Alice Driver | Longreads | December 2019 | 7 minutes (1,783 words)
We are hungry but we aren’t afraid
Young and rebellious
And the disappeared?
The revolution will educate your children
– Graffiti scrawled on buildings lining the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, Colombia during the national protests against the government in November 2019
* * *
You hold a spoon that has been worn down by the hands of your mother, of your grandmother. You hold a kitchen pot upon which is written the history of women who labored to feed loved ones. You hold a cheese grater, a measuring cup, a tin pitcher, a colander, a potato masher, a whisk, and you stand thousands upon thousands strong, banging your spoons in rhythm, dancing and singing as you face a repressive police force, riot police armed with tear gas, drones and helicopters following your movements from above. As days pass into weeks, you stand in defiance, spoon and pot in hand, demanding with every clang that the government elected by you the people listen to its people. This is a cacerolazo, a method of peaceful protest with deep roots in Latin America in which women — in the domestic space and in the streets — play a central role.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, women represented roughly 20 percent of the labor force in most Latin American countries, and the societal expectation was that women belonged at home with their children. Under dictatorship and in times of economic cuts and food shortages, women were particularly affected given their assumed role as caretakers of the family. And to protest such conditions — first in Chile in the ‘70s and later in Argentina and Venezuela — women took to the streets in numbers, banging pots and pans, and often they were joined by other sectors of society, particularly students. The cacerolazo created a challenge for repressive governments because it was hard — even in countries with government-controlled media — to justify violence against women, often accompanied by their children, banging pots and pans.
In 2019, students like Carolina Avellaneda, 23, participated in cacerolazos across Latin America to protest government corruption and growing inequality. Avellaneda, who is from Bogotá, Colombia, participated in a nationwide protest that began on November 21, 2019, and will continue until Colombian president Iván Duque Márquez responds to the requests of protesters. She said she had been inspired to participate in the cacerolazo by earlier protests in Chile. While some of those Chilean protesters had died and hundreds had lost the use of one or both eyes due to police tactics involving shooting peaceful protesters in the eye with rubber bullets, the government had at least been forced to listen to and negotiate with protesters on issues regarding inequality.
I interviewed Avellaneda at the Parque de los Hippies in Bogotá on November 23, the third day of the protests. She was among the thousands of students, mothers, and children banging on pots and pans. I covered the protests with Colombian photographer Sebastián Villegas on a motorbike, which allowed us to track the movements of the ESMAD, the riot police. The ESMAD wore black body armor, whose weight appeared to slow them down, and black helmets with clear plastic visors covering their faces. They traveled in pairs on motorbikes. A uniformed police officer drove each bike and behind him sat a member of the riot police who, upon arrival at a protest area, would quickly jump off the bike and get into formation with the ESMAD on-site. They used information gathered by drones and teams of helicopters to quickly find, surround, and disperse peaceful protesters in different parts of the city with stun grenades, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and paint guns (used to tag students to identify them as protesters for later punishment). Without the motorbike, it would have been impossible for me to witness the coordinated brutality of ESMAD.
Governments have always tended to act repressively when faced with protesters. It is one of the ways to silence us and our requests, along with the use of excessive force by police. However, we aren’t afraid. We are here.
The morning of November 23, Villegas and I went to the Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera, where a group of a few hundred students, mothers, and children had gathered to bang on pots and pans, dance, and sing. It was sunny and the atmosphere was relaxed, with dozens of students gathered in groups, sitting or lying on the ground, making protest signs that read It is better to lose than to win so little and We want peace. Some were petting dogs or pushing babies in strollers. In the afternoon, as we rode out of the park and toward the Plaza de Bolívar, the main plaza in the city and the location of another protest, we crossed paths with a fleet of ESMAD on motorbikes. We watched as they arrived at the periphery of the park, dismounted, and got into tight formation. By the time we arrived at the Plaza de Bolívar some 20 minutes later, I had received a text message from another journalist at the park noting that the riot police had thrown stun grenades and tear gas at the protesters, dispersing the gathering within minutes.
Only those who are forgotten die #WeAreAllDilan #MauroLivesAmongUs 11 months of impunity (Photo by Sebastián Villegas)
At the Plaza de Bolívar, students congregated on the steps of the government buildings, surrounding the plaza and chanting in unison, “No violence!” Many held up strips of white cloth, stretched tight between their two hands — a sign of peace. Some students ran around the periphery of the square waving large Colombian flags, while others chanted, “The people united will never be defeated!” Many stood beside their bicycles, and couples kissed and held hands. Within minutes, the riot police arrived on motorbikes in a two-line formation, dismounted, and marched into the plaza throwing stun grenades and dispersing tear gas and pepper spray. I read on Twitter in real time some Colombian news outlets reporting that most protesters were violent and only wanted to vandalize the city and steal. I stood on the farthest side of the plaza watching as ESMAD threw stun grenades, and at the first explosion of sound all the pigeons in the plaza rose in unison, the sound of their wings flapping as students ran in wild desperation toward the closest exits. As the pink and white smoke cleared, the riot police fought to take bikes away from a few remaining students in the plaza and quickly — before I could get my camera — grabbed others by the feet and dragged them across the plaza and into a nearby building. As Johana Quintero, 30, a protester and a communications professor at a university in Bogotá explained, “Governments have always tended to act repressively when faced with protesters. It is one of the ways to silence us and our requests, along with the use of excessive force by police. However, we aren’t afraid. We are here.”
The riot police then gathered in the center of the square around a statue of Simón Bolívar and waited as two perfect lines of police driving motorbikes arrived, picked them up, then did a victory lap around the square before exiting as drones and helicopters hummed above. The riot police had tracked the location of protests around the city using those drones and helicopters and thus could arrive quickly, disperse crowds, and secure the periphery of the given location with the National Police of Colombia (UNIPOL) who wore army-green uniforms and body armor, and black helmets with plastic visors over their faces.
A few protesters, mostly women, stayed behind to try to talk to the UNIPOL, mostly men, who were blocking the entrance to the Plaza de Bolívar. “You know, this is a peaceful march,” said one young woman who leaned in close to the plastic visor of a member of the UNIPOL. A group of her fellow protesters proceeded to organize a sit-in directly in front of the UNIPOL, holding up signs that read, I am marching for the future of my children.
Leaving the Plaza de Bolívar and en route to witness another protest at the Parque de los Hippies, Villegas and I passed a group of protesters surrounded by ambulances, smoke, and wails rising from the crowd. Upon arriving at the Parque de los Hippies, we received word that the ambulances had arrived to help Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old student who had been gravely injured when riot police aimed a tear gas canister at his head.
At the Parque de los Hippies, Avellaneda, an environmental engineering student at the Universidad del Bosque, stood, her face covered by a black bandana, wearing black-framed glasses, and ripped jeans. She held a cardboard sign on which she had written in green marker No fear. By her side was her friend Sofia de León Jaramillo 24, also a university student, who held a similar sign that read No violence. Avellaneda said, “I think the strike will last longer until we at least get a response from the government, the president, and the mayor, because they are attacking us and saying that we are vandals.” Although there had been vandalism, which usually occurred at night, citizens disagreed about the cause of it, and some believed that the police themselves might have paid for the vandalism to make protesters look violent, while others wanted to blame it on Venezuelan immigrants.
