Mexico's HñaHñu Community Battles Illegal Immigration With Simulated Border-Crossing, Complete With Gun Shots
Forty students from a private university in Mexico City huddled together under an opaque sky waiting for orders from their coyote or guide. The evening was relinquishing its balminess to a breeze that was shuffling in ominous clouds. The students chattered and giggled, some with hands clasped in the moonless cloak of night, in anticipation of what they had gathered there for: their illegal crossing of the Mexican-American border. “Should we light a cigarette?” one girl asked another as the wait dragged on. The head coyote for the crossing went only by “Simon,” and when he finally climbed atop the short wall that surrounded the church behind which the students waited, he quickly drew the idling mass into a cohesive unit. “I’m not sure if everyone here is Mexican.… ” he said. “Yes,” the students answered meekly. “Are you Mexican?” he bellowed. “Yes,” they answered in unison. “Do you feel proud to be Mexican?” Simon yelled. “Yes,” they yelled back, growing animated. “Tonight we’re going to address the question of migration,” Simon said. “But for us it’s not something rhetorical; rather, the exact opposite. Because we have suffered from hunger, from thirst, injustice, heat, cold—we’ve suffered everything.” The border they were about to cross was not the actual border—this one lies roughly 700 miles away from the closest point on the actual 1,952-mile border between Mexico and the United States. This border existed only within the boundaries of the EcoAlberto Park in Hidalgo state, and did not threaten them with parched throats, as much of it runs along water. The students also knew they would safely return to their tents tonight. This crossing—which the park advertises as a caminata nocturna, or night walk—is one of several recreational offerings for tourists, mostly middle-class residents of Mexico City, which is about three hours away. Titi is one of the park employees who works as a coyote during these night walks. Standing off to the side from the students, wearing a full face mask, he explained the park’s motivations. “People always say that it’s dangerous [to be a migrant], right? But from what we’ve seen, it’s just news, it’s words. We wanted people not just to receive news, not just to get commentary, rather for them to really realize that it’s difficult and dangerous.” When Simon finished talking, the other coyotes yelled for the students to start running. The whole group careened down an unpaved road in complete darkness, a cloud of dust trailing the aspiring “immigrants” as they fled into the brush. EcoAlberto Parks sits on land belonging to the HñaHñu indigenous community. The park’s staff is entirely HñaHñu community members, the local contingency of which lives on-site. Since the 15th century the HñaHñu—members of the Otomi linguistic group—have supported themselves through agricultural production, which included corn, beans, amaranth and other crops. According to Maribel García, who works in the park’s administration department, that wasn’t bringing in much income lately. A small sign at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City attributed the Otomi’s move away from agriculture to “trading problems, such as transportation from their place of origin to consumption centers, the drop of prices and the different intermediaries they have to deal with.” Those “intermediaries,” as García explained a bit more bluntly, are like a Mafia that doesn’t let the HñaHñu trade their crops fairly.
Many young HñaHñu headed north—mostly to Las Vegas and Arizona—to look for work. They are now part of the roughly 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, more than 60 percent of them from Mexico. Hidalgo is one of the top three Mexican states in terms of population loss to the U.S. The HñaHñu have lost 80 percent of their population. Only about 300 permanent residents remain. The students and their coyotes crouched on the ground behind bushes. The howl of sirens and the glare of flashlights swept through the air on the slightly elevated road and a recording of a dog barking played mercilessly on repeat until even the tape seemed to grow hoarse. “We’re gonna get you! We have you surrounded!” a voice from a loudspeaker shouted, first in English and then in Spanish, mimicking a perfect gringo accent. “Don’t look at the light,” Simon instructed his charges. And as the sirens started to fade away, as though the Border Patrol agents were driving away, he let out another urgent war cry: “Let’s go!” Again the students ran, the sound of footsteps mixing with hard breathing. Throughout the evening movement was interrupted by sirens, which meant rest. The rests were welcome; though the whole caminata amounted to only about five kilometers, it was a strain on some of the participants. Each time a siren sounded, the group would hit the ground and lay hugging the cold earth, waiting for the lights to fade. During one particularly long break, camouflaged actors interrogated a handful of people they had managed to grab out of the group during a sprint. One fake Border Patrol agent pointed a flashlight in their faces and barked commands while another spoke to the rest of the group, which remained in hiding, saying that if they surrendered now they would be taken to a safe place to spend the night, given a meal, and then returned to their own country. One of the students, who had narrowly escaped capture, whispered, “The agent caught me by the waist so sweetly that I wanted to tell him to take me.” Everyone giggled. The questioning continued just behind the bushes where the group stretched in a tangle of muddy limbs. A few students hobbled over to a tree trunk to get minor wounds dressed by a coyote with a first-aid kit. When the group reached water, Simon said, “We’re going to go along the bank of the river. I want to let you know that we’re not going to encounter the Border Patrol now, but we may encounter other types of danger.” This, too, meant rest, of a sort. The group was forced to stay still for increasingly intricate productions that mimicked the hazards real migrants often encounter, such as robbers and drug traffickers. Gun shots rang out during the bandits’ onslaughts (they were blanks) and students were tossed around in the grassy meadows by the appropriately gruff actors. All of the actors who work the caminata have crossed the actual border illegally. They seek to provide an accurate—albeit necessarily diluted—experience to visitors. And they do this by mining the experiences of their own crossings for material. As the night wore on, lightning began to mix with the sirens. When heavy drops of rain fell, the group scrambled up a sandy hillside and on to a road where a line of trucks was waiting to deliver them to salvation. The number of illegal crossers making their way north through the U.S.-Mexico border has decreased significantly in the past few years. A New York Times article from March reported that while 1.1 million people were apprehended in 2005 during their attempt to cross, in 2011 that number dropped to 340,000 people. Increased border patrols, stricter laws in states like Arizona, rising smuggling fees, violent rovers like robbers and drug smugglers, and the lackluster U.S. economy are all keeping people at home. Douglas Massey, a sociologist and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, calculates that it’s the first time since the 1960s that there is a “net-zero”
