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A Personal Testimony Of The Migrant Caravan

José, 30, carries his 1-year-old son, Mateo, as they arrive in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico, Oct. 24, 2017. On Nov. 10, José and 35 others turned themselves in at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, seeking asylum. His partner, Olivia, and other son, Andrée, are currently staying in Tijuana. (We have omitted the last names of the subjects in this story to protect their identities.)
José, 30, carries his 1-year-old son, Mateo, as they arrive in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico, Oct. 24, 2017. On Nov. 10, José and 35 others turned themselves in at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, seeking asylum. His partner, Olivia, and other son, Andrée, are currently staying in Tijuana. (We have omitted the last names of the subjects in this story to protect their identities.)

Caravans of migrants have been organized for over a decade now. However, it wasn't until 2014 that people came together and organized a migrant caravan from the border of Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border. Besides banding together to migrate in a much safer way, these caravans are mostly driven by a common theme or goal, whether as assistance to those affected by the earthquakes in Oaxaca and Mexico City or in solidarity with those already traversing the country aboard freight trains in search of a new life in the U.S. or Mexico.

The current caravan, the Caravan of Migrants 2018, was joined in April of this year by "Diversidad Sin Fronteras," Diversity Without Borders, the second trans-gay-migrant caravan, which celebrates inclusivity and diversity among migrants. At the time of writing, there were already more than 1,500 travelers in the group.

Photographer Verónica G. Cárdenas has been documenting their journey. We spoke with her about the significance of this caravan of migrants, her reasons for wanting to tell the story of the journey and the people who go through it, and how the land has shaped who she is as a Mexican-American photographer now.

View from the train on its way to Guanajuato, Mexico, Oct. 22, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
View from the train on its way to Guanajuato, Mexico, Oct. 22, 2017.

Andrea, 14, brushes her hair. A man living across the railroad tracks offered up his house for people in the caravan to shower or wash their hair while the train stopped briefly. Mazatlán, Oct. 23, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Andrea, 14, brushes her hair. A man living across the railroad tracks offered up his house for people in the caravan to shower or wash their hair while the train stopped briefly. Mazatlán, Oct. 23, 2017.

Could you tell us about the reasons behind your coverage of the caravan?

I had always heard stories about people traveling on "La Bestia," The Beast, which are the freight trains that some migrants take in order to traverse Mexico. I heard stories of migrants losing a limb, being kidnapped, raped, killed or robbed on those trains. Every year it becomes more dangerous for migrants to traverse Mexico, particularly on the freight trains. A friend who was one of the volunteer lawyers screening the cases of those in the 2017 refugee caravan told me about the caravans. Once I realized how much safer it was to travel with them, I decided to join them.

What do you want to communicate through your work?

I want to convey what it's like for people to travel on these caravans. I'd like to show that indeed, it is a tiresome and dangerous journey, but along the way, life goes on — some daily routines do not stop happening because they're traversing. I also want to portray them in a more dignified way where they are not solely victims of violence or lack of opportunities in their countries.

This is a work in progress and I hope to do this movement justice. We tend to talk about numbers when we speak of immigration, but I want to show the people behind the numbers. I want to show how Andrea continues with her daily life aboard La Bestia, brushing her hair as if she was in her room back home or how triumphant they all feel just hours before seeking asylum.

Refugee caravan members sleep near the railroad tracks in Sonora. On April 9, 2017, a group of Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua joined to form the 2017 Refugee Caravan, or <em>Viacrucis 2017,</em> put together by organizations from Mexico and the U.S.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Refugee caravan members sleep near the railroad tracks in Sonora. On April 9, 2017, a group of Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua joined to form the 2017 Refugee Caravan, or <em>Viacrucis 2017,</em> put together by organizations from Mexico and the U.S.

Víctor (from left), Steven, María, Sofía, Alison and Evelyn pose for a photo in a shelter in Tijuana before they turned themselves in at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, May 6, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Víctor (from left), Steven, María, Sofía, Alison and Evelyn pose for a photo in a shelter in Tijuana before they turned themselves in at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, May 6, 2017.

