Jessica And The Three Rivers – A Migrant Woman’s Journey
This is the first of four feature articles published thanks to a journalism grant from the Gabo Foundation and the UNHCR.
Jessica Orellana and her youngest son are in Piedras Negras at the US-Mexico border, waiting to cross the Rio Grande and enter the United States. Her eldest son already swam across and turned himself in to Immigration. Jessica and her sons have been traveling for over four months since fleeing Honduras in January in the first migrant caravan of 2021. Their house was destroyed by the hurricanes Eta and Iota. They’ve been through everything – they’ve gone without food, been gassed by authorities, and assaulted by human traffickers. A picture of Jessica fainting after being gassed by the military in Guatemala went viral around the world and moved public opinion.
Piedras Negras, Coahuila, MEXICO. Juan David puts on a gray and black lifejacket and sees his mother for the last time before swimming across the Rio Grande. Luckily the night’s high tide gradually recedes throughout the day. It’s 11 in the morning on Monday May 10, 2021, and the sun is shining on the gentle waves of the river.
It’s the opportunity to make the crossing that Jessica’s son has been waiting for during the more than three weeks that they’ve sought shelter in Piedras Negras at the US-Mexican border. The boy plans to turn himself in to immigration authorities once he’s set foot on US soil.
Juan David carries in his pocket, protected from the water, a small piece of paper with the cellphone number and address of his aunt in the United States so that she can come pick him up. “Mom, I’m going to leave. You’re not going back to Honduras, you hear?” says Juan David.
Jessica shakes her head. “Alright,” she says. Her eyes are wet with tears.
The Rio Grande is the third river that has marked 30-year-old Jessica Orellana’s forced displacement from Honduras. She and her two sons have spent the past twenty days gazing out over its turbulent waves from the site where they have taken refuge in Piedras Negras. They’re only four meters away from the river bank on the Mexican side. Behind the place where they’re sheltered a Ferromex train passes by.
The Chamelecon in northern Honduras and the Suchiate on the Guatemala-Mexico border are the other two rivers that have shaped the lives of Jessica and her sons Isaac Noé, 4, and Juan David, 12, on their pilgrimage to the United States.
Jessica has no interest in the roughly 3,000 kilometers that the Rio Grande flows from its source in Colorado to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico – she only cares about the few meters of gray, choppy water that separate Juan David from the United States. On the opposite bank is the land that she and her children have been searching for since they left Honduras on January 15, 2021. She can’t say no to her eldest son.
“Don’t go back to Honduras,” Juan David repeats, “because only we know what we have been suffering on this journey. If we are here it’s because God has something good for us. If I give myself up to Immigration, it will be to go with my aunt so I can help you.”
Jessica watches Juan David leave under the dull midday sun. He is walking alone. She continues to watch him as he walks away and enters the waters of the Bravo.
Beside her son, the current sways a branch. That branch resembles Jessica’s life, shaken by the ups and downs that have carried her to this Mexican city, thousands of miles from the place where she once had a house that was destroyed by the flooding of another river in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
The Hurricanes of Poverty
Six months ago, on November 4, 2020, the waters of the Chamelecon River broke their banks and flooded to the roof the houses in the Asentamientos Humanos colonia, where Jessica lived with Isaac and Juan. It only took a few hours of rain for Hurricane Eta to leave Jessica and her family literally out on the street.
Two weeks later, the same river again rushed them out of their colonia in the two districts that make up Rivera Hernandez in San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras. The entire region was once again covered by mud and water after the catastrophic rains caused by Iota, the second hurricane to hit Honduras in 2020.
While she was affected, Jessica received some help, but not from the government – rather from individuals and institutions concerned about the welfare of others. However, according to the municipality of San Pedro Sula, the amount allocated for the emergency response to the Eta and Iota storms is 200 million lempiras (roughly 8.3 million USD).
Jessica and her family are just some of the people affected by the double natural catastrophe at the end of 2020 – more than 50% of communities in the Rivera Hernandez districts were directly affected by the floods. Meanwhile, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates that the disasters caused close to two billion dollars in damage.
More than four million people were affected and 2.5 million are still in need. Jessica is among the 92,000 people who took refuge in shelters and her home is one of the 62,000 that were severely damaged or destroyed.
The two Rivera Hernandez districts where Jessica and her children live are made up of 103 communities besieged by gang violence, where houses made of cement and zinc sheets huddle together under the scorching sun. Temperatures are high there all year round. The neighbors flee from criminal violence and survive by making a living with their small businesses – just enough to get by: workshops, grocery stores, and food sales.
The pandemic left Jessica without work and the two hurricanes within 15 days left her homeless. Before Covid-19 and the river had turned around her life, she sold grilled corn on the cob and atol de elote in containers that she loaded into a makeshift vehicle with a shopping cart.
