In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.—Luke 2:1 ESV
The day after Thanksgiving, I took the subway to the northern limits of Mexico City. I was searching for the shelter where the Central American migrants were staying.
After wandering the streets near the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a merchant pointed me down a narrow alley. I rounded a corner and found a group gathered in a small courtyard, near the open door of the shelter. The accents of El Salvador and Honduras filled the air, speech peppered with notably non-Mexican slang: cachimba, vaina, maje. Reggaeton and bachata music quietly played from a cell phone. The migrants were scattered about the courtyard, walking in and out of the shelter, eating from paper plates, chatting quietly in small groups.
To be sure, these were not the passive huddled masses you would see in a TV infomercial. They smoked, joked, and laughed. Still, they wore exhaustion on their faces. These were people who had traveled two thousand miles to get here.
While I waited for the shelter’s supervising priest, I spoke with the migrants. Most were young men. There were a handful of women and older people. At the far end of the courtyard, I spotted a young married couple holding a small child.
This is not a Hollywood Christmas story. There are no wrapped gifts or reindeer or snowmen. This is the real Christmas story: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus journeying to Bethlehem and then fleeing into Egypt. And in the twenty-first century, this shelter is where you will find the Holy Family.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.—Luke 2:7 ASV
Despite the alarmist news from Washington and Fox News, the migrant caravan is nothing new. Every Advent season for the past several years, religious and humanitarian organizations have helped coordinate the long march of migrants across Central America and Mexico, even arranging for the migrants to talk to media along the way. Participants openly present themselves to the public eye, asking for mercy, boldly announcing their journey out of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. They come in search of justice, bread, and peace, bearing prophetic witness to the injustice they are fleeing.
Of course, the caravan isn’t solely for public advocacy—it’s also for security. There is safety in numbers. Migrants who travel across Mexico during the rest of the year face a gauntlet of mortal dangers: corrupt officials, border guards, and police; ruthless gangs who rob and rape and mutilate; a callous and indifferent public. Many migrants ride atop la Bestia (the Beast), a freight train that travels from the southern border of Mexico all the way to the edge of Texas. During the long journey on the freight cars, they learn to take precautions. The only way they get sleep is by tying themselves to a pipe or handle, lest they fall to their death. Friends sleep in shifts, keeping watch for opportunistic criminals. Women take birth control pills before the journey, just in case.
Traveling with the caravan is a way to avoid the most terrifying of these threats. The University of Guadalajara surveyed this year’s caravan, in a study described in the newspaper La Jornada, and respondents noted the almost total absence of the typical abuses, robberies, kidnappings, extortions, and rapes that are so often the “daily bread of migrants crossing through Mexico.”1
I thought about these migration horror stories as I waited outside the shelter. After about an hour, the supervising priest came out to greet me. Smiling eyes, thick glasses, bald head, a simple wooden cross around his neck—the man who shook my hand was simple, humble heroism dressed in a thick white sweater. To my surprise, this was Father Alejandro Solalinde, a celebrity in the human rights world. I was familiar with his work—he had saved countless lives over the last decade as he tirelessly advocated for migrants—but I had never seen his photograph. Since 2007, Father Solalinde has operated a shelter in the southern Mexican town of Ixtepec, a common stop on the journey north. La Bestia passes through the town and, with it, thousands of refugees from Central America. For his work, Father Solalinde has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has also received regular death threats.
For years, I had heard legends of this man. I passed through Ixtepec myself in 2011, while visiting a cooperative of fair-trade coffee farmers. It was a hot, muggy, tropical town, with rusty railroad tracks running right through its center. The Central Americans were easy to spot by their different physical features, clothes, and gait. Many walked the streets cautiously, with uncertainty in their eyes. Some looked defeated.
“You have no idea what situations some of these people are fleeing,” Father Solalinde told me outside the shelter that night. “It isn’t just poverty and hunger. In many cases, it’s a war zone. It’s leave or be killed.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem.—Matthew 2:16 NIV
After I talked with Father Solalinde, his assistant invited me to come inside the shelter. It was sparse, clean, and orderly. Young men walked past, some speaking on cell phones in hushed tones. “I miss you too, my love. Yes, I am fine. Don’t worry.” The smell of chlorine and hot food surrounded us.
That was where I met Marcos.
Marcos told me that his brother was killed by the Mara Salvatrucha gang three years ago.2 With his fast, clipped Salvadoran accent, he told me the gang had demanded an extortion payment, and his brother refused. The Mara Salvatrucha shot him down in the street outside his house, leaving a bloodstain that remained on the pavement for months. Shortly thereafter, they staked out Marcos’s house. One night as he was approaching his home, they emerged from the shadows. They had machetes.
