My name is Karen Larke and I am a current Master’s in Migration Studies candidate for 2019. Part of our cohort recently returned from an exchange semester in Mexico City at La Universidad Iberoamericana. My research focuses on educational opportunities of newcomer, mainly immigrant and refugee, youth and the methods employed in assisting newcomer youth in education.
We arrived at the meeting spot in front of the Sevilla metro station on a still dark and sleepy morning in La Ciudad de Mexico. Our group – the USF cohort, students from the Ibero University MiMs program, and Gina, our guide on this excursion – piled into a stuffed van and set off to the state of Veracruz. It was a visit many of us had been looking forward to. We were going to an organization, a family really, called Las Patronas or “the saints”. The organization is known for its work with migrants riding La Bestia, the train which snakes from Mexico’s southern states to the border with the US, the destination of many Central American migrants.
After a journey past Puebla city and one of the highest peaks in Mexico, Mount Orizaba, we arrived in the town where Las Patronas sits. The building, as we came to learn, is the home of a family and the matriarchs of the whole organization, sisters Norma and Bernarda Romero Vázquez. Before a day of work, we first needed to hear the story of Las Patronas. We sat in a wide circle, still tired from the journey and listened as Norma recounted her experiences as a young woman and how it led to the creation of Las Patronas.
Back in 1995, the Romero sisters were walking home with some bread and milk for their breakfast. The train, located no more than a few hundred meters from their home, was passing as they stood to cross. The sisters noticed the men on top of the train and heard them yell out, “tenemos hambre”, “we’re hungry”. As Norma and Bernarda would tell us, they didn’t know where or why these men were riding on the train but they did understand they were hungry. With the help of their formidable mother Doña Leonidas (memorialized after her passing in a mural) they made a plan to assist those riding La Bestia in a way so simple and yet so necessary, by making food that would nourish their bodies and souls in order to continue the journey north. They would make food that migrants might have in their homes, comida casera, like beans and rice, or pan dulce and very importantly provide water. Because the train is passing without stopping, the family needed to make food and water that they can pass to people without putting them in more danger of falling off. They devised systems of tying bags and bottles of water so they could be easily grabbed.
This is where we came in. After a generous breakfast prepared us for a day of work, we set to packing the bags. In the just big enough dining space, we sorted pan dulce and bread into plastic bags and learned how to tie them properly. Next, we helped pack and clean the kitchen and the whole dining, living and working space. While living in Mexico, this process became familiar to me, cook, clean and work without stopping, without rest, without complaining. Many industries in the US could learn from these women and the work ethic I witnessed all around Mexico.
We anxiously awaited news about the train arriving and if we’d be seeing the Romero sisters and the other volunteer staff in action, handing bags of food and bottles of water to people speeding by on La Bestia. The train did not come while we were visiting that day. However, we did walk over to the tracks to learn about their hand-off system, which had evolved to be as safe as possible for both those handing off and the migrants on the train. We learned that the train, La Bestia, or “the beast”, has served as both a vessel of hope and a moving nightmare. Migrants can lose limbs by not jumping on or off the train properly and many trains have increased their speed to discourage riders. In addition to the dangers of the train itself, other dangers exist of a more human-kind. Migrants are vulnerable to violence from police and gangs who will steal and even extort money from family members back home. The journey on La Bestia holds many unknown and potentially horrific experiences. Las Patronas, the family and the volunteers, seek to give the migrants a chance to eat, feel the comfort of home-made food and the generosity of loving and devoted people.
The Romero sisters and the volunteers they inspire are greater than their simple home by the train. This is why they’ve gained international attention, including a documentary “All of Me”, available on Amazon. They are also often visited by students seeking to learn more about their work. This is their life’s work. It is inspired by true human need, faith and the incredible ingenuity and love of their dear mother. The work we saw was meant to inspire us, to remind us that what is difficult, dangerous and hopeless is surmountable. For the last 23 years a family has devoted itself to this one cause: giving a piece of home to those who are so far from it.