A musician takes her guitar and heart to the freight trains of Mexico and follows the undocumented migrant workers who risk their lives and more crossing the border to make the journey north, to the ‘land of the free’. For work. For hope. This is her story of friendship and freight trains, and of course, undocumented border crossings.
July 18th, 9pm.
Orizaba, State of Veracruz
The whistle blows.
The vapor rolls up in the air, the front light shines on the tracks and I realize immediately how pathetically frail I am against this beast.
The guys shuffle in excitement, scattering, looking for the way on.
My body jolts and as we jog toward the train, my new Nicaraguan brothers take my belongings. The police walk on the sides, their flashlights pointing at the rails. A hundred feet away I see the ladder approaching and prepare to grasp on. My feet pick up the pace, the ladder meets us, I stretch my arm to grasp the railing, my feet struggle to jog between rock and rail, I manage to grab it.
Cristobal jogs beside me shouting instructions.
“Natalia, this is where you pull up on then railing, ok here we go”
“PULL UP GUERA! PULL UP NOW!”
I grasp the railing
my body jerks forward
I start slipping
my feet dangle in the air
I try to pull myself up
I’m not gonna make it
“Come on guera, a dozen voices echo behind the roaring steam, “you can do it…. YOU CAN DO IT..!”
“I’m not gonna make it! I’m not gonna make it!” I’m shouting, I pull up my legs, whatever you do, I think, just don’t end up under the train.
I’m not sure how I got here, but this is what I remember. In May, I watched a documentary by professor Daniel Groody, it was called Dying to Live, a beautiful and tragic portrait of the Mexican American border. So I wrote –I want to go, I want to experience it. Daniel kindly responded by pointing me to the L.A photographer Don Bartletti (photos above), who essentially said, be careful and start in Veracruz. He remembered the train lines vaguely and knew that further south would be too dangerous. Veracruz seemed like a good start to me, so I bought a plane ticket and went.
On my first day in Veracruz, I walked the streets for hours trying to make sense of the city. The ocean kicked the port, the police hid their faces in masks, the heat was unbearable, and the tourists were everywhere.
Within a few hours I found myself sitting on a street corner among students and hippie types who were eager to tell me all about their country. The cartels were fighting over the Gulf of Mexico, the city was in a panic, friends who sold marijuana were either murdered or threatened, and the migrants? Well, they rarely came to Veracruz anymore. Go to Orizaba, my new friends said.
In Veracruz, the night lights and cobblestone streets seemed eager to break out in song as mariachi bands stood on corners waiting for work. “Hey guerita you wanna sing in a mariachi band? You can make good money in Mejico” The offer was tempting, what a fine education and what a great way to invert the migration paradigm, AMERICAN FEMALE COMES TO MEXICO LOOKING FOR WORK: ENDS UP SINGING IN A MARIACHI BAND. Tempting, but I had a mission; instead I stayed in a cheap hotel next to the market and vowed to wake at dawn in order to take the morning bus to Orizaba.
The Bus terminal in Veracruz was unlike any chaos I had experienced, it seems every Mexican was on vacation and either headed to the beach or on their way to grandma’s. After much looking, I managed to find a bus with faded sign that said Orizaba. Relieved I paid 20 pesos and jumped on. As we climbed through the countryside the weather cooled and coffee covered the mountains. Orizaba is the sort of town no tourist ever visits, it’s not even on the map, so I liked it from the start.
I arrived on the 4pm bus and my goal was simple, find the train tracks, make friends with the migrants and see what happens. Having no clue where the train tracks were or if the train ever came, I did what seemed reasonable, I walked toward the nearest church. After wandering for about an hour, I decided to buy a pastry in hopes of getting some info from the bakery owner. It was during our awkward conversation, were Julia (the owner) asked at least twice if I was a reporter that I heard the train.
The whistle came first, slicing through the air, and then the wagons, one by one, five hundred feet away, charged between the houses. At least fifty wagons passed before I saw them, a dozen silhouettes, standing on the wagon tops looking out on the city.
I remembered my friends on the border, “You want to travel the freight trains…? Do you KNOW what happens on the freight trains?”
No I did not know, and that’s exactly what I wanted to find out, so I found the tracks and started jogging.
