Aida Amalia Rodríguez Ordoñez, 53, waited in a plastic chair in a taco shop across the street from the Córdoba bus station. Her daughter, Viviana, had taken her on a winding bus trip from Puebla, a state near the center of Mexico, to this city in the coastal state of Veracruz. They were going to meet with Rubén Figueroa, who would perhaps bring news about Aida’s family. She had not seen them since she left her home in Guatemala at 13.
Rubén, a coordinator for the Mesoamerican Migration Movement, aims to reunite people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with family members who have disappeared on the road north. Aida did not know that on this day, November 19, 2016, he would escort her to see Norma Janet Rodríguez Ordoñez, her youngest sister, and Oneyda Isabel Rodríguez, the daughter of her missing sister Reyna. They were part of the forty-one people in the XII Caravan of Mesoamerican Mothers who had come to Mexico to protest migrant disappearances.
Two months earlier, Rubén had gone to southern Guatemala to find Aida’s family members. Their address had changed, and they had stopped responding to her letters not long after she left the capital of Guatemala at 22 and entered Mexico. Aida came in an elegant red dress and bejeweled headband for the occasion, but she started to lose her composure Rubén started talking about her hometown of Tiquisate. She cupped her hands over her mouth and tears started to streak her mascara.
“I used to write to my brother, but I left the place where I was living to change some money in Cuernavaca. Someone else opened my mail while I was away. Another person had an accident in Cueravaca, and they mistook that person for me. They thought I was dead,” Aida said.
The others, her father and five siblings, waited for news without knowing where Aida had landed. In the intervening years, while Aida worked in Mexico, the father and several siblings passed away. Only Norma and her brother Alvaro remained alive in Guatemala. Another sister, Reyna, hit the road in Mexico two decades ago and was never heard from again.
Aida never dared to return to her country to find the family, partly because of the dangers of the road. After she crossed the river on the border with Mexico with a friend, the two of them were captured and held against their will by one of the many predators along the migrant route. Aida said she managed to escape by offering to buy sugar from a nearby store and then running as far as possible.
“I would rather go in a submarine under the ocean than in an airplane,” Aida said in the taco shop.
On the bus several hours before the reunion, Norma rested her forehead against the seat in front of her. The trip from the Guatemalan border had made her fall quiet. The rumbling bus and reporters’ constant questions grated on her frayed nerves. She stayed calm by thinking what she would do once reunited with her sister. Norma would make the specialty dish, chicken in pipian sauce, which she sometimes prepares at the eatery where she works in Guatemala. If all went well with their papers, they would spend Christmas together, eating tacos together at midnight.
The caravan had arrived at the central plaza of Córdoba to see if anyone might provide news of their missing family members, in the midst of their protest against migrant conditions in Mexico. They walked with photos of the disappeared hanging on cords around their necks, while chanting: “They were taken from us alive, and we want them back alive.” Mothers from the Solecito Collective, who have organized against disappearances of Mexican youth in Veracruz, joined in the march.
Across the street from the bus station, Aida pulled at the edges of her formal black jacket and cried as Rubén described how he had wandered the streets of Guatemala, following vague directions about a neighborhood church, in order to find her family. Aida considered all that she had to tell Norma, in the few days during which her sister was permitted to stay in Mexico. They would probably stay up late, talking about the owner of the Guatemalan restaurant who withheld Aida’s wages; about Aida’s son, who was probably killed while she was briefly held in prison on false charges; about her grandson, a spunky 9-year-old who spends much of his time playing Power Rangers videogames.
After nightfall, all the participants in the XII Caravan of Mesoamerican Mothers gathered in a nearby migrant house. Las Patronas, the women who run the house, have become famous for pitching bags of food to people who ride precariously on top of industrial trains headed toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Norma and Oneyda waited in the center of a horde of at least twenty cameras. At the same time, as Aida neared Las Patronas, she turned to Viviana and asked for help selecting a lipstick color. Three minutes before they were due to arrive, she squinted into a round pocket mirror, decided that the first shade would not do, and scrambled for another.
As the cameras started to flash in the house’s inner courtyard, Aida’s grandson, Samuel Israbi García Rodríguez, almost immediately burst into tears. Norma and Aida grabbed one another in the middle of the circle and hugged fiercely, becoming one of over two hundred families who have been united by the Mesoamerican Migration Movement. In the midst of this chaos, Oneyda fainted. As she started to fall, the orange-clad members of Grupo Beta, the Mexican government’s migrant protection team, steered her toward a chair. “Breathe deeply,” one of them shouted, as she leaned backward. The family members, including Aida’s daughter, grandson, and husband, were escorted into the nearest room to speak in private.
When the press thinned, the family sat together at a table and passed around printed color photos of their father who had passed away three years ago—the same images Rúben had used in his travels. They promised one another that they would keep searching for the other missing sister, Reina, to make their family whole again, as best as they could after decades apart.