In the predawn hours on a sweltering day in September, a crowd of shadowy figures gathers in an old decrepit rail yard, waiting for their salvation. The sun hasn’t even begun to rise and the sweat has already started beading. The smell of garbage and decay hangs in the stagnant air. A man with his pregnant wife and two young children stand on the outskirts of the crowd, looking tired and desperate. Each child is holding onto a leg, trying to not to get washed away in the sea of people. I watch as they circle the crowd, looking for an opening.  Finally, they push their way into the crowd, joining all the others trying to board the train.


For over two days, migrants have been pouring in from all over southern Mexico, looking to gain illegal entry into the United States. Entrepreneurs eagerly pace back and forth below the unmoving train, hawking food, water, cardboard, or whatever else might come in handy on the journey.  The mood is anxious, dire, but with a hint of excitement.  For some, this is new territory.  Others are all too familiar with what the next 3 weeks will hold.


As the crowd pushes toward the train, a morning breeze picks up, carrying away the putrid smell. The sun is just below the horizon.  Light illuminates those already on the train. Hundreds of migrants silhouetted against the deep blue sky, waiting. They stand by, quietly watching as the rest of the crowd climbs up the rusted ladders onto the boxcars.


Far ahead, the roar of diesel engines coming to life interrupts the morning silence. A nervous excitement reverberates up and down the cars. The booming sound of metal on metal is deafening as cars slam together. The occupants grip tightly as the booming gets closer. Boxcars lurch forward and slowly start moving down the rickety tracks. Children’s eyes widen with amazement while their parents look longingly out over the landscape, thinking of the home they left behind in search of something greater.  Nervous whispers slowly turn to talking as the train picks up speed.  Their excitement is an overtone to the dangers that lie ahead.

Murder, rape, and theft, are all possibilities for most of the migrants. Living in a state of fear for the chance of a better life. Payments must be made to board the train, or they risk getting thrown off.  At every step of their journey, the dark underworld is very present, always around the corner, watching, waiting for opportunities to present themselves.


The train gets up to speed; slowly winding it’s way through marshes, jungle, and farmland. Rows of avocado trees pass by, stretching out toward the horizon. The smell of diesel mixes with nature. Warm morning temperatures give way to blistering heat as the harsh sun beats down. Dehydration is a constant battle. Looking back over the 30 something boxcars packed with migrants, I notice the excited conversations have all but tapered off. Most sit quietly, shading themselves from the heat, soaking in the desperate adventure they are embarking on.

The specific reasons for heading north differ amongst the group.  Some are trying to meet with families that have already established themselves in the U.S.  Others are fleeing gang violence, not knowing where to go or what to do.  Mixed in among the hopefuls are those working for the cartel, smuggling anything from drugs to people.  Most will meet up with a coyote, a person who specializes in getting migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. Some coyotes are legitimate, while others use the opportunity to steal, rape, or even hold customers hostage until their family pays a ransom


The midday sun is unbearable.  Cardboard purchased before the ride becomes makeshift hats.  Young men looking to show off, stand up on the moving cars while the train lumbers across the land.  One of them jumps to the very front of the pack.  Sitting down, he solemnly looks back toward the end of the train.  He sits, swaying back and forth. The monotonous sound of the train is interrupted by a shout.  “Rama”, meaning branch in Spanish, is passed down the train. Everybody ducks as the low branches sweep overhead.  Branches scraping the side emit a high pitch screech.


The squeal of brakes announces a stop ahead.  Grinding to a halt, the train stops just outside a small town and I get off with a handful of people.  I watch as the train starts up and continues its journey north.  The migrants sitting on top slowly fade into the distance.  To me, it is baffling.  It is an unknown that no one but the participants can truly comprehend.  Those that make it will live with a lifetime of paranoia, wondering when they’ll get caught and sent back. For those migrants that survive the border crossing but get captured and deported, most will be shipped home, where they will once again find themselves sitting on the hot metal roof of a train car, slowly meandering north through the mountains and valleys in search of a better life.


1 Comment » for Northbound
  1. Baldwin says:

    What an in-depth look at an experience so few of us know anything about. Really compelling and well done photo essay! You’ve really captured the people, the place, the plight, the promise, and the ever-enduring quest for the promised-land. More like this one, please!

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