As I jogged along the tracks the town darkened around me. Houses lit up, the sun set and the outline of the mountains embraced us. Groups of men and women laughed and walked past. I can’t remember the day, was it Friday? It seems the whole town was out enjoying itself. Everywhere, there are pool halls and taquerias, colored lights and restaurants, kids on cheap bikes and the smell of fried onion. The young men looked at me, their eyes are dark and playful.“Hey guerita, where ya going?” They laugh, I smile, I’m pushed of the tracks by a bridge.
The detour ends up being much longer than expected as factories crowd around the rail lines forcing me to follow at a distance. I lose sight of the tracks and realize it’s late, I pause, the moon is full and street vendors light the sidewalks.
Finally I find a corner that bends back toward the tracks, and from a block away I see them, the train tracks, peeking between the houses, less than a hundred feet away.
But should I go? Just wait, I thought, rest tonight and get up early tomorrow, tomorrow would be better yeah, nice and early… find somewhere to stay, I look at my watch, I see the neon sign down the street, VACANTE, 9:30pm… but I didn’t do that.
I’ve never been on a pilgrimage, but I imagine it must resemble what I lived on that day. You set out on a journey, you let faith take your hand, you’re unsure of what you will find and in the end all you know, is that you must enter the wilderness naked, because no map can guide you and no man can lead the way.
I knew this was both the end and the beginning. Something in me would change and I feared it with a joyful excitement.
As I approached, a deep silence cradled the air. When I finally had the courage to look up, I found the eyes of 30, maybe 40 men meeting mine. Not accusatory or suspicious, just dozens of curious quiet, friendly eyes.
Standing there, I realized how exquisite the night was. Could this be possible? It seemed to me I was falling in love with the breeze, with the feeling of feet on the ground and hands at my sides, with the taste of the night, sweet with spices, and soft like cream to the tongue. Had I collapsed the air would have held me, I was sure, and brushed my hair from my forehead and kissed my longing eyes.
In the distance a house radio buzzed with the evening news … “Son las nueve y treinta minutos con noticias…”
“Hey guerita sing us a song!”Laughter breaks the air, they smile. Their skin is covered in soot.
“Suuuure!” I say, relieved of the broken tension, “but my songs are in English, and they are sad… most of them are sad….”
“Ahh come on, sing for us.”
I sing for them, they clap between the laughter
“So, are you guys going to take the train?”
“Yeah we’re waiting for it to leave the station…” the man speaking to me was young and pierced, a city boy he seemed to me, a boy tired of the journey. How long had he been travelling, was it weeks, months, or years? and where had he come from? Guatemala? El Salvador? Honduras? I longed to ask, but did not for fear of being intrusive.
“When does it leave?”
“Well we don’t know, any minute…”
“So monita, why you here? you making a documentary?” His eyes cut into me with suspicion, the others watch attentively, curious, observing.
“No not really,” I said, “I just sing songs, I’m traveling…”
“Hmm…then come with us.” His tone is dry, he means it.
“Hey if you come, we take care of you” An older man shouted from the back. “Here you will be with puro Nica, puro Nica (meaning Nicaraguan) in the house, yeah yeah if you come, you travel with us we take care of you, me and my boys.” His skin is dark and scarred, a group of younger men sit around him.
I smile elated. Could it be this easy?
“Ok yeah I’ll go”
“Haaahhhh,” they roar with laughter
“With us you will be la gringa mojada, gringa mojada, in the house.”
(Mojado is the term given to those who swim across the Rio Grande in order to reach Texas.)
“But why is a gringa gonna travel like this? She can take a bus!” the objection comes from the back of the crowd, I can see only his eyes between the tattered scarf.
“Well, the gringa wants to have an adventure with us, and I’ll take care of her so-
“What’s your name?” I interject.
“Cristobal, and this is Julio, Angel, and Carlos, my Nica brothers.”
Cristobal was the oldest, muscular, and the leader of this group. Angel had the quiet eyes of a saint, they were green but rarely looked up; instead, his eyes rested on the cross that hung around his neck. Carlos had the seriousness of the older brother and treated Angel as the younger sibling that he loved. And Julio was the youngest, 19 or 20, a teenager full of nervous excitement, to him this was still an adventure.
