NEW YORK — The stump of his left leg wrapped neatly in a beige elastic bandage, his aluminum crutches propped against a pew in the elegant sanctuary of a Manhattan church, immigration reform activist Pedro Aguilar was farther from home than he had ever been.
Aguilar, 23, told the story of how he lost his leg below the knee last May after falling from a notorious freight train known as La Bestia — “The Beast” — heading north through Mexico toward America. His mother sent him away from their Honduran hometown of Yoro after his brother and sister were killed within a few months of one another, two more victims in what is now the most murder-plagued country in the world.
“My mother told me, ‘I’m really sorry but you have to run away because I can’t bear for you to die too,” Aguilar said, his black hair a mop of curls. “That’s why I went to the US.”
The Beast has become an extremely dangerous vehicle for thousands of Hondurans and other migrants leaving the region, and Aguilar is looking to highlight the risks that immigrants like himself must take to save their own lives from violence-torn countries like his own. Last weekend he and a few dozen fellow migrants and activists made the final stop of a cross-country convoy led by longtime migrant rights advocate Father Alejandro Solalinde, which is trying to internationalize the immigration reform debate as the US Congress considers sweeping legislation.
“We think that the immigration matter is a regional matter, so Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada,” Solalinde told the independent news organization Democracy Now as he passed through Washington, DC. “And we believe that immigration reform is a vision of North America, and so we are here in the Caravan for Hope because we believe it should be the whole region.”
The caravan gained members and monetary donations this month as it trekked from the border of Calexico, California and Mexicali, Mexico, through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and the American South, then passing up through Chicago and east to Washington, DC and New York City, where it was received at St. Peter’s Church after participating in an international March Against Monsanto targeting the GMO giant’s business practices.
Members graciously accepted meals, showers and shelter offered by supporters along the way, fielding calls and emails when possible with limited resources. These travelers say the US immigration conversation has largely omitted the gauntlet of rape, kidnapping, mishaps and murder that scars many of the estimated 140,000 people who enter Mexico each year on the way to the US — as well as the economic realities driving the mass migration.
Aguilar said he’d heard stories about criminal gangs who operate along the train routes frequented by Central and South American migrants seeking free passage north, but it was not until several days into his journey last May that a strange man began harassing him. Aguilar hurried away along the top of the moving train, but a gust of wind swept him down between the cars, his leg caught underneath the wheels.
Taken to the regional hospital in Veracruz, Aguilar recovered with support from a local organization that helped him contact his mother back in Yoro to let her know where he was, and eventually to secure permission to stay in Mexico. Two months ago, Aguilar learned that his mentally challenged brother Isaiah barely survived an armed robbery that left two in his group dead.
“Imagine you have five kids to feed and you don’t have economic means,” Aguilar said. “That’s the way the crime goes. Then we come to try to find a better way of life and it’s not there.”
But Aguilar’s luck improved further when he connected with the leaders of the International Humanitarian Coalition Pro-Immigrant (CHIP), which invited him to join the caravan, described by organizer Anita Nicklen as “by the poor, for the poor.” The US Embassy in Mexico City granted temporary visas to Aguilar and the other migrants.
“This caravan arises out of a need,” said Marco Castillo, director the the Migrant Families Popular Assembly and a caravan organizer. “We are bringing together new people sharing messages, creating a new narrative. Central American migrants are the best example of how the US and Mexico are linked. For the migrants, Mexico is as discriminatory and cruel as the US is.”
Castillo, 36, studied social anthropology in college and has spent years working in indigenous communities. He began organizing for social justice and immigrants’ rights in 2001, developing an approach to immigration reform that “puts the human back in the center.”
He said the immigration reform legislation expected to be taken up by the US Senate in early June fails to recognize the centrality of immigrants to the region’s economy, or the radical class imbalance across the region driving migration.
“We don’t see that in this reform,” he said. “They really are thinking they’ll continue to create conditions of forced migration. For those left out of this reform, it will be hell.”
Castillo’s skepticism is hard-earned.
“I am a son of the Zapatista movement,” Castillo said, referring to the indigenous revolutionary group that seized part of Mexico’s Chiapas state in 1994 following the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) but has since shifted to a non-violent approach. “I was as involved as I could get involved.”
It was Catholic bishop Samuel Ruiz, a proponent of liberation theology, who brokered the cease-fire between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government in 1994, and who had gained the revolutionary movement’s trust by devoting decades to helping poor, indigenous Mayans in Chiapas.
Today Father Solalinde, one of the best-known human rights advocates in Mexico, has made the transition from offering shelter and advocacy for Central and South Americans in his home country to traveling the US and Mexico preaching the gospel of an interconnected global economy benefitting a select group of elites on the backs of millions of workers.
And Castillo, wearing a yellow guayabera with a red bandana around his neck at a closing potluck dinner at St. Peter’s Church, said he has seen first-hand the influence that religious leaders like Solalinde and Ruiz have in marginalized communities — as well as the value of teaming the religious and the secular.
“It’s a very desperate situation, but we need to find new allies,” he said. “More than God, more than any metaphysical force, it’s the need for change that drives us. It’s the never ending love of human beings.”
In practical terms, Castillo said, “sharing names, emails and websites is power. This caravan is ending with connections between hundreds of destinations. If commerce and trade are globalized, then the fight for justice must be globalized.”
But caravan organizers found some of the advocacy groups they reached out to were less than receptive to collaboration.
“Many organizations in the US are lost in the local battle,” Castillo said. “There is no time for the national battle, or the international one. There’s lots of ego and lots of money. And very little actually gets done.”
The next step for their movement, he said, is to plan a high-level summit with leaders from the US and Latin America including Father Solalinde and Mexican poet-activist Javier Sicilia. Many members of the caravan planned to drive back west, stopping along the way to continue their work in local communities.
For the Honduran Aguilar, the caravan has been a success.
“My family thinks that I’m becoming a very important person,” he says, laughing.
Later this month he’ll start a job at a bakery cooperative in Puebla, 80 miles southeast of Mexico City, with support from a non-profit group called “We Are Your Voice” that offers work to migrants who have been mutilated by “La Bestia.”
Aguilar will work to afford a prosthesis and send money home to his family. If he can, he’ll return to the US someday — legally.
“They help humans who might not have another opportunity,” he said. “But I would like to come back. I want to help my immigrant brothers and sisters here in America.”
This story was supported by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life.