Heat, exhaustion, illness: 1 day with the migrant caravan
PIJIJIAPAN, Mexico (AP) — On the 15th day of their journey, Joel Eduardo Espinar and his family were hurting. And they still had a country to traverse before they got to the United States.
A little more than two weeks before, they had fled Honduras and joined the migrant caravan of Central Americans snaking toward the border. Now, they assembled in the 3 a.m. darkness by a southern Mexico highway.
Jason, 11 years old, complained of stomach pains as he lay on the highway’s shoulder. His 12-year-old sister Tifany Diana sat beside him, her head between her knees. The baby, Eduardo, was in his stroller, burning with fever, his eyes watery and his nose running. Espinar’s wife, Yamilet Hernandez, could not shake a nagging cough and sore throat.
The Honduran farmer and his wife watched dozens of fellow travelers scramble to board trucks that stopped to help their caravan. Hundreds of others had already left on foot, starting out at 2 a.m. to get an early start on what would be the most ambitious single-day trek since they crossed into Mexico, setting their sights for reaching Arriaga, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) up the coast.
So Espinar had to decide what to do quickly, or he and his family would find themselves alone, trying to navigate their way to America.
To get a ride, the five would have to race to the trucks and muscle aboard with their two strollers — one for 2-year-old Eduardo, the other carrying three blankets and three small backpacks containing all their belongings.
The alternative seemed less difficult. Their feet were still holding up despite two weeks of walking in plastic sandals. Miraculously not one had a blister after traveling mostly on foot more than 95 miles — 150 kilometers — since crossing the Mexican border.
What’s 62 miles more, Espinar thought, pushing his stroller forward. Get up, he told his kids.
“The only way to get ahead is to make sacrifices,” he said.
President Donald Trump has ordered thousands of troops to the border to meet the caravan and prevent the arrival of “Many Gang Members and some very bad people” he says it includes. They’re more likely to encounter people like Espinar and his family — desperate, fearful, and stumbling in plastic shoes toward what they hope will be a new life. This is the story of that family, and one day in the caravan, and why they keep going.
They had already sacrificed so much. Yamilet’s elder daughters, ages 16 and 18, had refused to join them. They were left with Espinar’s parents.
Espinar broke down crying when he hugged his mother goodbye. Three years before, he had confronted his alcoholism with her help; now he was leaving her behind.
She assured him he was doing the right thing. His homeland could not provide a future.
The family lived in La Conce in Olancho, one of the most violent areas in one of Latin America’s most violent countries — for more than two decades, a drug-trafficking hub with warring gangs. Four of Espinar’s friends died from stabbings, and his wife was robbed twice at knifepoint on her way home from the stand where she sold rosquillas, a traditional Honduran snack made of cornmeal and cheese.
In every way, it grew harder and harder to survive there. Espinar, 27, grew up in La Conce, leaving the fifth grade to work with his father cultivating watermelons bound for the U.S. But in the past two years, prices had shot up and it was becoming impossible to raise his children on his 1,500 Honduran Lempira ($62) weekly salary.
Tifany Diana had to drop out of school for lack of tuition. Jason never went. His wife sold their television to buy food.
Yamilet, 37, inquired about getting a U.S. visa from a friend who got one and realized she would not qualify. They owned no land, had no bank account and no stable work.
Then the couple’s neighbor and close friend was shot by a stray bullet while sleeping next to her 4-year-old son. Three days later, a Honduran TV news station reported that a caravan for migrants was heading to the U.S. The report said hundreds had joined and they would be arriving at Santa Rosa de Coapan.
Espinar felt fate was calling. His brother had paid a smuggler $6,500 to get to the U.S. border eight months ago and he knew he would never have that much money. Nor could he risk taking them alone.
The brother, Byron, now in Florida, urged him to take the rare opportunity.
Within hours of hearing the news, Espinar bought five bus tickets to Santa Rosa de Coapan. Yamilet packed one change of clothes for each family member. Abruptly, Eduardo would have to start drinking from a cup; there was no room to carry bottles and formula.
The family arrived at Santa Rosa de Coapan at 3 a.m. They walked seven hours with the caravan to the Guatemalan border with Mexico, and slept on the international bridge.
They were caught in a downpour that drenched their clothes. A Guatemalan immigration official gave them an Ozark Trail tent to get out of the rain. It would become their home for the next two weeks when they would pitch it in the plazas of Mexican towns that welcomed a caravan that had grown to several thousand as they inched forward.
They tossed everything they had packed from home because the items were too wet to carry, but people along their route gave them new clothes, backpacks, strollers, plastic sandals and a green ball that Jason kicked as they walked. Espinar said it felt like they were being carried along by a wave of kindness and generosity.
