Forward to Freedom: Refugees Travel North Through Mexico

As the summer sun’s heat hit the waiting area of the Oaxaca de Juarez bus terminal, families slept on blankets and cardboard boxes between seats and in corners, waiting for their trip north. A child, no more than 3 feet tall, sipped juice out of a Styrofoam cup. She looked at me, the lone stranger, with wide eyes. Salud! I toasted her my morning champurrado, a thick chocolate drink that later gave me indigestion. After a few minutes, we all boarded a bus headed to Mexico City. On the way out of town a pretty 20-something year old mestizo Mexican woman, with a wide smile, a no-nonsense look, and hair tied into a ponytail, boarded the bus. She wore the logo of the Government of Mexico. We had stopped at our first checkpoint. There were many more headed north than south.

She walked down the aisle, greeting each passenger, looking them in the eye. She asked several people politely, “Where are you from? Are these children yours?” One family of five was from Venezuela, another passenger was from Colombia. The Venezuelans were asked to deboard, two parents stood at the side of the bus, took out their ID cards, and the smiling young government agent took their photos with her state issued iPhone. They returned to the bus and sat down, opposite their three children sitting in two seats across the aisle.

When I bought my ticket, I was asked for my passport to take the bus north from Oaxaca’s state capital to Mexico City. Travel is controlled.

The first stop after leaving town was Nochixtlan, a small city in the valley between two mountain ranges. Most residents here are of indigenous descent. An A symbol, in black spray-painted enclosed in a circle, was painted on a cement barrier at the edge of town, as well as the words CNTE, the radical education and teachers’ union fighting to preserve indigenous bilingual education. The city is quiet. Food stores displayed avocados, tomatoes, kiwis and mangos. Small storefront businesses painted turquoise, reddish brown, and yellow passed by. A tortilla factory and construction tool store sold wares on Monday morning.

As we left town, we arrived at another government checkpoint. A short, bearded government employee boarded the bus with a cloth face mask. He asked the Venezuelans to get off the bus, and then called out, asking all foreigners to deboard. I pretended to be asleep. A group of about eight to twelve immigrants stood under a tent overhang, with a black cloth as the backdrop. They were asked again to raise their identification to take a group picture. The two parents turned their children’s faces away from the government official, holding a camera, an automatic weapon with its long black rifle barrel pointed downwards slung over his shoulder. The children were asked to turn to face the man, and he took all their pictures.

Past desert and farmland, crowded four to six story apartments, and a giant Volkswagen auto factory in the city of Puebla, over a mountain pass with the recently active Popocatepetl volcano towering to our left, we entered the giant metropolitan valley of Mexico City.

The Venezuelan family, a young mother, father, and three small children, were preparing to arrive. Where they were headed, I didn’t know. The youngest girl, around four years old, stood up in her seat and looked back at me as I smiled, watching their family hoping in my heart that they found a safe place to call home. She smiled at me, showing her tiny white teeth. A twinkle sparkled in her brown eye; her curly hair tied up behind her. She held a thin white blanket up in front of her, looking at me, smiling as if to say hello. Their parents and he two older children turned their heads and grinned. I lifted my face mask down shopping my beard, nose, and a wide grin. De Donde Es? She asked. Where are you from? I smiled back.

The bus descended the wide valley of 22 million souls crowded together in cinderblock homes and apartments. We traveled along a freeway snaking through the city, under a gondola transporting commuters home to hillside neighborhoods hugging the slopes of outer suburbs. The normally smoggy sky was a cool refreshing blue. Evening descended as we entered the city’s TAPO bus terminal. Only a few more stops for that small Venezuelan child, before her family would, perhaps in the care of a human smuggler, or Coyote, make that perilous trek north across the Rio Grande. Here they were, passing nation after nation’s government checkpoints, traveling north to freedom, safety, and a better life.

