These Women Are Feeding Central American Immigrants Atop a Speeding Train

For 20 years, a group of women known as Las Patronas have been feeding US-bound immigrants from all over Central America as they pass through Mexico on a freight train known as La Bestia—The Beast.

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Mar 26 2015, 5:56pm

"We never really have a moment to rest. This goes on every day—even on Sundays—because the immigrants traveling on the top of the train need to eat every day," says Bernarda Romero Vázquez as a group of women toil away in a kitchen behind us.

We are in La Patrona, a community in Amatlán de los Reyes, in the center of the Veracruz state. Bernanda is one of the 14 women who are part of a group that is known around the world as "Las Patronas," an organization that for the last 20 years has been feeding Central Americans immigrants who travel on top of a freight train known as "La Bestia" that's bound for the United States. These men, women, and children travel out of necessity due to the tremendous violence and economic crises that grip much of Central America. The meals provided to them by Las Patronas are the first they will have for days, or even weeks. Nobody knows when will they eat again. The lunches are made out of beans, rice, bread, tortillas, and tuna, or sometimes, boiled eggs, vegetables, or fruit. Sometimes a local bakery will donate a pie, but that doesn't happen very often.

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Las Patronas' 20 years of experience is reflected on a board that hangs in the kitchen. Each day of the week, one of them is in charge of preparing at least 100 lunches. (In earlier times, they had to prepare 800 a day.) Others will be in charge of packaging the food, or washing plastic bottles and filling them with water to later tie up in pairs (to make the delivery easier). They also pick up bread donations at different supermarkets and produce from a market in Cordoba.

The women always get there before the train and stand a few meters away from "The Immigrants' Hope," a cafeteria they helped to set up. As soon as they hear the train's whistle, the women take all the plastic boxes of prepared lunches, along with a wheelbarrow full with bottles of water. They stand on the side of the rails, all along the way, and wait for the train to pass by. From afar, they start to see a headlight that grows in size with each second, with hungry and thirsty immigrants on top about to pass by. It seems as if they already knew that the women are there waiting for them with their flying plastic bags and their bottles tied in pairs. Little by little, the people begin to appear carrying their luggage, which usually only consists of a small backpack with a change of clothes, and a picture of the family that they left behind. Their faces can barely been distinguished from the speeding train. Their hands are in the air, trying to catch the food and water that is thrown at them, while Las Patronas go back to the wheelbarrow to get more. This goes on until the train is gone.

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"If the train passes by at a reasonable time, like around 11 AM or noon, and we run out of food, we can go back to the kitchen and make another batch for the next train that goes by around 6 or 7 in the evening," says Bernanda.

Back in the kitchen, ten kilograms of rice are prepared with jitomate, onions, and garlic in big pots cooked on a huge in wood stove, along with ten kilograms of beans. Each bag of food contains ten tortillas and some pieces of bread, plus some potatoes, melons, watermelons, or any other fruit that might be available.

But it wasn't always like this, according to Norma Romero Vázquez, the coordinator at Las Patronas. On the morning of February 5, 1995, she saw the train passing by in front of her on her way back home from the store. The men traveling on the top were asking for food: "We are hungry, Miss," they said. More and more cars went by, all with men asking for food. Without putting too much thought into it, she gave away the groceries—bread and milk—that she was carrying.

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Not long after that incident, she gathered her family to talk about what had happened. Those men on the train are a common sight; they are even called "the flies" because they travel without paying a ticket. That event catalyzed them to organize themselves, and the next day they prepared food to give away. One woman brought rice; another one brought beans, tortillas, and bags to package everything. As soon as they heard the train's whistle, they ran toward it. On that first occasion they gave away 25 lunches. "The feeling of sadness was unbearable," remembers Bernarda, because it wasn't nearly enough.

They continued to do this daily for the next seven years. One day, however, Bernarda and Norma's mother, Leonila Vázquez Alvízar, decided that it was time to ask for extra help in order to continue feeding the immigrants.

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"We had to find someone to help us to keep doing this. We didn't want to stop because we knew that people were suffering. We saw women with their children. We watched how sometimes they left without catching any food and that made us cry. Our hearts were broken because we weren't able to help them," she says.

