Mirna Yolanda Contreras lies in her tent in a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. All photos by Andalusia Knoll Soloff
“I left my homeland / Hoping to find a different life / And I entered America without a passport / I arrived undocumented / With hope…” Mirna Yolanda Contreras’s song rings out from a small amp when you enter the Benito Juarez temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. The 29-year-old woman from Copan, Honduras, is behind the mic, her voice bringing a smile to the fellow travelers who have hitchhiked thousands of miles from Central America as part of the migrant caravan.
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“When I sing, I feel free, I reach my soul, it is how I express myself,” Contreras tells Broadly. Her sweet songs belie a more sinister story: “He told me I was a dead woman,” she says of her husband, her eyes filling with tears. “I had no other option but to leave the country.”Contreras describes her life as a "terrible storm"—she was beaten by her adopted family as a young child, raped at age eleven, and sold off into marriage at 14 to a man 40 years her senior. She gave birth to two sons as a teenager. Her husband forced her to make bricks for work, and emotionally and physically abused her.“He was killing me, strangling me to death, right in front of my son,” Contreras remembers. She says she tried to file charges against him, but the police did not document her case properly. His daughter from another marriage—a lawyer—helped to make sure that the charges against him were dropped.
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Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Between 2005 to 2013, the number of violent deaths of women rose by 263.4 percent. These crimes are rarely prosecuted. Women's rights groups in Honduras attribute this surge in femicides to “inequality, poverty, corruption, militarization, and an ever increasing presence of organized crime and drug trafficking.”Fearing for her life, Contreras fled with a friend to Puebla, Mexico and was forced to leave her sons behind with her abusive husband. That was three years ago. She struggled to find a job without a work visa, so she learned a grand repertoire of traditional Mexican songs and started singing in the streets to survive. When the caravan rolled through Puebla, she thought, this is my chance, and joined up.
She packed a suitcase with all the clothes that she could carry, including some to give out to other refugees on the journey, and came across Daisy Yadira Arita, a Honduran asylum seeker who was barefoot. Arita's sneakers were stolen in Guatemala; the flip flops she bought to replace them fell off when she hitched a ride on a truck. Contreras gave Arita a pair of shoes. The two have become best friends—sisters in exodus, bound by their heart-wrenching stories of domestic violence and the dream of a better life.Arita came prepared to request political asylum in the US. She has cell phone photos of the wounds that her husband inflicted on her, a copy of the arrest warrant against him, and messages of friends who witnessed the violence she experienced. She shares a tent with Contreras and her 13-year-old son at the shelter. She says the teenager wakes up every night screaming and crying from recurring nightmares of the violence her husband inflicted on her.Contreras and Arita interlace their recollections of their abusive partners with stories about participating in the post-election protests in Honduras, the high cost of food and education, and the violent street gangs and military police attacks. Both women are stuck in limbo, waiting to see if they will be able to apply for asylum, receive work visas in Canada or Mexico, or pay a smuggler to cross the US border. Returning home is not an option.
A little past their tent lies the entrance to an overcrowded baseball field occupied by colorful tents draped in makeshift weatherproofing—space blankets, towels, and whatever else people can get their hands on to endure the freezing night temperatures. The dugout has become a patchwork of blankets and children’s clothes, serving as a temporary home to four families of single mothers traveling with their children.The women here say they have found comfort and sorority in each other. Elvia Perez, a 33-year-old mother with a nine-year-old daughter, is from La Ceiba, Honduras, a beachfront Caribbean city. Unlike the majority of the asylum seekers fleeing violence or oppression, Perez had a steady job that paid enough for her to support her family.Two years ago, she separated from her husband because he repeatedly cheated on her and verbally abused her. When she started dating another man, he pulled a gun on her. “He was going to kill my new partner and myself,” Perez says, “and if we didn’t allow him to kill us, he would kill my brother. I decided to break up with my boyfriend because I chose my brother’s life over my own happiness.”She took him to court and won sole custody of their daughter, but she lacked faith in the Honduran justice system to protect her. Perez became suicidal; she feared that he would take away what her daughter, whom she calls “her strength, peace, and happiness.” Her cousin sent her Facebook post from the migrant caravan. It said in Spanish: “Migrant Trek: We’re not going because we want to, the violence and poverty has expelled us.” She packed a backpack with $150 in savings, plus her daughter’s medicine and favorite doll, and headed to the meeting point listed in the Facebook post—the bus station in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula.
According to Maria Galvan, a social worker who worked at the Instituto Madre Asunta shelter in Tijuana for the last 25 years, there has been an increase of women fleeing domestic violence in Central America since 2015. “Many women said that their partners got involved with gang activity and then started threatening them and saying they would take their children away.”
The shelter has taken in a few dozen mothers and children who have peeled off the caravan. There, they receive legal counsel and, according to Galvan, a high percentage are accepted into asylum proceedings—though she does not know of a single case where the person was actually granted asylum.Earlier this year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that domestic violence and gang violence are not grounds for asylum. Guadalupe Fernandez, a legal advocate with the Tahirih Justice Center, a US nonprofit that protects immigrant women fleeing gender-based violence, says that the US attacks on women and children fleeing abuse goes far beyond the Sessions decision and the teargas recently used at the Tijuana and San Diego border.
“The prosecution, the detentions, the border closures, legal decisions, and family separation is all part of a patchwork that is an unprecedented attack that is making it harder for people already vulnerable and in desperate situations,” Fernandez says.For now, many of these women just have to wait their turn at the border to request asylum. It might mean sleeping in tents for months in the cold Tijuana winter, but Perez is unfazed. As she stands on the bleachers of the baseball stadium, just a stone’s throw away from the border wall, she says defiantly: “I’m happy here, I don’t dream of crossing that wall. I just don’t want to go back to Honduras.”