Humanizing the Migrant Caravan from Central America

This blog was written by a Doctoral Student at the University of California, San Diego who wishes to be anonymous.

On the evening of October 13th, 2018, I received a text from a friend that I was not expecting. It came in the form of a link to an article entitled “Hundreds of Hondurans head for U.S. border in mass migration ‘march’: report,” with a short message indicating what the article was about. My heart sank. As the webpage loaded, hundreds of faces rushed through my head–faces of all those I know and care about in Honduras.

Image: GUATEMALA-HONDURAS-US-MIGRATION
Source: NBC-News

The specifics of the article in itself did not surprise me: “64% of Honduran households live in poverty. Many of the migrants are fleeing a poor economy and some of the highest crime rates in the world” (Dedaj, 2018). These statistics and lived realities have been ever-present throughout my work in the region over the past five years, and yet this ‘march’ appears so sudden–especially considering the recent Central American caravan of migrants this past May.

It did not take long for me to find various sources on the issue, including the Washington Post which estimated that the group had “swelled” from 160 to 1,600 as it headed towards Guatemala; and while much of the focus has been on contesting or confirming this estimation as well as what the U.S. and Honduras plan to do in response, it is the sheer magnitude of this group that I feel has the potential to detract from the inalienable fact that each of these humans has a story and that their stories matter.

Currently, I am the director of a non-profit in Honduras which works with rural schools to provide teacher development and empowerment opportunities (the exact name and location have been withheld for protection of those referenced in this article). Our work, led by local Honduran educators, has reached ~2,500 individuals over the past year including teachers, administrators, parents, and children in some of the most impoverished areas in the country. I am humbled to have a community that trusts me and shares their stories; I am grateful to be a part of their lives. It is because of their stories, that I have been compelled to write this one–one that humanizes those in the migrant caravan, and brings us closer to understanding just how important each story is.

On October 14th, 2018 a close Honduran friend called me. She was struggling with anxiety attacks as her mother, brother, and sister had joined the caravan. Her brother, a shy, tall, skinny 17-year-old, was traveling with a limp left arm. In the December election protests (The incumbent was reelected, which is deemed unconstitutional in Honduras) he was hit by a stray bullet–requiring that his arm be immobilized by a large metal contraption for over ten months. When I saw him just 3 months ago, he was still struggling to fight off fevers from infection. My friend’s mother had lived in the U.S. for seven years, suffering the attacks of an abusive husband as she feared constant threats of deportation; every time I saw her she would laugh and joke uncontrollably–a practice my friend attributes to her need to mask the pain of her circumstances. This family has lived in poverty for decades, challenged to find stable work and reeling from the recent murder of the youngest teenage brother, to gang violence. As my friend relayed her fears, I listened and did my best to comfort her from a distance. Her heart heavy she said, “they are going to the U.S. in search of opportunity; they are risking their lives for a chance at a better one.”

On October 15th, 2018 I held a video call with two organization staff members for our bi-monthly meeting. The day prior they had held our monthly professional development opportunity for lead teachers from the schools we support. In this community-oriented space, we often learn about the personal and professional struggles these teachers face on a day-to-day basis; this month the migrant caravan was a key topic on everyone’s mind. In reflecting on the event, they started by sharing that this weekend an estimated 3,000 migrants had left Honduras. when I confirmed I was aware of the situation but not the number, they continued; two schools had documented at least seven students who had left with the caravan, and four teachers expressed having family members or close friends who had joined. To them this was not just a news story, this was a part of their reality, filled with people that they care for and are concerned about.

This “march” of migrants that “swelled” prior to reaching the Guatemalan border, formed just one day after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence urged the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to persuade their citizens to stay home (Associated Press, 2018). News reports have said that the group can be heard singing the Honduran national anthem, praying and chanting, “Yes, we can” (Lakhani, 2018). However, when the media uses words that connect this group of migrants to a natural disaster or a dangerous invasion, these stories of resilience and connectedness can be forgotten, dehumanizing the individuals and generating fear (Pugh, 2004; Perera, 2002). While the news will continue to follow this migrant group as they get closer and closer to the U.S., I argue that their stories go far beyond why they are leaving and what they hope to find for their futures. Their stories include the political repression and violence that they are fleeing, the systems put in place to maintain inequality and poverty, and the history of U.S. capitalist interests in Honduras that has left the country economically crippled and heavily militarized. Adding these points to the conversation about the “migrant caravan” are so important to contextualize just what they are leaving behind and what returning might mean for their safety and opportunities.

Insider
Source: Insider

I write this to call attention to the damage that the media narrative can have on public views towards migrants and to argue that centralizing individual stories can help combat this trend of dehumanization. It can help to connect those digesting the news to those they may have never met and can generate a productive dialogue grounded in empathy over fear. From her brother, to our teachers’ students, to those they left behind–each story matters. The migrant caravan is a compilation of many yet to be heard.

Associated Press. (2018, October 15).Over 1,500 Honduran migrants join growing caravan to Guatemalan border. CBS News, Retrieved from NBC News

Dedaj, P. (2018, October 14). Hundreds of Hondurans head for US border in mass migration ‘march’: report. Fox News, Retrieved from Fox News

Lakhani, N. (2018, October 15). ‘Yes, we can’: caravan of 1,600 Honduran migrants crosses Guatemala border. The Guardian, Retrieved from The Guardian

Perera, S. (2013). Oceanic Corpo-graphies, Refugee Bodies and the Making and Unmaking of Waters. Feminist Review, 103, p. 58-79.

Pugh, M. (2004). Drowning Not Waving: Boat People and Humanitarianism at Sea. Journal of Refugee Studies, 17(1).

 

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