Every day hundreds of Central Americans men, women and children travel through Mexico en route to the United States. Driven by dire economic conditions and tremendous violence at home, they leave Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala out of necessity.
In search of a better life, they ride atop freight trains nicknamed “La Bestia” (“The Beast”). Also called “El Tren de la Muerte” (“The Death Train”), the trains run along multiple lines, crossing Mexico from South to North over 3,000 kilometres.
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Migrants hopping aboard the moving cargo trains face many dangers along the way. From amputation or death if they fall or are pushed from the train, to kidnapping, rape and extortion at the hands of the gangs and organised crime groups that control the routes.
But in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a small group of women have dedicated themselves to feed the migrants as the trains pass through their small town of La Patrona. Driven only by kindness, the small group now known as “Las Patronas” is made of about 14 wives and mothers that spend each day of the week cooking for migrants.
Coordinated by the founder Norma Romero Vázquez, they prepare hundreds of bags of rice, beans and tortillas.
As soon as they hear the train’s whistle, Las Patronas stand along the tracks with the bags of prepared lunches and bottles of water that they will throw to the migrants on top of the speeding train.
Get a glimpse at their work in this short film from SacBé Producciones (2009).
It all started in February 1995 when two sisters, Norma and Bernarda Romero Vázquez, went to buy bread and milk for breakfast. They were standing at the side of the railway tracks, waiting to cross, as “La Bestia” passed. After several groups of migrants on the wagons shouted “Madre, we’re hungry!” they threw their groceries at them. Back at home they told their mother Leonila Vázquez Alvizar what had happened and the three of them decided to cook up to 30 portions of rice and beans a day to hand out to migrants.
At first, this charitable act wasn’t well accepted as their neighbours warned them about being charged for migrant smuggling. Nevertheless, almost two decades later, with food donations and the support of their community, they were preparing up to 800 lunches a day and gained recognition as a humanitarian group. In 2013 Norma Romero Vázquez was awarded Mexico’s most prestigious human rights prize for Las Patronas’ voluntary work.
Las Patronas’ work has since expanded and adapted to the change of migration patterns. In 2014 the American immigration crisis saw tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America seeking entrance to the USA. Consequently, the Obama administration pressured Mexico to adopt a southern border strategy. In response, the Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieta implemented in July 2014 “Programa Frontera Sur” whose main objectives are to protect migrants transiting through Mexico and to promote security at the ports of entry.
However, according to human rights groups, Mexican immigration agents as well as the police have focused on catching and deporting migrants thus turning the plan into a “manhunt” and exposing them to greater dangers. Prevented from riding on “La Bestia”, migrants seek new routes, walking on train tracks or roads, suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and hunger, and have become much more vulnerable to criminals.
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Nowadays, feeding less than a hundred migrants on the trains per day, Las Patronas have altered their support. They not only offer migrants shelter but also give them information about their rights and take the injured to the hospital. In addition, they sometimes contact the National Institute of Migration to coordinate the repatriation of migrants who wish to go back home.
Furthermore, they also work with several organisations to correct stereotypes about migrants in Mexico and around the world.
In their 2016 New Year message they hope that:
“(…) more people will become aware, join forces and show support to the needy, the vulnerable, the brother migrants, the elderly, the sick, the prisoners, the unemployed and the destitute. When they cross our path let’s not be indifferent and overlook them, oblivious to the cause of their problems. Let us take the time to listen to them, respect them, love them and help to find a solution to such a problem. We are human beings and we should not remain indifferent.” (Traduction NADJA)
The reward for their selfless and hard work? The gratitude and blessings from migrants they may never see again.