A Moment in Chiapas

By Lena Novak and Somer O’Neil

During our time in Chiapas, we visited two migrant shelters, one of which was in Arriaga. Arriaga is a common crossing place for Central American migrants because it’s really far south in Mexico and it has La Bestia (The Beast), which is the train that migrants use to get from southern Mexico to northern Mexico. It’s a really dangerous mode of transportation with exploitation from cartels and possible injuries on the train, but it’s fast.

We got into Arriaga and it was a dusty little town bustling with people, especially near the railroad tracks. The shelter was unlike others we’d seen because we had to ring a bell and wait for someone to come get the door. When we walked into the room where we would be hearing a short talk, there were men lounging on the edges of the room or in chairs. When we came in, there was an awkward silence and then awkward hello’s were exchanged. Other migrants began coming in with folding chairs to make a huge circle around the room. Once we were all seated around the room, our group and the migrants alike, a man came in and briefly told us about the shelter – migrants could only stay for three days and then get moving – while another man filmed him and took pictures of our group in the circle. After about five minutes of this, he asked us to go around and say our names and where we were from.



After we finished introducing ourselves in a circle, there was an awkward silence. We were all seated in this circular format conducive for group talking. This circle was huge however and filled with so many people, so many voices, so many perspectives. So in reality individual side conversations were better for this particular environment. Sarah, one of our teachers was sitting on my left side, to my right was a group of migrant women. There was a nine year-old girl, her mother, her mother’s sister and a nineteen year-old girl they befriended at the migrant shelter. Sarah and I started asking these women the basic questions: what is your name again, where are you going, where are you from. The mother told us a story about how the nineteen year-old girl’s sibling fell off a train and was in the hospital. I asked if he is ok; she said he was. Sarah was then able to make a connection with the two sisters. They were planning on migrating to Texas. Sarah worked at a migrant shelter in Texas and thus had lots of information on the subject. All I had to say to the nineteen year-old girl was I like your shirt and the conversation slowly faded. I no longer knew what to say or how to interact. If I could identify with anyone in a migrant shelter I thought it would be a little girl and another girl around the same age as myself. I love children and can generally get along well with girls my own age. There were still many barriers that blocked me from being able to continue a conversation with these girls. For one language barriers, my Spanish did not compare to their understanding and speaking abilities. We had grown up in different countries and lived completely different lives. We were women but due to social circumstances, that may be all we had in common at this particular moment in time.

I could no longer think of questions or things to say. I knew they would respond if I kept up the conversation but it just didn’t feel natural. It felt a little forced. I thus sat in silence for a couple of minutes looking around the room at my peers.  The chair to my left side was no longer filled, Sarah had moved her location to be closer to the mother and her sister. In the chair next to the vacant seat, a man sat quietly. The man seemed to be in his forties. I thought okay, here goes nothing and said, “hola”, directly at him. I received no response. It was obvious the man was in his own world and had not been listening but for a second I thought it was a sign that we were not meant to exchange voices and opinions. I decided to say hola a second time. The man immediately turned to look at me responding with a smile and the words hola.

This man’s name was Pablo and my conversation with him was so genuine and so pure. It is insane to think myself and a Salvadoran man in his forties are thinking about the same things. He was describing why individuals choose to become part of a group and what it means once they are a part of a group. He also views his country through two different perspectives, as a place of life and as one of violence. He wanted to debate with me about whether learning Spanish or English was easier. Through all of these small conversations I was able to see Pablo as a person situated in a difficult circumstance at that particular moment, not as a poor migrant. He was thinking and questioning the world around him, just as I was thinking and questioning the world. Although we are different in so many ways we were able to interact and form a meaningful connection with each other.

From this experience I learned the importance of speaking and forming connections with others. Although I was not able to upkeep a conversation with the individuals (I at face value) felt the most connected to, I tried again and was able to learn about the life and experiences of a man in his forties. Human connection happens on a much deeper level than the physical appearance of an individual. Physical appearances include: race, age, sex or other defining characteristics/social constructs. By talking with Pablo I learned about him as a human being in the world. He spoke about who he was as a person and shared his wisdom with me. His perceptions about the world continue to dwell in my thoughts to this day.


I tried to minimize the awkward moment after introductions by immediately talking to someone. It was the most freedom we’d had a shelter to just talk to migrants the whole time, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. The man next to me was Adelmo and the man next to him was Pablo. Pablo looked interested in talking but it was difficult to talk to both men at the same time. I asked Adelmo about why he was migrating and he told me about his son being threatened and beat up by gangs to make him join. I suddenly realized he was crying and began searching my Spanish knowledge for ways to respond. I finally said, “Lo siento.” which is similar to “I’m sorry” and “I feel for you” at the same time.

Then Pablo stood and came to sit on the other side of me. He began to talk to me about the rules of the shelter – how you had to leave after 3 days, even if you were sick or injured, and how they confiscated your phone for security reasons. I became very aware of my phone in my pocket and began to consider how strange it was that my privilege extended even here. The migrants were not Mexican citizens, but neither was I. Yet I could just enter this shelter with whatever I had in my pockets and take time out of migrants’ relaxation before they continued on their journeys. I didn’t know what to say and I wanted to include both men in the conversation so I tried to ask questions they could both answer, mostly about how they were migrating and whether they were concerned about the danger. I quickly found that I wanted to be able to follow up with both of them on their answers, which was difficult. Finally, Lena began talking to Pablo and I turned my attention back to Adelmo.

But we didn’t just talk about his migration story. Adelmo asked me what I was studying and what brought me to the border. He seemed pleased when I said I was studying literature and that I was on the program because I feel it’s important to learn about experiences that are not my own from people as well as books. He nodded and said more people needed to understand the migrant experience. This made me really hopeful because I imagine my contribution to the migrant and Latino communities is sharing stories and raising awareness through my writing.

I asked him about his job and his eyes lit up as he told me about carpentry and building houses. I told him he must like hard work and he told me that building houses was hard work but that carpentry was just enjoyable. His passion for carpentry was so obvious. He went on to tell me that he didn’t have a wife and that his son was staying with his aunt while he migrated. He wanted to make money and then return to his home. There weren’t many jobs in El Salvador. So we began talking about what he did on days when he didn’t have jobs. He asked me what my favorite movie was and told me his was “Señor de los Anillos.” I was confused until he pointed to his fingers. His favorite movie was Lord of the Rings! We bonded over that and talked about music as well. I told him I liked folk music and he told me he liked romantic music.

Adelmo was the most surprising person I have ever met and I hadn’t felt that connected to anyone on the trip before that moment. We had spoken in Spanish for more than an hour about his migration, our lives, our families, and our plans. Not only did he give me hope for my idea about using my writing to contribute to causes, he also gave me that experience to hold onto. I thought of him when we marched for migrant rights in Phoenix, hoping that he would successfully migrate and benefit from the rights people have been fighting for for decades. He continues to be inspiration for me as I wrap up the semester with final projects and think about my motivation for this work.


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