Although the participants in the protests were diverse, the inequality they were protesting had specific dimensions. Mateo Castro, 24, a friend of Avellaneda who worked as a systems administrator, said, “I am one of the lucky few who has a job because unemployment is high. I work and I’m here and I brought my pan and I’m here for the cacerolazo.” According to 2018 figures, unemployment among women in Colombia was 65 percent higher than among men. Jaramillo said she had joined the protests because she wanted to see labor and pension reforms. She explained, “We are following in the footsteps of other countries [like Chile] because we have a voice and we are young and we understand the reality and hope that the protest will continue until we are really heard.” She described the protests as a time bomb whose arrival, due to systemic inequality in Colombia and in the region, could have been predicted. “This is related to other events in Latin America, to what is happening in Chile,to what is happening in Bolivia,” she added.
[woman on left] Don’t let your privilege lessen your sense of empathy [woman on right] We are also fighting for those who don’t have a voice (Photo by Sebastián Villegas)
Daniela, 29, a lawyer protesting at the Plaza de los Hippies, requested that her last name be excluded due to fear of repression. She explained that she was protesting because, “This government has torn up the peace agreement after 50 years of enduring war — well, much longer than that, but if you’re talking about the guerrilla war, we’ve spent half a century, 50 years [at war]. … But there is no political will to implement the agreements that were signed in Havana.” And in that half decade or more of warfare, women in Colombia have suffered the brunt of sexual violence.
As news of Dilan Cruz spread on social media — he was in the hospital in critical condition — protesters from all around the city, many with children and dogs in tow, began to surround the Parque de los Hippies and shut down the street. Graffiti around the plaza read Don’t be silent, shout! Crowds chanted, “You aren’t going to silence us.” A shirtless young man had written across his scrawny chest in black marker MARICA ES ÉL QUE NO LUCHA, and near him another student wore a flag cape on which she had painted the words No more deaths, peace. A woman rode by on a bike. She had attached the handle of a cooking pan to her bike handle and was using one hand to steer and the other hand to bang on the pan with a large wooden spoon. A young woman on a pink skateboard rolled by, and the back of her shirt read, Resist! I promised my mother I would not fall! On a statute behind her, a student scrawled quickly in spray paint, No more ESMAD! Duque Resign!
As dusk fell, students lit torches and sang the national anthem. Quintero and other students said they would continue to participate in the protests as long as it took for the government to listen. Quintero was hopeful and explained, “I believe that one of the things that the protests have demonstrated to the country, especially in the context of Bogotá, which is where I live, is hope. Because although we have always been very quiet, submissive people to the State, it is the first time in many generations that we can see several acts of solidarity and diverse voices that are legitimately asking for profound transformation. It is hopeful, especially for new generations. They are very critical young people, they are young people who have taken to the streets despite state repression and serious police abuse.”
By Sunday morning, protesters had gathered in front of San Ignacio hospital, leaving flowers and notes for Cruz, who remained in critical condition. By Monday, November 25, Cruz was dead and protesters, outraged at the brutality that caused an 18-year-old armed with only a spoon to die, flowed into the streets in even greater numbers. The sound of them banging on pots and pans rang throughout the city, a funeral hymn, a peaceful cry for justice, for equality.
* * *
Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
“Yo con un mapa ya” anunció con firmeza Milexi, de 16 años. Me contó que su amor por los mapas le dieron la seguridad para recorrer ella sola los cerca de 2,300 kilómetros que hay entre El Portillo, Honduras y McAllen, Texas. Cuando la entrevisté en agosto de 2018, se encontraba en el Centro de Atención a Menores Fronterizos, CAMEF; su postura estaba algo rígida y su mirada fija en el luminoso patio del lugar. Llevaba partidura en medio y su cabello brillaba bajo el sol. “Mi sueño siempre fue viajar en “La Bestia””; como se le conoce al tren que atraviesa México de norte a sur, al cual los migrantes suben y bajan continuamente para conseguir trabajo y así poder costear su viaje en suelo mexicano. A veces corren el riesgo de perder uno o dos miembros de su cuerpo si calculan mal el salto, ya sea para bajar o para subir. Por su parte, Milexi logró llegar hasta Reynosa vestida de hombre; ahí la detuvieron y la llevaron al centro en el que llevaba ya 57 días detenida, y donde tuvo la oportunidad de hacer su solicitud de asilo en México.
Milexi se fue de Honduras porque su padrastro golpeaba a su madre y a uno de sus hermanos.
Me contó que él llevaba años golpeando a su madre, y que incluso llegó a fracturarle la rodilla a su hermanito de 11 años. Me dijo que ella empezó a cortarse desde los 7, pero que también estaba orgullosa de sí misma, porque a pesar de la ansiedad que sentía no se había cortado ni una sola vez desde el año pasado.
Después agregó un detalle: una noche en que su padrastro golpeó a su madre, ella esperó hasta que él estuviera dormido; fue a la cocina, tomó un cuchillo y lo apuñaló. “De mala suerte clavé el cuchillo en el lugar equivocado”, explicó sin pestañear. Su padrastro sobrevivió y ella decidió abandonar Honduras.
“I will go with a map,” decided 16-year-old Milexi. Her love of maps, she said, was part of what gave her the confidence to migrate roughly 1,460 miles from El Portillo, Honduras, to McAllen, Texas, alone. When I interviewed her in August 2018, she sat, her body tense, her gaze direct, on the sunlit patio of the Border Youth Care Center (CAMEF El Centro de Atención a Menores Fronterizos) in Reynosa, Mexico. Milexi’s hair was parted down the middle, and it shined in the sun as she said, “My dream was always to travel on the Beast,” as the train that runs from one end of Mexico to the other is known; migrants hop on and off it as they work their way through the country, sometimes losing a limb or two if they miscalculate the jump onto or off of the train. Milexi dressed as a man and made it as far as Reynosa before being caught and turned over to the Center, where she had then spent 57 days and made the request to receive asylum in Mexico.
Milexi left Honduras because her stepfather beat her mom and one of her brothers. She said that he beat her mother for years, that he fractured her 11-year-old brother’s knee. She said that she started cutting herself at age 7, but was also proud of herself because, for the past year, despite feeling anxious, she had not cut herself once.
Then she added a detail: One night her stepfather beat her mother. She waited until he was asleep then got a knife from the kitchen and stabbed him. “I had bad luck and the knife struck in the wrong place,” she explained without blinking. Her stepfather survived and after that, she decided to leave Honduras.
Lizeth Dávila, 39, holds a photo of her murdered son Álvaro, 15, in her hands. All photos by Jacky Muniello.
Alice Driver | Longreads | May 2019 | 7 minutes (1957 words)
She will tell the story of her child’s murder as many times as needed. She will tell it until her voice breaks, until her eyes no longer fill with tears, until her demands for justice are met. She could be the mother of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Alyssa Alhdeff in Parkland, Florida, or Álvaro Manuel Conrado Dávila in Managua, Nicaragua. The history of mothers as activists in the Americas is firmly rooted in the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, a group of hundreds of mothers who marched weekly in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to protest the murder and disappearance of their children under the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. These mothers, bound together by the private pain of witnessing a child’s murder or disappearance, turn their anguish and rage outward into public movements to demand justice, often at great risk to themselves.
