The foundation of any town, city, state or country is its citizens- the established and the newcomers. The citizens are responsible for creating and maintaining a sense of community that is inclusive and inviting. In Australia, an RSL, CWA, Lions and Salvos are associated with nearly every locality, along with many independent community groups. In Mexico, Casa de los Amigos, Casa Tochan, Las Patronas, Cafemin and Casa Del Migrante (to name only a few) extend their community’s hospitality to Central American diaspora and internally displaced Mexican migrants as they seek refugee status or continue north. Often, the only payment community volunteers such as the Vázquez matriarchy of Las Patronas receive for their work, is the brightest of smiles from the train riding migrants as they reach out for their first proper meal in many days.
The Las Patronas experience was cushioned by a tourist weekend in the artistic, colonial Spanish city of Puebla. We sampled the mole poblano specialty, meandered through the bustling artisanal markets, drank more pulque and tequila, satisfied our sweet tooth on churros, and returned to a hot shower and Wi-Fi. We visited churches, museums, opera houses, theatres, restaurants, pyramids, libraries and parks. We spent money on fridge magnets, ponchos, sombreros, bags, wind chimes, candy and jewellery. We questioned purchases not on the materialistic nature of them, but on the logistics of getting them back to Mexico City, not to mention back to Australia.
I walk through the Zocalo (Main Square) in the early hours of Saturday morning. The city is still waking up to this new day and I share the morning with the rising sun and the street cleaners. The marketplace is ghostly, a skeleton of the previous evening’s antics, and in quintessential Mexican style, there is little chance that this tranquillity will be broken before 11am. The locals make up for lost time, however. I sit with my coffee with a view of the Zocalo and watch the transformation of the public sphere from the sound of rustling trees in the morning wind to Mexican fiesta. There is a community concert band performing the usual crowd favourites (Star Wars, Pink Panther, the Lion King), there is a starting point for an all ages bicycle tour of the city, and the merchants are stirring. The sound of the trees is lost in this once again mayhem of colour and vibrancy.
We thought we were prepared for Las Patronas. Our arms are full with bags of tuna, rice, beans, cooking oil, toilet paper, milk and sugar. The ladies of Las Patronas, Leonila Vázquez and her daughters, Rosa, Norma, Antonia and Bernarda assemble food packages and bottled water to throw to migrants on the passing train. They cook rice and beans to be included in bag with sweet bread and tinned tuna. They recycle water bottles and tie them together. The ground person will hold the top bottle; the migrant will reach for the bottom. It is unknown when a train carrying migrants may pass and there is little chance that we will experience the moment first hand, however we spend the time bagging beans and rice and learning more of the organisation. They are entirely voluntary, run on donations similar to ours and direct community involvement given the proximity to the railway. Las Patronas is not without its critics, however. Those with anti-immigrant sentiment oft will charge the Vázquez family a premium price for goods that will leave the community. Although that is so, they have worked tirelessly for more than 20 years to improve this discourse through engagement, and it has not gone unrecognised (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hksIdz7EgfQ).
We have filled and tied the water bottles, packed the food bags and one group are sorting through 10kg of beans and stones. One girl is talking to a Honduran migrant, the recipient of her selflessly sacrificed purple Nikes. There is a lull as we wait for the okay to get back on the bus to Mexico City. Margo, our coordinator begins with the final goodbyes and thank you's and gets halfway before being interrupted by a monstrous signal from an oncoming train that shakes the whole building. What ensues is utter mayhem. Norma flails her hands like an extra from Adventure Time, and all hell breaks loose. “El tren!! La Bestia!!” I pick up a box of food bags and start running to the tracks. At this point I’m not sure if anyone else is coming until I turn around to see the rest of the group hot on my heels looking as bewildered as me. My heart is racing and I have only half and idea of what is actually happening. The train signals again. Some drivers slow down, some don’t. This one slowed, although its sheer size and momentum sends my heart racing again. The immigrants are at the rear of the train and the closer they get, the more real the danger of the journey becomes. They are hanging by one hand from the rung of a ladder reaching for a freshly cooked meal, possibly the only one they’ll come across for days. I couldn’t pick their faces in a line up, but we got our payment. The brightest smiles; an acknowledgment of the help they’ve received on a journey dominated by violence and dissent.
This community is not known for its culture, tequila, produce, or landmarks. It is characterised by those who inhabit it and how they embrace and promote their sense of belonging. Our experience was barely a snippet of their every day and we are in awe of the altruism extended to complete strangers. At the foundation of the political discourse surrounding immigration is the people living the harsh reality of forced displacement, and those that are picking up the pieces of another’s wrongdoing. We will read the newspaper or watch the television every morning about policies implemented, orders carried out or construction of the wall commencing. For the ladies of Las Patronas, this means little. The trains will still pass, the migrants will still be clinging to them, and the beans and rice will still get firstname.lastname@example.org. Viva la México, Ashleigh