Photograph of Las Patronas mural in the house of Las Patronas, Amatlan, Vercruz by Dawn Paley, courtesy Flickr.
I grew up seven miles from the dividing line between the United States and Mexico. Ciudad Juárez was visible from my front yard. Fairly often women would come to our front door asking for food or clothing. My mother would go to the kitchen and pack up a bag of canned goods and perhaps a piece of clothing or two. She never denied them. When I moved to Austin at age 19, I was shocked to discover that this didn't happen in other cities. The last time I witnessed a woman come to our neighborhood to ask for food was the 1990s; my neighbors made her a sandwich. I was raised with the belief that if someone asks you for food, you share what you have.
During these times of increasing hatred and cruelty towards immigrants, I've been thinking about this a lot. Trump's proposition to separate Central American mothers from their children if they are caught crossing the border, the immigration raids that are creating terror and fear in communities across our nation, and the increased visibility of hatred against immigrants and people of color-- all of this has created a climate in our nation that breeds hate instead of love.
Yesterday, I learned about a group of women, Las Patronas, who provide food and water to Central American migrants going through their town, La Patrona, Amatlan, Veracruz, on la bestia, The train, "the beast," is one of the most deadly trains in Mexico. It is meant to carry cargo, not people, yet each day over a thousand climb to its roof or hang on to its as it makes its way to Mexico City, more than five hundred miles away. They are heading to the United States, fleeing economic despair and violence. They are desperate enough to confront the danger of the train trip, extortion by violent gangs, and the insecurity of actually making it to the United States.
Going through the town of La Patrona gives them hope.
In 1995, Norma Romero and her sister went to the store to buy bread and milk for the family. Returning home, la bestia rumbled by and the young men on the train yelled out, "Madre, tenemos hambre." They were hungry. Spontaneously the two gave away the milk and bread. When they arrived home, afraid of a scolding from their mother, she responded instead by telling them they should cook food to give away. They began by making thirty portions of rice, beans, and tortillas. Now the group, which has grown beyond the two sisters, feeds hundreds of migrants daily, throwing plastic bags of frijoles, arroz, and tortillas to the hungry travelers. Where once it was mostly young men, now women with children, pregnant women, and entire families are hanging on to la bestia, hoping to get to a new and safer life.
Photograph of three Patronas from Fondeadora.com/ Fundraising page for the 2014 documentary Llévate mis amores by Arturo Gonzalez
The women who work each day to cook beans, rice, and tortillas and to fill the water bottles they throw to the travelers are not rich women, except in love, in compassion, and perseverance. For over two decades, they have worked with some recognition, but mostly in obscurity to help others. Their story gives me hope in these times of despair. It brings me back to my own childhood lesson of sharing with others without asking for recognition. It touches my heart to see the compassion in the women of La Patrona and I can only hope that the same compassion lives here in my country and that it will grow in these times of hatred.