“Nice to meet you my name is Natalia…” I pause…. “it’s a tough journey… la frontera is hard to cross…” I remembered Arizona, the days leaving water in the desert with the other No More Deaths volunteers. I remembered hearing the stories of children swallowed by the sand as they tried to reach their parents and the nights when migrants stumbled into our camps disoriented and dehydrated. I remembered hearing stories about the coyotes; the precision with which they knew the land, the techniques they had to cross. They were both villains and heroes, some would leave children to die while others would insist on carrying the dead. I shouldn’t have said it though, they shift uneasily.
“Do you believe in God? We’re traveling with God, and we’re gonna make it whichever way we can. You know my kids are in Miami, I have to see them, I have no option. And well Dios is with us, so no worries we will reach.” He was impeccably dressed, his English excellent, he smiled.
“What’s your name?”
“Aahhh, Andres I hope you see your children soon”
I started to pack my guitar.
“What are ya doing, guerita?”
“Well I have to be prepared, you know if the train comes at all.. so, hmmm, how do I get on?”
They look at me. “So you’re really gonna come….” they look at each other in disbelief, “ok, well the train is gonna start rollin and then, when it gets out here… we run on the side and then you hang on the railing. We will show you, really it’s easy”
Their bruised bodies and scarred faces didn’t seem to confirm that statement.
“OK… so the train doesn’t stop…” I said, suddenly wishing I hadn’t committed to this.
About ten minutes later, the show started, and as the train pulled onto the tracks, I jogged toward it almost mechanically. To make things easier the guys took my sack and Cristobal started drilling the routine. Since the police didn’t allow migrants onto the trains, we had to wait for it to be far out of the station, which means that by the time it reached us, it had already picked up a lot of speed. Looking back, it’s hard to believe this actually happened, how fast it was going is anyone’s guess, fast enough to pump adrenaline everywhere in our body.
July 18th 9:00 pm.
“I’m not gonna make it! I’m not gonna make it!” I’m shouting, I pull up my legs, it’ll be fine I tell myself, whatever you do, just don’t end up under the train.
I’m hanging from the train, to afraid to let go, to weak to pull up, just grasping with my life.
“I got you, I got you, let go” Cristobal holds my hips and swiftly pulls me of.
“OK, you gotta KEEP JOGGING as you get on the train, don’t stop or the train will drag you ok ok you got it? Here we go again, I’m next to you, here comes another ladder, now you keep jogging ok”
I see the iron ladder approach us, I’m jogging with the train.
My hand grips the ladder
My body jerks up toward the wagon.
My feet are in the air…
My toes touch the wagon floor,
How exactly I got on is still a mystery to me.
As I clutched that ladder in disbelief, I remember saying at least a dozen times, “I’m on, I’m on, I’m on, I, I’m on, I’m on…”
“EVERYONE ON THE TRAIN?” Cristobal jumps on like a master athlete and the boys crawl down from them top deck.
“Yup, everyone’s on. it’s a packed train tonight, the top is full…”
The boys smile, they look at me in joyful disbelief, I look at them in bliss.
I pat Cristobal on the back… “Thank you brother, thank you so much.”
“Get yourself comfortable, mona, it’s ten hours to Mexico City.”
The boys sit on the deck, their legs of the sides, they look out. Angel and Julio are sick, Angel’s cut across the forehead, both of them cough and huddle in an old blanket.
“What happened there?” I ask them
“Ohh man if you had seen him. The train dragged him, it was awful…” Julio, points at Angels scar.
“You feel OK?”
Angel shrugs in quiet resignation. I realize it’s a stupid question.
They tell me that there was a fifth member of the group, an uncle who got drunk on tequila before jumping on their first train. He thought the alcohol might help him relax, the result wasn’t pretty. Like Angel he was dragged, cut his head open and made the group miss the train. It was bad enough to turn him back.
“We’ve been sick traveling on the trains. We’re so cold and the dust, it’s just not good for you.”
I would later find out that they had entered Mexico by foot. They walked across the entire state of Chiapas in an attempt to avoid the gangs that plagued the southern border.
“It’s dangerous down there”, I heard it over and over. I had met people who had been kidnapped, robbed and tortured. The women were terrorized and raped, none had reached Orizaba.
The guys are quiet, I look out into the mountains…
The highlands are cold at night, the metal rattles under us, lights speckle the country side, each one a home. On the back of that freight train I learned what it was to be HERE, without past or future, and with the wind pounding on you at a bitter 70 mph.
