Looking for Pancho Villa

My feelings are torn regarding the “caravan” of Honduran immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. I see them begging at busy intersections in San Miguel and can’t help remembering when I arrived from Cuba alone, when I was fourteen years old, with a nickel in my pocket and my head crammed with fears and dreams about the future.

Today, as an American citizen, my sympathies are still with the Hondurans—and the Syrians, Ethiopians, Russians and other refugees making similarly desperate and perilous crossings to find a better life for themselves and their families.

But I also recognize the impossibility of “opening up the borders” to all comers, a far-fetched prospect used by the sludge pot of nativists, xenophobes and white supremacists on the American right, as a rationale for slamming America’s door shut to any immigrants, as if they were vermin.

You again?

The debacle still unfolding along the U.S.-Mexican border around Tijuana should strike fair-minded Americans as shameful if not criminal.  Children separated from their parents, presumably as a deterrent—or ransom. Tear gas canisters tossed at unarmed migrants, many of them women and children, running for cover. Miles of concertina wire, and thousands of troops behind it, deployed under the guise of an imminent invasion of the U.S. mainland, leaving what is normally one of the busiest international border crossings in the world looking like the perimeter of a concentration camp.

The rhetoric coming from our increasingly unhinged president, and his acolytes, is often so untethered from facts or reality, that it evokes images of barbarian hordes poised to breach the eastern flanks of the Roman Empire.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis attempted to rally the troops by invoking a raid by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa one hundred years ago, when 18 Americans and 80 Mexicans were killed. Then, ICE Queen Kirstjen Nielsen, asserted that the migrants were using children as “human shields” in confrontations with U.S. border guards—a baseless claim—some suspect to placate Trump who has publicly criticized her for not being tough enough on immigration, and to save her own skin.

There is also the politicizing of the issue by the Republicans. According to one count, in the days before the midterm election the boot-licking team of “Fox & Friends”—one of the president’s TV favorite shows—mentioned the threat of the migrant caravan 21 times per episode, but the coverage dropped to one per show afterward. Did the migrant crisis abate after the election or its usefulness as political red meat?

Truth is that neither party has anything resembling a cogent policy on immigration. If Trump is a unprincipled, racist demagogue, the Democrats look like a bucket brigade criticizing his daily outrages but with no fire prevention strategy to solve the larger problem.

America needs immigrants—hundreds of thousands of them—at both the unskilled and skilled ends of the labor market. It’s that continued influx of immigrants that keeps large segments of the American economy going, from nurses aides who clean up after our elderly in nursing homes, and turkey-pluckers in North Carolina, to South Asian engineers to work in Silicon Valley on new computer applications (as if we needed any more apps!)

Two Honduran migrants I 
photographed in 2014, 
by the San Miguel train yard. 

Though the focus is now on the “caravan” gathered in Tijuana, a steady stream of Central American, and particularly Honduran, migrants has been wending its way north through San Miguel for the past several years. Four years ago,
I met a group of Honduran migrants who had arrived in San Miguel aboard one of the freight trains that chug through Mexico from its southern border with Guatemala up to Texas.

More recently Stew and I picked up another Honduran migrant headed north, who was panhandling at an intersection on the road to Celaya, about an hour from San Miguel. and bought him lunch at a ramshackle roadside carnitas restaurant.

We talked for about a half hour and heard the archetypal immigrant story of a poor bastard who was barely scraping a living in Honduras and was headed toward Houston to join two brothers already there washing dishes at a restaurant.

Stew’s lunch with “Pancho Villa”

It’s a mind-boggling trek from Honduras to the U.S. border—approximately 1,200 miles—that these folk cover on foot, by hopping aboard freight trains or hitchhiking, while sleeping outdoors and panhandling along the way to get food money. 

Carlos Raúl Piedras Flores, 26, had spent exactly 53 days traveling when we took him to lunch. Even with a favorable tailwind he’s got another four or five weeks to go before he gets to the border. He was on his own, and not part of any “caravan” and his trip certainly was not subsidized by the Democratic Party or Jewish billionaire George Soros, as some of the more wacko right-wing groups have claimed.

Carlos was very dark skinned, I suspect a combination of genes and sunburn topped with a substantial layer of road dirt. His equally dark-brown eyes reflected a mix of exhaustion and determination: He was a man on a mission. Nothing I could suggest about the dangers or the implausibility of his journey, particularly under the Trump administration, seemed to faze him.

The long way north: Starting in Honduras, across Guatemala, and 
usually following the route of one of the freight trains north, 
past San Miguel, to Piedras Negras or thereabouts, 
on the Mexico/U.S. border.

Rather than feel threatened, both Stew and I were awestruck by Carlos’ unmitigated cojones. This guy didn’t appear to be a menacing Pancho Villa-type, but of course we could be wrong.

What we saw instead was a human being clawing his way to a better life.

Over a lunch of carnitas, some of the best Stew and I ever ate, with the usual sides of l frijolitos, cebollitas, tortillitas, nopalitos and the obligatory bowl of hot sauce, we talked with Carlos who was polite but ate like a hungry animal, scooping everything up with tortillas, ignoring only the hot sauce, which he said Hondurans don’t like.

He showed me his national ID, and also a good-luck necklace that had a crucifix along with a perforated U.S. quarter. Carlos talked about saving money and returning to Honduras to set up some sort of business.

He said Mexicans had treated very well along his travels, except for the police who sometimes assault migrants to steal their money. Pause and think about that: Armed law enforcers robbing defenseless migrants.

At the end of our brief meal, we bought Carlos another kilo of tortillas, with all the fixings, to take on the road. The middle-aged woman who ran the restaurants gave him the package with a motherly smile, and wished Carlos God’s blessings during the remainder of his travels.

He said he plans to enter through the U.S. by Piedras Negras, east of Laredo and expects one of his brothers to pick him up on the American side. I suspect he faces better odds than his compatriots massed in Tijuana.

What’s America to do with Carlos and the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.? To stop the race-baiting and demonizing of immigrants would be a start—to treat them with the dignity and respect any human being deserves. Then we could attempt to rationalize the labor needs of the U.S. and along with it, regulate immigration flow accordingly.

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman advocated as much by proposing an immigration policy that includes a “high wall and a big gate.” Easier said than done, but there are no other alternatives.

As we left, Carlos gave me a handshake/fist bump and told me he’d never met a Cuban before, but would fondly remember my home country after our lunch. For his part, Stew put the debate about “legal” vs. “illegal” immigration aside and gave Carlos $400 pesos, about $20 dollars, and wished him luck.

In return, a teary-eyed Stew got a prolonged, tight—and smelly—bear hug.


For stirring photos of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island early in the twentieth century check this link: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/portraits-of-ellis-island-immigrants/

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