“What else can I do,” a 17-year-old Guatemalan migrant named Juan asked photographer Nikhol Esterás, “work on the streets?” The boy’s grandmother had recently died, and without any remaining family or the prospect of work, he headed north on the train dubbed “la bestia”–the beast–from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas to the U.S.-Mexico border, in search of work. He was one of nearly 100,000 Central American migrants to make the journey; according to The New York Times, in 2012 the number of migrants from countries other than Mexico (predominantly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) apprehended at the U.S. border rose from 46,997 to 94,532.
They are fleeing intense poverty, crime, racism, and the criminal gangs that have run rampant in Central America since deportations of street gang members in L.A. increased in the 1980s and 1990s. Riding La Bestia across Mexico, these migrants face rape and violent attacks; extortion by criminal gangs, federal and state police, and Mexican immigration; and death or maiming as they cling to the top of the train through rough and changing terrain. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, more than 20,000 are kidnapped, raped, murdered or extorted each year; mass graves containing hundreds of corpses have been found along Mexico’s northern border.
Nikhol Esterás, a documentary photographer currently based in Oaxaca City, Mexico, first went to the Hermanos del Camino shelter for migrants in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, in 2012. The shelter is run by the priest Alejandro Solalinde, an outspoken advocate for Central American migrants. In 2012, after accusing prominent Mexican politicians and Mexican security forces of corruption, Solalinde received mulitple death threats and was forced into a brief exile in the United States and Canada; he has recently returned to Mexico.
During her recent visit, Esterás listened to stories of near-lynchings among migrants paranoid that other travelers might be plotting against them; robberies; deportations, children left behind in the United States, and fathers scrambling to return to them; and dreams of surfing the California coast. She was struck most of all by migrants’ “determination in the face of unimaginable danger and risk. I think about it a lot actually, how human beings just like you and I, risk their lives, their health, everything really, in hopes of reaching something better.”
Esterás, searching for a different angle on familiar stories of migration, “found [herself] intrigued by the simplicity of personal possessions in such a complicated situation.” She told me, “out of the few items [migrants] carry, I was curious to find out what they considered to be their most important item and why.” Their answers ranged from the pragmatic–essential documents–to the personal–skateboard–but perhaps the most surprising was also the simplest: “I am my own prized posession.” As one migrant put it, “in reality, I am the only thing I have.”