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Mexicans shower the caravan with kindness — and tarps, tortillas and medicine

Central American migrants rest on the steps of a Catholic church in Pijijiapan, in southern Mexico, as a thousands-strong caravan that is slowly making its way toward the U.S. border stops for the night Thursday. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

PIJIJIAPAN, Mexico — Everything Pedro Osmin Ulloa was wearing, from the black felt shoes with the gold buckles to the shimmery blue button-down, was as new to him as he was to Mexico.

The 30-year-old Honduran corn farmer and dogged sojourner in the migrant caravan was dressed head-to-toe in donated clothes. His 3-year-old son, Alexander, played with donated toys. And the rest of the family — his wife, his two brothers and a cousin — sat on the sidewalk eating beef stew and tortillas ladled out for them by residents of this bustling market town in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state.

“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”

Who is financing the caravan? There is no sign here of George Soros or the Russians. Instead, the responsibility of feeding, clothing and sheltering several thousand migrants has been embraced by the small Mexican towns along the route, with residents jumping into charity mode as if they are responding to a natural disaster. It was hard to walk a block in this town without seeing crates of free bottled water, tables packed with ham and cheese tortas or relief stations filled with medical supplies donated by the community to help the people on this grueling march.

“We’re supporting them 100 percent,” Rafael Trinidad, a municipal employee, said as he passed out sandwiches to migrants arriving along the main road. “At least here, they can feel good.”

While President Trump is looking for ways to block the caravan at the U.S. border, Mexicans are pitching in to ease the travelers’ journey. Residents along the route say they are motivated by the Catholic tradition of charity, a shared familiarity with migration to the United States and a sense of solidarity in the face of Trump’s anti-migrant rhetoric. While they acknowledge the caravan could be a problem if it lingered, many do not seem to mind a brief stopover.

Why travel with the caravan? To avoid one of the world’s most dangerous smuggling routes.

Outside her family’s hardware store, Coqui Cortez, 57, had set up a table to feed migrants lemon tea and stew, using meat from her son’s butcher shop. Down the street, her daughter was handing out fruit.

“My family has been very blessed,” Cortez said. “And we know that we are all brothers. What God gives us, we should share.

“But we do it with a lot of love,” she added.

For towns such as Pijijiapan, not far from Mexico’s border with Guatemala, migration is second nature. For decades, people have hiked the back roads and ridden trains heading north. Many here say they have relatives in the United States or have migrated themselves. Central American migration to southern Mexico has caused tensions in recent years, as numbers have grown, but people here understand the poverty and violence that migrants are fleeing.

“Today it’s them. Tomorrow it could be us,” said Lesbia Cinco Ley, 70, who was volunteering with the Catholic church in town to distribute food.

Town officials in Pijijiapan said they began readying for the caravan’s arrival on Monday, holding meetings to strategize how to attend to the migrants. Before dawn on Thursday, Cinco Ley and several others began cooking, on a mission to prepare giant vats of ham and eggs and 14,000 sandwiches. Between the municipality, churches and private citizens, town officials estimated Pijijiapan had spent nearly $8,000 for one day’s worth of food.

“This is a poor town, but we still did all this,” said Guadalupe Rodriguez, 48, a city councilwoman.

When the caravan comes to town, it brings much more than just migrants. It has become a traveling road show of humanitarian workers, U.N. refugee staff, religious volunteers, government bureaucrats, police and immigration officials, as well as a good chunk of Mexico’s foreign media corps. It is catching no one by surprise. On the radio in Tonala, a city 50 miles north of Pijijiapan, public service announcements went out on the radio Thursday ahead of the caravan’s arrival, instructing people where to donate and how to help.

A small army of humanitarian workers helps migrants on the treacherous road to the United States

Mexican nuns who have volunteered during earthquakes, tsunamis and floods flew down from Guadalajara to join the caravan. They have been treating migrants for severe sunburns and swollen, blistered feet.

“Mexican people always unite in these types of situations,” said Virginia Hernandez, 32, one of the sisters. “Our Honduran brothers are in great need.”

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government has vacillated on the caravan. There was an initial violent clash with federal police in riot gear at Mexico’s southern border, but the group was eventually allowed to pass.

Local governments in the state of Chiapas have so far been more welcoming. The newly elected mayor of Pijijiapan, Hector Meneses Marcelino, is from the Morena party, the same as Mexico’s incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who campaigned on treating migrants less as criminals and more as human beings with rights that need to be defended. Meneses said he spent one morning this week defusing a situation in which federal immigration officials wanted to arrest Mexicans who were picking up migrant hitchhikers.

As hundreds of migrants filled the town square Thursday, crowding under donated tarps for shade from the afternoon sun, municipal staffers and police bustled around attending to them and U.N. officials handed out pamphlets on Mexican asylum laws. On the town hall’s balcony, a man with a microphone called out names of migrants who had become separated from their relatives in the crush of people.

It has been difficult to get a reliable estimate of the number of people in the caravan, for several reasons: It is now dispersed among towns along the highway in Chiapas; more than 1,000 migrants have dropped out to apply for asylum in Mexico; and new people have joined in. Meneses, Pijijiapan’s mayor, said 7,500 migrants had been in town, while the U.N. staff traveling with the caravan estimated it was 3,000.

Still, for small Mexican towns, the arrival of even a few thousand people is a major event. As migrants entered town on foot and by hitching rides in cars and trucks, town official Gabriel Gonzalez, 43, greeted them in the main street, directing them to various gathering points and aid stations.

“We’ve seen migrants here before, but never this many,” he said. “It looks like all of Honduras is coming.”

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