migration. So, in addition to fewer people crossing into the U.S., there are also more people crossing from the U.S. back into their communities in Mexico. The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that between 2005 and 2010, 1 million Mexicans returned to their country from the U.S., three times more than the number of people who returned between 2000 and 2005. It’s not clear how the HñaHñu fit into these statistics, but they are emphatic when they say that the whole point of the night walk is to keep people where they are, inside their community and inside Mexico. “We are not training,” Titi explains, addressing a common criticism of this tourist attraction. “It is not a training. We simply want to help stop the immigration.” García says that the entire touristic endeavor of the EcoAlberto Park—which includes recreational zip lines, kayaking, hiking, and rappelling, though the caminata is its biggest draw—started in 2004, when youth coming home from the U.S. brought ideas and resources back into the HñaHñu community. At first, people simply used trucks they brought from the U.S. to give tours in the park. And from there, the operation grew. Little by little, with resources from the park, the community acquired plumbing, lights, telephones, and a paved road, all of which they had previously done without. “The objective of the youth is that their children become conscious during this caminata and that they don’t have this idea of leaving for the U.S.,” says García. “That they stay and take advantage of all that they have within their community and through this, in the future, they can be self-employed without the necessity of resorting [to the U.S.].” The paying patrons, though, are from outside of the community. The mission, then, is multifaceted: to provide local jobs for the HñaHñu, to generate revenue for improvements within the community, and to function as a sort of public service statement for Mexicans at large. “Already,” García says, “some of the young kids have a reason to study, to get a career, which they previously did not have.” Still, though the standard of living has improved for the HñaHñu residing in EcoAlberto, not everybody is rushing back. The HñaHñu are communal, which in part means that every eight years those living abroad are expected to return for one year of unpaid service. At the moment there are 75 to 80 people serving, says Titi. One of the coyotes on this caminata, for example, whispered in the dark as the group slowly made its way along a precipitous bank that he had spent more than a decade in the U.S. He has crossed the real border six times, most recently to return home for his year of community service. His three daughters, born in the U.S., are U.S. citizens. He planned to serve his time in the HñaHñu community and return back to the U.S. Though he’d worked for the same construction company for close to a decade, he said he feared it would be harder to find work this time around and that the company had in the past denied his requests to sponsor him for a work visa. His story—of multiple crossings, long years living undocumented in the U.S., and a family with mismatched documents—is a common one in the HñaHñu community and for Mexican migrants in general. And yet despite his many years in the U.S., there are those more settled than he. According to García, some HñaHñu send a stand-in instead of returning for their tour of duty. “If they’re with their families, their children, it’s very difficult to get accustomed to life in Mexico, in the HñaHñu community,” says García. Further, the park was not able to provide solid numbers on the amount of visitors per year, but Titi hinted that though increasing, it wasn’t many. Mexico’s central bank reported that in 2010 more than $21 billion was sent to Mexico by migrants living abroad, contributing to nationwide development. No doubt that American dollars from HñaHñu living in Las Vegas and Arizona—in addition to the Mexican visitors’ pesos—helped fund the improvements in the HñaHñu community. Before the trucks loaded down with students took off, everyone was blindfolded. They were brought to a neatly groomed lawn at the edge of the river. Men walked along the bank and touched lit torches to wicks in the ground. Fire sprung along the perimeter of the water and, one torch at a time, wound up a mountain across the stream. The mountain was shaped like a soft-serve ice cream cone and the fire seemed to trace the swirls of the ridges. When the lighting display was complete, the students were allowed to take off their blindfolds. There was a collective sigh of awe as they opened their eyes. It was beautiful. A Mexican flag was unfurled and they were made to sing the national anthem, although some didn’t know all of the words. The patriotic symbols, García explains, are to remind people of their reality. “They forget about Mexico,” she says of those who go north. “They believe that they are there and that that’s all that exists. But in reality, it’s not like that, because at any moment they can be deported, because they don’t have papers.” The students marched up a flight of stairs into an open-air restaurant and were offered hot coffee and sweetbreads. Some of the coyotes stripped off their masks; others kept theirs on. The students, now covered in drying mud, chattered energetically, but there weren’t many conversations about immigration. Still, when prompted, two students, Cristina Herrera Sanchez and Jazmin Arely Moreno Alcazar, said they had previously considered crossing over to the U.S. Of tonight’s caminata, Sanchez said it was “a very ugly experience, it affected the nerves, and it wasn’t just because you couldn’t see.… ” “Don’t risk it,” Alcazar said. “Because if we can’t endure a few hours, we won’t be able to endure days. Because, yeah, it’s very ugly.” They were no longer considering the trek, both women said. The relatively quick change of heart to stay put was likely related to their relatively high education level. University-educated Mexicans are not, generally, the ones making their way across the Sonoran Desert in search of opportunity. “More than 30 years ago, just by being born in this community, we were all contemptible beings,” says Simon. With the addition of amenities within the community, things have gotten better. But it’s not clear yet if they’re good enough to lure people back from their new homes in the U.S. RELATED: Crossing U.S.-Mexican Border Can Be Deadly