Jessica hung on as long as she could. The same could not be said for the hundreds of displaced Hondurans who flee the country every day. The years of poverty seem to be concentrated in the time that has passed since the Honduran government decreed a total lockdown on March 15, 2020 after the first cases of Covid-19 were detected.
“People are not migrating, they are fleeing,” says César Ramos of the Mennonite Social Action Commission, an organization that has provided aid to people affected by the storms. “These people have lost everything, even hope.”
The two hurricanes that destroyed northern Honduras and left Jessica homeless, in addition to economic hardship compounded by restrictions against Covid-19, are behind the aggravated food shortages affecting 2.9 million Hondurans, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Things in the Rivera Hernandez districts have never been easy for Jessica or anyone else. The road to get there is modern and has overpasses and full signage, but the districts themselves are another story.
Jessica was selling food when the pandemic struck. Her colony, Asentamientos Humanos (“Human Settlements” or “Shanty Town”), is the poorest of the poor – even its name gives it away. The coronavirus forced Jessica to lock down and close her business when the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez – accused by the United States of drug trafficking and corruption – decreed a total quarantine.
Like thousands of Hondurans, Jessica spent months in lockdown, fearing that she would get Covid-19 and waiting for the government to bring them the promised “solidarity bag” consisting of a few pounds of food. The bag never arrived for many, and it’s unclear what happened to the lists that government officials promised to put them on.
Jessica had already been through her own personal hell before encountering hell as a migrant – after a bitter dispute her ex-husband took her son Sebastian to Colon, on Honduras’ Atlantic coast.
In the meantime, Jessica and her other two children began to cope with hunger as best they could when the coronavirus relaxation normalized a bit and the government decreed gradual “reopenings”.
Then came Eta. And then Iota.
The Chamelecón River Didn’t Take Away Their Dreams
They spent weeks watching the roofs peeking out and the cars rocking in the dark waters of the Chamelecon. Neither Jessica nor her children could have guessed that they would be looking at another river six months later – the Rio Grande, in Mexico, thousands of miles from San Pedro Sula.
Like thousands of families in northern and coastal Honduras Jessica’s family’s only option were to live in plastic tents and poles at the edges of boulevards, to live under bridges and overpasses, or to go to shelters where sexual abuse, muggings and cases of Covid-19 were rampant.
When the first hurricane hit, Jessica sought refuge with her children and mother Rosa in one of the temporary shelters improvised by the municipal government in a school in downtown San Pedro Sula. A few days later, when the waters receded, they stayed at Rosa’s house. Jessica’s house was still submerged under two meters of mud.
They had not finished cleaning Rosa’s house and throwing away all their now useless belongings when the second hurricane burst in like a criminal and robbed them of the little hope they had left.
It was around then that the Honduran government announced – without offering alternative options – that places including Jessica’s community were now uninhabitable. Most ignored the Hernandez government and returned to clean up and live in their old homes as soon as they could, amidst tons of mud, excrement, dead animals and smashed furniture. Jessica had nowhere to return to, though.
San Pedro Sula, where the two Rivera Hernández districts are located, is one of the 203 municipalities that has received direct intervention from the United Nations. The intervention has covered 11 sectors of San Pedro Sula with different actions, including the provision of cleaning, food and health kits.
“At the beginning of the first hurricane we thought that [Rivera Hernández] was not going to be flooded, but it filled up,” Jessica recalls. “Quite a few people have been hit. Everything was lost there, many people were left sleeping on the street, girls, boys, pregnant women, young people, people who were left homeless.”
Jessica had already lost all hope. She had no job to go out to and no home to return to. She saw on the TV news that they were announcing a migrant caravan – the first of 2021. From the very beginning, the idea of leaving in the caravan had been on her mind. What if she went? She saw Isaac and Juan sleeping in the bed of the school where they were staying and wondered if it was a good idea to take them with her.
Jessica is one of hundreds of thousands of Hondurans toying with the idea of fleeing Honduras in search of a better life. Worldwide, there are around 470,000 refugees and asylum seekers from northern Central America and more than 318,000 internally displaced persons in Honduras and El Salvador, according to UNHCR figures. Of these, at least 247,000 are from Honduras. According to the findings, there was a higher rate in female-headed households with a greater number of minors.
“When we began to look at the issue of migrant and displaced caravans, we saw that there was no focus on women, no differentiated approach. That led us to seek support to learn about the real needs of women in this transit inside and outside the country,” says Jessica Sanchez, director of the Grupo Sociedad Civil.
Without ever having traveled the migrant route, Jessica was sure that the journey was not easy – it wasn’t “comida de trompudo [a piece of cake]),” as Hondurans say. But she didn’t have many options left. She could start from scratch in Honduras, but if having the basics in the country was no guarantee of a decent life, what could a mother of two children expect without a place to live and without bread to put in her family’s mouth?
