Seated on a bench in Comitán, Chiapas, Reyna Elizabeth pulls a dark red sweater around her shoulders. She starts talking about her mother, whom she has not seen in ten years.
“I was very small when she left, only twelve years old. I realized that she had disappeared only a year later. I used to ask my grandma about her all the time, and she always said, ‘she’s around.’ Since my mom spent a lot of time away from home, I didn’t suspect anything…until my grandma finally told me. That’s how I found out,” she says.
Reyna’s mother, Irma Vicente García, had often found left her daughter at home in the state of Quiche while she went in search of work. The last time Irma left, in 2006, she had headed to the state of Chiapas, just across the border with Mexico. She stopped in the town of Maravilla Tenejapa, dreaming of opening a bar with a Guatemalan friend.
Irma had tried to start a similar business in Quiche, but that had already failed. When the second business closed, she hit rock bottom.
As Irma struggled to make ends meet, Guatemala celebrated the 10th anniversary of the peace accords that ended its brutal civil war, and the 20th anniversary of a supposedly democratic government. Election season was about to start, and the government boasted of the country’s recent economic growth. But prosperity never reached the rural parts of the country, where the vast majority of the Guatemalan population lives. Many of the residents had to leave.
Irma was one of the many who emigrated. She came back from Chiapas in 2007, disheartened by her business prospects. She rested at home in Ixcán for only a few days in March, long enough to get over the sting of her failed enterprise. Then she started gathering information about the route to the U.S, determined to put her past behind her. Since many people where leaving from Ixcán in April, she decided to go along with them.
Ixcán then was the same as it is now: a poor town. It had been assailed by countless battles during the Civil War, resulting in 200,000 deaths, according to official reports. Though new businesses have opened in Quiche, the situation for many of the residents has not changed. The corporations that opened franchises “to improve the economy” brought their own workers, according to Reyna Elizabeth.
“You can basically only work in restaurants or in corn, bean, and banana fields. A few people also work as fishermen. Ixcán is a little better off than before, and I now work in a restaurant. But I’d like to eventually go back to school to finish my education,” she says softly.
Irma’s plan was to work in one Mexican city after another until she could reach the border with the U.S. Then she would make the journey across. She made it all the way north by the following September. Then, all of a sudden, she disappeared in the Altar Desert in Sonora.
“Her last call was in September 2007. She’d been in prison for three months. My grandma says mom would never admit why she was there, because she didn’t want my grandma to worry. But during that last call, mom said that she would cross the border in fifteen days.”
She never called again.
Surrounded by a group of musicians in the midst of the cold Comitán air, Reyna Elizabeth describes the hope that she’s carried all the way from Guatemala.
“I asked for leave from my job, but I think someone else arrived the day I left. So I’m probably unemployed at this point. But I wanted to find my mom,” she says.
A day later, Reyna would arrive at the Autonomous University of Tabasco. But first, she would leave behind the dark red sweater and bring a hat to protect her from the sun along the rails of Chontalpa, Tabasco. She would walk with other mothers through the muddy terrain and, at each house, Reyna would hold up the large photograph of her mother that hangs on a cord around her neck. She would ask: has my mother been here?
Since Hurricane Stan, Chontalpa has been a major stopping point for Central Americans. Police have tried to diminish the human trafficking industry that has cropped up alongside the migrant routes. Three months ago, the police raided a clandestine house along the train tracks where victims where being held. They closed it permanently.
The Mesoamerican Migration Movement, which organized the XII Caravan of Central American Mothers, decided to stop in Chontalpa because of the sheer number of people who pass through. The group’s slogan was fitting for the bleak scene along the tracks: “Searching for Life on Death’s Trails.”
When the group eventually arrived at the Autonomous University of Tabasco, after spending the afternoon search, a young woman with curly hair gifted Reyna a letter. Other students had done the same for the mothers, siblings, nieces, and nephews in the caravan. In the letter, the student had written, “at the end of so much pain, there is always a reward.”
Reyna did not expect to get a letter. When she read it, it was as much of a salve as the curly-haired student’s embrace.
“Every May 10th”—Mother’s Day in Guatemala—“I write my mother a letter. I’ve done it since the year she left, and I’ll keep doing it,” Reyna Elizabeth says.
She’s waiting for the day when her mother will get to read what she’s written.
Juan E. Flores Mateos / Translated from Spanish by Maya Averbuch