El Otro Lado

“We crossed through the desert….its three days walk, and all you bring is 3 gallons of water, and your money to pay the coyote…..I lived in Phoenix for 3 years, doing landscaping, and had a really good time – some people however, had bad feelings toward Mexicans, especially when John McCain lost the election….I worked for 7 years in Playa del Carmen doing construction, the pay is good, even in American dollars…..my husband left for the US 4 years ago, and last year told me he had gotten married out there, now I am left to care for our 2 little girls alone……the Guatemalans that come make it hard for Mexicans to to find good work in this area, because they work for vey little pay…….its hard for all of us in the family to have Ricardo back home, he doesn`t want to work with his dad anymore, and has already spent all the money he earned in the US…….

The phrases above are translations of the many pieces of conversations regarding migration I have in the communities where we work (and often via our travels enroute).  Understanding the issues within and around migration is complex homework, and little by little I see another facet of a social force that has shaped this state significantly, and certainly the entire country.

Recently I attended a 2-day workshop at INESIN on the issue of migration in Chiapas – I appreciated learning from the perspectives of those who have worked supporting migrants en route, the folks who are working from a human rights perspective, the pastors who support the families that stay behind, and of course the voices of those who have migrated in the past, and have returned back home. To talk of migration in Chiapas means not only those that leave to go to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, meaning the USA), but it also entails Chiapanecans who migrate internally in Mexico in search of work (i.e. Maya Riviera), the stream of migrants from South and Central America who use Chiapas as a gateway into Mexico (and the coyote system) to reach the US; and migration here also means the Guatemalans who migrate seasonally along the frontier to work in the corn fields and other manual labour jobs. To give you a sense of the scale of out-migration in the state, there are currently more than 400,000 Chiapanecans living in the US.  Another sobering stat shared at the meeting was that there are more than 600 Guatemalan children under the age of 12 living on the streets in Tapachula, a city in southern Chiapas bordering Guatemala.  For further informative reading on issues such as migration and other hot topics that LINK the concerns of Latin Americans with the lives of Canadians and US citizens, please refer to the MCC Latin America Advocacy blog, at http://lacaadvocacy.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/voices-from-the-americas-a-friend-to-migrant-women-caught-in-the-sex-trade/

Hence the issue of migration in Chiapas is very real, very complicated, and very ripe for illegal (and immoral) profitting via abuse, trafficking, and extortion of men, women and children.  The workshop included two films representing the plight and vulnerability of migrants, which was an eye opener for me, to grasp a sense of the level of organized crime that exists for the purpose of exploiting migrants.

We also discussed the realities faced by families whose fathers, sons, brothers, and increasingly mothers and daughters, are leaving to find work, to find a more “prosperous” life, far far away from home.  If and when these family members return, often after several years, their acceptance back into their home communities is often very difficult – they come home with different ideas, values, practices.  Often they come home with more money, and while this is typically used in building equity (renovated home, or start of a business), it can also act as a wedge within the family.  Finally, we spent time thinking through what it means to be a migrant settling in a new land, and the challenges that exist, not so much the practical, daily living challenges, but moreso the cultural identity challenges that each person must navigate to attain a balance between what they keep and hold from back home, and what they embrace and adopt in their new home.

Quick note on the photos – I have taken all of them, none are of current migrants, or actual migration in process – the pics simply illustrate people on the move, and a bit about their context.

Leaving their beloved "milpas" (corn fields)

Leaving their families, their communities










Wonderful to see youth bucking the trend and developing leadership skills in their communities

Many candles lit in vigil for those far off, or whereabouts unknown








So, all during this workshop I couldn`t help but ponder….”I am a grandson of immigrants, who also migrated, this time due to social upheaval in Russia nearly 100 years ago”.  What was migration like for Mennonites at that time?  Were the dangers similar, was there corruption and exploitation?  What has changed?  I also like to ask, in a retrospective way….Who helped us years ago (as mennonites), and why?  I think the answer to that question can be a reminder that as settled and naturalised Canadians, we would do well to maintain a conciousness to consider those who are in a similar or perhaps even more difficult (dangerous?) situation.   One example that I am proud to highlight is the work being done through MCC Saskatchewan with committed families from the Zoar Mennonite Church and other families in my hometown of Waldheim, SK, where Colombian refugee families have settled and I believe there may be more to arrive.  I encourage them all to keep up their work in helping families displaced from their homes due to conflict and violence find another new, different, but equally blessed life in a new land.

In closing I`d simply like to reinforce that through our experience working with MCC, we begin to understand the complexities of what migration entails, including ourselves in a historical way (and currently as Canadian MCCers in Mexico!).  We look forward to learning and engaging more in the realities of our brothers and sisters here in Chiapas.


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