“That’s when they gave me this,” Marcos told me, pulling up the leg of his faded jeans. Even in the dim light of the fluorescent bulb, I could see the scar. Gruesome and jagged, it zigzagged up his calf like something from an old Frankenstein movie. “These guys are scary,” he whispered. “They really know how to instill terror.”
Instability, chaos, exploitation, and violence have been the norm in much of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala since the 1980s. These are the Herods that people are fleeing. But it would be wrong to view these Herods as exclusively foreign, as if they bore no relation to our reality. In the movies, dictators are presented as a distant and alien phenomenon. When we view Pharaoh, Caesar, and Herod in this way, however, we overlook one important fact: our government sowed the seeds of this instability, chaos, exploitation, and violence in the first place.
To complement one biblical metaphor with another one, if we wash our hands of Central American refugees, we aren’t the callous, uncaring innkeeper of the story. We are Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of his empire’s violence.
Like the Herods of history, the villains of Central America are not necessarily at the top of the food chain. They are cogs in a much bigger machine. As I talked to Marcos, a group of other migrants gathered around us—men from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras. I asked why they had left home. Their responses read like a history lesson of the past one hundred years, a century of interventions and the chaos left in their wake.
For as long as I can remember, my country has been unstable. My parents remember the Civil War. Their parents remember the coup that started it. We still haven’t recovered.—Pedro, Guatemala
In the 1950s, the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz launched a modest land reform project, which included taxing the United Fruit Company, a powerful US corporation. In response, the United States organized a military coup to remove Árbenz. In effect, we told Guatemalans, you can vote for whomever you want, as long as you don’t want a president who challenges US business interests. The putsch led to a brutal civil war that ravaged the civilian population for decades. Indigenous communities were systematically attacked by soldiers and special-operations Kaibil forces, in one of the twentieth century’s most brutal genocides.3
I can’t go back there. They killed my brother.—Marcos, El Salvador
In the 1980s, Washington sent millions of dollars to the Salvadoran government. Instructors from the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, trained paramilitary forces in state-of-the-art torture techniques. Civilian populations weren’t just massacred; they were humiliated and brutalized in unthinkable ways. Rape and genital mutilation were the norm. New recruits were instructed to torture and kill animals as part of their training.4
US tax dollars paid the Salvadoran National Guardsmen who raped and murdered four American nuns. Our military supported paramilitary death squads, including the terrorists who gunned down Archbishop Óscar Romero while he officiated Mass.5 These scorched-earth strategies would be inherited, decades later, by the natural heirs of the death squads: the Mara Salvatrucha, the gang that murdered Marcos’s brother.
My country has always been poor. . . . But now it’s a war zone.—Carlos, Nicaragua
Like Haiti, Nicaragua has been occupied by US forces several times over the past century. Most recently, President Ronald Reagan’s administration channeled drug money to finance the Contras, various guerrilla groups who fought to overthrow the Sandinista government.6 The country never recovered, and like Haiti, it is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
Despite his pseudoleftist rhetoric, the current President Daniel Ortega is part of a long line of neoliberal presidents, one more corrupt strong-arm caudillo. Shortly after my visit to the shelter, I saw Sergio Ramírez—Nicaragua’s former vice president—at a public-speaking engagement in Mexico. Ramírez, an award-winning author and political commentator, was part of the Sandinista revolution. In no uncertain terms, he stated, “Daniel Ortega is an anti-imperialist in name only. His policies are orthodox neoliberalism, one more tentacle in the Washington-led agenda. I say this, not as a reactionary, but as a leftist myself.”7
Indeed, since April 2018, Ortega’s government has been waging a ruthless campaign of repression against the country’s unarmed protestors, just one more bloody chapter in the region’s history.8
My country is one of the most violent in the world. You can’t go outside after dark. It’s become uninhabitable.—Oscar, Honduras
If only the age of coups and interventions were a thing of the past. Just nine years ago, however, Honduras suffered a US-backed coup. Like a sequel in a tired movie franchise, the exact same storyline was repeated: The country democratically elected Manuel Zelaya, a moderately leftist president who favored land reform, in 2006. A military coup then overthrew the president in 2009. The coup’s leader, General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez—a graduate of the School of the Americas—received ample support from Washington. When the army installed a puppet government, the Obama administration was one of the only governments in the hemisphere to recognize it. It’s Árbenz all over again.9
Since then, thousands of Honduran activists have been murdered by death squads, and the murder rate there has climbed to one of the highest in the world, rivaling that of Afghanistan and Iraq. The current government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, heir apparent of the coup, has flouted basic democratic guarantees.
