“Mexicans have it easy. They just have to cross the northern border. We Central Americans have to cross Mexico.”
Florencio chuckles and lifts his left nub, his casualty from riding La Bestia, the freight train that runs across the southern border into Mexico and toward the U.S. Mexican border.
Florencio is Guatemalan. He has two young sons that accompanied him on the journey to Mexico. Robín is fourteen. Everyone calls him Leonito, the little lion. As a baby he used to growl in his sleep like a wildcat. Davíd is twelve. He is a head taller than his older brother, and wears a faded blue New York Mets hat every day over his mess of black curls. The boys are asleep between their father’s legs, propped up against each other for extra support to keep from rolling over the sides of La Bestia as it makes sharp, winding turns through the trees.
“¡La rama, la rama, la rama!”
Florencio throws his right arm over Leonito and Davíd. They twitch but continue to snore as the train barrels through the dark. We all fold our bodies in half as thick tree branches fly in from the shadows, inches above us. I grip my ankles and squeeze my eyes shut.
It’s hard to breathe with your head between your knees.
Riding on top of these trains is the best alternative to trekking across the deserts, evading la policía that patrol Ciudad Juarez and intimidate migrants in shelters, and enduring the heat and the snakes and the sixty-five-year-old vigilantes with shotguns at the northern border. But La Bestia doesn’t guarantee its riders safety. La Bestia, “the beast,” had to earn its name. Migrants refer to the network of freight trains that pass into Mexico with one title, a monster with many heads.
Now, I’m in the belly of the beast. The kicker? I asked for it. My “hands-on approach” never appealed to my advisor, Professor Montero. He tried to convince me that I didn’t need to travel on La Bestia in order to complete my two years of fieldwork in Central America.
“Chica, that’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve said, and you say lots of ridiculous things,” Professor Montero said as he sipped his mate. He smirked and pushed the wooden cup across the desk. I held it to my lips and breathed in the smell of mint and wet earth.
I took a sip.
“Profe, I’m sorry, but it’s not your call. And you’re the one who’s being ridiculous. Don’t you always tell me to ‘live my work?’ Isn’t that what I’m suggesting?”
“At the end of the day, Kate, it’s just research. This is your life we’re talking about. No vale la pena.”
It’s not worth it.
There are moments in my life that gravitate to this decision, each one a quivering compass needle. I fell in love with the language first through my Spanish classes, with the tremor of my tongue against the roof of my mouth as I practiced rolling R’s. In college, I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. I lived with a family, took classes with Chilean students, and volunteered as an English teacher at a local school. Then came the questions that pushed me to challenge my parents, myself. Why do people leave their countries, their homes? What turns a father, a sister, a grandmother, into a refugee? How can one human refer to another as illegal? Those questions pushed me to march in the streets with other protesters, waving red and white banners: SI, SE PUEDE. Yes you can. Yes we can.
If it’s not worth it to live the journey, I wondered, could I really call myself an anthropologist?
If I can’t ride La Bestia, am I telling the whole truth?
“I’ll never understand why you want to go to all of these places,” Mom said the morning of my flight. “They’re so dangerous, and you’re such a sweet girl.”
“You know, I’m really not that sweet.”
I body-slammed the last of my toiletries into my backpack. Mom tucked a strand of grey hair behind her ear and sighed up at the ceiling.
Her hair’s always been that cool, ashy color. When I was little, I pretended that she was a snow queen from the North Pole. I used to follow her around and write stories about her icy kingdom in my Barbie notebook, as if I were her royal scribe. Your majesty. I would bow before taking my leave of the kitchen table, my cheeks sticky with cinnamon dust and maple syrup. She’d raise her coffee mug in return with our kingdom’s first commandment wriggling around the ceramic in Sunday-school-red paint: God is Love!
My father played the role of court jester or dragon, depending on my behavior.
“You know, these other countries have the same kinds of problems as our country,” my father chimed in from the bathroom while he shaved his cheeks. “We’ve got to take care of our own kind first.”
The steady shhhhhh of hot water filled the hallway. I felt every muscle in my chest stretch and tighten faster and faster until I thought I’d finally snap. Arguing with Dad was always like sneezing, a natural reflex, but our relationship changed after I read The Motorcycle Diaries in high school and decided Ernesto “Che” Guevara was my personal hero.
“Why do you think we’re better than everyone else?” I finally replied. Mom groaned.
“Katherine Marie,” she started.
Dad stepped away from the bathroom, face half-foam.
