‘Las Patronas': Making Mexico’s ‘Train of Death’ a More Humane Place

Central American migrants hop a freight train in Ciudad Ixtepec, Mexico on July 15, 2008. The trains are nicknamed "La Bestia" - the Beast - and will take them on a perilous journey 1,500 miles north to the U.S.-Mexican border. Canada's SAWP program flies workers in on a plane. Photo by Peter Haden.

Central American migrants wait to board a freight train in Ixtepec, Mexico. The train, known as The Beast, will bring them to the US/Mexican border. Photo taken from the Flickr account of Peter Haden under Creative Commons license.

The Beast.

The vehicle, also known as “the train of death,” cuts through Mexico from south to north. This cargo train carries Central American immigrants that hope to cross into the United States in search of a better future. Frequently travelling along the rails are the victims of robbery, kidnapping, rape, and torture. Standing in solidarity with them are Las Patronas.

Las Patronas consists of Norma Romero and a group of women from her family that prepare huge pans of rice and beans which they deliver in bags, along with portions of bread and water to the US-bound migrants as the train passes through La Patrona. La Patrona is a neighborhood in Acatlán de los Reyes, Veracruz, México. The group's work is featured in a recent and hugely influential petition on Change.org.

The petition was created in an effort to recognize the work of a group with more than two decades of service, so that they might be nominated for the Princess of Asturias Awards, and it achieved its goal.

Las Patronas are candidates for the Princess of Asturias Awards

The Princess of Asturias Foundation awards “contribute to extolling and promoting those scientific, cultural and humanistic values that form part of the universal heritage of humanity”. Some of the laureates of this year included Francis Ford Coppola and Wikipedia.

In 2013, Romero, the founder of Las Patronas, was given the Human Rights Award by Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights, and was recognized for her work in the promotion and defense of the human rights of immigrants.

It is no wonder the train is called “the train of death”:

Julián Carmona writes about ‘The Beast’ on ZonaJ:

Se llama Mario. Dice que tiene 28 años, que es de Guatemala, que él y su novia, Elsa Marlen, de 19 años, embarazada de gemelos, apenas habían iniciado su viaje hacia Estados Unidos cuando en el municipio de Huixtla, en el Estado de Chiapas, Elsa Marlen desapareció.

Dice que él la buscó durante semanas y que, buscándola, desanduvo sus pasos y regresó a Guatemala. Que fue allí donde meses después, y a través de fotografías que le mandó la cancillería de su país, reconoció el cadáver de su novia. Tenía las manos cortadas. La habían enterrado en una fosa común.

His name is Mario. He says that he is 28-years-old, that he is Guatemalan, and that he and his girlfriend, Elsa Marlen, who was 19-years-old and pregnant with twins, had barely begun their journey to the United States when Elsa Marlen disappeared in the township of Huixtla, in the state of Chiapas.

He says that he searched for her for weeks and that, as he searched for her, he retraced his steps and returned to Guatemala. It was there that months later, through photographs sent to him from his country’s ministry, he recognized the body of his girlfriend. Her hands had been cut off. She had been buried in a mass grave.

José Luis Pinilla Martín wrote an entry on his blog dedicated to the group, in which he notes that the group took a huge risk in its beginnings by helping undocumented immigrants moving through Mexico at a time when it was a crime to do so.

Como ellas mismas lo saben, los premios son plataformas para visibilizar las luchas que cada organismo o grupo humano  realiza. Y por lo tanto, convertir a las Patronas en Princesas – como si fueran las cenicientas del siglo XXI – es poner en valor la realidad de un grupo que canaliza una labor organizadamente,  blanco sobre negro, desvelando la cruda  realidad de las y los migrantes en su paso por México (y por todos los caminos del mundo) . Y que descubre– y esto no es un cuento – sus  dolores y tragedias no solo en sus viajes de  tránsito, sino en sus países de origen y en los de su destino. Es más: Un acción individual que empezó con la Señora Norma,  se ha transformado – también paradigmáticamente –  en la acción de todo un pueblo

As they themselves know, the awards are platforms to bring visibility to the struggles experienced by every organization and group. Therefore, to transform Las Patronas into Princesses — as if they were the Cinderellas of the 21st century — is to highlight the reality of a group of women directing a well-organized service that brings attention to the harsh reality of migrants, both men and women, on their path through Mexico (and all those on similar paths throughout the world). And you’ll discover their sorrows and tragedies aren’t found solely in the time they spend traveling, but also in the countries from which they depart and the countries to which they arrive. What’s more, a single action that began with Mrs. Norma has transformed – in a rather paradigmatic way – into the action of an entire town.

According to the website Sin Embargo, the path to candidacy was not an easy one:

The award nomination must be appealed directly within Madrid by diplomats from each country, but the Mexican embassy was late in doing so, or rather, they wouldn't until the non-governmental organization Change practically forced them to with an initiative where citizens could support the candidates through online signatures.

Even the Senate and Chamber of Deputies had to intervene by calling the the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to attention. A total of 7,500 signatures were required; however, they received about 50,000.

More about the history of Las Patronas:

A decision on the award in the Concord category will be made by the Princess of Asturias Foundation on September 2nd.

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