More Invisible and More Vulnerable: Portraits of Female Migrants in Southern Mexico

Zuyapa Sánchez, 43, shows her feet, which are blistered after walking for days to cross Chiapas. Sánchez is Honduran and is traveling with her 14- and 17-year-old daughters and her sister. Staying at Hermanos en el Camino, she plans to travel to Sonora, a state in northern Mexico, where she previously lived and worked for six years. Zuyapa Sánchez is not related to Mayela Sánchez. Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Although undocumented migration within Mexico has received increasing media and scholarly attention in recent years, little remains known about female migrants.

Los Invisibles: Nuances of Migration Along Mexico’s Southern Border
Part 3 in a Series

CIUDAD IXTEPEC, MEXICO – Elsy Nohelia Ayala, 24, begins to cry when she realizes she forgot photos of her two children when she left her home in Honduras headed for the U.S. Ayala did not want to leave her children, but her mother asked her to accompany her brother in fleeing the country after gang members threatened to kill him.

Ayala took solace in the thought that she might find a job in the U.S. that was better than her work cleaning houses for foreign tourists on the Honduran island of Roatán, she says. But now that she has witnessed firsthand the risks the journey holds for migrants who travel illegally, she plans to return home instead of continuing on to the U.S.

At Hermanos en el Camino, a shelter for migrants in Ciudad Ixtepec, a town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, Ayala explains that she and her brother hired a guide, known as a “coyote,” to lead them from Honduras to the U.S. But he stole their money and abandoned them at the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Later, another man threatened to rape her while she and her brother traveled on a cargo train – a common mode of transit for migrants who travel illegally.

Still, Ayala has heard that the most dangerous part of the journey is yet to come, she says. She fears that if she continues toward the U.S. border, she could fall victim to rape.

“He tried to rape me,” she says of the man on the cargo train, “and if I go on, there is going to be someone who is going to do it for real.”

No one knows precisely how many women migrate to or through Mexico, since they travel illegally, according to local nongovernmental organizations that focus on migration. Mexican authorities report just the number of detained and deported migrants, so women appear in the official statistics only if they are caught.

From January to August 2013, Mexican immigration officials detained 58,114 people, more than 97 percent of whom were from Central America, according to statistics from the National Institute of Migration, Mexico’s federal migration authority. Of those detained, 15.8 percent were women.

But various organizations that focus on migration in Mexico estimate that the number of female migrants who enter the country illegally is much higher.

Official statistics undercount female migration, says Gretchen Kuhner, the director of the Mexico-based Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, a group that advocates for the rights of female migrants. In part, this is because women tend to use safer, lower-profile transit modes than men do. For example, women may take a bus or taxi instead of taking a cargo train, or they may be more likely to hire coyotes to bring them to their destinations.

Another difference is that men tend to travel back and forth between their hometowns and the U.S., increasing their chances of getting caught, Kuhner says. Women, in contrast, are more likely to stay put once they get to the U.S.

These factors may account for women’s smaller presence in the two places where undocumented migration in Mexico is most visible – on cargo trains and in the shelters that provide refuge to migrants along the border and throughout Mexico, Kuhner says.

Although there are fewer women in these shelters than men, they are there. Their stories offer a window into the diversity and complexity of female migration in Mexico.

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Lorena Noemí Isidro, 14, is Guatemalan and has worked as a house cleaner in Tapachula since she was 12. She works to help her mother, also a domestic worker in Tapachula, to support her four siblings because her father abandoned them. Lorena’s dream is to buy land to build her own house in Guatemala.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Alison Yamilet Miranda, 30, is from Honduras. Since 1999, she has tried several times to reach the U.S. During one attempt, she fell from a cargo train, which then dragged her. The accident destroyed her femur and left her with wounds on both arms and her stomach. Her family, whom she has not seen since 2007, rejected her because she is a lesbian. Miranda currently lives in the Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

