Lives in Transit: Violence and Intimacy on the Migrant Journey

Lives in Transit: Violence and Intimacy on the Migrant Journey

by Wendy A. Vogt

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Lives in Transit chronicles the dangerous journeys of Central American migrants in transit through Mexico. Drawing on fieldwork in humanitarian aid shelters and other key sites, Wendy A. Vogt examines the multiple forms of violence that migrants experience as their bodies, labor, and lives become implicated in global and local economies that profit from their mobility as racialized and gendered others. She also reveals new forms of intimacy, solidarity, and activism that have emerged along transit routes over the past decade. Through the stories of migrants, shelter workers, and local residents, Vogt encourages us to reimagine transit as a site of both violence and precarity as well as social struggle and resistance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298552
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #42
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,104,888
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Wendy A. Vogt is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis.

Read an Excerpt


Circulations of Violence

"May I please go to the internet café?" Elio asked in a playful, pouty voice.

"Yes, of course, go ahead," Araceli, the coordinator at Casa Guadalupe, replied.

Elio jumped up. "Thanks, I'll only be gone for thirty minutes!" he exclaimed as he rushed to the men's dormitory to get ready. Araceli smiled and shook her head, giving me a knowing look. Going to the internet café down the street was one of the activities Elio depended on to distract him from the monotony of life at the shelter. "I'm so bored here!" Elio would lament with a big sigh as we sat in the shade and watched the rabbits and chickens putter about the yard. Indeed, Casa Guadalupe was not the most exciting place for a fourteen-year-old kid.

While most of the migrants who arrived to the shelter in the summer of 2013 stayed for just a few days waiting for their money orders to arrive, Elio had been there for weeks stuck in limbo. With no money, he could not hire a smuggler. He was unable to get in contact with his family back home and felt ambiguous about his future. Sometimes he said he wanted to continue on to the United States, at other times he said he'd rather return home to be with his mother. Since he was officially classified as an unaccompanied minor, shelter staff carefully considered what that meant in terms of his rights and protections in Mexico, as well as their obligations in supporting him.

Elio was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world. He left home two years earlier at the age of twelve. He hoped to find work and send money home to his mother. Elio had four siblings in Honduras, including two older brothers. And while many adolescent boys look up to their older brothers, Elio feared his. "They do drugs. They have guns. I'm scared of my own brothers. I'm scared to be in my own country.

"You fear returning home?" I asked. Elio replied: "Yes: my country, it takes your smile away."

While we sat in the yard watching my then three-year-old daughter chase rabbits on the uneven pavement in the back patio, Elio told me about the first time he witnessed death. He was hanging out with a group of friends from his neighborhood near his house "just messing around." Seemingly out of nowhere he heard two of their names called out. He looked up and saw two men in a car holding guns fitted with silencers. Four silent shots and the two named boys dropped to the ground in front of him. Elio explained further: "It's not just MS [Mara Salvatrucha]. It's Barrio 18, Vatos Locos, all the gangs are there." For many young boys entering adolescence in urban Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, gang violence had become an inescapable reality. The violence he experienced was not chaos swirling around the margins; it was knocking at his front door.

Soon after witnessing these murders, Elio's stepfather told the family he was going north. Elio begged to go along. He saw migration as an alternate path to a future in gang life that had consumed many of his friends and brothers around him. They traveled across Mexico's southern border with Guatemala by raft in broad daylight and made their way by foot around military checkpoints. In Chiapas, they were robbed by armed gunmen who took their money before releasing them. Instead of continuing on La Bestia (The Beast), the dangerous freight train that carries unauthorized migrants through the complex physical and human terrain of Mexico's migrant routes, they decided to continue along the Pacific and look for work in one of the coastal cities. They settled in Puerto Escondido, a picturesque port town on the coast of Oaxaca.

A few months after their arrival, Elio's stepfather disappeared after befriending a woman. Elio speculated that the two had continued on without him, perhaps to the northern border. While this would be the point at which many twelve-year-olds would return home, Elio was determined to make good on his promise to his mother. He decided to stay in Mexico. He rented a small room and found intermittent work at the port. He was able occasionally to wire money home to his mother and younger siblings, but it was not much. Two years passed. Life was difficult, and while he never talked to me directly about the details of what he did, rumors of drugs and other illicit transactions for money swirled among the other migrants when Elio's name came up.

"He's young, but he's seen a lot of things in his life," commented one of the men in the same dormitory. It was difficult to reconcile these rumors with the sweet, fresh-faced, playful young man I had come to know.

Life in Puerto Escondido caught up with him. When he heard about a priest in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec who helped Central Americans, he decided to buy a one-way bus ticket to Albergue Nazaret, where he met Padre José. As he did with many of the most vulnerable migrants, Padre José paid for Elio's bus ticket and sent him to stay at Casa Guadalupe, which offered a more stable, enclosed environment, safer for a young man like Elio.

