You could learn a lot about migration in Central America by sitting for a day on a bench in Miguel Hidalgo park, in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula. Situated on the country’s border with Guatemala, Tapachula is the main processing site for people who enter Mexico from the south. While they wait for the immigration system to grind its wheels, they often end up visiting the city’s central park.
Miguel Hidalgo has become a landmark for people migrating through Tapachula. It’s a social gathering place, but also a center of commerce, where many people who are migrating find temporary jobs that will pay their bills while they’re waiting on asylum claims or visa applications.
It’s a mix of cultures, too. On any given day, you’d probably find people from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua. There’s also a decent number of people from Cuba in the city. But you might be surprised — at least if you watch U.S. news coverage of the “border crisis” — to see people from Haiti, or even Congo, gathering around the park.
Most U.S. newscasts show people migrating from Central America in stories about immigration, since the majority of families and individuals arriving at the U.S. southern border are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. But that narrative leaves out the significant population of people with darker skin who are following the same routes, often on the same journey to the U.S. And as a result, we don’t often hear about the anti-Black racism they experience on their way.
“People on the move from Haiti always pass through [Miguel Hidalgo] park,” Karla González Cordero, coordinator of the Protected Passage project in Tapachula for Plan International Mexico, says. “It’s a very complex space, because it’s a space of reception and of rest. But it’s also a space of multiple rights violations. Likewise, it’s a space where they are reminded that they are not welcome.”
A child’s drawing, made in a shelter for people who are migrating through Central America and Mexico, reads “el sueño americano” or “the American dream.”
The journey from Haiti to Mexico
In the city of Tapachula, the majority of Black people who are migrating are originally from Haiti. Many left their home country after the 2010 earthquake, fleeing poverty and violence, which disproportionately impact girls and women. Chile and Brazil became some of their most common destinations, due to both countries’ friendly refugee policies at the time. Particularly in Brazil, in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, many people who migrated from Haiti found good jobs in construction and tourism.
However, Brazil fell into a recession in 2017 and jobs became hard to find. Many Brazilians blamed the immigrant community for the downturn, specifically targeting people from Haiti. Soon, new regulations made it harder for Haitians to maintain legal status.
“One of the principle reasons for leaving was the change in government,” Daniel Jiménez Cabrera, director of Initiatives for Human Development, a Plan partner organization in Mexico, says. “And, the other [reason] here is that there wasn’t access to work either. They had a lot of problems finding work, and that was one of the main reasons for moving.”
The lack of economic opportunity, combined with growing racism, led many Haitian families to decide to leave Brazil for the U.S.
But it’s not as simple as hopping on a plane. Apart from the cost, air travel requires documentation, and time for paperwork to be processed. Tourist visas require assurances that travelers do not plan to stay in the U.S. permanently, and that they have enough money to cover expenses during their trip.
So, many Haitian families travel from South America to the U.S. by land — walking, or taking cross-country buses. The journey can take one to two months, and can cost as much as $13,000, depending on the number of family members traveling and how often you can afford to stay in a hotel. Frequently, travelers stay at shelters or simply sleep outside.
Most Haitian women travel in groups of other Haitian people migrating, sometimes as large as 40 people. However, there has been a significant presence in the last few years of people migrating from African countries as well. Many of the African individuals and families migrating through Central and South America are fleeing conflict in countries such as Congo and Cameroon. Like Haitian families, many African families arrived in South America because of some nations’ more welcoming policies at the time.
For these groups of people migrating north, crossing from Colombia into Panama is often the most difficult part of the journey. Unlike most other national borders along the migration route, there is no established highway that crosses from Colombia into Panama. In fact, the Pan-American highway, the world’s longest drivable road stretching for 18,640 miles along the length of the Americas, hits a dead end at the Colombia-Panama border.
This area, known as the Darien Gap, is nearly 100 miles of solid rainforest. No bathrooms, no restaurants no hotels. On foot — which is the only way to cross — it can take anywhere from nine to 20 days to traverse. Since the path isn’t secured or monitored by authorities from either country, it’s a common drug-running route — and the perfect place for robbers and thieves to take advantage of traveling families.
One Haitian woman traveling through the Darien Gap shared her experience with researchers for a report on Haitian migration to Tapachula.
“In the forest we had 11 to 12 days of no food, just drinking water,” she said. “At one point I could not bear the hunger and I ate the roots of this tree to sustain myself. It made me sick. Thieves in Panama stole all our food money.”
After making it through to Panama, people migrating travel by bus the rest of the way to Mexico, paying smugglers as they go. Many arrive in Tapachula with only the clothes on their back.
Discrimination against Haitian people in Tapachula
People who migrate from Haiti to Tapachula know they are different from the beginning. Even before anyone sees their faces, they are surrounded by signs and words in a foreign language. Very few people in Tapachula speak French or Creole, and most communications in the city are in Spanish — including legal documents.
Language is also an obstacle for organizations working with people who are migrating from Haiti like Plan International. Daniel Jiménez Cabrera, director of Initiatives for Human Development, explains how his team has had to adjust to serve these populations as part of Plan’s Protected Passage project.