Weeks later, on January 15, 2021, she and her children rose from the cold pavement of San Pedro Sula’s Main Bus Terminal. “Time to go!” announced the organizers of the first migrant caravan. Jessica, Isaac and Juan watched the sun rise, orange between gray clouds, over the edge of the mountains as they made their way.
Jessica is not the only one who has made the hard journey on foot to reach the border. More than 36% of migrants in northern Central America are single-parent family groups. Of these, 69% used walking as a means of transportation to migrate, according to a January 2021 report.
Like the other 8,000 Hondurans in the caravan, Jessica carried the bare necessities in cloth bundles or backpacks: documents, some money and clothes. She and her children walked and hitched rides to get to the El Florido immigration post in Copan in western Honduras. On the way, they bought what they needed so as not to faint from thirst or hunger. Sometimes, one of the many charitable souls gave them food and water.
“Isaac was tired and burned out,” says Jessica, “but he kept going and when I told him ‘we’re going back to Honduras,’ he said ‘no, I’m going to the USA.’ They gave me the strength to get here. I wanted to give up, I didn’t want to go on, but they told me ‘let’s keep going, we’re going to the USA.’”
On January 16 in El Florido Juan Orlando Hernandez’s government erected a military dam to contain the tide of displaced people and comply with its anti-immigration pacts with former President Donald Trump. Along with thousands of Hondurans, Jessica managed to evade the blockades and enter Guatemala.
Little did she know that she would be gassed by the military and harassed by child traffickers.
Across the Suchiate
She’s lying on the pavement – the gases from the Guatemalan military knocked her down. She wears worn-out Crocs and black pants with white stripes. At her feet her son, with a dirty face and dressed in a little green shirt, cries as he watches the cold eyes of the photographic and television cameras recording the moment.
The fainted woman is Jessica and the crying child is Isaac. Around them are other migrants who take out handkerchiefs and water to revive their travel companion. Another woman comforts Juan, whose eyes also fill with tears from the pain and gas as he waits behind the circle of migrants helping his mother.
Nearby there’s pandemonium. The Guatemalan military, under strict orders to send back the mass of displaced Hondurans trying to make their way through Vado Hondo, Chiquimula, kicks, punches, clubs and sprays tear gas seemingly endlessly.
Jessica and her children had been traveling for two days and were already in Vado Hondo on January 17 when the government of Alejandro Giammattei ordered the brutal repression against the Honduran caravan.
The pavement after the brawl was covered with backpacks, clothes, shoes and migrants beaten and gassed. After evading the military cordon in Vado Hondo Jessica stopped at a gas station in Zacapa to recover.
“What cute kids.” The woman and man approached Jessica and stared at Isaac and Juan. Jessica saw them from head to toe. “We’re from a church foundation,” the woman added. “We want to help them, take the children to buy them clothes and food.”
“The man and the woman went off to the side to secrete themselves,” recounted Jessica, who by now was beginning to eye them with suspicion. “I didn’t like it because they looked very weird.” She recalled the stories of stolen children in Guatemala that her brother-in-law used to tell her. “The moms are given drinks to put them to sleep and take their children away.”
The so-called volunteers returned. “Let’s go now,” the woman said, “and if you want to leave the shelter later, no problem.” Jessica told them to come back a day later. “I have to think about it.”
But in reality she didn’t think about it – she left the gas station and went deeper into Guatemala in the usual way – sometimes on foot, other times on trucks, buses, or in private cars. Anything goes when migrating.
That’s how they reached the second river that marked their journey: the Suchiate, in the city of Tecún Umán. There, Jessica, Isaac and Juan stayed for seven days, waiting for the moment to cross the dangerous waters that serve as the border between Guatemala and Mexico. In the meantime Jessica tried to look for work, but every job she was offered was worse than the one before it – making tortillas for hours at a time for two dollars a day, for example.
With their pants rolled up to their knees the Suchiate boatmen squeeze through their cargo of displaced migrants, balancing on wooden pallets strapped to huge inflated tires.
The Suchiate is an epicenter of traffic between the two countries. They deal in everything from normal goods to human merchandise. There are days there when not only displaced Americans ride on the rafts, but also Africans and people from other continents.
The “reception” that Jessica received at the Suchiate was prepared weeks before, when Guatemalan and Mexican authorities knew that the Honduran caravan was on its way there. Migration agents and national guards in light gray fatigues and black masks swarmed like ants over the Mexican shore to stop the migratory wave.
The week-long wait came to an end in the early morning of January 26, when Jessica took advantage of the relaxed surveillance on the Mexican side to cross the Suchiate and “sneak” into Mexico. On the Mexican side, she and her children climbed into a “combi” to travel to Tapachula.