Not accustomed to having an unaccompanied minor at Casa Guadalupe, shelter staff reached out to Mexican social service and child-protection agencies to assist in his situation. It was unclear whether Elio, a Honduran citizen, was eligible to receive the benefits and services covered by Mexico's family welfare agency. There was a DIF (National System for Integral Family Development) shelter in the Yucatán that was floated as a possible landing place for Elio, but the logistics of sending him there were complicated, and the staff were uncertain whether it would be a good place for him. Word had started to spread between the shelters that there was an unaccompanied minor at Casa Guadalupe.

CNN México wanted an interview with him. "CNN called again," Araceli told Elio one afternoon. He rolled his eyes and repeated, "I still don't want to talk to them." Elio was reluctant to share his story. He did not want any more attention.

* * *

While we did not know it at the time, the next summer would be filled with stories of Central American youth like Elio attempting to make their way to the United States. Indeed, as the spectacle of the unaccompanied minor crisis unfolded, I often thought of Elio. Much of the coverage in the U.S. media around the "surge" of unaccompanied youth focused on the U.S.–Mexico border region, as if this was where the problem originated. There were reports about border apprehensions, the poor conditions of detention centers, and the protests by border residents who feared a tidal wave of outsiders that would siphon off public resources and spread disease. One U.S. congressman, Rep. Phil Gingrey MD (R-GA), penned a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling on them to address the health risks posed by undocumented children, who, he claimed, potentially carried deadly diseases like swine flu and Ebola and lacked the proper vaccinations. The construction of children as dangerous threats reflects a longer history of "othering" migrants along the U.S.–Mexico border. When Central American youth were not constructed as threats, they were constructed as victims — of gangs, of smugglers, and of their own parents. At the height of the crisis President Barack Obama made this plea to parents in Central America, "Our message absolutely is don't send your children unaccompanied, on trains or through a bunch of smugglers. ... If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it." Such discourses fail to recognize the agency of unaccompanied youth who must balance the risk of migration against the risks of staying home. Moreover, they obscure the immediate and structural contexts within Central America that propel people to migrate in the first place. Even at the height of arrivals, minors made up only 30 percent of all Central Americans apprehended at the border. Central Americans — children and adults — have been fleeing their homes for decades.

So why do Central American migrants risk such a violent journey to reach the United States? Why would people intentionally put themselves or their children at risk of rape, kidnapping, or murder? Are they unaware of the risks before they embark on their journeys or do they simply have faith that they will beat the odds, where others have not? Are the pulls of a job or family reunification really worth it? In other words, how do Central Americans assess risk and reward as they negotiate violent landscapes?

Such questions are important and speak to the agency of individuals, yet they frame migration as an act of rational choice and with a purposeful orientation toward the future. In contrast, many of my interlocutors framed their migration in relation, not only to the future, but also to the past; if you want to know why we risk this brutal journey, where we are raped, violated, robbed, and abused, you must understand where we come from.

Most of my interlocutors saw migration as the best option to escape the everyday insecurity and violence that defined their lives. While there is a perception that all Central Americans are in search of the American Dream and thus cross through Mexico to get to the United States, I came across a number who simply wanted to reach Mexico. Their mobility was framed more in terms of fleeing Central America — whether it was from the hand of an abusive spouse, the barrel of a loaded weapon, or the daily grind of crushing poverty — rather than the pull of a job or new flat-screen TV. Migration is a response to violence, a strategy of survival.

Through the stories of migrants like Elio, this chapter situates contemporary migrations and violence within a deeper historical context and framework of structural violence. A comprehensive history of violence in Central America is well beyond the scope of this book, but Central American migrants' own explanations of why they left home shed light on the entangled webs of power, capital, and violence that have shaped the movements of Central Americans over the past half-century. The supporting role of the United States in state-sponsored repression during the Central American civil wars, the deportation of thousands of gang members from Southern California in the early 1990s, and the continued dispossession of the poor through neoliberal economic policies that displace people from their lands and livelihoods, are all deeply intertwined with contemporary mobilities. There is no one "root cause" to explain migration from Central America; rather, we must interrogate the layered factors that produce everyday insecurities. Analysis of these intersecting dynamics enables us to see how pluralities of violence shape people's lives across time and space. Such a framework conceptualizes violence, not only as relative and layered, but also as cumulative in understanding what may initially seem to be a paradox — but turns out to be no paradox at all — of why people would insert themselves into such a path of near certainsuffering. More than this, a historical perspective works against efforts to "silence the past" in contemporary debates about violence and migration in Central America. Contemporary migration stems from decades — and arguably centuries — of exploitation and violence suffered by people in Central America. It is only with this history, and recognition of the role of the United States in the political and economic instability of life in Central America, that we can understand everyday conditions so dire that a teenage boy like Elio, so full of wit and life, has no other way to describe his home than as a place "that takes your smile away."