“If you voted for the wrong party in the elections,” Oscar told me, “they know. The government keeps track of the electoral registry. Those who voted for the liberal party get blacklisted. And you can’t even get a job after that.”
The tired old why-don’t-they-fix-their-own-countries complaint has never been more inappropriate. These are not the foreign problems of a distant land. The bloodshed there is no accident—it is directly linked to our own political and economic system, to our desire for supermarkets that are stocked with cheap fruit and coffee.
“This is much more than a caravan,” Father Solalinde told me that night outside the shelter. “This is an exodus. These people can’t go back.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.—Matthew 2:14 NIV
They left by the thousands. They left their homes, their families, and everything they knew, and they fled into a strange land. From as far away as El Salvador and Honduras—nearly one thousand miles—they walked. They crossed four countries, sleeping on the street, in parks, next to highways. They braved cold and rain and wind and sun.
And what reception awaited them?
It hasn’t been easy here in Mexico. Since the first groups crossed into Tapachula on the southern border, they clashed with Mexico’s Federal Police. One young man, Henry Adalid Díaz Reyes, was killed by a rubber bullet. Another migrant fell to his death from a vehicle on the highway. Danger has always been part of the journey.
But now the migrants face a xenophobic backlash in Mexico. Aided by social media—that fertile breeding ground for anger and hate—some middle-class cybernauts have spread a host of lies and myths about those “criminal” migrants. When the vanguard of the caravan reached Tijuana, hoping to request asylum at the US border, Tijuana’s mayor described them as troublemakers and freeloaders. A group of middle-class tijuanenses took to the streets, chanting “Mexico first!” For anyone who has lived in the States recently, the déjà vu is palpable.
Still, they came. Wouldn’t you? Facing prejudice is a small price to pay when you’re fleeing for your life. The possibility of finding peace and stability is more than worth it. As Father Solalinde told me, “These people are looking for their promised land.” Many hoped to find it north of the border.
On the day before I visited the shelter—Thanksgiving Day—Trump authorized the US military to use lethal force against the unarmed migrants. Nearly six thousand soldiers were deployed to the border, costing US taxpayers two hundred million dollars. International observers were deeply disturbed by the sight of the world’s most powerful army prepared to open fire on some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. The newspaper La Jornada published an editorial declaring, “The precedent this sets is truly alarming, as it establishes, de facto, the use of murder as a response to those who seek asylum and a better life.”10 With supreme irony, Trump made this announcement on a holiday that commemorates refugees surviving in a new land. Three days after my visit to the shelter, I learned that US forces fired tear gas into the crowd of migrants—including women and children.
“This year is different from the caravans of the past,” Father Solalinde told me. “They used to be quite orderly. The group would present themselves at the US border and declare their intent to request asylum. All by the books. Since last year, however, the US government has changed their approach.
“Children have been separated from their parents. To this date, many Central Americans in US custody have no idea where their children are. International law requires a country to consider requests for asylum, but the current US president does not appear to respect international law. So many of the migrants are staying here, in Mexico City. And we’re helping them however we can.”
Father Solalinde is, thankfully, not the only person who cares about helping. Here in Mexico, as in most places, the hateful and callous do not represent the majority. For the past several years, Mexico’s sons and daughters have shown spontaneous displays of solidarity for Central American migrants. In a small town in Veracruz, a group of women, known as las Patronas, cook enormous batches of food every day. They stand along the train tracks and, as la Bestiarolls through town, they toss sack lunches to the migrants atop the freight cars. No personal interests are involved; there is no motive beyond human empathy.
Many of the migrants I met at the shelter had no interest in leaving Mexico. Father Solalinde’s people have been helping them process their papers here, normalizing their status with humanitarian permits, asylum requests, and work visas. I walked to a nearby store with Oscar, the young man from Honduras, and we shared a Coke. I asked if he had plans to try to get to the States.
“Why? Mexico has everything. Just look at the map—the country is even shaped like a big horn of plenty. This is a warm, welcoming nation. I’ve got one thing to say to this country: Gracias, México.”
As we walked back to the shelter, he marveled at the city around him. “Just look at this. People! Cars! In Honduras after 8:00 p.m. it’s like a ghost town. Nobody gets in their car and drives after dark. You never know what might happen to you. But here in Mexico, you can walk down the street, in peace. You can work hard and succeed. And all thanks to the good people who treat us like their brothers and sisters.”
Indeed, the entire time I spent at the shelter, a constant flow of volunteers poured past, people carrying bags of clothing, boxes of toilet paper, and food. I asked Father Solalinde’s assistant how I could help their work.