“One of the challenges in working with the Haitian population is the language barrier,” Jiménez Cabrera says. “Many speak French or Creole. A few speak English, and even fewer speak Spanish. From there, we had to adapt for the people and families who received the menstrual health kits, always putting someone there who spoke Spanish to translate the talk on menstrual health. … And, in turn, [we’re] generating some materials in French in order to be able to provide them to Haitian families.”
Once in Mexico, Haitian individuals and families can begin the U.S. immigration process, applying for asylum or other types of status. But this process can take years, and the influx of migrants into Tapachula isn’t slowing down — especially since borders began to reopen.
Meanwhile, the state of Chiapas, where Tapachula is located, has historically been one of the poorest in Mexico. Local and state resources are barely enough to support the Mexican population, let alone the thousands of people who pass through on the way to the U.S. As a result, anti-immigrant discrimination has been growing.
Even before COVID-19, people arriving in Tapachula were being blamed for bringing diseases into the city.
“For example, [for] the Central American population, it’s HIV and sexually transmitted diseases,” Karla González Cordero, from Plan International Mexico, says. “And with the population from Haiti, or from Congo, or anyone from the Afro-descendent population, they’re linked to yellow fever, Ebola. That’s the narrative in the local media.”
These fears contributed to increasing tension between Mexicans and people migrating in Tapachula. As one woman told researchers from the Institute for Women in Migration, “Outside, people do not respect you. You are not in your own country and people are mad at you. If anything happens to you, you cannot talk to anyone about it.”
This dynamic only worsened with the arrival of COVID-19.
“With the pandemic, when we were at the red level last year, people mainly held people from Haiti responsible,” González Cordero says.
In fact, the blame extended to any Black person in Tapachula, regardless of nationality. It was during this time that authorities officially closed Miguel Hidalgo park, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. But people kept going to the park anyway in search of work or shelter.
“When Miguel Hidalgo park was closed, people still continued to go,” González Cordero says. “They continued, although to a lesser extent. And so, it came out in the newspapers that they were the first to spread COVID, since they couldn’t stay at home.”
Miguel Hidalgo park continues to be a fixture in the news in Tapachula even now. One recent headline reads, “Neighbors fed up! Migrants get drunk, take drugs, throw away diapers and dirty the streets.” Another reads, “Warnings of even larger Haitian exoduses” in reference to the earthquake in Haiti.
Staff member from Plan partner organization Initiatives for Human Development (IDEHU) leads an information session on how to use debit cards issued by the project to buy groceries and other necessities.
Plan International USA in Tapachula
As part of the Protected Passage project, Plan and partners are working to fight discrimination against people who are migrating, in Tapachula and across Central America.
“We want to develop spaces for culture, sports, art,” Pierre Coupeau, a specialist in monitoring, evaluation, research and learning for Plan International Mexico, says. “But we need to create meeting spaces for interaction and dialogue between the local population and the migrating population.”
As plans develop, staff members are carefully considering the needs of the Tapachula population, which also struggles with poverty and a lack of economic opportunity.
“Precisely the awareness campaigns to fight racism and discrimination against the migrant population [can] have an opposite effect,” Coupeau says. “Because, in the end, the local population can end up thinking that the protection of the migrant population is being prioritized over the protection of the local population, whose levels of need and poverty are also high. This situation can cause the residents near the border to reject the migrant population.”
Meanwhile, Plan’s Protected Passage staff is supporting shelters that cater to people who are migrating in Tapachula. So far, individuals and families from various countries, including Haiti, have received emergency kits with items like food, soap, face masks, menstrual pads, clothes and school supplies. The project also supports referral services for people who are migrating, connecting them with local health centers, legal counsel, mental health support and more.
Near the end of 2020, Protected Passage provided support for Nach, a 14-year-old girl from Haiti, and her family. They had been in Tapachula for about two months, after applying for asylum in Mexico. Before that, they lived in Chile for about four years, where Nach was able to learn Spanish. When she and her family arrived at the offices of Initiatives for Human Development, a Plan partner also known as IDEHU, Nach served as the primary translator. Over the next weeks and months, they received menstrual health kits, a coloring book with information on COVID-19 and a cash transfer to buy groceries. Nach also received psychosocial support through a workbook called MATEA, named for the words for five emotions in Spanish: miedo (fear), alegria (joy), tristeza (sadness), enojo (anger), and afecto (affection).
During this time, Nach started to make friends with some of the other people from Haiti who visited the offices. She has even helped staff learn key words in French and Creole, so they can improve their communication with other visitors.
Nach shared that she and her 9-year-old brother missed school, and asked if they could study at IDEHU. While activities for larger groups are on hold due to the pandemic, staff invited her to select a book to borrow from the organization’s library. She chose a report on detention at immigration centers.
In the aftermath of the most recent earthquake to hit Haiti, it’s safe to say that Nach and her family won’t be the last people to leave the country in search of a better life. Plan International believes that, no matter where they’re from, individuals and families who are migrating still have the basic human right to shelter, food and dignity. They are more than just images on a newscast — and we are committed to treating them with the compassion and respect they deserve.
Nach’s name has been changed for her protection.