Objects of the Journey

Erik is a hard worker whose entire family is in the United States. In this photo he shows his deportation papers with a map outlining the train route north behind him.

Erik’s entire family is in the United States. In this photo he shows his deportation papers with a map outlining the train route north behind him.

“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.”

–Sarah Menkedick

Love. Hate. “The way I feel about this journey” ~Leo, Central American Migrant

Love. Hate. “The way I feel about this journey.” – Leo, Central American Migrant

"Food is the most important thing I have with me. I picked these mangos, it's nice when it comes free".

“Food is the most important thing I have with me. I picked these mangos. It’s nice when it comes free.”

Jose tells me that her bag is the most important item on the journey, “everything fits in it, I like that about it” she states.

“Everything fits in it,” Jose tells me.

“I am the most important thing [on the journey north]; in reality I am the only thing I have.” this migrant told me.

When questioned, Niki explains that the most important object she carries on her journey north is herself, her health and an attitude of peace towards those she encounters on the journey.

Niki explains that the most important objects she carries north are herself, her health, and an attitude of peace towards those she encounters on the journey.

A young man shows his deodorant, claiming it as his most prized possession on the journey north. “With few opportunities to shower or bathe, deodorant goes a long way.”

“With few opportunities to shower or bathe, deodorant goes a long way.”

A migrant shows the cross and a ring on a chain, which have great value to him, as he claims that they protect him on his journey north.

This migrant tells me that his cross will protect him on the journey north.

Wilson is from Haiti and after traveling in Guatemala he crossed into Mexico. Being from Haiti, he needs a visa to be in Mexico and therefore found himself at the migrant shelter where he now volunteers in exchange for room and board. Wilson plans to finish his studies in Cancun in the near future.

Wilson is from Haiti: after traveling through Guatemala, he crossed into Mexico. He found himself at the migrant shelter where he now volunteers in exchange for room and board. Wilson plans to finish his studies in Cancun in the near future.

 This young migrant explained the importance of in-tact shoes, which are frequently stolen en route. “Without shoes the journey is a lot more difficult: we have to walk a lot, and sometimes run in dangerous situations.

This young migrant explained the importance of in-tact shoes, which are frequently stolen en route. “Without shoes the journey is a lot more difficult: we have to walk a lot, and sometimes run in dangerous situations.”

A young migrant from Guatemala shows his tattoo of Che Guevara.

The same young migrant from Guatemala shows his tattoo of Che Guevara.

A migrant shows his tattoo that reads “Jesus”: his son's name, and the most important person in his life.

A migrant shows his tattoo that reads “Jesus”: his son’s name, and the most important person in his life.

This young man shows his cross, "it protects me from harm" he tells me. I try to believe it, but it's difficult.

“It protects me from harm,” this man tells me in a refrain I hear often. I try to believe him.

After being deported, Alberto is on his way back to the U.S. His most prized possession is his passport, which he displays in this photo.

After being deported, Alberto is on his way back to the U.S.

A water bottle, “the source of life” as he says, is this migrant’s most important possession on the journey.

“The source of life.”

A young migrant shows his wooden cross, explaining that it is of great importance on the journey north via train, as it protects him from harm.

A young migrant shows his wooden cross, which he says will protect him.

Fernando is from El Salvador. His backpack is his object of importance on the journey north. He hopes to reach the California coast.

Fernando is from El Salvador. His backpack is his object of importance on the journey north. He hopes to reach the California coast, where he dreams of surfing.

Fernando flashes his bracelet, "it's good luck, I've had it for a while" he explains.

Fernando flashes his bracelet. “It’s good luck, I’ve had it for a while,” he explains.

Juan, a seventeen-year-old boy traveling alone, flashes his birth certificate, explaining that it’s his most prized possession on his journey north.

Juan, a seventeen-year-old boy from Guatemala who is traveling alone, shows his birth certificate.

Miacol, a young man at the migrant shelter Hermanos en el Camino, passes time awaiting the train north. He is 17 years old. Along with hundreds of other Central American migrants, he will climb to the roof of the train in hopes of reaching the border of Mexico and the United States. His skateboard is his prized possession.

Support Vela on Kickstarter!

About Nikhol Esterás Roberts

Nikhol is a photographer based out of Oaxaca, Mexico, where she documents many aspects of life in Mexico, often in collaboration with grassroots nonprofit organizations working in impoverished regions of the country. Nikhol’s photography focuses on issues related to social justice, frequently in relation to immigration in Southern Mexico and Central America. She is also currently working as the director of photography on a feature length documentary (more info coming soon). In her free time, you’ll probably find her wandering the cobblestone streets of Oaxaca with her camera in hand while searching for a fascinating story to document or dramatic photograph to capture. Read her full bio here.

Comments

  1. gabriela blanco says:

    Loved this. What an interesting perspective on the famous, daunting journey to the United States.

  2. Wow – I love this. What a great concept and idea, and beautiful photos.

  3. Thanks Kathleen, the story really came to life on Vela. Saludos

  4. Molly Fisher says:

    Thank you for documenting this, such important work.

  5. Tanya Diaz says:

    Thank you for telling these stories. Beautiful.

Thoughts?