance. “We once found seven dead in one day.”
The Senda de Vida shelter backs up to the Rio Grande, the meandering waterway that separates the U.S. from its Southern neighbor. We’ve seen the river at various points during our trip, but nowhere has the word “grande” seemed more of a misnomer. Here it’s barely wider than an irrigation canal—less than 30 yards—with no sign of the treacherous current and alligators that have led many to underestimate its dangers.
“Put away your camera,” advises Hector. “The coyotes can be watching, and they don’t like photographs.”
Hector confirms what we have already heard numerous times on this trip: Nobody, but nobody, crosses without paying the coyotes, one way or another. Try to make it alone and you risk kidnapping, extortion, torture and death. The coyotes work for the drug cartels, and the business of transporting people—often at thousands of dollars each—can be as lucrative as transporting drugs.
Just then, an armored car full of Mexican soldiers passes by on the road in front of the shelter. They are here in the never-ending war against the drug cartels that regularly and viciously battle it out amongst themselves for domination. Local police don’t get involved in this particular fight. They—and their families—make too-easy targets. So soldiers from other areas of Mexico are brought in instead.
So there it is: on one side, inescapable violence and poverty; on the other side, safety and opportunity. And in between the two lies this narrow section of river.
It’s so close. So maddeningly, cruelly close.
Our trip back to Texas is short, but also a quiet one, as each of us processes the things we’ve seen and the people we’ve met.
“Welcome home,” says the border officer, smiling as he checks our U.S. passports. We breeze through the gates to the other side, leaving behind a little girl who was meant to be a princess.