María Nicolasa Granados, 48, washes her clothing at Hermanos en el Camino shortly after arriving on a cargo train with other migrants. She left her country, El Salvador, because gang members were extorting her family. She is traveling to the U.S. with her 24-year-old son and a neighbor who has posed as her husband in order to protect her from other men on the journey.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Elvira López, 21, became a widow at age 19 and left Guatemala to travel to the U.S. to find a job that would allow her to support her 8-month-old daughter, whom she left with her parents. But during the journey, López fell from the cargo train on which she was traveling and lost her right leg. After several months waiting in the Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante, she received a prosthetic leg in July 2013. López does not know whether she will return home or try to find work in Mexico.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Jaquelin Mairena, 39, left Honduras fleeing her ex-husband, who had tried to kill her. She has filed for refugee status in Mexico and is working as a cook in La 72 Hogar-Refugio Para Personas Migrantes while she awaits a decision. The Mexican government grants refugee status to people suffering persecution or whose lives, security and freedom are under threat because of generalized violence or human rights violations.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Jairy Tejany Mata, 28, is Honduran and has two children. She is traveling with her 10-year-old son, Jostin, and her partner. Originally, the family planned to reach the U.S., but now they are thinking they will stay in Mexico. During their stay at La 72 migrant shelter, Mata says she fears taking the cargo train to the U.S. because she worries that a bandit may kidnap her son to extort her.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Fátima Rivas, 14, (left) and Wendy Yesenia Linares, 15, became friends in Hermanos en el Camino. Both are from El Salvador. Fátima and her 16-year-old brother, who are not related to Stefani Elizabeth Rivas, are trying to get to the U.S. to reunite with their mother, whom they have not seen for 12 years. Wendy is traveling with her 17-year-old sister and her mother, who went to the U.S. eight years ago and recently returned to El Salvador to bring her daughters to the U.S.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

This 25-year-old sex worker declined to show her face or publish her name because of the stigma attached to her work. She emigrated from Guatemala at age 12 for a job as a domestic worker in Mexico, which she did until age 15. Then she became a waitress in a bar, known as a “centro botanero,” in Tapachula because the job offered more money before a woman tricked her into becoming a sex worker in Villa Mazatán.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Elsy Nohelia Ayala, 24, did not want to leave Honduras and her children, ages 5 and 7. But her mother asked her to accompany her brother to the U.S. after gang members threatened to kill him and he had to flee. During her stay at Hermanos en el Camino, Ayala reconsidered the risks of the journey and decided to return home.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Stefani Elizabeth Rivas, 17, first migrated within her country, El Salvador, fleeing gang members who were extorting her husband. The couple later decided to leave the country with their baby because they did not earn enough to cover their expenses. Rivas and her family are living at Hermanos en el Camino while they wait to see whether the Mexican government will grant them refugee status.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Migrants who travel illegally face many risks as they cross Mexico, according to human rights organizations. These risks include assault, extortion, kidnapping and even death at the hands of criminal gangs – and many times in collusion with the Mexican authorities or with their overt participation, according to a 2010 Amnesty International report.

Although both women and men face danger as they traverse Mexico, criminals, authorities and other migrants are more likely to sexually assault women, Kuhner says. Women are also more likely to be victims of human trafficking with the purpose of sexual or labor exploitation.

Although female migrants are more vulnerable than men, the risks they encounter during their journey and how they cope with the danger have received little attention, Kuhner says. Similarly, there is a lack of information about why women migrate and the implications of their migration.

There is also a double standard for male and female migrants, Kuhner says. If a man who has children migrates, society views it as positive because he is looking for a way to support his family. But if a woman who has children migrates, society regards it negatively because of the implication that she is abandoning her children.

Jairy Tejany Mata, 28, decided to bring her youngest son, 10-year-old Jostin, with her when she traveled from her home in Honduras with her partner.

Mata imagined the journey would be easy, but even before she arrived in Mexico, she had to bribe Honduran and Guatemalan authorities to let her son cross, she says. Now her biggest fear is climbing on the cargo train for the trek’s next leg because of bandits who may extort or assault her.

“It makes me a bit afraid and nervous in the night that I get to thinking, because I go with my son, maybe they are going to take him from me and throw me from the top [of the train].”

It is not only mothers who migrate. Daughters also make the journey to reunite with their parents in the U.S.

Some women cross borders fleeing violence in their countries or at home. Other women are simply trying to escape the poverty that makes it difficult for them to feed their children.

Some women travel alone, while others find a male partner for protection, Kuhner says. But they have no guarantee that their protector will not also become an aggressor.

Some are heading for the U.S., while others are working in Mexico. Others have decided to return home.

The portraits and testimonies of the 11 female migrants featured in this photo essay were taken at several shelters in three states in southern Mexico – La 72 Hogar-Refugio Para Personas Migrantes in Tenosique, Tabasco; Hermanos en el Camino in Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca; and Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante in Tapachula, Chiapas – as well as in the municipalities of Tapachula and Villa Mazatán, Chiapas.

Although the struggles of migration have frequented the media, coverage has been shallow about the diverse issues that Central American migrants who enter Mexico illegally face as they try to settle in the country or travel north. Mayela Sánchez, senior reporter for GPJ’s Mexico News Desk, spent one month along Mexico’s southern border delving into the nuances of employment, health, violence, gender justice and various human rights issues that push people to migrate and confront them along their journeys. GPJ will feature this series on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. 


GPJ translated this photo essay from Spanish.