From Caravan to Exodus, from Migration to Movement

As the migrant caravan arrives to the U.S.-Mexico border, there has been criticism of the timing and strategy of the march. Yet a look at the lives of caravan members reveals that fleeing was not a choice, and that strength really does come in numbers.

November 20, 2018

The line of human rights defenders who put their bodies between the police and the caravan as the migrants attempted to enter Oaxaca from Chiapas. (Photo by Amelia Frank-Vitale)

In the early morning of October 27, 2018, we faced off with federal police and the gendarmerie in western Chiapas. They had been sent to make sure the latest migrant caravan, numbering 7,000 people, would not make it to Oaxaca. They blocked the road completely, bringing armored vehicles through, looking very much like they were ready for war. I had arrived in advance of the group to scout the area, along with a few of the activists who were providing logistical support for the caravan. In the middle of nowhere, we came across this line of riot police, and a few members of Chiapas’ state Human Rights Commission. One whispered to me, urgently: notify the press. Get them here.

I was able to send two tweets and two WhatsApp messages before cell service cut off completely. There we were, in the dark, with no means of communication, standing between a militarized Mexican police force—there were at least two agents in fatigues—and thousands of weary but determined Central Americans walking north.

The human rights representatives set up a buffer. They made two lines with their bodies between the massing migrants and the police. As the migrants arrived, they sat down behind the line, slowly but surely filling the highway for as far back as my eyes could see.

Two women and two men formed a committee who would go talk to the federal police and negotiate a pass. Meanwhile, the rest of the group waited, sitting on the highway. As the sun came up over the hills, I could see a sea of people, sitting, resisting, peacefully, both patiently and restlessly. But not turning back.

The moment when the committee returns and tells the crowd that the police have agreed to let them pass (Photo by Amelia Frank-Vitale)

The committee told the police what the group had decided in an open assembly the night before: they would not be accepting Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s “proposal,” which would allow them to stay in Mexico, but keep them confined to the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. They intended to keep moving north, each allowed to determine their own destination.

When the group returned, it was done: the police would stand down. Whether they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of migrants before them, taken by surprise by the presence of human rights representatives documenting what was taking place, or just satisfied that they’d made the migrants wait until the sun was high and hot, they changed their stance and allowed the exodus to proceed. Slowly, people stood and cheered. There was a moment of celebration and then the crowd started moving forward, onward. To Oaxaca.


The migrant caravan is a literal and massive example of how mass undocumented migration is a form of civil disobedience against a global order. In January 2011, while I was doing fieldwork at a migrant shelter, I got pulled into the very first immigrant caravan in Mexico, when human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and academics accompanied a few hundred migrants a few hundred kilometers, from Arriaga, Chiapas to Ixtepec, Oaxaca. I still remember the exhilaration when we marched, in the dark, past the immigration check point just before crossing state lines, singing together a Christian spiritual tweaked ever so slightly to be about migration—y la migra se moverá, se moverá, se moverá… (and the migration police will move, they will move, they will move).

What started small more than eight years ago has, since then, expanded into something bigger than anyone imagined. The caravan started as an idea about accompaniment: that when allies literally walk alongside migrants, they keep them safe from kidnappers and assailants that would otherwise prey upon them. This goal mixes with a form of protest, a demand that the government of Mexico protect the human rights of all who transit across its territory. It grew into a process of empowerment, of demanding dignity and respect despite not having proper authorization, and openly and consciously challenging a regional immigration regime dominated by the United States that sees undocumented movement through the lens of security and criminality.

Two days later, after resting for a bit in Tapanatepec, Oaxaca, the caravan starts off again. The intention is to walk all the way to Niltepec, a town about 55 kilometers away. Midway there, however, the mayor of Zanatepec, the small town in between, has surprised everyone with breakfast and two buses. The buses, he tells me, will make as many trips as necessary to move everyone from there to Niltepec. While we’re talking, an older migrant comes up and shows us his bare feet. The mayor kicks off his own sneakers, sends someone to bring him a pair of simple sandals, and hands his tenís to the man. It’s a moment without ceremony, without adulation. He immediately goes back to discussing the logistics, with his teal socks sticking out of his sandals.

After giving away his sneakers to a migrant without shoes, the mayor of Zanatepec stands in socks and sandals. (Photo by Amelia Frank-Vitale)

As each group of migrants arrives, I explain to them what is going on, directing them to food and water while they wait. As the line grows, a 17-year-old boy from Santa Barbara, Honduras, offers to help me. Marvin is covered in tattoos and has been deported from the U.S. before. He’s the kind of adolescent who would have a particularly hard time getting a job in Honduras: his appearance might make folks on a bus clutch their bags to their chest. Many workplaces make potential employees strip down to prove their bodies are not manchados, “stained” with tattoos. Under mano dura policies in Honduras, as in much of Central America, simply having a visible tattoo is enough to be picked up by the police. It would not matter that Marvin’s most prominent tattoo is a big 504—the calling code for Honduras—which for him is all about his pride in being catracho (Honduran).  He is the first to offer to help me explain to each group what’s going on. He forgoes his own spot in line, his own ride to the next town, to stay standing, under the hot sun, to help his fellow caravaneros. He waits until the very end and is part of one of the very last groups to get moved to Niltepec.

Many of the migrants are veteran migrants like Marvin. They’ve been through these roads before and they know that traveling alone is dangerous. They’ve decided based on experience—no one had to tell them—that there is safety in numbers and in press attention. Antonio, Marvin’s distant cousin, had already left Honduras on his second try north and had been stalled in Tapachula when he heard that the caravan was coming through. Unable to move forward on his own, he joined in.