I witnessed the birth of one such movement in Nicaragua in 2018 — the Mothers of April, a group of more than 400 mothers whose children have been murdered or disappeared by pro-government paramilitary forces. Álvaro, known affectionately as Álvarito, 15, was the first child murdered by pro-government paramilitary forces in Managua on April 30, 2018. I met his mother, Lizeth Dávila, 39, at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). To get there I had to pass through military checkpoints and by streets blocked off by walls of sandbags. Dávila sat at a desk with Álvaro’s framed school photo gripped in her hands, as she recounted how shortly after turning 15, he decided to use his birthday money to buy water for students protesting President Daniel Ortega’s social security reforms. Ortega, who was elected in 2006 with 38 percent of the vote, plans to stay in office until 2021 despite increasing protests over his government’s human rights violations. Dávila’s 5-year-old son, who played on the floor during the interview, sang out repeatedly his brother’s last words after being shot in the throat by a pro-government sniper: I can’t breathe. It hurts. Álvaro is one of more than 300 students, including 18 minors, who have been murdered by pro-Ortega paramilitary forces since last April. As Gonzalo Carrión, the legal director at CENIDH described the situation, “The people of Nicaragua are suffering from what we would call a despotic dictatorship that has expressed itself and become increasingly violent since April 18 — the dictatorship has taken out its hidden claws.” Of her murdered son, Dávila said, “I imagine that he never thought that the police would respond with bullets.” Given the accuracy of the shot, which clearly aimed to kill, Dávila believed a sniper had taken out her son. When police came to her house and tried to blame her son’s murder on other protesters, she told them that no mere civilian had the aim of a professional sniper.
When police came to her house and tried to blame her son’s murder on other protesters, she told them that no mere civilian had the aim of a professional sniper.
Álvaro was still alive after getting shot, but when protesters helped get him to the nearest hospital, the hospital denied him entry. By the time he was taken to another hospital, he had almost bled to death, and after four hours and 15 minutes in the operating room, he died. Dávila explained, “State hospitals had closed their doors — they were not allowed to treat protesters. They were only allowed to treat government people.” The hospital paperwork listing the reason for his death cited “natural causes.”
First: Josefa Esterlina Meza holds a photo of her murdered son Jonathan, 21, in her hands. Second: at a march organized by the Mothers of April in Managua, in September 2018, pro-Ortega forces fired two shots into the air and marchers, including this woman, feared the worst and dove to the ground. Nobody was hurt and afterwards fellow protestors helped people get up. Third: Jaqueline del Socorro Valdivia Aguilar, the mother of Christopher Nahiroby, 19, a student illegally detained by President Daniel Ortega’s forces.
As Carrión saw it, young people were exercising their constitutional right to protest and they should be able to take to the streets without fear of being oppressed. However, the reality he described was that “hundreds of government forces have assaulted citizens, journalists. Many journalists have been robbed, have been assaulted, including one of our colleagues, a photographer.” When I asked him about the state of press freedom, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You have the freedom to say what you want at the risk of losing your life.” Adelaida Sánchez Mercado, who had worked at the CENIDH for 12 years as a media liaison described a situation in which “young men and young women have been killed, basically kids. The repression has no limits. It has been ruthless; it has been bloody.” In December, Nicaragua’s National Assembly canceled the legal registration for the CENIDH, thus ensuring less oversight of human rights violations.
The hospital paperwork listing the reason for his death cited ‘natural causes.’
Sánchez Mercado had witnessed the Mothers of April play a crucial role in demanding freedom and justice for murdered and detained youth. “The mothers are the ones who are showing up and demanding respect for life, respect for integrity and that the government free their children.” she said. “As women, we are defending our lives, those of our children, the lives of our partners.” Sánchez Mercado introduced me to Jaqueline del Socorro Valdivia Aguilar, the mother of one of hundreds (the exact number is unknown) who have been illegally detained for protesting. Her son Christopher Nahiroby, a 19-year-old student who studied English and wrote poetry, was detained for his role in protests on August 25, 2018. His mother explained, “Seven young people were arrested, including Nahiroby, on August 25. … What the government wants is to quiet those voices demanding liberty and democracy.” Valdivia Aguilar has not been allowed to visit her son in detention and she worried that he has been tortured.
When I asked him about the state of press freedom, he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You have the freedom to say what you want at the risk of losing your life.’
Eight days after the death of her son, two women arrived at Dávila’s house — their sons had also been murdered while protesting Ortega government policies. They asked her if she wanted to form part of a group of mothers in a similar situation, and they shared stories of their dead children. “If they lay a hand on our sons, they lay a hand on us,” said Dávila, describing how the mothers felt about the violence perpetrated by pro-Ortega forces. When Dávila protests, she carries a large photo of Álvaro, and mothers come up to her and say that his death moved them to take to the streets because they saw their own son in him. The protests in Nicaragua began on April 18 as youth took to the streets to protest social security reforms that they saw would hurt their parents and grandparents. When pro-government forces, who often dressed as civilians, started killing protesters in the following days, latent anger over the stranglehold of the Ortega government on things like a free press and freedom of speech made citizens, especially youth, fearless, and marches occurred almost daily. As Dávila described, “They are killing our young people, our sons, but we are the women who are organizing a movement.” The Ortega government accused the mothers of being paid by foreign agents to sow disorder and said that they had been manipulated, deceived. As Dávila and I sat side by side, a photo of Álvaro in front of us on the table, Dávila apologized to me that she couldn’t take me to visit her son’s grave. She was afraid we would be followed by people who “want to dig up the bodies” of youth like her son, youth who had been murdered while protesting Ortega.
A protestor at the march organized by the Mothers of April in September 2018 wears a mask made from the Nicaraguan flag. His shirt reads: “Here are all your plebs, but united together to liberate my Nicaragua.”
In September 2018, when several of the members of the Mothers of April invited me to accompany them during a march in Managua to honor their children, they led the thousands of citizens gathered in the hopes that their bodies would protect students, who are the clear target of government violence. Marching with the joyous, angry, pulsating mass of humanity, I saw costumed women on stilts, a group of trans women dressed in sequins and dancing, mothers holding life-size photos of their murdered children, teens with bandanas tied around their mouths spray-painting stenciled slogans on the sidewalks, mothers marching hand in hand with daughters. “We aren’t animals. We aren’t cattle,” said Josefa Esterlina Meza, 55. “We are thinking people. We are human beings, and we have the right to have an opinion.” Meza and the other mothers were met by heavily armed police and military forces who blocked the protest route, shouting insults and beating those within their reach with batons. The women were prepared for such resistance and rerouted their supporters, only to be met at the end of the march again with police forces who fired two shots, causing marchers to dive for cover, the memory of recent murders fresh in their minds.
On May 30, Meza had taken her two sons to a march to support mothers whose children had been murdered. “It was the mother of all marches,” said Meza, “and there were almost a million people there.” She said she never imagined that at that march, pro-government forces would murder her son Jonathan Morazán Meza, 21. He was shot in the head and, though he did make it to the hospital, he died there. As Meza explained, those who perpetrated acts of violence against her son and other youth “are snipers. They shoot at the head, at lethal areas — the heart, the head, the chest, the liver.” On the day that Jonathan was murdered, eight other protesters were also killed, students who Meza described as being 15 to 18 years old and unarmed. After Jonathan was killed, she, like so many of the mothers, had to flee her home due to constant threats. As Meza described, in April 2018, “The paramilitaries started to commit crimes against poor kids: They disappeared them, they threw them in jail, they killed them. That was the birth of the Mothers of April.”
