Studying abroad on the frontlines of México’s migrant struggle

A school trip to migrant shelters in Chiapas helped one Chicano student discover a future in social work, while also reconnecting with their roots.
The author (center) pictured with staff at La Casa De La Mujer Migrante in Chiapas. (WNV/Cruzilious Contreras-Amezcua)

Everything looks so small when you’re staring out an airplane window. Nevertheless, the land below had big things in store for me.

As a social work and peace and conflict student at Juniata College, I knew a trip to Mexico would be a great way to gain real on-the-ground experience with migration work outside of the United States.

A year earlier, studying abroad seemed out of the question. Even though I was accepted to a program and received travel funds from Juniata’s Baker Institute, I ended up withdrawing my application due to COVID-19. Then, just when I had nearly given up on the idea, I stumbled upon an announcement for a short-term study abroad opportunity to Chiapas in January.

Despite part of my family hailing from northern Mexico — far from Chiapas and the surrounding states in the south — something told me I needed to go, that there was too much to miss out on learning.

It had been 15 years since my last trip to México, and with much changing during that timeframe, I yearned to experience the culture as a young adult and show my respect to the land and people I’d been raised to appreciate. I was also excited to be meeting with the professors and students from the Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas, or UNACH, which has an exchange program with Juniata. I was among 11 students from my school to make the trip.

Cruzilious after finding the Baby Jesus inside the Rosca de Reyes. (WNV/Cruzilious Contreras-Amezcua)

It wasn’t long after landing in Chiapas that I had a familiar experience. On our first night, we got to celebrate Día de Los Reyes, which honors the day the Three Wise Men gave gifts to Jesus Christ. On this day, the oval-shaped pastry Rosca de Reyes is served. Little figures depicting baby Jesus are hidden inside the cake, representing his escape from King Herod’s troops. If you cut into the cake and find a figure, you are responsible for throwing a party a month later on Día de la Candelaria. Of course, wouldn’t you know it, I cut into a piece with one of the figures! While I couldn’t stay long enough to throw the party, it was nice to share a familiar celebration in a new place.

Next, we visited the first of four migrant shelters: Casa De La Mujer Migrante, an all-women’s shelter run by an incredible and passionate team of specialists. We got to meet Yaneth Gil Ardón, who runs the shelter. She shared her personal experiences and why she adapted the space from a residential home into a shelter over time. Here migrant women from any country are able to stay alone or with their children. They are provided shelter, food, clothing, and support, such as health care, legal advice, psychological advice and support for processing necessary documents. 

The second shelter we visited — Albergue Temporal para Menores Migrantes “Viva México” — is overseen by the National Insititute of Immigration, the government agency that regulates the entry, stay and exit of people in México. This shelter houses adolescent boys, ages 12 to 17 years and 11 months, who were unaccompanied in their migration journey. Here the boys wait for the resolution of their migration situation while they are also offered shelter, food, medical and psychological attention, as well as educational and technological support. When we spoke to the boys, many shared that they were traveling on buses or other means and were caught at customs checkpoints. Many were fleeing from the violence their home countries were facing and shared that — while they loved their countries — they could not stay. One boy said he was attempting to make it to his father in the U.S.

I asked about some of the things they were passionate about, what they liked to do for fun, and what they wanted to do in the future regardless of their circumstances. They asked about my tattoos and shared that they also wanted some. We wanted to play soccer together, but we ran out of time and had to wrap up. I shared that I hoped we would see each other again in different circumstances. As we said our farewells, I thought about how different the conversations could have been if my Spanish proficiency had been better. After leaving this shelter, I began thinking about how I could see myself doing this work somewhere in the future, supporting folks who had been impacted so severely.

Two murals portraying migrants who lost their limbs due during their travels at Albergue Jesus el Buen Pastor del Pobre y Migrante. (WNV/Cruzilious Contreras-Amezcua)

The third shelter we visited — Albergue Jesus el Buen Pastor del Pobre y Migrante — was started by well-known human rights advocate Olga Sanchez Martinez. Located in Tapachula, a major migration point for people coming from Central America, this shelter specifically treats migrants who have been injured during their travels, often as a result of being robbed or falling off trains. The migration journey is dangerous, and many migrants lose their limbs, especially when it comes to train hopping. Doña Olga, as she is known locally, offers medicine, spirituality and further support as part of the healing process.

Unfortunately, we missed meeting Doña Olga by about ten minutes, but her personal story of how her work came about truly touched me. As many of us do when it comes to humanitarian and advocacy work, Doña Olga took her own suffering and turned it into an opportunity to help others. When she was a child, she had an intestinal disease that could not be treated due to a lack of medicine, leaving her ill for a long time. By the age of 18, she became temporarily blind and mute, and fell into a coma for 38 days. A year later, two of her fingers were torn off at a tortilla factory. By 1990, Doña Olga had two children, and was told that she had only months left to live as she had cancer. She decided to go to church and pray, despite not having been very religious up until that point in her life. It was then, she made a pact with God: If he healed her, she would help others. As she visited a public hospital in Chiapas, Doña Olga saw a 13-year-old Salvadoran boy who had lost his legs trying to board a freight train going up north. From that point on, she took care of dozens of others in her own home until she opened a shelter in 1999.