Others were just waiting for an opportunity to leave Honduras. Without the money to hire a coyote, they couldn’t risk the journey on their own. As soon as they heard about the caravan, though, they decided it was time. Omar, from Ceiba, got a call from his wife as soon as she saw the news. They gathered their three daughters and left right away to meet the caravan in San Pedro Sula. They’d been planning to leave for a while, buckling under the pressure of paying the impuesto de guerra (extortion demanded by gangs controlling different neighborhoods) and constant threats from Barrio 18 of raping their daughters. They hadn’t had the money to hire a coyote for the whole family, so this seemed like their best chance to escape.

Jairo, another caravanero, is studying economics, but he can’t seem to get hired for any job. He was active in the protests last December after the widely suspect reelection of president Juan Orlando Hernández, and he’s involved in the student movement at the university. When he applies for a job, he’s told that he’s on a list of “revoltosos,” rebellious trouble makers, and that employers can’t hire him. They call him a communist, a ñángara—a particularly Honduran word used to refer disrespectfully to political leftists and activists—and won’t even look at his résumé. Jairo swears he’s not a communist. He tells me, I believe in the capitalist system, just not the people who are applying it in Honduras. He’s received a mix of threats for his political involvement and for his unwillingness to get involved in the gang that controls his neighborhood. He never wanted to leave Honduras; he even had a girlfriend who left for the states years earlier and begged him to join her. He was determined to stay in his country, to fight to make it better. When the latest threats came, though, he decided from one day to the next that it was time to flee. The caravan happened to coincide with this realization.

The caravan waits on a highway in southern Mexico. (Photo by Amelia Frank-Vitale)

There is a lot of discussion swirling around about who is in charge of this movement, who organized this caravan, who funded it. People are decrying the timing—it’s too close to the midterms in the United States; they should have waited until the government changed hands in Mexico—and suggesting that people were manipulated or deceived into participating in this movement at this moment. Even sympathetic leftists have asked me—couldn’t they have waited three more weeks, for their own sakes?

No one promised any of them anything. No one had to convince them to leave their country with false ideas about an easy journey or being welcomed with open arms. All the people in the caravan I spoke with knew very well that it would be difficult and arduous and dangerous and that there was no guarantee of getting into the United States at the end of it. And yet, all of them thought it was worth the risk. “I can’t go back to Honduras. If I get sent back, I’m a cadaver,” Jairo tells me.

There is also a group of migrants on this journey who are veterans of the caravans themselves. One day I went to buy supplies with Mario, who had been a part of the caravan in the spring of 2018, the first to make mainstream news after meeting the wrath of the Trump administration. Mario had left San Pedro Sula after two of his friends were killed for not cooperating with the local gang’s plan to involve them in a drug-selling business. Mario worked printing t-shirts—not the graphic design part, but the mechanics of building the machines that printed them. He loved his work. He and his two friends had, together, decided to resist the mara’s plan. It was sheer luck that he wasn’t with them the night they were gunned down. He fled shortly after that; he and his neighbors knew that he was marked for death if he stuck around.

He joined up with the spring caravan and became interested in the group that organized it, Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders). Rather than continuing on to the United States right away, he stayed with them in northern Mexico. He joined a hunger strike to demand humanitarian visas for a group of migrants. He went to trainings and workshops about human rights, the legal process, and civil disobedience. As we drove across the isthmus of Tehuantepec, he told me about the civil rights movement in the United States. How people sat at restaurants where they weren’t allowed to eat, but they were peaceful, and they changed the laws. He liked that, the idea of peacefully resisting. Mario didn’t need to be a part of this caravan at this moment, but his experience with the last once sparked something in him. He’s here to help, to organize, to teach. He’s willing to walk across Mexico, again, in solidarity.

People like Mario provide one answer to the question: “who organized this caravan?” He didn’t organize it, personally, on his own. But at this point, over the years, since that initial walk in 2011, thousands of Central Americans have participated in one kind of caravan or another. Word has spread. The twinned experiences of safety in visibility and openly challenging immigration laws and human rights violations en masse in Mexico have taken seed. Some argue that this shouldn’t be called a caravan, in the traditional sense, but an exodus. But caravan is the term that has resonance, that has meaning, that circulates and implies this mix of safety in numbers and willful, righteous defiance. If it is an exodus, it is one that has long been taking shape in Central America. This caravan and the replicas that are following it are one expression of that exodus. As a committee takes shape, one of the leaders declares them la comisión del dialogo del éxodo (the dialogue committee of the exodus).  

The caravan was still days away from making it to Mexico City, but preparations were being made. In Tapanatepec, the night after the standoff on the highway, during the open asamblea that the caraveneros hold most evenings, the civil society and religious groups that would receive the group in Mexico City put a choice before the crowd: either everyone could be housed in different parishes across the city, which would offer beds, dignified housing, for small groups of people, all over the city. The other option was to set up camp somewhere in the city, so the 7,000 people could stay together. The civil society and religious organizations from Mexico City thought the choice would be obvious: weary, tired, families, some ill, with blisters and coughs, would jump at the chance to have a comfortable stay. To everyone’s surprise, the crowd overwhelmingly decided they would rather all stay together. With fists in the air, the caraveneros started to chant “juntos, juntos, juntos…” (together, together, together).

Amelia Frank-Vitale is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. After working in Mexico from 2010-2015, where she focused on the multiple kinds of violence that Central Americans face while in transit, she now works in Honduras, studying how deportees reconfigure their lives and reimagine their futures after being sent back to some of the world’s most violent neighborhoods. 

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