“La Bestia” and La Casa del Migrante Saltillo

Posted by Katie Schlechter – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU

In Saltillo the presence of the migrant feels more present than it does in Mexico City, but also somehow a bit tucked away. On my first walk around the hot city the afternoon that I arrived, I could already hear the trains. “La Bestia” runs right through here, mostly carrying migrants towards the border with Texas—from here it’s only a three and a half hour drive to Laredo without traffic. Yet some migrants are also catching the train south, after a serious injury or an inability to pay the “cuota” to cartel groups in order to continue their journey north forced them to backtrack.

Train tracks less than a block away from the Casa del Migrante Saltillo in northern Mexico. (Photo: Katie Schlechter)

The train horns carry on throughout the night and I can hear them from the room where I’m staying near the center of town. As it gets later and the traffic noise dies down, I can actually hear train wheels click-clacking and screeching as they pull in and out of the main station a few blocks away. La Casa del Migrante Saltillo is a thirty minute hike down Calle Alvaro Obregón—a sweaty walk that I was disappointed to find offers none of the typical plethora of street food options I’m accustomed to in Mexico City. A panadería was my best bet for breakfast, and shortly after shelling out eight pesos for a few pineapple empanadas, I was turning off Obregón towards the shelter next to the train tracks.

It sits on a corner with high white walls covered in murals depicting migrant children and families. A tall, bright blue metal gate with a little barred window in front makes the entrance feel more than a little medieval. I explain to the guy working the gate that I’m there to see the shelter’s outreach director, José Luis Manzo. I can see a line of migrant men, from late teens to 40s, queued up inside the gate waiting for something. I find out later that they are taking turns to go to the bodega across the street in groups of two. After some exchanges on a walkie talkie and the interception of one of the volunteers, I’m ushered into the compound.

“La Bestia” passing near the Casa del Migrante Saltillo in northern Mexico. (Photo: Katie Schlechter)

Padre Pedro Pantoja, who founded the casa over 20 years ago, led a big house meeting before lunch. He sat on a metal chair in the middle of the circle of volunteers and more than 100 migrants, mostly young men with a couple of families with young children. He told a bit of the story of the shelter, how a few migrants were killed in Saltillo years ago, prompting Padre Pedro and others to open the casa as a safe haven.

Some of the migrants looked bored, but that might be because the “rueda” is held every day. It involves some reflection by Padre Pedro, a brief history of the house and the injustices that migrants face on their trek through Mexico, a listing of the house rules and then a prayer before lunch is served in the whitewashed comedor. At the end, one of the volunteers asks for migrants to step up to help with cleaning bathrooms and various other house chores.

Migrants riding “La Bestia” from Monterrey toward Saltillo in northern Mexico. (Photo: Katie Schlechter)

One of the migrants in the rueda is missing a leg from the knee down. He lost it during a fall from the train, a common fate for migrants who use La Bestia. During Padre Pedro’s prayer, he took one of his crutches and leaned it against his neighbor to his left, who dutifully then grabbed onto it. He then put his arm around the shoulders of the friend to his right to replace the second crutch during the prayer. I’m not sure if he was on his way up to the border, or making the journey back.

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