Two Lives Drowned in the Rio Grande

The lifeless bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his one-year-old daughter, Valeria, on the banks of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, on Mexico’s border with the United States. (EFE / Abraham Pineda-Jácome)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 26 June 2019 – “I have a brother in Houston,” “I can’t find work,” “There’s a lot of violence here,” were some of the reasons to emigrate that three young people with sparkling eyes told me, haltingly. I was with them in a remote village in El Salvador – barely a month ago – and I asked them the question that has obsessed me for decades. Why do people emigrate? The same question asked of Cubans in the Darien jungle, of Africans in shelters in a Panama, and Hondurans traveling on the roof of La Bestia – the Beast – in Mexico.

This week, the bodies of a Salvadoran and his daughter were fond floating in the Rio Grande, after trying to cross the southern border of the United States. My first reaction was to look for his face, to see if it was one of those young people I’d talked with just four weeks ago in a remote part of that Central American country. But in the image being circulated both victims are drowned and face down on the bank. They float together in a final embrace that makes the scene even more dramatic.

Why do people migrate? I asked again after looking at the photo, and I myself answered: for causes as varied as those told me by those young people in the community of Santa Marta. They are escaping poverty, the lack of opportunities, and the gangs that are a cancer that crosses that small country, also known as el Lilliput del Pacífico. They flee from despair and many also are trying to complete the route that was previously followed by a cousin, a brother, the father himself.

It’s the cycle of flight. A path in which they risk looting, rape, modern slavery, deportation and death, but still undertake with a dose of illusion similar to that which motivated the first humans to explore new territories. But we are no longer in those times of discovering places or seeking the best hunting grounds, but rather in the era of displacements motivated by war, the deterioration of natural resources, poverty, the lack of job opportunities and the absence of rights. It is not the exodus of expansion but of flight.

I have traveled all over Latin America in search of the answer to my question and after that journey I can only say that the responsibility for this immigration drain is shared. Each of us has some guilt. To direct the accusing finger only at one piece of the picture is to ignore the multiplicity of strands – where non-conformity and desire mix; pain and dreams – strands that end up woven into any decision or willingness to emigrate.

They leave, not only because of the attraction of richer and safer countries such as the United States, where many of these migrants already have relatives waiting for them. No, not everything is reduced to the siren songs of a more prosperous life.

Reducing the game to a search for comfort, the impulse to access streets that are better paved, markets that are more varied, better functioning public transport or a more generous salary is to ignore the complexity of the human soul. It would reduce people to a stomach, or a hand that plays with the remote control of a state-of-the-art electronic device.

This constant flight that marks the lives of thousands of human beings in our continent falls fundamentally on the shoulders of the governments and institutions of nations that have not managed to offer their citizens a decent life. Countries where politics has often been used more as a battlefield between partisan or ideological forces than as a platform of beneficial public services with initiatives and programs for the population.

People leave, especially, from the places where corruption, populism and, in many cases, clientelism fueled by the money of international programs, have been entrenched. To make matters worse, in much of Latin America executives make decisions that are driven for the convenience of a  small group, rather than the benefit of the people. Instead of nourishing hope, they encourage confrontation and distrust.

They also escape from the lack of freedoms. Being free is not only being able to take to the streets in a demonstration to make demands, to vote in elections or to decide which political force you want to support. The bars may be shaped by the inability to influence the course of national events, by the fear of punishment if criticism is expressed, by the intolerance of certain groups and the fear of taking risks in the exercise of citizenship.

The stampede is also caused by those civil society groups that prefer to shape themselves according to a foreign agenda, conceived and designed in some European office, rather than go out into the streets and listen to the problems of the common people and develop programs that allow them to love their surroundings, develop plans in their own country, and join together to confront problems and even to defend themselves.

The two inert bodies, found this week, symbolize the despair of all those who have left their lands: Hondurans, Cubans, Haitians or Salvadorans. Father and daughter floating in the waters of our own collective failure.


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