Meza, who I met at twilight in a home in Managua where she sometimes stays, showed me photos of Jonathan on her phone. Her stoic face bathed in the electronic light of the device, she spoke of his love of school and the danger of being a student in a country where independent thinking is not allowed and a free press hardly exists. She said, “It’s dangerous to be young. It’s a crime to be young because they chase you and try to make you out to be terrorists.” She described how at marches, paramilitaries would disguise themselves as civilians then incite riots, burn cars, or kill other protesters. Meza petitioned for government officials to investigate her son’s death, but she says her requests were ignored and she was put under surveillance. Of government officials, she said, “They’re not going to harass us, the mothers, because you can’t put a price on our kids and we prefer to die of hunger [than remain silent]. I’m not going to say that my son wasn’t murdered; he was murdered.” Since the government wouldn’t offer her justice, she told her story to what she described as “the few independent media outlets” in the country.
The paramilitaries started to commit crimes against poor kids: They disappeared them, they threw them in jail, they killed them. That was the birth of the Mothers of April.
After Jonathan’s death, Meza sent her remaining 18-year-old son to Costa Rica where he would join some of the 50,000 Nicaraguans who have fled the violence in the country. When I asked if she wanted to flee with her son to Costa Rica, she said she felt that it was her duty to stay and fight, to bear as much as she could in the quest for justice for Jonathan and other murdered youth. “I am here enduring what I must to ensure that my son didn’t die in vain,” she said.
Meza said that she feels happiest when she is at marches, that she and the other Mothers of April will keep the memory of their children alive by putting their bodies in the streets, by making the pain and glory of motherhood into a show of strength and persistence for which corrupt governments, agencies, and organizations are no match. Justice, more often than history books admit, is kept in balance by the public display of anguish and rage of mothers, whose resolve is both underestimated and unmatched.
* * *
Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.
Alice Driver | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (5,502 words)
Dusk is closing in. As we drive along the border in El Paso, Texas, ShiQian, a sound engineer from Beijing, sings, “Where the road is dark and the seed is sowed / Where the gun is cocked and the bullet’s cold,” as he plays his guitar sitting in the back seat of our rented van. Liu Xiaodong, the Chinese painter who has organized this eight-day 1,530-mile border trip in conjunction with Dallas Contemporary museum, sits in the passenger seat, looking out at the border wall and wondering out loud in Chinese, which his assistant for this trip, Marco Betelli, who is from Italy but lives in China, translates into English: “Is this the wall Trump says he is building?” I explain that the 18-foot-high metal fence we are viewing that separates El Paso from Juárez was built in 2008. Yang Bo, a Chinese filmmaker, documents all Xiaodong’s international projects on migration. He sits in the back seat next to ShiQian filming everything as Flavio del Monte, an Italian who serves as Xiaodong’s artist liaison at Massimo De Carlo Gallery, drives. From the back seat, ShiQian’s voice rings out with warmth, “Now I been out in the desert, just doin’ my time / Searchin’ through the dust, lookin’ for a sign / If there’s a light up ahead well brother I don’t know,” as we hug close to the border, to a wall that exists in some places and is absent in others and to the Río Bravo — the “fierce river” — which is little more than a trickle running down a concrete channel.
Xiaodong, 55, is known for his role among the Chinese neo-realist painters of the 1990s. He decided that he wanted to paint what he had seen with his own eyes, that he wanted to be able to draw on the emotions of meeting his subjects and getting to know their lives and the places they live. His process has evolved to include photography, sketching, journaling, and also creating a short documentary about each of his traveling projects. Xiaodong has a long-term interest in internal displacement and migration: In 2006 he completed “Three Gorges Project,” a piece based on time he spent at the Three Gorges Dam in China; in 2013 he spent time traveling in Israel and Palestine to create a series of paintings titled “In Between Israel and Palestine,”; and in 2016 he spent time in Florence, Italy, with Chinese migrants living and working there on a project titled “Migration.” In each case, just as with our U.S.-Mexico border trip, he spent days or weeks traveling the geographical area he would paint, interviewing people he met, and identifying portrait subjects along the way. He wanted his paintings to capture the sensory experience of each place and its people, and so he gathered them to fuel his work.
He wanted his paintings to capture the sensory experience of each place and its people, and so he gathered them to fuel his work.
As I discover on the second day of our U.S.-Mexico border trip, “Further On (Up the Road),” which was originally written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, is ShiQian’s favorite Johnny Cash song. That morning as we cross the Bridge of the Americas into Juárez, Mexico, I ask if ShiQian if he will sing the song where the virgins are trimming their wicks, “The Man Comes Around.” In one of the three hardcover books of his paintings that Xiaodong mailed me before our trip, he talks about his artistic process and writes in a journal, “predictable and overly planned things are uninteresting.”
My job is to provide some structure to the trip by identifying potential interviews and sites of interest, but to leave plenty of time essentially flexible so that Xiaodong can discover the border and make choices based on his discoveries. Xiaodong hopes to find the people he’ll paint large-scale portraits of and to identify landscapes he wants to paint for the exhibition at Dallas Contemporary, a task that will require him to return to the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2020 to paint his subjects in person. Initially Xiaodong wanted to drive from Juárez to Reynosa on the Mexico side of the border, but due to security concerns, we decided to drive and stay the night on the U.S. side of the border, only visiting cities like Juárez, Piedras Negras, and Nuevo Laredo during the day.
predictable and overly planned things are uninteresting.
In Juárez, we drive to one of the locations of La Nueva Central, a restaurant that opened in 1958 and a meeting place for locals. We drive past a mural of a young Juan Gabriel, a Mexican singer affectionately known as Juanga, as ShiQian sings, “There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names / And he decides who to free and who to blame / Everybody won’t be treated all the same.” Outside La Nueva Central, near the life-size red letters JRZ with a heart over the J, we meet up with Juárez photojournalist Julián Cardona. Cardona informs Xiaodong that the owner of La Nueva Central is Chinese, and Xiaodong orders chop suey with shrimp for breakfast. After eating, Caronda walks with us to the Paso del Norte bridge, past the famous Kentucky Club where, the bar claims, the margarita was invented, past the giant pink cross full of nails, each nail representing the murder of one woman in the city, that stands at the entry to the bridge and down to the concrete channel built to control the Río Bravo depending on water needs on both sides of the border. Xiaodong walks down a concrete ramp to get closer to the river, which at that time was little more than a stream. He stands on the wide, flat expanse of concrete with Cardona, Yang Bo, who wears square glasses and is constantly filming, even when we eat or Xiaodong takes a smoke break, follows with a camera. ShiQian follows with a boom mic. Cardona talks about the history of the city, the period from 2008 to 2012 when it was one of the most violent cities in the world. He assures Xiaodong that where we are near the international bridge is safe, and Xiaodong, who was updated on the security situation before his trip, seems more curious about the city than anything else. In the distance, a truck kicks up dust as it moves full speed toward the concrete expanse lining the river. Xiaodong wonders if it is border control, coming to ask us what we are doing so near the border. But as the truck roars past, the driver doesn’t give us a second glance.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
From the river, we drive past the giant red sculpture known as “The X” that you can see from almost anywhere in Juárez and to the migrant shelter run by Father Javier Calvillo Salazar. Upon entering the shelter, we see migrant families resting in the courtyard, a group of children playing soccer and just seconds after we arrive a group of 12 LGBTQ migrants enter the gates. Blanca, who works at the shelter and who I know from the time I lived in the shelter in 2017 for a story I wrote, reminds me that when I was in the shelter there were perhaps 20 migrants and now there are 520. Even though border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border have been declining for years and, in 2017, were down to their lowest point since 1971, a combination of factors have made migrants more visible. I have traveled with some of the migrant caravans, including the one that President Trump devoted much of his attention to criminalizing, and the simplest explanation I can provide is that migrants are smart, and they don’t want to suffer violence, so they have begun to organize and travel in groups known as caravans. While the caravans are more visible, and apprehension rates have recently gone up, statistically speaking this doesn’t mean more migrants are crossing into the United States. President Trump has used multiple tactics, including family separation, to either limit asylum requests or deter migrants from requesting asylum. He created the “Remain in Mexico” policy, in which those applying for asylum at certain areas along the border now must remain in Mexico for the duration of an asylum process that can often last a year or more. All of these issues contribute to a situation in which migrants are more visible on the border, which is favorable to Trump, who has referred to the 2018 migrant caravan as an “invasion.”