That's when they started reaching out to schools and universities, malls, bakeries, and the market in Cordoba. They volunteer their time without getting anything in exchange except the satisfaction of helping out people in need. Little by little, the donations started coming in, especially in the form of rice and beans, oil, salt, bread, tortillas, tuna, and eggs. Sometimes they get clothes and shoes too, which they deliver to the immigrants using the same method.

Las Patronas have had such an impact in their community that there is a Change.org petition to nominate them for the Princesa de Asturias award, which is awarded every year in Spain.

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Julia Ramírez has been a volunteer with the group for 17 years. She is in charge of cooking every Tuesday, and fulfills other duties during the rest of the week. She works every day, even on Christmas and New Year's Day.

Ramírez lives near the train tracks, and remembers one Sunday when "La Bestia" stopped its march. A 16-year-old boy came knocking on her door asking for food. The first thing that came to her mind was her son, who was of a similar age at that time. "It really moved me to tears," she recalls. She took the boy in and fed him tortillas, beans, and eggs—a fast meal before the train continued with its journey again. "Thank you mother. God bless you," the immigrant said.

Before leaving, the young man asked for her blessing. "May God bless you and the Virgin Mother be always with you on your journey," she told him. That same day, she went and joined Las Patronas.

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"I'm happy because we are all brothers and sisters, and I wouldn't like it if my son left me. I think about all the mothers that ask themselves, 'Where could my son be?' These men are in great danger here, and it is very sad because they are exposed to the heat, rain, hunger, and thirst," she said.

But there is a wish that never leaves Julia: "I would like if they could find jobs so they didn't have to leave their countries. They travel out of necessity, not because they want to do it."

Last month, Las Patronas celebrated 20 years of humanitarian outreach. One of the celebrations consisted of waiting as a group on the train tracks. There were dozens of people, human rights advocates, members of immigrants' refuges from around Mexico, and even priests that were involved with the cause. All the sudden, they heard the train's whistle. Everyone moved out of the way of "La Bestia" and stood there on the side of the tracks, watching.

But something was different that time. Only one immigrant was on top.

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Last July, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto debuted a program called "Frontera Sur" to officially protect immigrants that cross the country. But the opposite is happening: The program has militarized the Mexican border and set up an immigrant "manhunt." Every single national security institution in Mexico is focused on stopping immigrants from crossing the border.

According to one human rights advocacy group, this is highly counterproductive: Instead of lessening the abuse that the immigrants suffer, they only expose them to greater dangers. Now they walk on the train tracks or highways or roads that are hidden in the mountains, jungle, or other unpopulated areas. They take a risk of falling into the hands of traffickers, also known as "polleros."

Norma knows about this problem far too well. She used to prepare 800 lunches daily, but now she only prepares 100. The immigrants now reach Las Patronas by foot. Most of them suffer from exhaustion as a result of the thousand of miles they have walked. They are usually dehydrated and hungry, with blisters on their feet, and in search of a place to rest and recover in order to continue their journey.

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"The whole situation for them is much more difficult now, and no one is doing anything to stop it. This Frontera Sur Program is nothing but trouble," she says with no hesitation. The 'Immigrants' Hope' cafeteria has been helping 18 Central Americans at once, and that is something that is unprecedented."

"And the saddest part is that the authorities do not fully understand that this is not the solution. People are not going to be stopped by further securing the borders, because when a man is hungry as they are, they are going to keep looking for ways to get to a better life," she adds.

According to her, Las Patronas are going to continue doing what they do no matter what. It's a self-appointed duty to them to help the people in need. "It's the Bible's message made into action," she says.

"I invite everyone to not be indifferent—to think about how these are difficult times, not only for people in Central America but for those in Mexico, too. We need to be sensitive to these kind of problems."

"It hurts me as a person, but it is their journey. They have big hopes to make their dreams come true, and you can't do anything but to help them. You have to show them that not everybody is cold-hearted. It's hard for the immigrants to trust people because of everything they've gone through. We need to be a beam of hope for them."

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