“Besides basic donations, these men need jobs. Work. They don’t like being idle. If you know anyone who is hiring, they’re ready to work.”
I promised to put them in touch with my business owner friends. “What about people who live far from here, though?” I asked. “Can people in other states and countries make a donation to your work?”
He shook his head vehemently. “We don’t accept money. It’s a matter of principle.”
“How can they help, then?”
“They can help the migrants in their own cities. I’m sure there are people there who are also far from home, cold and hungry and alone. Recognize who those migrants are: the migrant’s face is the face of Christ.”
For the message of the cross is foolishness . . . to those who are perishing and spiritually dead.—1 Corinthians 1:18 AMP
This is not a Hollywood Christmas story. It’s real life, the true, living Holy Family, wandering the desert, fleeing Herod. We know where this journey leads: to Jerusalem and a confrontation with empire. To the cross.
The journey has played out time and time again for millennia. In this day and age, one in every thirty humans on earth is a migrant. Millions of people cannot go back home. Many of them will never be given the chance to start a new life. Pulled between political and economic forces that have little concern for their humanity, their arms are stretched wide, in the cruciform position.
Meanwhile, life goes on for the comfortable and well-off. Another Christmas season comes and goes, another chance to buy our children coveted gifts, to hang lights, to eat and drink and be merry.
While many American Christians combat an imaginary war on Christmas, fighting for the right to place a nativity scene on government property, refusing to say “happy holidays” or spell Christmas with an X, while pastors and parishioners debate whether buying an evergreen tree is a concession to paganism, Jesus and Mary and Joseph are still wandering.
The Holy Family is cold and hungry and homeless. Jesus is sleeping on the streets of Tijuana, Mexico City, Tapachula, and Guatemala City. Each of us must decide how to treat him.
Deliver us from evil, O Lord, and let us not fall into temptation. Let this be our Christmas prayer.
- Study described in Jorge Durand, “Caravana de contrastes,” La Jornada, November 25, 2018, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2018/11/25/opinion/018a1pol. Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this essay are my own.
- In the United States, many readers will know this gang by its main factions, MS-13 and MS-18.
- See John M. Broder, “Clinton Offers His Apologies to Guatemala,” New York Times, March 11, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/11/world/clinton-offers-his-apologies-to-guatemala.html; and Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer, and John H. Coatsworth, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2005).
- See Michael McClintock, The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala (London, UK: Zed Books, 1985) and Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley, CA: Odonian, 2002). The particularly relevant chapter, “The Crucifixion of El Salvador,” is available online: https://chomsky.info/unclesam09/.
- See Tom Gibb, “The Killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero Was One of the Most Notorious Crimes of the Cold War. Was the CIA to Blame?,” Guardian, March 22, 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2000/mar/23/features11.g21;and Milt Freudenheim and Barbara Slavin, “Guerrillas Regroup as Carter Switches on Salvador Arms,” New York Times, January 25, 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/01/25/weekinreview/the-world-in-summary-guerrillas-regroup-as-carter-switches-on-salvador-arms.html.
- See Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), Summary of Judgment, I.C.J. Rep. 1986 (June 27), http://www.law.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/upload_documents/Final_GFILC_pdf.pdf; and “Excerpts From the Iran-Contra Report: A Secret Foreign Policy,” New York Times, January 19, 1994, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/29/reviews/iran-transcript.html.
- Ramírez, “Nicaragua Today: Dialogue Between Gioconda Belli and Sergio Ramírez,” (public conversation, Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, November 28, 2018).
- See Tom Phillips, “Ortega Condemned for ‘Rule by Terror’ after Raids in Nicaragua,” Guardian, December 16, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/16/ortega-condemned-for-raids-on-ngos-and-media-in-nicaragua.
- See Juan Gonzalez, “Gonzalez: Hillary Clinton’s Policy Was a Latin American Crime Story,” New York Daily News, April 12, 2016, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/gonzalez-clinton-policy-latin-american-crime-story-article-1.2598456; Sarah Kinosian, “Crisis of Honduras Democracy Has Roots in US Tacit Support for 2009 Coup,” Guardian, December 7, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/07/crisis-of-honduras-democracy-has-roots-in-us-tacit-support-for-2009-coup; and Julian Borger, “Fleeing a Hell the US Helped Create: Why Central Americans Journey North,” Guardian, December 19, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/19/central-america-migrants-us-foreign-policy.
- “Trump: licencia para matar,” editorial, La Jornada, November 23, 2018, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2018/11/23/opinion/002a1edi.