2016-Competition Winner-D

Lives in Transit: Economies of Violence, Intimacy and Care along the Migrant Journey in Mexico

by  Wendy Vogt (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)


On a quiet cobblestone street several blocks from the second-class bus station in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico there is a graffiti marked wall with the painted words, “Here, no one is a foreigner.” If you look behind the wall you might catch a glimpse of a child riding a rusty tricycle or a group of people sitting down to a meal of beans, corn tortillas and fresh cheese. If you stay long enough you will notice a pattern: a constant stream of people, many of them carrying small bags and backpacks, coming and going through a heavy metal door. This is the entrance to a way station, a sanctuary for clandestine flows of Central American migrants en route to the United States. Each day people arrive from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and beyond in search of a hot meal, medical attention or simply a safe place to rest their heads for a few nights. These immediate needs are welcome distractions from what they’ve left behind and what they will continue to sacrifice to reach their destinations.

Before reaching the scorching deserts of Arizona or the waters of the Rio Grande, Central American migrants must first cross Mexico, a paradoxical land of resource-rich natural and ethnic diversity, striking economic inequality and a seemingly endless drug war. In the 3000-kilometers that separate Mexico’s southern and northern borders, migrants spend indefinite periods of time navigating the complex physical and human terrain of the journey. Increased militarization and state enforcement through roadside checkpoints, raids and detention centers have created border-like conditions throughout Mexico’s interior, what I call the “arterial border”. The arterial border funnels migrants into more clandestine and dangerous routes where they ride on the tops of freight trains, engage human smugglers/facilitators and buy passage from organized criminals who control transit routes. Migrants routinely encounter abuse, injury, extortion and kidnapping as they become implicated in localized economies that profit from their mobility. In response to this violence, over 50 shelters have been established along transit routes offering aid and advocacy to migrants in need. In 2008-2009 I worked as a full-time volunteer at one such shelter, Casa Guadalupe, where I collected unimaginable stories of violence and of resilience that form the foundation of this book.

Lives in Transit provides a rare look into the rich social world of transit migration from the intimate perspective of daily life at migrant shelters located along the journey in southern Mexico. While scholars have extensively studied migrant sending and receiving communities and borderlands, less understood are the ways migration journeys—the liminal spaces migrants occupy while in transit—have become important sites of violence and profit, of community struggle and activism. Through the powerful testimonies of migrants still in the midst of their journeys and the people on the ground who care for them, this book examines how the violence of migration is experienced, embodied, reproduced and contested in local settings. It links together the larger structural conditions that propel migration with everyday social categories—gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and disability—that mediate experiences of violence, inequality, and survival. It also illuminates the daily strategies, social relations and local economies that migrants engage while in transit. I pay particular attention to the economies of intimacy, kinship and care that develop as migrants and local residents negotiate their movements and their lives. For example, I analyze the strategic coupling of male and female migrants like Jessenia and Abel who agreed to pose as a married couple for protection, companionship and legitimacy as they moved across Mexico. I also analyze the everyday forms of carework performed by local residents who through their actions challenge societal forms of anti-immigrant and ethno-racial discrimination. In doing so, the book chronicles not only the political economy of migration and violence, but also the new forms of solidarity and larger struggles for human rights and social justice that have emerged along migrant routes over the past decade.

The book is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out between 2006 and 2013 in humanitarian aid shelters and transit communities throughout southern Mexico. Drawing from twelve months working at Casa Guadalupe and other key nodes, my research overlapped with the unfolding of new systematic forms of violence against migrants, perpetrated by a mix of state officials, organized criminals, train conductors and even other migrants who profited from extortion and mass kidnappings. By embedding myself within the shelter I was able to capture the raw emotions, embodied effects and responses to these cascading forms of violence in people’s lives. For example, I describe how Irma, a single mother from Honduras who lost both her legs after falling from the train, continued to care for her young daughter by working at the shelter while she waited to receive her prosthetic legs.  I recount the evening in the men’s dormitory where Gabriel, a transgender migrant, told me about his kidnapping, assault and his now constant worries of HIV transmission. I take readers into the waiting room of a local clinic where Carmen and Ever, a pregnant couple escaping gang violence in El Salvador, quietly rejoiced as they carefully studied the black and white image of their first ultrasound and made plans for the future. By tracing the intimate contours of migrants’ lives this book illuminates the human face of migration and challenges traditional dichotomies of migrants as either illegal criminals or helpless victims.