“What I’m trying to say, Kate, is you got to take care of your own before helping other kinds of people. You know why this country is falling apart? We’re trying to do too much everywhere but here. We’re apologizing for everyone else’s problems. It makes us look weak, Kate.”
Mom raised her eyebrows and nodded as Dad leaned against my bedroom door.
“Would you please shut that off?” I said.
“The water. It’s still running. Please shut it off.”
On La Bestia, Florencio passes me a canteen of water. I wet my lips on the rim and pass the rest to the old woman behind me. I stare back at the length of the train and watch as dozens of people, mostly adults and seniors, curl up against each other and try to go back to sleep. Florencio and Miguel, a young man from El Salvador, take turns keeping watch for low-hanging branches. Leonito and Davíd love Miguel. The boys grab their cheeks and wag their tongues when they think Miguel isn’t looking, but then he turns around and makes the same face right back at them.
Miguel tells me he is twenty-three. He wants to go to the United States to escape the gangs that have terrorized his barrio. His older brother was recruited into a gang a couple of years ago, and his family lost contact ever since. He thinks his brother has been dead for quite some time, but his mother hasn’t stopped looking. She pads up and down the same dirt paths, kicking up dust and howling his name against the tremors of motorcycles and horse hooves.
“It tears me up inside to leave her like that,” Miguel says. “She goes to the police station every week to report a missing person. And every week those hijos de putas blow her off. They tell her it’s my brother’s fault for joining up.”
His voice cracks like a dry tree limb.
“It wasn’t my brother’s choice. One night we were playing cards with our father. The next, my brother was gone. I bet they threatened to kill us if he didn’t join. It’s what they do.”
“Is that why you’re here, Miguel? To avoid being recruited, like your brother?”
“Claro, of course. The gangs kill the people we love. The police turn away and let it happen. They pay each other off, you see, and work together.”
Miguel spreads his fingers apart, then locks them together.
“Everyone knows it.”
He’s right. Even my parents are aware of the extreme violence in the region that sends entire families packing in the middle of the night. But that violence didn’t develop in a vacuum. What Miguel is telling me on the roof of La Bestia is the continuation of a long, bloody history. It’s the afterbirth of puppet regimes, death squads, and los desaparecidos. After decades of U.S. interference, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Hondorus are some of the most dangerous places in the world to live. And now that interference is rumbling through the treetops back to the border.
Florencio murmurs in his sleep and scratches the round ball of flesh halfway down his left arm. The first time Florencio rode La Bestia, a branch snagged his jacket and tore him right off the top of the freight train. He fell fourteen feet, flailing for something to hold onto. His left arm went under the train. He remembers waking up covered in dried, brown blood, screaming for help. Five hours later, two Mexican women passed the tracks on their way to pass out food and water to riders on the next train. They found Florencio lying in the dirt mumbling about a lion and a tall, skinny bean. He spent three days in a migrant shelter where he could be treated and fed. The same morning he left the shelter, he was arrested for being in Mexico without identification, and was deported to Guatemala.
He told me he was afraid his sons would think he was a monster. He didn’t know how they would react as he held his breath and pushed open the side gate to his yard. Leonito and Davíd were outside playing when they saw their father walking slowly through their mother’s garden. They ran to him, held him close, and breathed him in. Davíd stared at the fleshy stump for a moment, but said nothing. Florencio stood in front of his wife, Evelin, and placed his right hand on her shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
She dropped to her knees and cried.
That was three years ago. When Florencio decided he was ready to try to make the trip again, his sons refused to be left behind.
Leonito and Davíd are awake. They twist my hair around their fingers and tickle each other’s chins with the blonde strands. The sun slow-cooks my freckled flesh throughout the day, and at night I shiver as the temperature drops thirty degrees and the wind roars overhead.
It rained last night, so we all huddled together under Miguel’s black trash bag.
I haven’t slept in three days.
Davíd squeals as Leonito brushes my hair against his neck. I shut my eyes and try to focus on breathing, slow and steady. I need to sleep, dear God, please let me sleep. The train turns to the left and Davíd falls over, yanking my hair as he goes down. I shoot up and glare at them both.
“Basta ya.” Enough already.
The boys stop laughing.
Florencio scolds them as I turn over on my side. He smacks them both on the backs of their heads with his hand. Hot tears roll down my earlobes.
My boys. That’s what I’ve called them. They crawl behind their father and bury their chins in their chests.
Why did I lose my cool? I’m twice their age, and I haven’t seen them cry yet. For me, at the end of the trip, this will have been a job, a goddamned research project. I get to go back home. I can’t say the same for them.
You have to take care of your own. My father’s mantra.