Grace sat with us on that fragile night, and I knew there, that we were family and there was nothing to separate us. We spoke very little, allowing instead for language to abandon words and for words—so often the vehicle for our barriers and vanities—to simply rest.
I spent four days traveling with the guys. We walked through towns at dawn and searched for rail lines. We smuggled through Lecheria, (Mexico City’s main train stop) while avoiding the cameras and police that guarded the station. We slept by the rails and chatted with other migrants, sometimes we would find friends from Orizaba on our way up, but more often we heard of folks that had been caught. “The gringa is still traveling with you guys?” People asked, laughing when I peeked out of a wagon to greet them. After a couple days some folks actually started to believe I was a migrant. This I admit, pleased me greatly.
I kept my travel guitar tied to my backpack and spent most of the time trying to hide it. The guys reminded me constantly that anything that could seem of value and attract attention was bad. Often however we would find ourselves lying in an empty pasture, waiting for the whistle to blow and in those cases a song was always expected. The guys would huddle around in perfect silence and demand encores until I was literally empty of repertoire. Then they would lean in to offer me their sugary cold soda and bagged crackers. It was rock star treatment for sure. Every town was different and nobody except Cristobal had any idea where we were going. Cristobal had done the trip before, he gave the orders, how and when we got off, which train to take and when to do it. The rail police varied from place to place, but many were exceptionally nice, they had seen migrants killed by these trains and they wanted to avoid it. They would let us know when the train would pull out, so as to make it easier to get on.
The trains’ no joke, the migrants call it the Beast or the Train of Death.
The further north we went, the harder it was to continue on the trains and the stronger was the presence of the federal police whose job was essentially, to detain and deport migrants. Most knew better than to attempt crossing the border by train, instead they would do the last part of the trip smuggled in buses, hiding in trucks, or physically walking for hundreds of miles through desert, most likely the Arizona desert. We did not shower, we bought whatever food was cheap and close by the rails, the days were hot and the nights were unbearably cold, and to me it seemed life even in its tragedy was exceptional in it’s beauty and grace.
Their courage was tremendous, their stories and hopes as wide as the sea. It was a longing for family though that knit them together. Their desire for a job, any job that would allow them a wife and children pushed them north. Their ambitions were the foundations of our humanity, just a home within this human exodus, a small house, two kids, maybe a car, a backyard? Some wanted to start a life, others had children waiting for dad at the dinner table, kids in Kansas City, Los Angeles, Chicago.
On July 24th I took my last jump off the freight train in San Luis de Potosi. We arrived at the train station before dawn and hid behind a mountain of rubble until the sun came out. Then we took whatever water we had to clean ourselves, shirts were changed and hair was combed in an attempt to blend in. We snuck out and found a bus that took us into town. What followed is still unclear to me, we arrived at a house, Cristobal knew the house owner and arrangements had been made to cross through Texas with a coyote. Was the house owner a decent man helping a friend? or was he instead simply making money from a highly illegal business? I don’t know, but I did know that this was the end. I showered, made pasta for lunch and hugged my goodbyes. Julio and I joked around for a while, I told him I would not marry him, but I would take him out to dinner if he made it to Chicago. I then stumbled out the door, clean and into the bustle of city daylight. I would never know from the again.
I lost their contact information at a bus station in Durango and hoped heartbroken for months that they would call. I don’t know if they ever crossed the border or went back to Nicaragua. I wish we could meet again, but more than anything else, I wish these borders, that scar our earth and feast on our fears would simply end.
No More Deaths is a volunteer experience that will change your life.
Don Bartletti is an amazing photographer
Daniel Groody is a wise man, theologian and teacher with a global soul.
Jim Joyce is the fantastic writer that made this piece readable.
Dave Kulacz is an adventurer, big heart and the renaissance man that insisted I write this story.
Danny my little brother did the first edit and exclaimed exasperated upon finishing, “who taught YOU sentence structure???”.
Natalia Serna is one of the gentlest hearts I know. An artist, a musician, and a true tumbleweed, Nata can be found just about anywhere in the world, creating music and happiness. When she first told me about her freight train wanderings, I immediately demanded she write it out for me. There are a few people that you meet and know you oughtta stay close to them forever, lest you risk losing a gem. Natalia is one of those people. Thank you for this and more Natalia. You are one of my favorite bohemians.