Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Beast (Óscar Martínez)

A few years ago when I was doing some volunteer tutoring, one of my students was a young man from Guatemala (I'll call him S., though that wasn't his initial) who already spoke and understood English fairly well, even though he was a bit embarrassed not to be able to speak the language better than he did. I don't know whether he was in the country legally (it was none of my business), but he was fortunate in having found a fairly regular full-time job that was a solid step above unskilled casual labor. I have no doubt that he was good at what he did, and it sounded like he got along well with his employer and co-workers, most of whom knew no Spanish. I worked with him for the better part of a year and in the course of the lessons we talked about a lot of things — whatever served as a way of practicing his conversational English — including his job, his life back home, what he did on the weekends, and so on.

Most of the Central American students I worked with had a good sense of humor and were fun to be around, and S. was certainly bright and likeable, but he was a little more serious than most of the others. He didn't seem depressed, like the occasional student who really seemed to be suffering serious culture shock — in fact I think he was fitting in pretty well — but it was clear that he'd been through a lot and was haunted by his experiences. He volunteered one time, without going into details, that Americans had no idea of what people like him had gone through in getting to this country, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that whatever he had personally gone through had to have been pretty bad.

Óscar Martínez is a young journalist from El Salvador who has investigated what may be the grimmest aspect of the ongoing migration crisis: not the crossing of the border itself but the nightmarish journey of Central American migrants through Mexico, an ordeal that annually subjects thousands to rape, murder, and organized kidnappings for ransom as well as to lethal falls from the northbound freight trains known as "the Beast." Unable to travel openly because of their undocumented status, these migrants are preyed upon by violent criminal syndicates who have either bought off local authorities or intimidated them into submission. At every step of the way they are fleeced or threatened; some resist and are killed, others make it through to the border only to be turned around by US authorities. Increased enforcement at the US-Mexico border has only exacerbated the situation, as newly built sections of border wall have funneled migrants into the most dangerous crossing routes, where many are extorted or forced to serve as mules for drug smugglers. Given the odds against them, the motivation that drives them must be powerful indeed. Some come for economic reasons, but as Martínez makes clear, many come simply to save their skins, having been directly threatened by local gangs or having lost family members to violence in what are currently some of the most dangerous societies on Earth: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The Beast (the Spanish title is Los migrantes que no importan — "the migrants who don't matter") originated as a serious of articles for the online publication El Faro. Originally published in book form in Spain in 2010, it appeared in Mexico in 2012 and has now been issued in English by Verso Books. It predates, but clearly foreshadows, the recent upsurge in migration from Central America that is being driven by ongoing violence in the region. As a work of primary first-hand journalism, it makes no attempt to propose comprehensive solutions for the migration crisis, but in providing a powerful sense of the human dimension of that crisis its value is immeasurable.

For an update, see the same author's "Why the Children Fleeing Central America Will Not Stop Coming" in the Nation, August 18/25, 2014.


Nan Hanway said...

Christ -- did you ever read Enrique's journey? The writer--a journalist from the LA times- occasionally rode the trains to get an idea about what her subjects faced. It was used at Gustavus as a book that all first-year students had to read.

Chris said...

No, I don't know it. I'll check it out, thanks!