The city of Tapachula, in the south of the state of Chiapas, is the meeting point for migrants and displaced people like Jessica who there have at least the hope of receiving assistance and a humanitarian visa. But they need to have a lot of patience and to endure the heat of the day and the freezing night.
Jessica had to wait a month and a half to get the humanitarian visa that the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid (Comar) gives to migrants and displaced persons. In the meantime, she took refuge with her children in the El Buen Pastor migrant shelter, a building with white walls where up to 30 displaced people from various countries arrive daily.
Just a month and a half into her time as a refugee at El Buen Pastor, with her humanitarian visa in hand, Jessica left on March 20 by bus with her children to get as close as possible to the US border. Their first stop was Monterrey.
Jessica was sheltered for a week with other displaced women in a Monterrey home. Things were going well until they started insulting Jessica’s children. Instead of fighting with the other migrants Jessica chose to move again.
This time the twists of fate took her to another shelter in Monterrey; she stayed there for another week before making the last leg of her journey to the border. On foot they arrived at a train station where they met up with a group of migrants.
The displaced men, women, girls, boys and youths climbed onto the metal roof of the train. By the time the engine started it was already dusk. Traveling under the stars Jessica, her children and the others stretched out on the bare metal and covered themselves with sheets to protect themselves from the freezing night wind.
Those on lookout duty took advantage of the train ride to film themselves with their cell phones and send the videos to their families. At dawn on April 20, they got off at Piedras Negras and walked to find a place to stay along the Rio Grande.
There, just a few meters from the US soil they had been searching for, they arrived at the fourth month of their journey.
Displaced People on The Rio Grande
The men stack twigs between the two bricks they have planted in the ground to build a makeshift stove. One of them stuffs slips of paper in the middle of the firewood and another pulls out matches and kneels in the sand on the banks of the Rio Grande. He carefully covers with the palm of one hand the match he has just lit. He puts the match close to the papers and waits.
Smoke rises among the branches that slowly catch fire. In the middle of the gray day, the stove’s flames are like a small joy. In the makeshift shelter there are about fifteen people in total, including Jessica and Isaac Noé. After noon on May 10 there was already one person less: Juan David. Ironically Juan’s departure coincided with the celebration of Mother’s Day in Mexico.
At least children like Isaac Noé are safe. The women and men take turns making sure no one hurts them or takes them from the shelter along the Bravo a few meters from the train line. They watch them when they bathe in the river and when they play.
In the group there is a bit of everything – people from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, a young man with a prosthesis instead of a left leg, barefoot people dressed only in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. Others wear sweatshirts to cover their heads.
Hungry dogs prowl around the squalid shelter made of sheets that the displaced people have hung from ropes tied to the wiry trees. Jessica and the others take advantage of the fire to heat up some of the food they have gone out to beg for in the surrounding area. Sometimes neighbors in Piedras Negras give them money to buy food for the children and some clothes that the migrants wash in the Rio Grande and hang from ropes in the shelter.
While waiting for a bite to eat, Jessica hugs Isaac Noé. “Mama, Juan David crossed the river, but he hasn’t returned. I went looking for him and I couldn’t find him,” her young son suddenly says. “When is Juan David coming back, mama?”
Jessica remains silent for a moment while she waits for the lump in her throat to unravel.
Going Back is Betraying Yourself
The “Migra” is grabbing minors to lock them up only while they wait for a family member to “ask for them” in the United States. That is Juan David’s hope to stay living on U.S. soil. Adults, on the other hand, are locked up and then deported if they are caught on the other side of the Rio Grande.
Some 50,000 children like Juan David have crossed the Mexican border unaccompanied in the last six months. Because of this new wave of migration, authorities have had to open shelters and place family members in the United States.
Although Juan David is hopeful that his aunt will ask for him in the next few days, Jessica is unwilling to hand over Isaac Noé to have the same fate as his brother.
But Jessica is reluctant to return to Honduras. “I can’t go back because going back is like betraying my mother and my children,” she says.
Tutor | Óscar Martínez
Coordination | Dunia Orellana
Photos & Videos | Nicolò Rosso
Redaction | Dunia Orellana
Video Editing | José Fernando Cum Marín
Editing | Dennis Arita & Dashiell Allen
Translation | Dashiell Allen
Cell phone Images | Jessica Orellana
Investigation | Luis Vallecillo y Dunia Orellana
Systematization | Luis Vallecillo y Telma Quiroz
Social Networks | Amílcar Cárcamo y Néstor Hernández
Dunia Orellana is a journalist, documentary maker from Honduras and director of Reportar sin Miedo. She works for investigative journalistic media such as En Altavoz, Reporteros de Investigación and Presentes. Her investigation “The 280 deaths of Vicky” served as the basis for the Inter-American Court to carry out a trial against the Honduran State for the systematized murder of LGBTI people during and after the 2009 coup.