Standing in the courtyard in front of the shelter, Xiaodong strikes up a conversation with Violeta, 28, who wears deep-purple lipstick. She is surrounded by the 11 LGBTQ friends she traveled with. They left San Salvador together and traveled 23 days to reach Juárez. Violeta, a trans woman, tells Xiaodong that “in some places they shouted at us. And in the shelter in Mexico City I went to the woman’s bathroom and the woman said, ‘This bathroom is for women, not fags.’” A young man in a gray hoodie, a member of the LGBTQ group, steps into the circle to take his place beside Violet, and he greets Xiaodong in Chinese. He says a series of things that make Xiaodong laugh in surprise and exclaim that he never imagined that a migrant from El Salvador would greet him in Chinese. The migrant says that he studied literature at the university in El Salvador, and he mentions his favorite Chinese author who happens to be a good friend of Xiaodong’s. Blanca offers the LGBTQ group the building that is usually reserved for prayer, because that way they will have their own space to sleep and will be less likely to suffer harassment. Inside, there are rows of bunk beds, and a trans woman in black sequined leggings claims a bed while another trans woman who has a black scarf wrapped around her head, caresses the head of a trans woman wearing knee-high black socks and a skirt. As we wish them luck and walk out to the courtyard, a group of a dozen Cuban women begins to tell us of their journey through the Darién Gap. The guide they paid left them after one day, and they only had two days’ worth of food to make it through six days of jungle trekking, including crossing a river where migrants often drown. A volley of voices adds information: “They will assault you in the jungle.” “They are armed.” “They put a gun to your head.” “They rape women.” And one young woman with long blond hair and yellow nails adds, “I was assaulted twice, once with a gun and another time with a machete.” Some of them saw dead bodies being pulled out of the river after they crossed it and arrived at the Panama border. Nobody wanted me to use their names for fear that it could affect their cases when they requested political asylum.
The migrant says that he studied literature at the university in El Salvador, and he mentions his favorite Chinese author who happens to be a good friend of Xiaodong’s.
After leaving the migrant shelter, we stop for lunch at El Tragadero, a local restaurant famous for cuts of meat and decorated with bullfighting memorabilia. Xiaodong, reflecting on what he has seen of the border so far says, “I honestly thought the wall was made up of cement and not this kind of fences. I thought it was something like the wall between Israel and Palestine that you cannot see through on the other side.” After taking a few bites of steak, grilled onion, and baked potato, he adds, “I still think that it wasn’t designed very well and it is pretty easy to get over. It looks more like land art than an actual real wall.”
That evening we meet with Juárez photographer Itzel Aguilera who introduces us to a local family, a young woman, Karla, who we meet at her home where her toddler twins, a boy and a girl, are playing with her older son. The twins are U.S. citizens, but the older son is not. Xiaodong sits at the dinner table with Karla, asking her about life in Juárez and her work in El Paso. He is surprised to find out how binational daily life is, the fact that she crosses the border daily for work, that she and her husband are fully bilingual and were educated in institutions on both sides of the border. By the time we drive back to El Paso, the stars are out, points of light scattered like hope.
The next day, we pack into the van, ShiQian with guitar in hand and Flavio in the driver’s seat listening to the GPS in Italian. Xiaodong, Yang Bo, and ShiQian chat in Chinese, which Marco sometimes translates for me. And Marco and Flavio, who speak to each other in a mix of Italian and English, sometimes throw a phrase of basic Spanish my way. In the confusion of all the languages, sometimes I ask Xiaodong a question in Spanish. Xiaodong wants to go to Tornillo to see the site where the migrant children were held in a tent camp, so once out of El Paso we head across a dusty expanse of territory punctuated by old trailers and abandoned buildings. I show Xiaodong photos of the migrant caravan I traveled with in 2018, and I share a picture that I can imagine him painting that features a migrant holding his pet iguana Diana. I tell Xiaodong the story of how the migrant said he knew nobody would love Diana like him, which is why he decided to migrate with her. Xiaodong encourages me to join WeChat, which is the app that everyone in China uses to communicate given that Facebook and many other social media sites are not allowed, so I can share more photos there. As soon as I download it, Xiaodong adds me to a group he has named “No Country for Youth,” where ShiQian sends me a welcome message in Chinese.
Arriving in Tornillo, we look for signs of a tent camp, but there are none. The children are gone, but for us, the memory of them remains. We wonder where they all are now. We park on the side of the road and Xiaodong walks out into a field, the sky stretching out wide above him and making him look tiny. Xiaodong wants to find a bar where he can ask locals how they feel about the tent camp for migrant children, so we get back in the car and drive along the road past some trailer homes and a few buildings with peeling paint. Before we realize it, we are out of town, and we are disappointed that we didn’t find a bar. Down the road, we reach Fort Hancock and stop along a metal section of the fence that is more imposing than the fence in El Paso. There is a small border patrol station at the border crossing, and Flavio and I walk inside the gated area to talk to an officer, a woman who immediately tells me to step back. We ask if we can drive or walk along the fence, and she says that it is fine. The fence itself looks like it leads to nowhere, but it curves around, a solitary piece of ironwork standing in a desolate landscape.
The fence itself looks like it leads to nowhere, but it curves around, a solitary piece of ironwork standing in a desolate landscape.
Back on the road, we head to Valentine, Texas, eyes on the sky, a vast, constantly shifting purple-blue hue, the mountains seeming ever farther away. Once in Valentine, we remember that it is Valentine’s Day, and we stop to see the famous Prada Marfa, a sculpture by Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset in the middle of the desert that can be seen as both a criticism and a celebration of consumerism. As we head toward the town of , famous both for its land art and its oasis of quirky wealthy people, we spot a giant balloon that looks like a whale in the sky. We pull over to look at it and marvel that it doesn’t move at all despite the wind. In Marfa, Xiaodong wants to find cactus, which he has become obsessed with painting, so we stop in the part of town dotted with trailer homes, pet some dogs, and wander around. Then we head to Alpine, where we will stay the night. Locals point us toward the Ritchey Wine Saloon and Beer Garden, where we can get a beer while having tacos delivered from a place next door. We walk in to find the bar decorated by a bucket full of roses, and everyone inside is dressed in boots and old-timey Western wear. The bartender and owner, who introduces herself as Mattie Matthaei, 50, looks us over and says, “I only see one lady here,” and hands me a rose. She was born and raised in Austin and San Antonio, but has lived along the border for years, once as close as 300 feet from the dividing line. Talking about recent news coming from Washington about the crisis on the border, Matthaei says, “We are kind of stuck with this far-off place that has some mythical idea of the wild, wild West. This is as wild, wild West as it gets. We all drink champagne and get giddy while eating tarts.” She then passes me a slice of chocolate caramel pie and adds, “Once you decide that you have to have militarism and you decide that you are going to bankroll that with billions and billions of dollars, now you’ve got to create some fictitious reason for doing that in the first place.”