Through the intimate and everyday spaces of shelter life, this book also examines the complex dynamics surrounding humanitarian aid within local communities. Migrant shelters are spaces of solidarity and hope, but they are also spaces fraught with tension as they become implicated into localized economies of violence. Humanitarianism becomes a point of contestation as diverse groups struggle to realize their own visions of safety and security. How, for example, do residents react when allegations of rape begin to swirl around a Salvadoran migrant staying at the shelter? How do shelter workers respond when twelve women are kidnapped from the top of train in broad daylight? To more deeply analyze the complexities around humanitarianism and economies of compassion, the book concludes by connecting the intimate labors of local people to a broader social movement around migrants’ rights in the Americas. In the penultimate chapter I take readers to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where a caravan of Central American mothers marched through the streets carrying photographs of their missing children. By retracing the journeys of their children and speaking out against the injustices of the state, these women are testament to the new forms of social activism and mobility emerging along transit routes. I use ethnographic scenes such as this to engage the diverse geographical and social landscapes through which people move and to begin to make sense of the rippling effects of transit migration in people’s lives.

Inside Casa Guadalupe there is a mural that depicts scenes from the journey between Central America and the United States: a mother and child looking northward, people clinging to the tops of freight trains and masked gunmen robbing them as they pass through military checkpoints before arriving to a wall of graves along the U.S.-Mexico border. But there are also scenes of hope: churches, migrant aid shelters, women throwing food to migrants and people protesting “Justice for Migrants” in the United States. A series of interconnected faces in different shades of brown is accompanied by the quote, “Migrants are not statistics. They have faces and dignity.” This book aspires to make these faces and this humanity visible. As the mural presented so beautifully, this is a complex journey comprised of a myriad of social actors connected between and across borders. Their stories are often told through the brutality of violence, but this violence does not come without struggle. This is a book about that struggle and about the people who animate it through their everyday labors of hope, solidarity and care.

Description of Chapters


In the summer of 2014 the world was offered a brief glimpse into the brutal reality of Central American migration when an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the US-Mexico border. A media spectacle quickly unfolded as politicians warned of children as vectors of disease and images of children and women crammed into detention centers circulated on social media sites. While this public attention addressed for the first time a human rights crisis that had been rendered invisible for years, much of the analysis reproduced discourses of criminality, fear and victimhood. The prologue situates this book within contemporary debates around immigration policy and practice. As large numbers of Central Americans continue to flee conditions of political and social instability at home, and new waves of deportations that specifically target Central American families in the US continue to increase, it is crucial to understand the historical and political economic contexts of Central American migration and to move the dialogue on immigration to the United States beyond the US-Mexico border.


The book begins with a narration of my first day at Casa Guadalupe.  I introduce readers to the diverse group of migrants I met staying at the shelter: a Honduran woman trying to get to Mexico City, a couple from Nicaragua, three men from Guatemala and an indigenous Mexican man making his way back to his family in Chiapas. I also introduce my colleagues and key interlocutors: the young couple and their daughter who permanently live in and run the shelter, the single-mother who oversees daily operations and the priest and lay missionaries who founded it. On this ordinary day I met people from five different countries, each with their own motivations and aspirations, origins and destinations, yet for a brief moment in time we shared this collective space. I use this entry into fieldwork to develop my argument around the conceptual and methodological value of ethnography in spaces of transit. Migrant journeys are rich social worlds to examine how the politics of migration play out in local spaces and social relations, in peoples’ lives, and on their bodies. I then trace the way this research, originally conceptualized as a critical study of violence and security, also became a study about social struggle and solidarity.

Chapter One: The Relativity of Violence

“El Salvador is like a prison. The only way to gain liberty is to escape.” — Ever, Salvadoran migrant

A central question that animates this book is why people would willingly put themselves at risk of violence in their journeys north. While it speaks to the agency of individuals, such a question frames migration as an act of rational choice with a purposeful orientation toward the future. In contrast, many of my interlocutors framed their migration not only in relation to the future, but also to the past; if you want to know why we risk this brutal journey, where we are raped, violated, robbed and abused, you must understand where we come from. The chapter begins with Elio, a fourteen-year old boy who had been living at Casa Guadalupe for several weeks. Elio was born in San Pedro Sula, the most murderous city in the most murderous country in the world. At the age of twelve he decided to leave home and escape to Mexico where he hoped to find work and send money home to his mother. Elio had four siblings in Honduras, including two older brothers. While many adolescent boys look up to their older brothers, Elio feared his. “They do drugs, they have guns. I’m scared of my own brother. I’m scared to be in my own country. Being in my country takes your smile away.” Elio went on to tell me about the first time he witnessed death, the two years he spent working on a Mexican fishing dock and his dream of reuniting with his mother. Like Elio, many Central Americans are confronted with the reality that home may be the most dangerous place for them to be.

