If you pay any attention at all to the news, and you live in North America, you are sure to have heard of the large numbers of Central American immigrants entering the Southern United States, and the hateful rhetoric that is coming from those same areas about these immigrants. Thankfully not everyone is so hateful, but for those who are, some education should be prescribed, and they should probably start with The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez.
Written as a series of blog posts beginning in 2007 for El Faro, the first online newspaper in Latin America, it was published into a book in 2010 as Los migrantes que no importan. An English translation (by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington) was finally published in 2013 by Verso Books. The reporting is brave and in-depth, the prose is lyrical and hard-hitting, and the facts are terrifying.
Martínez, along with a photographer (one of a few different ones per trip), spent time travelling the same dangerous trails as the Central American migrants take through Mexico – talking to them, learning about what they live through, and dealing with the constant threat of danger. Some of his travels were by foot, some by train (The Beast of the title), some by bus, and sometimes by car along the border towns of the US-Mexico border. He spoke with migrants, with police and undercover agents, with priests, with Mexicans living in the towns, and with some of the gangsters. All of this contributes to the final package which is a book exploring all aspects of the trip migrants take, filled with personal accounts and vignettes.
The introduction by Francisco Goldman gives a good overview of what is to come, while at the same time highlighting the silence emanating from the United States on the dangers and violence both that the migrants are fleeing from (in many cases, the historical cause of which can be traced back to US foreign policy in the past), and that the war on drugs which fosters much of the violence they endure in Mexico. This is the only time it is truly made clear just how much responsibility the United States holds, that should be acknowledged, though it is the unspoken understanding through much of the rest of the book.
Individual stories in the book cover such topics as the impacts of injuries and what that means for a migrant, kidnapping, rape, death, murder, trafficking, and more. There is a lot of danger and fear, and the author makes clear that these things leave scars.
The suffering that migrants endure on the trail doesn’t heal quickly. Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death. The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies, they run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their heads over and over. It takes at least a month of travel to reach Mexico’s northern border. A month of hiding in fear, with the uncertainty of not knowing if the next step will be the wrong step, of not knowing if the Migra will turn up, if an attacker will pop out, if a narco-hired rapist will demand his daily fuck. (page 43)
Although a painful read, it is an incredibly important one. In documenting the stories, the trauma, and the pain, Martínez gives the immigrants a voice, and forces us to understand and take stock of the ways in which we are complicit, if not responsible. What have we done to educate ourselves? Have we unthinkingly believed any of the stereotypes or prejudices we’ve heard in the news? Is your country doing anything to help? If this book does nothing else, I hope that it forces people to recognize and remember our shared humanity, and the fact that we can easily, as this book makes clear, fall to violence and depravity against others if we forget.