According to a June 2017 report from the Human Rights Center Fray Matias de Cordova in southern Mexico and Kids in Need of Defense, smugglers sometime "sell migrant and refugee women and girls to human trafficking operations for the purposes of sexual exploitation." How has it been to be a woman photographer working with women under such circumstances?

The caravan offers major protection against such dangers, although migrants are still at danger on the road. They can still get robbed, kidnapped, or raped. I did not come across a woman or girl that had been raped during the journey. Because there were so many of us together all the time, I noticed it was difficult for a person to open up without having someone else listen to their story. Some women did share how they had been victims of domestic violence, gang threats, and in some cases, a family member had been killed and they now are fleeing for their lives.

Migrants aboard <em>La Bestia</em> (The Beast) traveling to the U.S. in search of asylum, Oct. 22, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Migrants aboard <em>La Bestia</em> (The Beast) traveling to the U.S. in search of asylum, Oct. 22, 2017.

Estela, 30, shaves her legs at a church in Mazatlán after traveling for three days on a freight train, Oct. 24, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Estela, 30, shaves her legs at a church in Mazatlán after traveling for three days on a freight train, Oct. 24, 2017.

What is the nature of your relationship between you and the people and/or the places you photograph?

I was born in Mexico, but now I am a U.S. citizen and I live in McAllen, Texas, which is part of the Rio Grande Valley. For years I have been surrounded by migration issues whether I am affected by them or not. I am at a privileged position and perhaps I did not go through what migrants in the caravans go through, but I seek to do my part as a journalist and as an immigrant in this country to share their stories.

I live in the Rio Grande Valley, the valley, the place that has shaped who I am. For years I struggled with identity, I did not feel I belonged in the U.S., but then going back to Mexico started feeling less and less like home. I was from neither here nor there. I later realized that the valley, geographically speaking, represented who I am. Now I feel like I am in between Mexico and the U.S. Living here has helped me understand other aspects of my personal life, that it is OK to feel that you are always somewhere in between.

José gets off <em>La Bestia</em> with his son Andrée while the train stops on its way to Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 22, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
José gets off <em>La Bestia</em> with his son Andrée while the train stops on its way to Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 22, 2017.

Men bring back snacks from a nearby convenience store for the women and children while the train is stopped, near Guanajuato, Oct. 22, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Men bring back snacks from a nearby convenience store for the women and children while the train is stopped, near Guanajuato, Oct. 22, 2017.

This tattoo is a reminder of Israel's first journey aboard <em>La Bestia</em> as an unaccompanied minor in 2011, when he was 16 years old. Mexico City, Oct. 19, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
This tattoo is a reminder of Israel's first journey aboard <em>La Bestia</em> as an unaccompanied minor in 2011, when he was 16 years old. Mexico City, Oct. 19, 2017.

Members of the refugee caravan on their way to the station in Mexico where they will be boarding the freight train. Mexico City, Oct. 22, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Members of the refugee caravan on their way to the station in Mexico where they will be boarding the freight train. Mexico City, Oct. 22, 2017.

How has this story changed your photographic practice?

Covering the caravans has helped me better understand their struggle as they make their way to the U.S. I learned that I am even more patient when it comes to taking a photo. After all, I am an implant to the situation. I like for them to get used to me, generally speaking, before I take a photo, otherwise I feel like I am stealing from them.

Any other thoughts you'd like to share?

Even when I have only joined the caravans for a week each time, it is impossible not to form strong bonds with the people. At the end, you are exposing yourself to nearly the same dangers as they are, but there is a major difference: They are there because they are forced to migrate, and I am there by choice.

Migrants on their way to Guanajuato, Oct. 22, 2017.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas
Migrants on their way to Guanajuato, Oct. 22, 2017.

Verónica G. Cárdenas is a photographer based at the South Texas border. You can follow her on Instagram: @veronica_g_cardenas

Laura Beltrán Villamizar, who edited the story and conducted the interview, is projects picture editor at NPR. You can follow her on Instagram: @lolabe

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.