Your Body is a Borderland —title of poem by Lauren Espinosa

I sit at the edge of Yanelli’s mattress in her sparsely furnished studio apartment in Tapachula, a growing Mexican city less than 40 minutes away from the Guatemala border. Yanelli is propped up against the wooden headboard, one leg dangling over the side of the bed, her hair pulled up into a messy bun on the top of her head. She sips a cup of instant coffee and occasionally glances over and smiles at her eight-year-old daughter, who sits quietly on a thin mattress on the floor next to the bed, watching cartoons on the muted television.

I met Yanelli three weeks ago, the day after she returned from the hospital. She’d gone to receive care for a miscarriage after being pushed down a steep flight of stairs by her boyfriend. Worried that he’d attack her daughter, who was unable to accompany her to the hospital and remained in the house with the aggressor, Yanelli absconded from the obstetrics unit where she was being treated before she was properly discharged, resulting in a persistent bacterial infection. Since then, even though her boyfriend has moved out and the infection has subsided, Yanelli has struggled to find stable ground as she attempts to navigate the tensions created between a convoluted institutional landscape and the destabilizing life circumstances that have hindered her ability to fully engage the institutional resources available.

She fled El Salvador three months ago, she relates, after being extorted for weeks and then raped by gang members. She met her current partner shortly after arriving in Mexico, and the relationship quickly spiraled into psychological and then physical abuse. But without a cent to her name or a familiar face to turn to in an unknown city, and debilitated by severe morning sickness, she remained in the abusive relationship with limited access to information and physical mobility. “For three months I’ve been trapped in this apartment, encerrada [shut away]” she says. But even now, despite the new avenues of social support that she has encountered, finding a way out of her current situation has been a challenge. Like many migrants who live “shadowed lives,”1Leo Chavez, Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1992). she cannot rely on the state or civil institutions that many of us take for granted, especially after repeated experiences of being failed by that system.2In the countries of the Northern Triangle, police corruption is rampant and violent offenders are often treated with impunity. In Yanelli’s case, after she reported the rape to the police in El Salvador, she received death threats by gang members and was forced to flee the country. In Mexico, her ex-boyfriend threatened to use his police connections to have Yanelli jailed or deported if she reported him. She has also had negative experiences with civil organizations, such as the women’s shelter in Tapachula, which denied her entry due to a lack of visible wounds and what they perceived as an “overconfident” (antagonistic) personality. So she must attempt to improvise within the constraints of the prevailing material realities and the complex, and sometimes competing, logics that structure her social world.

Upon arriving in Mexico, women like Yanelli find their trajectories often shift or are completely derailed as they face new challenges produced through the precarity of their circumstances, such as unintended pregnancy or sexual assault.

Yanelli is part of a growing population of Central American women who cross the southern Mexico border in search of a better life. Since 2011, migration from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) across the southern border has more than tripled, with an increased prevalence of women with small children and unaccompanied minors.3Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, and Gabriela Morales, Mexico’s Other Border: Security, Migration, and the Humanitarian Crisis at the Line with Central America (Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America, 2014). This is largely due to persistent economic decline since the 1990s postwar years and a more recent surge of unbridled violence and organized crime within the Northern Triangle. Gender-based violence is particularly prevalent among Central American women, many of whom flee situations of intra-family violence and sexual exploitation.4El Salvador and Guatemala are ranked number one and number three for the highest rates of female homicide in the world, and gender-based violence is the second leading cause of death among women aged 15–44 in Honduras (ACUNS 2013). Claire Laurent, Michael Platzer and Maria Idomir, Eds., Femicide: A Global Issue that Demands Action. (Vienna: Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) Vienna Liaison Office, 2013). Upon arriving in Mexico, women like Yanelli find their trajectories often shift or are completely derailed as they face new challenges produced through the precarity of their circumstances, such as unintended pregnancy or sexual assault.

The Suchiate River marks the southernmost part of the Mexico-Guatemala border and is a central hub for transport and commerce. It is porous and highly unregulated, and is the most common point of entry for undocumented Central American migrants. Photo by Heather Wurtz.

Over the past five months, I have been investigating reproductive health outcomes among migrant women in Tapachula as a window into how broader social and politico-economic processes, such as normative gender regimes and migration policy, affect women’s lived and embodied experiences of displacement. To this end, I have conducted semi-structured interviews, surveys and archival research, and countless hours of participant observation in various sites, including the public hospital and health clinics, migrant shelters, and women’s private homes. I have come to understand that for many migrants, the southern Mexico border is much more than the fast-paced transit zone so often presented in popular accounts: a fleeting countryside as migrants board the notorious cargo train, La Bestia [“the Beast”], or move from one humanitarian shelter to the next. Rather, for many it becomes a way of life within a parenthetic space of prolonged immobility and legal liminality that can extend for months, even years. It is a time that often intersects with critical junctures within women’s reproductive life course, requiring complex negotiations with state and nonstate institutions.

