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A Journey Through Hell

Óscar Martínez talks about riding the rails through Mexico to America

By Amanda Eyre Ward, Fri., Oct. 11, 2013

Óscar Martínez
Óscar Martínez

There are as many stories in Austin as there are new Austinites – in other words, more and more every damn day. But while the drive in a U-Haul from Brooklyn or Los Angeles to Austin is familiar, the harrowing journey many Central American and Mexican immigrants take to reach the U.S. remains bathed in shadow.

With his stunning new book, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso, 224 pp., $26.95), journalist Óscar Martínez shines a klieg light into the darkest corners of this well-worn path. As Francisco Goldman says in his introduction to the book, a compilation of Martínez's stories for the online newspaper ElFaro.net, "It reads like a series of pilgrims' tales about a journey through hell." (Goldman also notes, "The Beast is, along with Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the most impressive nonfiction book I've read in years.")

Seeking a better life, and, more recently, fleeing horrific violence, thousands of people each year leave home to head for America. Many climb atop freight trains that run the length of Mexico, clinging to the metal bars through freezing nights, blistering days, constant threat of attack, and near-starvation. Many fall from the train and are mutilated or killed. Some seek alternate routes through Mexico, encountering the worst sides of human nature – murder, kidnapping, abuse. (Girls and women making the journey are often put on birth control beforehand, knowing they will likely be raped and worse.)

The problem is multifaceted – so confusing that the brain is tempted to turn off, step back, and read gossip sites until the stew of narco-terrorism mixed with corrupt and/or terrified police and immigration authorities, desperate locals, sex slaves, and gangs can be forgotten. And it is all too easy to ignore the waves of immigrants in our midst: By choice, they remain invisible, even as they change the face of our schools, communities, and sense of what it means to be American.

Óscar Martínez dares us not to look away. In vibrant prose, he gives voice to people like Julio César, a 25-year-old man traveling with his wife and three children. Julio's baby, Jazmín Joana, born on the journey from Oaxaca to Nuevo Laredo, slipped from her mother's grasp and almost fell from a moving train, so Julio and his family changed course, riding across Mexico by bus. In all, it took them 15 buses to reach Nuevo Laredo, where they need only to cross the Rio Grande to make it into Texas. Martínez, who first met the family in Ixtepec, 1,250 miles from Nuevo Laredo, notes, "neither Edu [Martínez's photographer] nor I thought he had a chance of getting even close to the U.S. border."

But "Julio is a very thorough man. He draws maps, marks up potential routes, asks questions, and knows how to wait." Unlike other immigrants in the Nuevo Laredo shelter, whose plan to reach the U.S. is "pray and swim," Julio will watch the water for months, seeing dead bodies float by, finalizing his plan. "This is the difference between knowing and not knowing," writes Martínez.

Martínez's lyrical voice and thorough reporting help readers cross this distance as well. He introduces us to three brothers named Auner, Pitbull, and El Chele. Fleeing certain death in their home of El Salvador, they join the migrant trail, meeting Martínez in a shelter run by the Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde. As the boys try to make sense of the violence that plagues their past and figure out a way to move toward America, Martínez hangs out with them, sharing a bus ride, lending his cell phone. Finally, he parts ways with them, keeping in touch via text message.

Martínez texts: "Where are you? How are you?"

"On the move. About to board the train."

Martínez never heard from the brothers again.

In an email exchange with Martínez, I asked him who he found it impossible to forget. He named Father Solalinde, the priest who keeps running the shelter for migrants in Oaxaca despite numerous death threats. Writes Martínez: "I think it's possible to do an act of heroism once, twice, maybe three times, get in the way for a few days, months, years, but not a lifetime. I hardly understand the deep compassion of a man who gave up everything to live in the midst of that awful, unjust, and dangerous road."

It is Father Solalinde, in a documentary for Amnesty International, who says that he believes "poor people are the spiritual reserve of the world." I asked Martínez if he agreed, and he wrote, "I would rather say that poor people, at least those I know in Central America, who I saw migrate, are the best evidence that despite everything, there is still life after death. They, with all the difficulties of their lives and their problems, still want to go ahead, to continue to thrive, to cross hell and want to continue and go up to the border to be told there is more suffering, but they follow because they want to be better. If that is not radical attachment to life, I do not know what is."

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