Florencio and Davíd and Leonito and Evelin housed me for the past six months as we prepared for the trip. They ate their meals around my schedule of transcribing interviews and organizing field notes. After each day of traveling and meeting with research participants, I’d return home to find the boys sitting patiently at the table, hands in laps, waiting for me to join them before they ate. I helped them with homework in the morning and walked with them to school. Evelin showed me how to cut up plátanos and fry them into chips. Florencio insisted that I play soccer at night with his friends who worked with him in the factory where they made and stacked slates of cement for a construction company. Sometimes, I spent my mornings with the workers, helping them heave ten slates of cement at a time from one side of the factory to the other. A few of the men I knew were going deaf from the scream of the machinery, but they smiled and waved when I showed up with Florencio, and they shared their sodas with me whenever we could pause to take short breaks.
I wrote about the workers in a letter to my parents: Do you ever look at a wall and wonder where the concrete comes from? They didn’t write back.
By the time Florencio told me he was leaving the following week on La Bestia with Leonito and Davíd, and asked me if I’d like to come along, I didn’t think twice. I would ride La Bestia with them and document the experience. Florencio and his family had become my own, so my father’s mantra wasn’t entirely false—we did care for our own, every single day in Guatemala and on top of the freight train as we pushed ahead through Mexico.
Before the trip, we shared our fears late at night over Styrofoam cups of bitter coffee as the cicadas hummed outside. I miss Evelin now, and the smell of rice in her kitchen, and her laugh that rang out through the house like the high notes of a xylophone. I remember how her hands trembled as she wrapped sandwiches in cellophane for each of us on the day of our departure. She squeezed my arm and whimpered like a dog that had been kicked. She needed to stay behind to care for her parents, who are both very ill. If her husband and sons make it to the United States, if they survive La Bestia and the border control agents and the cartels, they might be able to send her a monthly remittance so she can start rebuilding their lives, one slate at a time, for when they return to Guatemala and the family can be whole again.
A woman with thin, white hair rocks back and forth and hums Luna de Xelajú, a Guatemalan folk song. Davíd rolls his eyes and groans. He prefers rap music. I wave him over. He smiles, then slides out from behind his father and sits cross-legged beside me. I grin down at him, reach for the lighter in my trousers, and wave it from side to side like we’re at a concert. Davíd giggles with his tongue between his square, white teeth. Leonito must have forgiven me for my outburst, too. He’s asleep between my knees. I cross my ankles to hold him closer and rub his back in small circles. The old woman’s voice continues to crack and quiver until Davíd finally yawns and rests his head against my arm.
Tonight, I smell smoke rising from the ground where migrants who have traveled on foot stopped to rest. When I peek over the edge of the train, rows of the orange flames wag slowly in the dark.
I mumble a quick prayer for the migrants beneath us and for their fires to keep them warm, at least for another hour. The sky is purple. It holds a heavy pause.
Florencio was the one who insisted we pray before every meal, who roused his sleepy sons from their beds every Sunday for mass. Evelin taught me the Hail Mary in Spanish, and at night when the boys would walk down the street with their father to check on their grandparents, she would hand me my own set of beads and lead me to the back porch. We prayed a decade of the rosary every night. If the boys got in trouble at school, or if Evelin’s mother was coughing up more phlegm despite a stronger dose of antibiotics, our fingers would creep along each blue, plastic bead for the full length of the rosary.
After I stopped attending Sunday school, my parents and I weaned ourselves off church, except for Easter and Christmas services. We’d sneak past the bowls of holy water like thieves and slip into the back room full of folding chairs and congregants who hadn’t arrived early enough to reserve one of the cushioned pews in front of the altar.
But it was different in Guatemala. Before my first dinner with Florencio’s family, I blushed and stammered the first time he asked me to say grace.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure that wasn’t what you were expecting. I haven’t prayed in years.”
Florencio wiped his round chin with a napkin and laughed. He placed his massive, callused hand over mine and squeezed it.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You can’t pray wrong. Ask, and God will give you what you need.”
Three days later, our canteen of water is nearly empty. We’ll have to rely on hospitable communities waiting to toss up packages of food and bottles of water as La Bestia passes through the next town. I have nightmares about water. In them, I see my father standing at the bathroom sink, dipping his foamy razor in the warm, clear pool.
Last night I woke up sweating and crying. I thought I heard water rushing endlessly from a faucet, but it must have been wind through the trees.
Teresa Tellekamp is a writer living in Philadelphia. She has published fiction and poetry in literary magazines, including Crimson & Gray and The Avenue. She is pursuing her MA in Writing Studies at Saint Joseph’s University.