Although transit migration through southern Mexico has received increased media and scholarly attention in recent years, especially following US-backed initiatives by the Mexican government to increase restrictive measures of migration control,5In 2014, following President Enrique Peña Nieto’s announcement of El Plan de Frontera Sur, the Mexican government initiated a “border fortification strategy” along the Mexico-Guatemala border and throughout the state of Chiapas, including internal checkpoints, immigration raids, and police surveillance of cargo trains (once a primary mode of transportation for migrants in transit). Consequently, Central American migrants now face radical disruptions in well-established migratory routes: transportation by train has become increasingly difficult, and alternative walking routes are besieged by gang violence, while the costs associated with human smuggling have skyrocketed and continue to rise. Isacson, Meyer, and Morales, Mexico’s Other Border. far less is understood about the experiences of those who end up settling, temporarily or long-term, in border regions. It has been estimated that only 20 percent of those who begin the journey north make it to their intended US destination.6Kristin Yarris and Heide Castañeda, “Encounters of Violence and Care: Central American Transit Migration through Mexico,” Somatosphere, September 2, 2014. In light of the drastic measures that President Trump’s new administration has already taken to bar refugees from the United States, as well as the anticipated actions of its impending anti-immigration agenda, this phenomenon is likely to intensify, contributing to what Carte7Lindsey Carte, “Everyday Restriction: Central American Women and the State in the Mexico-Guatemala Border City of Tapachula,” International Migration Review 48 no. 1 (2014): 113–143. has described as an increased “Central Americanization” of the southern Mexican border.

Indeed, just within the past few weeks in informal conversations, several migrants have reported to me that they are currently reevaluating their northbound trajectories in response to the shifting political climate in the United States. Many are opting to settle in Mexico. Some rely on institutional support while they apply for asylum; others look for work and try to pool together resources with fellow migrants. But in cities like Tapachula that are already strained by high rates of unemployment, poverty, and an overburdened system for social services, there are not enough resources to keep up with the high demand for social assistance, and undocumented migrants (especially those who arrive alone, are single parents with children, or have limited family support) pay the heaviest toll. In the case of Central American women, this often means becoming ensnared in the same cycles of gender-based violence and economic precarity from which they are trying to break free, with distinct social and bodily outcomes.

Scholars have acknowledged that gender plays a key role in structuring migrant vulnerability and encounters of exclusion.8Martha Luz Rojas-Wiesner & Maria DeVargas, “Strategic Invisibility as Everyday Politics for a Life with Dignity: Guatemalan Women Migrants’ Experiences of Insecurity at Mexico’s Southern Border,” In Migration, Gender and Social Justice: Perspectives on Human Insecurity, Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace 9 (2014). T.D. Truong et al. (eds.): Pp. 193–211; Patricia R. Pessar & Sarah H. Mahler “Transnational Migration: Bringing Gender In,” International Migration Review 37 no. 3 (2003): 812–846. Viewing migration as an embodied process helps shed light on how reproductive events both shape and are shaped by women’s altered migratory trajectories. This becomes particularly visible in the intersection of the adverse conditions of migration with the reproductive and productive (economic) activities of women’s lives.9Anna Ochoa-O’Leary and Gloria Ciria Valdez-Gardea, “Neoliberalizing (Re)production: Women, Migration, and Family Planning in the Peripheries of the State.” In Feminist (Im)Mobilities in Fortress(ing) North America: Rights, Citizenships, and Identities in Transnational Perspective. Anne Sisson Runyan, Amy Lind, Patricia McDermott, and Marianne H. Marchand, eds. Pp. 75-94. (Burlington: Ashgate, 2013) Newly arrived migrants in Tapachula face significant obstacles in finding reliable employment due to irregular migratory status and social discrimination. This is also affected by the need to care for small children and the actual physical strains of reproductive processes, which, as Yanelli’s case demonstrates, can result in the perpetuation of abusive relationships due to economic dependence and the lack of a broader social network.

It has been estimated that only 20 percent of those who begin the journey north make it to their intended US destination.

