On a Saturday night four hundred miles south of the U.S. border, a group of people gathered in a small Mexican village to participate in a simulated illegal border-crossing event called Caminata Nocturna, or Night Hike. Anyone interested in experiencing the shorter, easier, and non-life-threatening version of an illegal Mexico-U.S. border crossing can do so in the village of El Alberto for $16.
Thousands have participated in the event since its inception in July of 2004. Different sorts of people have an interest in experiencing what it is like to cross the border illegally, and some have incorrectly perceived the event as a sort of training camp for migrants. On the night This Amercian Life contributor James Spring joined the event for his story “Flight Simulation,” the group consisted of middle class Mexicans, university students, and a team of initially-annoying salespeople from Mexico City who were doing it as a corporate team-building exercise. As Spring put it, they were “people who would probably never need to actually sneak into the U.S.” Even though these particular people happened to be fairly removed from the reality of having to cross the border illegally, the story itself is a large part of their national heritage. One of the group members, Mexican secondary school teacher Sergio Mendieta, said, “It’s a part of our culture, and it’s important to know it.”
Tour guide Julian Garcia said that some participants see it as an adventure, but those who put the event on see it differently. To the residents of El Alberto, it is “a way to raise consciousness.” Garcia says the simulation creates empathy for those who make the journey in real life. The people who put on the Caminata Nocturna are from an ancient indigenous tribe called the Hnahnu. Their land, the El Alberto village, is on a federal territory grant and is not very good for either cattle or farming. Paid jobs are scarce. Out of necessity, many Hnahnu became experts at crossing the border.
In an interesting twist, this repeated re-enactment of a simulated border crossing that none of the Hnahnu wanted to go on in the first place has become the best way for the Hnahnu to avoid migrating. That said, the changes have been slight: the migrating population of the village went from 90 percent down to 65 percent. El Alberto is still dependent on the money sent back from the Hnahnu working and living in the U.S. About 100 people in the town help out with the Caminata Nocturna, and the event is advertised, but the tourism industry is fickle, and weeks can go by between events.
Before setting out, the lead coyote runs through the whys, hows, and whats of the next four hours. Given all the horrible fates one can come to, “crossing the border is only for the most desperate of souls,” he said in closing. During 7.5 mile trek, the would-be migrants were guided none too gently by masked coyotes and pollers through several perilous situations. They narrowly evaded U.S. Border Patrol officers who spotted and chased them. They encountered a drug cartel who took their money, stole their food, and “killed” one of the group, who was in reality a planted actress. They had to walk and run in the dark through rocky, dusty, and muddy lands without incapacitating themselves, a feat that becomes much more important and difficult when one is walking in a vast desert for two days and nights instead of four hours. They had to pacify indigenous people whose land they had trespassed upon. Finally, they met up with the ride that took them blindfolded to a safehouse. Springs’ guide pointed out that an actual safehouse would have been much more crowded, and migrants are kept there until their relatives have paid off the balance of the coyote’s fee.
But for this group, the blindfolds came off and the Caminata Nocturna was finished. Then, the lead coyote gave a closing speech. The one reported in an L.A. Times article centered on migrant solidarity and the inherent right these desperate people have to seek work in foreign lands. The closing speech in Springs’ report focused on statements about the moral obligation Mexicans have to give their energies to their own communities so that Mexico can become great. The different messages are quite fitting. They reflect the pervading duality of people who are forced to leave their home, and risk their lives to do so, in order to help their families.
By Donna Westlund