The next morning, Xiaodong remains obsessed by the idea of a landscape full of cactus, so we drive to Sanderson, the cactus capital of Texas. We all pile out of the car into the midday heat and follow Xiaodong as he wanders down a sloping ravine that ends in a flat, dry expanse of cactus and weeds punctuated by a tuft of black-and-white fur. Marco points and asks, “What is that?” To which, even from a distance, I know because of the smell — a skunk. Xiaodong wants to paint both portraits and landscapes for his exhibition, and he is drawn to the cactus in Sanderson. After an hour or so of wandering, we all meet back at the van, which is parked on the side of the road next to a colorful sign that advertises, THE CACTUS CAPITAL OF TEXAS. A pickup truck with double tires pulls off the road, and a muscular man in his early 30s wearing a cowboy hat sticks his head out the window and shouts, “Y’all OK? Just wanted to see if you had any car trouble.” Xiaodong explains that we are just there to look at the cactus, and as the guy drives away, Xiaodong says, smiling, “That’s the American way.”
Back on the road and headed to Eagle Pass, Texas, Flavio looks at the news on his phone and informs us that President Trump has declared a national emergency on the border. I have a hunch that Xiaodong will want to meet Maverick County Sheriff Schmerber, who I interviewed in 2018 for National Geographic, but the Sheriff hasn’t responded to my email, so I call his secretary, who says that if we can arrive at the police station before 5 p.m., he will see us. Marco, who has taken over driving and loves it, hauls ass to get us there by 5:15 p.m. When we walk into the office and announce ourselves, just as I remember him, Sheriff Schmerber walks through the doorway, a cowboy hat tipped over his eyes, boots shining, as he welcomes us in a booming voice and leads us to his office. He offers us all a seat, sits at his expansive desk, and allows everyone time to admire the guns framed above and around his desk, which is flanked by the Texas and American flags. He offers each of us a pen with his name and title on it before launching into the story of his family history, how his mother is Mexican and his father is of German heritage, and how he is proudly bilingual. Xiaodong asks him questions eagerly, and he laughs when the sheriff offers to show us the jail, which is attached to the police station. We follow the sheriff down the hall, and as he unlocks a series of doors, we see the teal walls of the jail, and are led past the jail library, the exercise room, and a series of cells where first men and then women sit either playing cards, sleeping, or laying down alone if they are in solitary confinement. Xiaodong remarks that nobody in China would ever let him get near a jail, much less inside.
We have heard that some 1,700 migrants, a caravan that had left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in early February, had been shut up inside an abandoned factory in Piedras Negras. Xiaodong wants to see the situation for himself. As we drive across International Bridge II, we see that the golf course along the U.S. side of the river is lined with border patrol vehicles. Driving through the narrow streets of Piedras Negras, Xiaodong comments that the city seems peaceful. However, the abandoned factory is ringed by members of the Army, the state police, and the municipal police, and helicopters hum overhead. Xiaodong walks past the police and up to the chain-link fence where migrants, mostly mothers and children, are hanging out. He walks over to a boy, perhaps 8, who is hanging onto the fence, and looks him straight in the eyes.They have a silent conversation. Xiaodong motions that he would like to take a photo — from these photos he will later decide which subjects to paint. The boy nods and is still as Xiaodong takes the photo, his muddy green eyes transmitting emotion even though he is silent. Via Marco, Xiaodong asks a group of mothers standing nearby how long they have been inside the factory. “Fifteen days,” they respond, noting that they haven’t been allowed to leave, not even to exercise their legal right to request asylum.
The boy nods and is still as Xiaodong takes the photo, his muddy green eyes transmitting emotion even though he is silent.
Leaving the factory, we drive to the banks of the Rio Grande. Xiaodong hopes we will find families and children swimming there, but the banks are lined by Mexican police cars and nobody is around. Xiaodong walks along the river for a bit, and before the sun sets, we drive to the poor neighborhood Colonia Presidentes III because Xiaodong would like to find a local family for a portrait. On a street that includes a mix of informal housing in construction and small, brightly painted homes, Xiaodong spots six family members sitting in the sunshine outside a small house marked by one concrete pillar painted turquoise. He walks up to them and introduces himself and they do the same: Juana Martínez López, the matriarch, stands beside her husband, Pedro Martínez Méndez, who rests on the seat of his walker. Nearby is their daughter, Clara Estela Castillo Martínez; their son, Juan Martín Martinez Mendoza; their daughter-in-law, Blanca Isenia Martinez Camarillo; and her baby Herlinda Martínez Martínez, who is awakened from a nap by our presence and none too pleased. After talking to the family, Xiaodong hands the matriarch a red tin of tea from China, and she invites us into her home, the walls of which are made of plywood. The interior is dark and the floor is partially concrete, partially packed earth. Xiaodong tells the family that he would like to paint them and asks them if they will go stand in the sunshine so he can take photos, which he will use to create sketches when he is back in his studio in Beijing. Because the neighborhood where we are in Piedras Negras is dangerous, we don’t stay long and everything feels a bit rushed. But Xiaodong lets the family know he plans to return in 2020 to paint them in person. As the sun sets, we kiss everyone on the cheek, then get in the car and Diana drives us back to Eagle Pass.
The next day we drive to Laredo to meet with Sister Rosemary Welsh, who has been a Sister of Mercy for more than half her life and who runs Casa de Misericordia, a domestic violence shelter. On the road, we get stopped at an internal border patrol checkpoint, and Xiaodong wants to know why there are border checkpoints that aren’t on or near the border. The border patrol officer, a woman, asks us to roll down the car windows. She asks where we are from and when I say, “I’m American” and reach for my passport, she waves me off and says, “You’re good.” She then asks where everyone else is from, questions why the Chinese are visiting the border, and looks over everyone’s passports except mine. As we drive away, Xiaodong turns around, looks at me and says, “You’re good.”
Sister Rosemary is a tall, lean, commanding presence and has short-cropped white hair and wears a turquoise shirt and black slacks. To help Xiaodong understand how the dynamics of the border and citizenship affect women, she has brought together three women who were victims of domestic violence. After staying at the shelter, they eventually became members of the shelter’s board of directors. At the time that the three women experienced violence, all of them were undocumented, and their partners threatened to either have them deported or to take their children away or both to keep them silent. “Many of the individuals who we are privileged to journey with, many of them do not have papers. Many of them do not have legal status in our country. So that’s another way that the batterer can keep them in a domestic violence relationship.” As she gives us a tour of the classrooms where they provide English lessons and other workshops to women, she talks about volunteering at a local detention center. She speaks a mile a minute, clearly passionate about her work and wanting to transmit all the details to Xiaodong. When she walks us out to the van to bid us goodbye, ShiQian opens the trunk, pulls out his guitar, and begins singing “Hallelujah, hallelujah,” and Sister Rosemary, her eyes gleaming, joins in. We sing until we are all in unison, our voices ringing out in the empty street.
That evening at dinner, Xiaodong talks about things that have surprised him about the border and things that he didn’t understand. He wonders why Sister Rosemary didn’t wear her “nun outfit,” and I realize that he is referring to the black-and-white habit and begin laughing. “She is a modern nun,” I tell him. Then he says via Marco, his translator, “I don’t understand what the emergency status was. I thought it was the emergency status — there is going to be a war. And then you told us that it was about the president freezing money that was originally intended for something else to get money to do whatever the president wanted. I thought that we wouldn’t be able to go to Mexico.” Then he digs into his steak — if one thing is certain it is that he loves his meat — and picks up his glass of red wine to toast our motley crew.
