Stories From the Caravan

By | January 16, 2019 at 3:48 pm | No comments | News

By Paola Gómez Restrepo, member of PEN Canada’s Writer-in-Exile Network and was the 2015 PEN Writer-in Residence at George Brown College. 

I’d heard about the Caravan. I knew it had left Honduras on October 12, and grown dramatically as it passed through El Salvador and Guatemala. I waited for the stories from this exodus, hoping I’d learn more about its origins. I knew that no one leaves home just because – but the media had almost nothing to say about this. As it neared the Mexican border, the Caravan drew more attention. But not the sort I’d hoped for. We heard about it mostly because President Trump wanted it to be an issue in the midterms. Anti-immigrant rhetoric had worked for him before.

At the end of October, I decided to go and see the Caravan for myself. As an artist, I wanted to show solidarity, but I also wanted to bear witness. I knew, firsthand, what it feels like to leave everything behind. I knew there were would be untold stories. In Canada our news is so carefully curated that I felt the only way to find out the truth was to be there among the walkers.

Armed with a canvas, oil paints and a phone, I set out for Mexico on November 2nd. Four women came with me – we paid our own way – volunteers who had responded to a call for solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, our brothers and sisters. We were going to create art with kids, something I’ve done with newcomer and refugee communities in Canada through Sick Muse Art Projects, (aka MUSE ARTS), a community arts organization I co-founded six years ago.

Art opens up spaces. It can help exiles express their humanity. We wanted it to change the hateful and fearful narratives about people in the caravan. So we got the children to draw on large banners, to show the world who they were: kids just like ours; kids who didn’t choose this struggle. How, we wondered, could we clear a space for them to be kids; to dream and to imagine? Before leaving we’d put out a call for letters, in Spanish, messages of hope, strength and solidarity. We brought nearly a hundred with us, moral support for the women and teenagers.

We found them in Sayula de Alemán, a small town in Veracruz, at 4 a.m. on a Saturday. The state is dominated by drug cartels and official statistics say that 40 percent of the migrants disappear while trying to reach the North. They call it the “route of the death.” The governor of Veracruz had promised buses, so the walkers were lining up for them. Probably 4,000 people, most in extremely long queues. At five, a rumour spread that there weren’t going to be any buses. This scared me. “This can’t end well,” I thought. “Thousands of people, deeply frustrated, at five in the morning. Children crying and people wandering around in pain in pitch black darkness.” Eventually, around 5:30, someone from a migrant support group used a small megaphone to say that the governor hadn’t kept his promise. There was no violence, just disappointment, sadness and confusion.

People wandered around randomly. Most of the women with young children were confused. Where should they go? One approached, with three kids, asking for directions. I repeated what I’d heard from the companion organization: “Take the longer route, it has human rights observers.” But she was exhausted. The short route sounded easier. We looked each other in the eyes and said a wordless good-bye. It was heartbreaking. Everything was so chaotic, and they were clearly waiting for a miracle. At some point you think: “This is too painful. We have to do something, especially with all of these kids crying.”

One of my companions found a bus that usually seats 40 people and we started a line for the women with small kids. We crammed nearly 70 into the bus. I searched for the woman I’d met earlier, but she hadn’t made it. As we drove to the next town, I saw her walking with her kids. I wanted to stop, to let them get on, but we couldn’t. The bus couldn’t fit another soul. I still wonder if they ended up among the 100 who disappeared on that route. Yes, 100 people, mostly kids. Oaxaca’s Human Rights Commissioner reported the disappearances but the media ignored the news.

The next town, Isla, was a community of care. People brought  out clothes and fruit. Suddenly there was a truck full of pineapples, and everybody was eating them. There was a lot of support. The city offered its services, including medical treatment. Another detail the mainstream media had omitted. The walkers had relied on outside support, without planning for it; but the support was emerging, organically. It was powerful to witness such solidarity.

Everyone was exhausted and they lay down to rest or sleep. We set up a canvas and invited the kids  to draw. They came over shyly but soon they were drawing and laughing. Their mothers joined in. We realized that they mostly drew houses and buses. We didn’t psychoanalyze, but it wasn’t hard to see what the art was about: families holding hands, houses, trucks and buses. One girl, probably eight years old, scribbled messages like, “I love Honduras,” “I miss my home,” “I will see you one day.” We encouraged them and soon they were animated, proud of what they had done.

While they worked, a woman walked up to me, pushing a boy in a wheelchair. She wanted to know if I really was from Canada. They were from Nicaragua. Her 14-year-old son been shot by armed forces and they had been in hiding ever since. They’d decided to leave rather than stay in hiding indefinitely and with the sacrifices needed to join the caravan, it had given her hope. She ended by saying she would do anything to avoid burying her children: “They are meant to outlive us, to bury us,”  she said. “I am already too old.”

Towards the end of the painting activity, a boy came and shyly asked me if I could give him “colours” so he could continue painting. I asked him to help me gather the supplies  so we could make a box of pastels that were in good condition. Once we’d done this I turned to him and gave the box. His smile, the light in his eyes was arresting. It was everything.  I knew he’d cherish a moment like that for a very long time … I was surprised at how many teenagers, accompanied and unaccompanied, were there. Maybe I noticed because my own child kid is now 14. The whole experience stirred up many powerful emotions. I kept reminding myself of what I’d to keep my kid safe. I knew I would have made this walk.

I have been a refugee. I have crossed a border with a young child. I’m sure this influenced my decision to go. I’d noticed that the news wasn’t covering the kids and the women. I knew that good people, people with big dreams are often forced to leave their homes. It was painful to watch them receive hate from politicians and the communities that these politicians influence. Would any of this happen to a caravan of wealthy migrants?

Being there made me realize how privileged I am. I didn’t have to walk from Colombia to Canada, I could buy a plane ticket or get a visa to the U.S. It stirred my conscience. I wanted to do something, to say: “Hey, stop your hate. This is what is really happening. Nobody is coming to steal anything from any of you.” Because, just like me, many of these people will come and do great things. Why do you fear them?

We should all ask ourselves: Why are poorest  and most vulnerable people attacked with no compassion? Who is asking what in Honduras has forced so many people to flee? The victims are demonized while those responsible for their suffering – politicians, big corporations – aren’t held accountable. Some of these corporations are Canadian. Who’s talking about Canada’s role in this suffering? I’ve been told a hundred times I should be grateful to Canada for opening its doors to me. But I’m as Canadian as anyone else now. I have the right to say that my country, our country, needs to acknowledge what has been done in its name to these people in the south.

Canada has taught me about generosity, and it has shown me the importance of social and civic engagement. As a citizen, I feel obliged to check my privileges and support those who face violence and oppression: to be an ally. We need more allies. We need more people who believe that social justice is for everyone, that change is necessary. More people who refuse to be silent when witnessing injustice


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