Through the stories of young people like Elio and an older generation of migrants who lived through decades of civil war, this chapter examines how the violence of migration must be understood within a deeper temporal and spatial context of violence across the Americas. Structural forms of violence including the legacies of civil war, transnational gang criminality, economic precarity and social inequality are all forces that propel mobility from Central America. I suggest a historical continuum where the violence people experience along the journey is not conceptualized as new or unique, but a continuation of processes they have known their entire lives.

Chapter Two: The Arterial Border

Historically, the majority of scholarship and public discourse on migration routes to the United States concentrate on the US-Mexico border region. Indeed, the US-Mexico border is one of the world’s most visible displays of state power manifest through a sophisticated border enforcement infrastructure. Yet for most Central Americans, the US-Mexico border represents just one phase within a longer trajectory of movement through militarized space. As Aurelio, a migrant from Honduras explained to me, “Mexicans have it easy, they only have to cross the northern border. We Central Americans have to cross Mexico.”

This chapter begins at the bustling Guatemala-Mexico border where makeshift rafts freely cross the river dividing the two countries just a few yards away from the official port of entry. Mexico’s southern border is porous; it is not until migrants reach Mexico’s interior that they encounter an extensive immigration enforcement apparatus via roadside checkpoints, surveillance technologies, raids and detention facilities. This chapter traces the development and enactment of what I call Mexico’s arterial border from the 1980s to the present. The intensification of border-making practices in Mexico largely reflect a US-led security agenda, particularly after 9/11, and more recently a hemispheric agenda of “rescue”. I complement this historical-political analysis with the lived experiences of abuse and extortion as migrants encounter state agents along the arterial border. This chapter also introduces the shifting dynamics and novel strategies migrants develop as they are funneled into more clandestine transit routes. In doing so, this chapter highlights the disjuncture between discourses of security and rescue and the lived realities of human security along Mexico’s arterial border.

Chapter Three: The Cachuco Industry

This chapter delves into the ways the journey across Mexico has become a site of intense violence and profit making. To do so, I analyze what Padre José, one of my key interlocutors and most vocal defenders of migrant rights in Mexico, called the cachuco industry. Cachuco is a racially charged term used for Central Americans in Mexico and roughly translates into dirty pig. Through migrant testimonies, this chapter traces the ways Central American migrants’ bodies, labor and lives are transformed into commodities within economies of smuggling, extortion, and kidnapping. Violence becomes the central mechanism through which vulnerabilities are produced and profits are derived. Such processes depend on dehumanizing state, legal and social practices that construct migrants as unwanted criminals and racialized and gendered others.  The commoditization of migrants coincides with the transformation of migrants into new consumers in transit spaces, where both processes feed off of and contribute to the cachuco industry. I conclude the chapter with Padre José’s own story of why his life was spared after the organized criminals that control the area near his shelter vowed to kill him. The shelter, it turned out, was crucial to the cartel’s operations as it relied upon migrants in the transport of weapons, drugs and bodies. This story reveals a central contradiction wherein local actors may at once resent or prey upon migrants as racialized others, and simultaneously depend upon them as laborers and/or consumers.

 Chapter Four: Journey Scars

 Carmen had a crescent moon-shaped scar just above her right eye. Since I began working at Casa Guadalupe I started to pay close attention to bodily marks like scars, tattoos and gold plated teeth. A scar could be the missing piece in a future puzzle, used to help identify people who went missing or were kidnapped as they continued their journeys north. Yet a scar could also have a story to tell. Carmen’s scar was her journey scar, a daily reminder of being hit with the butt of a gun when she attempted to escape her captors in the southern state of Chiapas. It was also a daily reminder for her husband, Ever, who still has nightmares of different scenarios where he unable to help her. A crescent-shaped scar, a missing foot, a swollen belly—these are just a few examples of the visible traces of the violence of migration. Through the experiences of individual migrants who have suffered direct forms of violence—many of them collected in the waiting room of a local clinic—this chapter examines the highly gendered, intimate and embodied realities of transit migration. At the same time, this chapter problematizes narratives of victimhood that often fail to account for the agency and resiliency of individual actors. Carmen and Ever had not given up, but were more determined than ever to move on, especially as they anticipated the arrival of their first child. So too was Marilu, who patiently waited for a prosthetic leg to be donated so she could continue on her journey to the US and take care of her three children. By tracing the embodied consequences of migration, we see how people’s lives are disrupted, sutured and transformed in both heartbreaking and inspiring ways.