The next morning, Sunday, we meet my friend Luis, a journalist from Nuevo Laredo, and we drive from Nuevo Laredo to the Río Bravo to see if we can find families swimming. On the drive, Xiaodong mentions that he wants to return to Eagle Pass to have dinner with the sheriff and see his house. He wants to paint Sheriff Schmerber. He explains, “Because I love him! I think his family is very special memory I think. Family together. I paint them together. Spend ten days. BBQ. Whiskey.” He says that it was never something he planned — to paint a sheriff or a policeman — but that in China “human relationships between Chinese people and the police force cannot get to the point where I already got with fifteen minutes with Tom. You don’t hug, you don’t joke around. It is a very detached and cool relationship. This is of course something that I never thought about and it just happened. … I loved the idea and I liked the guy the very first time I met him and I try not to overthink these things.” By the time we arrive at the river, we have hatched a plan and called the sheriff to invite him to dinner. As we exit the car, we smell barbecue and see families fishing, grilling meat, and swimming. A guy with a Hecho in Mexico (“Made in Mexico”) tattoo on his shaved head stands in the shallow part of the river and explains to Xiaodong that yes, some people want to swim across the river and go to the U.S., but they are clearly desperate. To illustrate his point, he says, “Look, here in Mexico we have delicious barbecue chicken and in the U.S. you only have frozen chicken and canned beans.” As we walk along the river, a family invites Flavio and me to play bingo, so we sit down and they get a kick out of hearing Flavio’s very Italian Spanish. The mother of the family explains that she and her children live in San Antonio, but that her husband isn’t a U.S. citizen, so they spend every weekend with him in Nuevo Laredo. Flavio wins two bingo games, then we wander over to find Xiaodong, who has borrowed a fishing pole from a local and clearly doesn’t want to walk away without catching a fish. Xiaodong says, “This is paradise,” then he looks out over the river, which gleams golden blue under the midday light.
We then go to the migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo where we are greeted by Saúl García, 23. He’s from Piedras Negras and is the shelter administrator. The sunlit patio is full of parents and children, most of whom are from Honduras. García lets us know that there are 75 migrants at the shelter, of which 22 are children. Xiaodong spots a small black dog, and as he walks over to talk to a group of children, he finds they are gathered around a large white rabbit. I translate for him as he talks to Osmar Palma, 50, from Colón, Honduras. Palma’s 2-year-old daughter squats nearby petting the rabbit, which has snuggled beside the black dog in the dirt. Palma traveled with his wife and daughter for a month to reach Nuevo Laredo, and he says that they hoped to request asylum in the U.S. Before leaving the shelter, I ask García about the rabbit, wondering if the shelter got it for the kids. “A migrant traveled with the rabbit from Honduras, and another traveled with the dog from Chihuahua. They couldn’t take their pets across the border so now the dog and the rabbit live here. They are migrants too,” he explains.
“A migrant traveled with the rabbit from Honduras, and another traveled with the dog from Chihuahua. They couldn’t take their pets across the border so now the dog and the rabbit live here. They are migrants too,” he explains.
The next to last day of our trip, we drive back to Eagle Pass to meet Sheriff Schmerber at his house. Xiaodong would like to request to return to visit the sheriff and paint a portrait of him and his family in February 2020 for his exhibition. When we arrive, the sheriff hugs Xiaodong and ushers us into his house, the hallway of which is decorated with framed photos of his wife and daughter, including one life-size photo of his daughter in a sparkly white quinceañera dress. In the kitchen, we are greeted by his one-eyed dog as the sheriff pulls out a bottle of tequila and proposes a toast. After everyone drinks, Xiaodong asks if he can paint Tom and his family, to which Tom not only replies yes but also suggests that Xiaodong stay in his guest room. After we walk into the sheriff’s backyard, which has a tree full of ripe oranges. By the end of the night, the sheriff has gifted Xiaodong an honorary sheriff’s badge.
That night, as we drive back to Laredo, Xiaodong talks about the iguana, the rabbit and the dog — about the tenderness they represent, about how the things we carry with us define us. Migrants carry babies, pets, the weight of fear, the worry that they might not survive the journey. And yet they go. Back in his studio in Beijing, Xiaodong would begin to wrestle with how to capture that reality in paint.
* * *
Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.
1. Your hands are still warm from walking dozens of miles under the scorching sun when you cradle your baby cousin. The two of you have walked 654 miles together since you left Honduras, your lives intertwined as you flee a territory where daily violence marked your life. You feel his heart beating as you cradle him and you know that you both made the right choice to walk toward the unknown.
2. Volunteers in Mexico peel oranges, and as you watch you are reminded that you have not eaten all day and that your mouth is parched. They wield the knives delicately, and you watch the thick peel drop onto the table, waiting for them to hand you a piece. You feel thankful for the people who prepare your food and donate diapers to your children. They tell you that all people are made of one blood, and you nod your tired head in agreement.
3. In the late afternoon sunlight, after you have showered with the other women, you stand in the grass and brush your daughter’s hair as you look over at your three sons and imagine what kind of lives they might live. Your daughter is wearing donated shoes covered in silver sparkles and as she stands up in her baby stroller, you wrap your arms around her.
4. In the evening, when the residents welcome you into the old bus station where you will sleep, nestled among some 5,000 migrants, you make a space for yourself and your friends and pull out a pack of cards. The heat of the day is still in the air, and you all sit around shirtless, your scars, bug bites and blisters a constellation that tells the story of your life on the road.
5. Before bed, you stand near your family in donated flip flops a few sizes too large and you wonder why your family has decided to walk so far. Your parents tell you that you are going on a long walk, and they say it each day. You are still figuring out what that means. You see some kids blowing up long balloons and playing tug of war while others jump rope, but you are too tired to join them.
6. And when volunteers hand out food and clothes, you dive into a sea of people and hold your breath, hoping that there will be enough food for you, enough food for your children. When they hand you flip flops with pink jewels on them, you hope that they will last longer than your previous pair and you look down at your feet which are brown like burnt bread and blistered on the toes. You remind yourself that your body can heal. You tell yourself that it will.
7. You share the food with your baby daughter, who is 4 months old. Your milk has dried up. She is already eating beans and you wonder if you are a bad mother. You hope that you will both sleep well tonight as you cradle her between your legs.
8. The next morning, when the water truck arrives, you and the other boys use cut up water bottles to scoop water and dump it over your bodies. If you are lucky, you have a bit of soap and lather up your body and your head. The water feels so good that you dive your entire body into the bucket, relishing how it feels on your skin.
9. You don’t know it how long it will take, but you will walk and hitchhike until you reach Mexico City. Some of you will arrive on a bus, others via metro or taxi or on the back of a semi-truck. You will arrive at night, your body but a shadow through the bus window. As you walk to the sports stadium where you will sleep that night, you will pass by piles of donated clothes. You will pick out a lavender beret and a knitted scarf, a military looking coat, and you will put them all on.
10. In the morning, you will wake up on a piece of plywood, your body covered in a donated blanket. As the sun comes out, you will gather around giant blue containers of water to brush your teeth, hand wash your clothes and bathe. You will look at your reflection in the blue-gray puddles of water, trying to see how much you have changed. You want to know if your face shows what your body has lived. You feel sure that the difficult and tender movements lived over hundreds miles are written on your body.