At the Mexico City North bus terminal, a crowd of 18 Africans and 7 Asian men waited for evening busses north to Tijuana. I ended up boarding a bus with six brown skinned men, eight black men and two women wearing headscarves, all Arabic speakers without much knowledge of Spanish or English. One woman sat in the front, next to her husband. She was four months pregnant, and reclined in her seat, with one hand cradling her belly, her head resting against her husband’s shoulder.

I tried to strike up a conversation with the Arab man seated next to me. He used his phone to translate. Closing the app, I could see the picture of a small smiling child behind icons on his screen. Everyone has a reason to leave home and risk danger. This was his. The picture, a reminder to strengthen his will in time of uncertainty, the love of a small child kept him going.

I dozed off to sleep, and woke up in the state of Sinaloa, with wheat fields and greenhouses dotting the lush farmland passing by. We passed a small city, full of industrial hangers and small factories, and a glass enclosed car dealership displaying SUVs, jeeps, and sedans for sale. The bus stopped at the border of Sonora, and we deboarded, grabbing our luggage and placing our bags through an X-ray machine behind sandbags guarded by soldiers. They were looking for narcotics. Quickly we resumed our trip, only to be stopped again as two men, in black ski masks, black shirts and khaki pants boarded the bus. They asked several people where they were from, and for a few to show their identification. My fellow passenger said he had to pay 300 pesos, or about $18 dollars, to avoid being led away.

We kept going. Every few hours the bus lurched to a halt, and two more men in ski masks, black shirts, and Khaki pants would walk down the aisles questioning passengers. Money exchanged hands. We continued.

In the early morning the next day we deboarded again at another military checkpoint to pass our bags through another X-ray machine. A few minutes later, we were on our way.

We arrived in Sonoyta, Sonora, across from the Arizona border, and saw that wall, of rusted red metal bars, reminding potential immigrants of the jail sentence that would await them if caught while scaling it to scramble across to safety on the other side.

Almost everyone got off for a long lunch break at a restaurant across from the border wall. I slumped down in my seat and dozed off.

Next stop, San Luis Colorado, across from Yuma, AZ. Sonora’s route 2 passed alongside the cactus and rocky cliffs of the bone-dry desert paralleling that wall stretching out for hundreds of miles in desolate terrain.

We were stopped again. Mexican government agents boarded, and this time the Arabic speaking black and brown immigrants were asked to get off the bus. They left and returned. Then were asked to get off again. People were frantically speaking in excited voices; afraid, upset, nervous, and on edge.

A third time, passengers were asked to deboard. What happened? I asked myself. Finally, one tall lanky black man with a short beard emerged from below, strolling down the aisle with a smile. Our eyes connected. I gestured, “Is everything ok?” He rubbed two fingers together and then with palms facing down, spread his hands outwards, as if to say, “It cost money, but everything was smoothed over.”

I noticed that not everyone was on the bus, however. I wasn’t really keeping track. But it seemed like several black men did not return.

The brown skinned Arab man got back in his seat, translating through his phone, he said he first paid 500 pesos, later more. A younger man next to him, took a few small bills out of the wrapping of a marshmallow and strawberry cream filled pack of cookies. He smiled, relieved, and offered me a cookie. we sat together, all munching on the sweet mushy marshmallow between two sugary wafers, smiling at each other, settling into our seats with a sigh of relief.

The passenger next to me and three or four young men in his party got off in Mexicali, an industrial city of one million residents across from the California’s imperial valley full of trucks transporting raw materials and finished auto parts from big factories employing tens of thousands.

We passed over a ridgeline and descended into Tijuana. Two African couples got off the bus with me. The husband led his pregnant wife down the stairs. And another couple descended. They had been sitting in the back of the bus; the man slept with his feet stretched over the aisle the night before, and I had I carefully lifted my foot to hop over his shins before heading to the bathroom.

The trip was over. We made it.

A few hours later, I boarded another bus, headed to Los Angeles. At the San Yisidro border crossing, the bus let us off to walk past the red rusted bars of the border fence topped with barbed wire. I showed my American passport, the United States border patrol agent nodded, and I walked on through to the other side.

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