The idea that violence is relative and cumulative is illustrated by two of my closest interlocutors, Ever and Carmen. While many of the migrants I met I only knew for a few days or perhaps weeks as they passed through the shelter, I was able to establish a longer-term relationship with Ever and Carmen as they ended up settling in Oaxaca for the duration of my fieldwork. I first met them after a late evening meeting at Casa Guadalupe. Most migrants had retreated to the dormitories, but I noticed a couple who lingered in the living room. Ever appeared to be nervous or agitated, fidgeting as he waited to speak with one of the staff members. When I approached him, he started speaking rapidly, "We know the policy is that people can only stay here for three days, but my woman, she is pregnant, and we are hoping we can stay longer". He went on, "Our dream is not to reach the United States, but to stay here in Oaxaca." I told him that I would speak with the staff and see if we could work something out. The next morning everyone agreed that because Carmen was pregnant, they should be allowed to stay. When they came into the office, Araceli gave them the news and I could see the relief wash over their faces.

Over the course of the next year, I would come to know Ever and Carmen quite well during downtime at the shelter and during visits to the clinic for Carmen's prenatal appointments. Several months into their stay, Carmen's older sister, Mari, decided that she wanted to come to Oaxaca to support her sister and help with the baby. The sisters often came into the office to make phone calls back to their family who lived on the outskirts of San Salvador, an area riddled with gang violence. There was one especially distressing call when they learned that their youngest sister, who was only fifteen, was being pursued by a well-known gang member to be his "girlfriend." Such relationships were coercive and dangerous they explained; everyone in the family was worried.

But for this trio, violence was not new. "For us there has never been a time without violence," said Mari one afternoon sitting on the bottom bunk in the men's dormitory along with Carmen and Ever. They had grown up in 1980s El Salvador during the civil war. Indeed, many of the Central Americans crossing Mexico in the mid 2000s lived through or were born soon after the years of civil war and state repression in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Mari shared a memory from her childhood:

I remember when I was six years old, inside the patio where we lived, right there in the corridor there were dead people. They were in the trees, there were people hanging there who had had their skin stripped off their bodies. The neighbors said they didn't see anything, but there they were at dawn, tied to the trees without their skin. This is what I remember of my childhood.

Ever nodded his head in agreement. While it would be years before he met Mari and Carmen, his childhood was also marked by what seemed to be senseless violence and injustice: It was the soldiers who were killing. They killed a guy where I lived, and they killed him unjustly. He was defending his brothers who were being recruited by the soldiers. His brothers didn't want to go with the soldiers, and their older brother went to defend them. One of the soldiers pushed their mother and he said, "Why did you push my mom?" and he shoved him. The soldier just went up to him and put a bullet here, in the middle of his chest. And then he shot his brother too. He shot a lot of people. That's it. That is all I remember.

While these are only snapshots into Mari and Ever's childhoods, they offer a glimpse into the types of stories that are seared into people's memories. For Mari, the family patio would forever be associated with those dead hanging bodies. Ever's early encounter with the brutality of the military would become crystalized as a permanent distrust and fear of the state, even as his country transitioned into a period of democracy. Such events laid the foundation for a life in which violence was normalized and perhaps even seen as inevitable. As Michelle Bellino argues, war not only leaves its marks on bodies and landscapes, but also shapes the subjectivities of the next generation.

While not always explicit, these conflicts were also often Central Americans' first encounters with the United States. While the geopolitical tension of the Cold War is often perceived to have focused primarily on Eurasia, significant battles were also being fought in Central America. During the Cold War, the United States saw Central America as a crucial site to fight the spread and influence of Soviet communism. Largely during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the United States supplied weapons, financial assistance, and military training to Central American military governments, and in the case of Nicaragua, right-wing counterrevolutionary forces known as the Contras. An estimated $9.7 billion (2013 constant dollar values) was spent bankrolling the Central American wars in the 1980s. The United States systematically trained tens of thousands of Central American soldiers, including some of the most notorious dictators, at the School of the Americas, teaching counterinsurgency techniques, psychological warfare, and military intelligence and interrogation tactics, including torture.


Excerpted from "Lives in Transit"
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Circulations of Violence
2. The Arterial Border
3. The Migrant Industry
4. Embodied Mobilities
5. Intimate Crossings
6. (In)Security and Safety
7. Constellations of Care
Conclusion: The Unforgotten


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