“Quiero terminar la primaria.” — Karla Avelar, 40 años, fundadora de la Asociación Comcavis Trans, que lucha a favor de los derechos LGBTI en El Salvador.
* * *
“Mujeres, no se dejen engañar” vociferaba el cansado predicador de ojos amarillentos, su sombrero apuntaba hacia adelante con dramatismo, ideal para su sermón sobre ruedas, el cual duró todo el camino desde San Salvador, capital de El Salvador, hasta Ciudad de Guatemala. El hombre recorría el pasillo y se detenía a tocar a mujeres y niñas en la cabeza o en el brazo. “No dejen que los hombres las engañen” gritaba elevando su biblia tan alto que las gastadas hojas rozaban el techo del autobús. Sin embargo, no tocó a Marfil Estrella Perez Mendoza, de 26 años. La joven descansaba contra la ventana su rostro redondo y lleno de esperanz y observaba lluviosa mañana gris mientras el predicador pasaba a su lado sin ponerle la mano encima. ¿Cómo se dice asilo en inglés? preguntó Marfil en un susurro.
Marfil Estrella nació en Cuscatlán, El Salvador, en un cuerpo que nunca sintió suyo. Al nacer se dijo que era varón, y a los 15 se declaró gay ante su familia, quienes, en respuesta, optaron por desconocerla. “Me dijeron que era una avergüenza para mi familia, que me olvidara de que tenía familia, que me olvidara de ellos, que me fuera entonces,” explicó. Como le sucede a muchos miembros de la comunidad LGBTI en El Salvador, su familia la echó a la calle y sus estudios se se interrumpieron de manera repentina cuando cursaba tercero de secundaria, pues no tenía el dinero necesario para seguir estudiando. Huyó a San Salvador y se quedaba a dormir en los parques, donde conoció a otros chicos gays. “Vi a una persona transexual y dije ‘yo quiero ser como ella, quiero ser como ella,’” relató. Durante la época en que Marfil vivió en la calle, dejó crecer su cabello y empezó a vestirse con ropa de mujer, pero no tenía un medio para ganarse la vida, por lo que comenzó a perder mucho peso. Con el tiempo se convirtió en trabajadora sexual, que es una de las pocas alternativas que tienen las mujeres trans de El Salvador para ganar dinero. Read more…
“I want to finish elementary school.” — Karla Avelar, 40, founder of the Comcavis Trans Association, which advocates for LGBTI rights in El Salvador
* * *
“Women, don’t be deceived,” boomed the weary, yellow-eyed preacher, his sombrero tipped forward with a drama fitting for his bus-ride sermon, one that would last all the way from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, to Guatemala City. As he made his way down the aisle of the bus, he stopped to touch women and girls on the head or the arm. “Don’t let men trick you,” he shouted, holding his bible up so high its well-worn pages brushed the roof of the bus. He didn’t touch Marfil Estrella Pérez Méndoza, 26, whose chosen name translates to Ivory Star. As she rested her round, hopeful face on the bus window, dark eyes peering out into the rainy grayness of early morning, the preacher passed by without laying a hand. “How do you say asylum in English?” she whispered.
Marfil Estrella was born in Cuscatlán, El Salvador, in a body that never felt like her own. She was assigned male at birth, and at 15, she came out as gay to her family. Their response was to disown her. “They told me that I brought shame on the family, that I should forget about them, and that I needed to leave,” explained Marfil Estrella. Like many members of the LGBTI community in El Salvador, her family forced her onto the street, and her schooling ended abruptly at ninth grade because she had no money to continue. She fled to San Salvador and slept in a park where she met other gay boys. “I saw a transsexual, and I said, ‘I want to be like her! I want to be like her!’” she recalled. She lived on the street, grew out her hair, and began to dress in women’s clothes, but she had no way to earn a living and consequently became very thin. Eventually she started to do sex work, one of the only options available to trans women in El Salvador to earn money. Read more…
Alice Driver | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,616 words)
“Welcome to the Democratic Dictatorship of Myanmar,” said a slight, young woman on the street in Yangon, Myanmar. She was referencing the number of journalists in the country who had been threatened or jailed by the theoretically democratic government. Yangon is tangled roots and the shade of 100-year-old trees; it is the sound of hundreds of wings flapping as young men feed pigeons, their feathers flashing golden in the early-morning light; it is journalists imprisoned for speaking truth to power.
When I arrived in Yangon in January 2018, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been in prison for a little over a month. Much had changed since I had lived in the city in 2006, volunteering at an international high school with my best friend Tien, both of us living at a government-run hotel and eating Hershey’s chocolate bars out of her suitcase.
In 2015, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, swept elections, and both citizens and the international community had high hopes that she would support press freedom. At a press conference a few days before the election, Suu Kyi referenced a “communications revolution” as millions of citizens watched her via Facebook, which at that time also promised to be a beacon for democracy. Facebook arrived in Myanmar in 2011, and since that time has racked up at least 14 million users, 93% of whom accessed it on their mobile phones.
In a country where burgeoning press freedom and the appearance of Facebook coincided, media literacy has proved a challenge. During my time there in 2006, I helped students apply to colleges in the United States and Australia — basically anywhere outside of Myanmar, which at that time had a dysfunctional university system. One of the students I worked with ended up attending Berea College, my alma mater in Kentucky, which I had encouraged her to apply to since they provide funding to low-income students. Yangon University, which was once Myanmar’s most famous university, reopened for the first time in two decades in 2013. Between the lack of independent media and the lack of access to higher education during the years before the democratic opening, it didn’t surprise me that media literacy was low.
Alice Driver | Longreads | March 2018 | 10 minutes (2,574 words)
“I didn’t choose. I walked backwards till it came around front.” — Uncle Lee
I sipped my Uncle Lee’s favorite gin martini made bitter with the taste of three pearly onions at The Alley Cantina in Taos, New Mexico. The mother of my long-lost cousin Julianne stepped up to the microphone in front of the gathered crowd and told the story of their brief love affair and how Lee “loved women.” I’ve never been to a funeral like the ones on TV where you go to a cemetery and cry while watching a casket go into the ground. My family does these storytelling gatherings with food and drink, and we bask in the memory of the ones we loved in sharp and detailed pain and glory.
I didn’t know that Julianne existed until I was in my 20s. My Uncle Lee, who died at 73, was a tall willowy, half-bent figure who had two sons and a daughter. As a young man, he had survived several diving accidents, which according to another uncle, Larry, left him a little bit crooked in posture. Uncle Lee disclosed Julianne’s existence to some of the family over the years, but that news reached me late. It hit me like a wave rolling me under the currents — took my breath away — because she had my green eyes, and the tall, lean Driver build. In another universe, she could have been my sister. We had followed parallel tracks, both spending much of our 20s living and working in Latin America. She eventually settled in Bolivia, married, and had a daughter.
At my Uncle Lee’s memorial, Julianne read a letter she had written to her 22-month-old daughter about Lee, who she came to know as her biological father when she was a teenager. Before his death, he had traveled to Bolivia to spend time with her, and she held close those memories of getting to know him as a father. Tears ran down my face and into my bourbon and ginger ale as I watched Julianne read from her journal. Following Julianne, a woman got up and told the story of my Uncle Lee making the French doors for her house. He was a fine woodworker specializing in spiral staircases. Before sitting down, she said, “We weren’t lovers.” Read more…