But the walking was tough. Seven hours one day. Five hours the next. They slept only a few hours, rising well before dawn to beat the heat. One night they awoke to screams and people running amid rumors child snatchers had taken some migrant kids.
Some 2,300 children were traveling with the caravan at one point, according to UNICEF. After they arrived at the sizzling plaza of Pijijiapan to stay the night, a mother clutched her 2-month-old girl with one hand, searching through a pile of donated clothes for a onesie.
Nearby, another baby in diapers nursed as his mother reclined on a plastic tarp.
“I have never seen so many children migrating,” said Dr. Jesus Miravete who has been treating migrants in Chiapas for more than a decade.
For families, the trip is painfully slow and difficult. Children fall ill, suffer injuries in the suffocating heat.
Day 15. After missing most of the caravan, they set out on foot again along the moonlight route shortly after 3 a.m.
“People are getting tired and deciding to go back,” Yamilet told Espinar, with a worried look.
Espinar agreed it was a problem. “If so many go back, there’ll be only a few in the caravan. Then what are we going to do if we come across Zetas?” — members of the notorious Mexican drug cartel. “They’re supposed to be around here.”
The couple had heard the stories of Central Americans being kidnapped and killed by gangs in Mexico. They felt protected by traveling in numbers.
Minutes later, another family pushing kids in strollers emerged and walked past them. Up ahead, they saw more people from the caravan, many sleeping along the highway shoulder. They passed a mother changing her infant’s diapers; the scene was lit by the headlights of semi-trailers roaring past.
A half hour after they started, the back wheel of one stroller, started vibrating badly and seemed to be about to fall off. Espinar stopped and tied it together with a plastic bag.
“My feet hurt,” Tifany said, kicking off her Crocs-style sandals.
“Little by little,” her dad told her. “We have to keep going.”
They trudged on. Tifany was now walking barefoot. Fifteen minutes later, Eduardo woke up crying and said his tummy hurt. Yamilet rubbed his belly and put him back in the stroller. Then Jason had had enough and climbed in.
“I don’t like anything about this trip” Tifany said flatly.
What does she miss about Honduras? “Everything,” she said.
Then Eduardo sat up in his stroller and took charge, his tiny voice steady through the tears.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
By 7 a.m., after four hours of walking, they reached a Mexican immigration checkpoint and stopped to rest. The temperature was already reaching 80 degrees. Hundreds of the migrants were lined up for bags of water and sandwiches being handed out by locals wanting to help.
Others were jumping on trucks that offered rides. Yamilet decided there was no way to make it by foot. She found a cargo truck where the migrants helped load the strollers — one with Eduardo still in it — and the two other children.
They huddled in the back with more than hundred people. The driver left the back door open, so they wouldn’t suffocate.
After two hours, they were dropped off in the outskirts of Arriaga. And an hour later, they walked into the main plaza. They used their two strollers to stake out a tiny spot on the artificial turf of a playground to pitch their tent and collapsed in the 104-degree heat. They slept for three hours.
Espinar insists that America will be worth the hardships.
He had heard the Trump administration was tightening the restrictions on the types of cases that can qualify someone for asylum , making it harder for Central Americans who say they’re fleeing the threat of gangs or drug smugglers to pass even the first hurdle for securing U.S. protection. He has heard, too, that Trump was sending troops to the U.S. border to confront the caravan.
His plan is to request asylum rather than cross the border illegally. “I’m kind of fearful of what will happen once we get to the U.S. border,” he said. Regardless, he says, they will not go back to Honduras.
His brother, who now lives in Miami with an ankle monitor while his own asylum case proceeds, said he would pray for him. Byron Espinar knows that Trump could try to block the way.
“But God is bigger, and we are with God,” he said.
When they awakened in the late afternoon, Eduardo’s fever seemed to be worsening. They went to see doctors who set up tables outside City Hall. Eduardo squirmed and cried as he was examined.
A marimba band played on a balcony overhead. Nearby, a row of nurses bandaged blistered and battered feet of dozens of migrants propped up on wooden crates. A toddler in diapers crawled under the tables. Another was on his back, blowing bubbles.
Espinar carefully read his son’s medication before administering it to him back at the tent, where three men, one with a bandaged foot, were sleeping outside its door.
Around sunset, the couple bathed their children with buckets of water next to a water truck the local government had parked at the plaza, while the caravan’s coordinators called a meeting to ask if the migrants wanted to keep going. Mexico was offering the chance to stay and apply for refugee status, but they would have to remain in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.
With a show of hands, the crowd voted to continue, shouting “We can do it!”
As he put Jason to sleep in the tent for another steamy night, Espinar said he felt revived.
“Today actually was easy,” he said.
He figured they only had a month and a half left to go.