Finally, the fourth shelter we visited — which is run by the UN refugee agency — works to ensure that all people have the right to seek asylum and have a safe haven. They provide assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons and those who have nowhere else to go, whether they are fleeing violence, persecution, natural disaster or war. They offer individual therapy, group therapy sessions and promote activities to do together. They also have a cash assistance program that not only benefits the local economy, but allows refugees to form positive relationships with the local community.

This shelter was built with the infrastructure to be taken apart and moved in case of an emergency, similar to a big puzzle. They work with other civil society organizations, shelters, and clinics to provide assistance to those seeking refugee status in Mexico.

Unlike those in the shelters who shared their stories with us, we were all able to return to the U.S. It’s crucial to sit with that guilt and reflect upon all that we learned, because that is an important part of forming global citizenship.

We learned that there was a section of the shelter dedicated to those in the LGBTQ+ community. This was the only shelter that had such a space, and although there are numerous reasons as to why shelters do or do not have these spaces, I appreciated seeing such a space exist. LGBTQ+ migrants and refugees are highly at risk for violence from both police and military officials, as well as other migrants and refugee caravan members. Many transgender women often travel with gay men for protection. It is common for community members to travel together to have strength in numbers. 

Aside from visiting the shelters, we had some free time to travel by ourselves and share other activities together, like visiting an amazing cheese farm called Los Flamboyanes. While there, we went on a very long, but beautiful hike to the top of the property line, where we were surrounded by greenery and mountains. However, my favorite moment on this trip was one I shared alone. One night, I decided to travel to the Iglesia de Guadalupe, which sits on a tall hill overlooking the city of San Cristobal, where our host families were located.

Walking to the church, I was met with seven sets of staircases, which certainly got the best of me due to the elevation. However, I was happy to make the journey and finally arrive at the top, where I said a prayer to the Señora de Guadalupe — patron saint of México — and thanked her for watching over me throughout the trip. I sat there for almost two hours listening to the church service music while a light rain poured over the city and the sun disappeared behind the mountains. The pictures I have just don’t do the moment justice.

The cross atop Iglesia de Guadalupe lights up the night sky and can be seen further down the city. (WNV/Cruzilious Contreras-Amezcua)

Seen as the ultimate Mexican mother and a symbol of justice to many, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe has been an important part of my heritage throughout my entire life. Every morning before school, I would pass by multiple images of her throughout our home, and watch my loved ones say small prayers to her so that she would protect them throughout the day. As a transgender person, however, I have felt conflicted about practicing the religion tied to my cultural background. It wasn’t until I was older, that I came to believe Our Lady stood for everyone who put their trust in her. To me, she is powerful because she is always there to guide, no matter who you are. Her symbolism goes deeper than religion, and to share a moment with her in México meant the world to me.

At the same time, I could not have had the same experience without the students and professors from UNACH — particularly Alejandro Francisco Herrán Aguirre, Ivonne Álvarez Gutiérrez and María Elisa García López. They are amazing advocates and professionals with the biggest passions for their fields. I truly admire their hard work and contributions to those around them. On our six-hour bus ride back to San Cristobal from Tapachula, I got to know Ivonne and share about myself. We had a two-hour conversation in a mix of Spanish and English. It was challenging, forcing me to dig deep into my Spanish skills and get over the feeling of messing up. But I did it, and I am so glad to have had that shared experience.

With all the new people I met and the stories I got to take in, an important reflection from the trip was the guilt that many of us students experienced. It is a privilege to be able to travel and learn from others, but unlike those in the shelters who shared their stories with us, we were all able to return to the U.S. It’s crucial to sit with that guilt and reflect upon all that we learned, because that is an important part of forming global citizenship. We discussed how — upon returning to the U.S. — we could turn that guilt into support for better policies and human rights, especially in our individual fields, being the most crucial.

There is no simple way to define peace. Peace between different countries does not mean the immediate needs of those fleeing or leaving their home countries are met. While cartel groups and other violent organizations could be dismembered, that does not solve the trauma families have faced throughout their journeys. That does not fix burnt down homes or bring deceased family members back.

In the United States, we see conflict through a punitive lens. If a violent organization does wrong, we feel that taking apart that organization is equivalent to justice. Punishing those who have caused harm is not the means to all of justice. If those who were harmed are not supported after the dismemberment of an organization, there is no true justice. Without restorative healing for what the victims have experienced, lost, and need, as a result of violence, true justice is not possible.

Meeting migrants and hearing their stories was crucial to recognize the bigger picture of what was going on outside the United States. As a social work and peace and conflict student, as well as a Chicano who has family with similar stories, I asked a few questions about social service support and mediations between states. Only one of the shelters had a social worker, the rest did not have positions but shared that they would support having them — and even me — in the future. I hope to travel back one day and work with those who guided me throughout the trip. Until then, I am thankful to have experienced such an opportunity and to have built the connections I now have.

This story was produced by Baker Institute at Juniata College

The mission of The Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College is to apply the resources of the academic community to the study of warfare and deep-rooted conflict as human problems and to the study of peace as a human potential.

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