 Chapter Five: Intimate Crossings

 This chapter shifts the focus to the social relations and economies of intimacy migrants engage while en route. It offers a counterpoint to media and political discourses that frame human smugglers as elusive criminals who seek nothing but to profit off their human cargo. Not only do such constructions divert attention from the larger political economic processes that fuel smuggling industries—the twin forces of global capitalism and state enforcement—but they also fail to account for the complex social infrastructure that facilitates migration on the ground. This chapter aims to complicate normative understandings of human mobility and smuggling by focusing on the intimate social relationships and forms of carework that develop along migrant journeys. For example, I tell the story of Jessenia and Abel, who demonstrate what I call “protective pairings”, when men and women come together to pose as a married couple as a migration strategy. Abel, who was on his way to North Carolina met Jessenia at a shelter where she was recovering after recently being kidnapped, sexually assaulted and impregnated. The two agreed to work together, him offering her protection and her offering him companionship and the performance of other duties including washing his clothes and procuring food. Even so, Jessenia constantly feared Abel would tire of her and leave her for another female migrant. In addition to protective pairings, the chapter also explores the intimate forms of exchange and closeness that may develop between migrants and their smugglers, family members and groups. Such examples demonstrate how migrants, smugglers, guides and companions engage multiple forms of intimate labor, in some cases strategically re-imagining the borders of solidarity and kinship.

Chapter Six: Economies of Compassion

 “We work on the tracks with tears in our eyes, but with hope in our hearts” –Doña Alicia

I followed Doña Alicia as she wove her way through abandoned rail cars inviting small groups of migrants to the shelter for a meal of beans and tortillas. She made a point of greeting each person she encountered, looking them straight in the eye while grasping their hands with hers. These were ordinary small gestures, but here, along the tracks, they were radical acts of compassion and connection. As we walked along I told Doña Alicia about my project examining experiences of violence along the migrant journey. She gave me a puzzled look, “You are only studying violence? But, Wendy, you cannot understand violence without also understanding hope. They are two sides of the same thing.”

Inspired by the words of Doña Alicia, this chapter examines the ways local people have responded to violence through shared moral frameworks and radical acts of compassion, humanitarianism and organizing. The emergence of a network of migrant shelters over the past decade represents a unique model in the ways local actors challenge the state through advocacy around migrant and human rights. This chapter also explores some of the complexities around economies of compassion in local spaces. Building on chapter 3 and the discussion of the ways shelters become implicated in the cachuco industry, I examine how humanitarian aid shelters become points of contestation. I take readers to the train tracks near a shelter in Veracruz that closed after neighborhood protests and to the inauguration of a new shelter where residents symbolically welcomed migrants into their community with a fiesta featuring homemade tamales and atole. The dynamics between priests, shelter workers, and local residents put into relief the ways moral imaginaries of charity, inclusion and justice are shaped by everyday economic and social realities of safety and security.

Chapter SevenTransnational Solidarities

Building on chapter 6, this chapter expands the focus to the larger transnational solidarities that have formed around migrant rights in Latin America. It centers on a social movement comprised of the mothers and families of migrants who went missing during their journeys across Mexico. Each year a caravan of families of the missing travel along transit routes in Mexico, where women carry posters with the photographs of their children and the dates they disappeared. During a public march I attended, one mother hands out flyers to store owners asking if they have seen her son. Another takes the microphone and weeps for several moments before telling her story. Through their powerful testimonies of loss and uncertainty, these mothers speak to the intimate forms of violence and absence that permeate families across the Americas. Yet, by retracing the steps of their children, these women not only give voice and visibility to their suffering, but also engage a larger politics around unauthorized migration, the state and violence in Mexico. The chapter concludes by linking together the visible labors of these mothers taking to the streets with the largely invisible yet no less important labors of local women, like Doña Alicia, who sustain migrant shelters on a daily basis. In doing so, I demonstrate the transnational feminist politics and forms of solidarity that undergird these local and transnational economies of compassion and social justice.


The conclusion reflects on the power of ethnography to make crucial interventions into both migration scholarship and larger debates around immigration and border enforcement in a global context. As state and transnational security regimes continue to tighten around the globe, people risk more clandestine and dangerous journeys to reach their destinations. We are inundated with disturbing images of capsized refugee boats, migrants clinging to the tops of freight trains and crowded refugee camps. Yet the analyses of such realities are often ahistorical, overly simplistic and/or rooted in fear, doing little more than reproducing the spectacle of suffering. This book aims to move beyond the spectacle to make visible the deeper historical, political and economic processes that undergird clandestine journeys. It seeks to expose the diverse array of social actors, spaces and institutions that make up transit worlds. In doing so, this book not only humanizes what has been largely dehumanized but also moves toward new understandings of the novel ways individuals struggle for survival, for dignity and for human rights. Such projects are increasingly important as people around the world continue to move through the unforgiving political and physical landscapes of transit life.