It’s 4 a.m. A wave of cellphone alarms go off inside the church and movement begins. The heavy sleepers need an extra nudge. “It’s that time,” one woman murmurs, tapping her teenage son on the shoulder.
Wednesday, Oct. 24, is Day 12 in the migrant caravan that began in Honduras and is pushing toward the United States. By 4:30 a.m., exhausted women holding sleeping children shuffle out of the church here, about 50 miles north of the Guatemalan border. They step over stragglers and return to the main plaza, where the bulk of the group will begin their 35-mile trek to the next town, Mapastepec. Down the road, outside another shelter, the men start congregating to prepare for the seven-hour journey. Progress, made through a mix of walking and hitchhiking, is slow.
The caravan’s de facto leaders remind people over megaphones not to lag too far behind, or move beyond the designated stopping point: migration officials along the route have said they had orders to let the caravan, but not others, through — and that a small group would invite predators, a danger typical of the path north. Later in the day, the officials do stop a small advance group of about 15 migrants but eventually wave them on when more migrants and reporters arrive.
By 8 a.m., the sun is already brutal, and there are long gaps between small groups. Many who take a break to rest fall out of eyeshot of those who forge ahead. The young, single men take the lead, while entire families have stopped on the side of the road, waiting in the shade for a ride from locals. Men pass by pushing strollers. The next small town where volunteers are passing out water, bananas and clothing is half a mile away, but some of the travelers are already dizzy from the heat. They call out to the journalists passing by, begging for water.
By about 10 a.m., those who were lucky enough to have gotten seats in the beds of the earliest pickup trucks trickle into Mapastepec. The clean plaza is encircled by tents stocked with medical supplies and populated by medical staff and psychologists. Three Red Cross trucks park nearby to tend to blisters, foot fungus, dehydration and infections; one of the nurses says she has treated at least 100 people that morning. The town’s residents pass out tamales, tortillas, beans and corn.
By 1 p.m., the town is thronged by families laying down cardboard to claim their spots for the night. Around the perimeter, some splurge on $12 tents at bodegas and busy themselves learning how to pitch them. Others string up plastic sheets between trees, lamps and bushes to create shelters. Limbs are everywhere: Rows of bodies line the streets peeling off from the plaza. It can be difficult to measure the size of the group, as some turn back or stay in the towns along the way, while a small number of others catch up from Honduras and Guatemala. Current estimates suggest that the caravan is 5,000 strong.
Although the scene appears organically chaotic, there are people loosely directing the sails. Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a U.S.-Mexico collective that organized a 1,500-person caravan last year, has taken on a coordinating role. Several migrants — such as Pablo Flores, who says he has done this before and knows the routes — have assumed leadership positions. Flores has made this trek from his hometown of Tela, Honduras, twice previously. He was deported both times, most recently from Phoenix, but has not been able to find work at home, and intends to settle in the United States to find a better life. Beside him sits a megaphone. He picks it up to alert the crowd when someone brings him a lost cellphone; he reminds everyone to watch their belongings.
The coordinators have not mapped an exact route all the way to the border, Flores explains. The stops will be determined by what towns agree to help when they call ahead to ask. At times, they poll the travelers, who decide with a show of hands what path to take. They know their next two stops — Pijijiapan and Tonala — where officials and churches have pledged to set up medical stations and provide food and shelter. He estimates the caravan will arrive in Mexico City by Nov. 3 and in Tijuana by Nov. 25.
It is the local governments that seem to take on the biggest organizing roles when the migrants make their way into town. Upon their arrival throughout the early afternoon, women and children are directed to bed down in churches and schools, where mothers fan their kids with cardboard scraps and bathe them using buckets dipped in large blue barrels of water. Men are ushered to other shelters or find a spot on the street. Families and stragglers pack the central square.
Emmanuel Noriega Molina, who runs Mapastepec’s finances, says the municipality and the state of Chiapas are paying for the supplies, with the Red Cross and various churches pitching in. The churches also run the area’s shelters, and during the afternoon they’re told to prepare for the next wave of arrivals — trailing after this group are 800 to 1,000 people who are now 64 miles away, in Tapachulpa, Mexico, having crossed the Guatemala border. The Catholic Church, which runs the shelter for women and children, had prepared 1,320 gallons of water for the caravan, but by early evening, church aides are scrambling to find more. They want to make sure people have enough to take some on the road in the morning, to stay hydrated in the 90-degree heat.
Sergio Hilovio, a member of the Mapastepec city council, stands in a gazebo with a microphone at 4:15 p.m. to make announcements, reading out names of people who misplaced their IDs and children who have gotten separated from parents in the shuffle.
Minutes later, Hilovio starts playing the keyboard with band accompaniment. Members of the caravan form a circle, smiling and cheering while they watch a pair dance. “I don’t know where they will end up. I don’t even know where they are going tomorrow. But we want to take out the stress,” he says. “They deserve the rest. They’ve got a long, hard way ahead of them.” Later, in the roads around the square, people wait in ever-lengthening lines for dinner and more water.
Town residents also offer help. Erlinda Sánchez Velázquez comes up while I chat with Dalis Ortega, who waits for a doctor to see her 2-year-old, Denise, who has a lung infection. Sánchez Velázquez hands Ortega clean underwear for her daughter. “As a mother, I have to help,” she says, “but this is really crazy. We’ve had migrants in this town, but wow, what a phenomenon. May God help them.” Others pass out toys, clothing and necessities.
Each person I speak to offers a variation on the same story: At first, they say: “The situation in Honduras is ugly. There’s no work.” Two-thirds of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. But when I sit beside them, after some time, many tell me more about their past, and some start to tear up. Their stories reflect the country they are fleeing: They refused to pay the “war tax” the gang controlling their neighborhood demanded, and their sister was killed or their house was burned down; drug traffickers killed their brother and threatened their family; their business cannot make a profit because the gangs extort at least half of the $10 they earn each day.
By 8 p.m., it is pouring rain. The makeshift shelters are soaked, and the cardboard mattresses are soggy. But people continue to play cards, trade tales with their newest travel companions and try to sleep. No one knows for certain where the route will take them. Over the following days, there will be trains to catch, longer distances to travel and new towns in new terrains.
In the morning, at 4 a.m., it will start all over again.