The few jobs available to undocumented migrant women, such as domestic work and hospitality services as meseras,10In Tapachula the meaning of “mesera” varies. In most cases, meseras serve drinks and dance, converse, and drink with clients (generally men) for a fee. Sometimes their services are limited to companionship, although they may also entail commercial sex work. are poorly regulated. They entail very low pay and long hours, and commonly subject women to various forms of abuse and exploitation. While migrants who apply for asylum receive a fair amount of organizational assistance through the United Nations Office of Refugee Aid, scheduling the first appointment can take weeks, and support only extends throughout the course of the application process (3–4 months). Those like Yanelli, whose lives do not neatly align with bureaucratic timelines, often fall through the institutional cracks with little recourse when adverse events, such as violence or pregnancy loss, arise. Even in cases of sexual assault, in which women have the right to file a report and/or access a legal abortion, many do not avail themselves of these rights for fear of denouncing the perpetrator, losing their jobs, or risking deportation.

The central city park, Parque Miguel Hidalgo. Photo by Heather Wurtz.

The public hospital in Tapachula is one site in which the needs and vulnerabilities of migrant women are made particularly visible. By 2007, reproductive and sexual health issues had replaced traumatic injury as the principal cause of hospitalization among migrants.11Prior to Hurricane Stan in 2005, Tapachula was a primary destination for migrants to board the notorious cargo train, La Bestia, to begin the arduous journey through Mexico. At that time, the majority of health needs of migrants were due to train-related accidents and violence. However, by 2007, two years following the destruction of the rail system and the subsequent rerouting of migrant trajectories, medical attention for injuries dropped to less than 30 percent, while reproductive and sexual health issues rose substantially. Réne Leyve Flores & Frida Quintina Pérez, eds, Migración y salud sexual y reproductiva en la frontera sur de México. (Cuernavaca, MX: Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, 2011). In 2016, reproductive and sexual health care services, including labor and delivery, pregnancy complications, and miscarriage management,12Miscarriage management includes medical attention of complications related to spontaneous abortion, legal induced abortion, and unsafe abortion. Similar to many countries in which abortion is only legal under specific circumstances, precise data on the incidence of unsafe abortion is not available. This is due to the difficulty of determining cases of unsafe abortion based on physical evaluation alone, as well as women’s reticence to disclose such information. However, according to estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, unsafe abortion is a common occurrence throughout Mexico, especially among women 20–24 years old. Fatimah Juarez and Susheela Singh, “Incidence of Induced Abortion by Age and State, Mexico, 2009: New Estimates Using a Modified Methodology,” International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 38 no. 2 (2009): 58–67. accounted for 56.1 percent of all hospital care provided migrants.13Internal document, General Hospital of Tapachula. In addition, within recent years, cases of physical and sexual violence among migrant women have increased substantially.

As many women’s first point of contact with government institutions, the public hospital could serve as a critical site for migrant women to access information and resources. However, enacting longstanding changes in hospital practice is hampered by a chronic lack of resources and personnel, as well as a certain degree of institutional inertia towards prioritizing issues of migrant health and gender-based violence. Furthermore, efforts to improve migrant women’s sexual and reproductive health must include long-term socioeconomic support within the community, as well as a more in-depth understanding of how gender relations structure women’s experiences of risk and their capacity to make positive life changes. These possibilities and associated limitations are a key focus of my research.

After Yanelli and I have talked for quite some time, her daughter leaves the room momentarily and then reappears at the door with a plateful of papusas, a traditional Salvadoran dish made of a thick corn tortilla filled with beans and cheese. As we eat together and begin to chat more casually, the conversation takes a turn towards the future. When I ask Yanelli about her aspirations, she says that she hopes eventually to acquire refugee status and settle permanently in Tapachula. She wants to open a papusería and enroll her daughter in school. “I want to take back my life,” she says. Perhaps it is this point in migrants’ lives that deserves the most attention, in the “everyday work of repair” that migrants are tasked with after life interrupted by hardship and loss.14Veena Das, “The Act of Witnessing: Violence, Poisonous Knowledge, and Subjectivity.” In Violence and Subjectivity. Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds, eds. Pp. 205–225 (Berkely: University of California Press, 2000); Denise Brennan, Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). How will Yanelli begin the long process of reclaiming her life? What tools will she deploy to build a new future? How will she navigate the obstacles she confronts? These questions define central concerns of my project, as well as a broader interest in building resilience and solidarity within migrant communities.

Afterword: Since the time of the interview with Yanelli presented in this vignette, Yanelli moved out of her former residence and began a job selling natural cosmetic products. She was also recently awarded permanent residency status for herself and her daughter.

mural
A mural in Tapachula including words such as “basta” (that’s enough), “justicia” (justice), and “equidad” (equality). Photo by Heather Wurtz.

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Feature Image Credit: Heather Wurtz, 2016 SSRC IDRF fellow