Heidi Yohana Mejía Umanzor laughs and lies on a bed across from her daughter Tatiana and her niece, Sandra, at the Jesús el Buen Pastor shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, on March 6, 2022. Women and girls face immense risk while migrating to North America. Amnesty International says that for every 10 migrant women and girls who journey north, six will be raped. (Audio by Athena Ankrah and photo by Taylor Bayly/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
TAPACHULA, Mexico – Of the thousands of migrants who pass through Mexican shelters each year, at least 1 in 3 are children.
Children and teenagers are fleeing north in droves, from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala and a host of other countries. Some come with extended families or older siblings. Others travel with friends, but at least half attempt the journey alone, according to UNICEF.
Young migrants live in stark conditions, often sleeping in the open air or next to strangers in crowded shelters. Most don’t go to school in Tapachula – where all migrants must wait weeks or months for documents allowing them to continue heading north – because they must earn money for their families or care for younger siblings.
Wendy Pineda, 31, traveled with her children to Tapachula from Venezuela, traversing Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap along the Colombia-Panama border. Despite being one of the most dangerous jungles in the world, the Darién is a regular but highly dangerous route for migrants traveling north from South America. It’s notorious as the scene of rampant sexual violence against women and children.
But that was only the first of many challenges for Pineda and her family. In Tapachula, she and her young girls must sleep in a public park, where they are exposed to prostitution and drugs. Medical care is hard to come by, and there’s no money to pay for it. All the while, her children can’t attend school.
“If there was a school system here that could at least orient us, the kids could at least be away from this environment for a little bit,” Pineda said. “It would help us create a new future for them because these children are growing up in trauma.”
Experts say the toll of the journey and residual traumas brought from their home countries put children in particularly vulnerable positions.
Iván Francisco Porraz Gómez, a professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (the College of the Southern Border) whose research has focused on Central American teenage migrants in Tapachula, said many migrant children never had a stable life in their home countries. On the journey, they seek something they’ve never experienced before: a childhood.
“You can’t imagine being in your home place if there is brutal violence nearby, when you coexist with violence, with death and everything else that is possible,” Porraz said. “It’s as if they’re absent from the places where they were born and grew up and they’re searching for a way to recuperate something that they’ve never had before.”
Abril Moreno, who facilitates a therapy group for teenage migrants at the Jesuit Refugee Services office in Tapachula, said her participants arrive with a variety of traumatic life experiences: sexual violence, gender-based violence and gang kidnappings, among others things.
Moreno’s group helps youth migrants work through difficult emotions and offers them a chance to be young and curious again through such activities as music lessons, hands-on crafts and service projects. But working with a young migrant population walks a fine line between addressing the needs of children while also recognizing the adult roles that migrant adolescents – especially those who travel alone – too often are forced to assume.
“I think that even though they’re teenagers,” Moreno said, “they have this goal of telling themselves: ‘I have to wake up and get to another level mentally, make myself do adult things.’ Because some also come alone – the majority.”
Some eventually receive asylum status in Mexico after a bureaucratic wait that can take months. But many minors never even apply for fear of being detained, according to a report by Kids in Need of Defense and the Fray Matías Human Rights Center.
Meanwhile, children and teens find themselves stuck in southern Mexico, growing up amid a humanitarian crisis they can’t fully comprehend.
At midday on a Wednesday in March, a handful of teenagers crowd around a school table at the Hospitalidad y Solidaridad migrant shelter in Tapachula, watching curiously as their teacher Eva Cruz introduces them to the world of coffee. Cruz teaches them how to look for the distinct “notes” in a batch of coffee and encourages the teens to run their fingers over beans and smell a bag of grounds.
Cindy, a 15-year-old from Honduras, volunteers to be first up when it comes time to pour hot water through a coffee filter to wet the grounds. Gregarious and energetic, she takes her responsibilities seriously, watching intently as the coffee drips into the pot below.
Cindy has also taken on the role of big sister for a new arrival to the shelter, 13-year-old Daniel. For migrant youth, there are many levels of displacement: from a physical place, as well as from family and friends they were forced to leave back home. When they arrive in Tapachula, youngsters often befriend people from other parts of the world and establish camaraderie with migrants from their countries of origin.
“It’s as if we’re brother and sister,” Cindy said. “You see, I never had a younger brother, because I’m the youngest.”
Daniel agreed. “She was the first person that talked to me,” he said. “So I consider her my sister.”
Daniel traveled to Tapachula from Honduras with his family, and Cindy traveled from Honduras with her older brothers, leaving behind many family members. Cindy said she left home so she could earn money to support relatives in Honduras, especially her mother, who requires expensive cancer treatments.
The journey from Honduras through Guatemala was treacherous. She and her brothers trekked through mountains for several days in variable weather, often without food. At border crossings, corrupt officials took the 2,000 lempiras – about $80 – they’d brought with them. When they first arrived in Tapachula, they slept in a park until there was room in a shelter.
Cindy hopes to someday return to Honduras to see her family again. And if she does make it home, she hopes her relatives don’t recognize her as the same person who left.
“When I return to Honduras again, I want to return as a transformed girl,” she said, “something different from what they might think.”
Teenage migrants often feel a sense of responsibility either to family back home or younger siblings traveling with them. But economic drivers rarely are the sole reasons for migrating. In a study by UNICEF and UNHCR on migrants fleeing northern Central America, half of all migrant families seeking asylum in Mexico and an even larger proportion of unaccompanied minors reported fleeing home primarily because of violence, including death threats, extortion and gang recruitment.
Cindy’s “little brother” Daniel escaped Honduras with his family in secret at 4 o’clock one morning after a gang tried to recruit him, which is common among young male migrants from Central America.
“I left because they wanted me to join a gang, and if I didn’t, they were going to kill me and all of my family,” he said. “It was really hard because we had to leave in just two days.”
Carlos, 16, who’s also sheltering at Hospitalidad y Solidaridad, remembered a panic attack that came on after memories surfaced about his escape from Honduras.
“I hadn’t had time to process everything that had happened. Then it hit me, to run away. Not be like a locked up prisoner,” he said. “But now, thank God, I have calmed down.”
Carlos fled Honduras over a fear of extortion related to what he called a misunderstanding between his father and a local gang. After traveling to Tapachula with a 23-year-old cousin, he plans to reunite with family members who already have permanent residency in Mexico.
This wasn’t the first time Carlos dealt with gang threats. A few years ago at school, Carlos said, gangs tried to coerce him into acting as a spy for them. To avoid the pressure, he switched schools.
For Carlos, life was terrifying in Honduras, which he said “has an atmosphere like that of a war.”
After what he went through, Carlos has difficulty trusting people.
“In my opinion, it is better to know people from afar,” he said. “Because in my experience, in my life, I have had quite a few people who have hurt me.”
For another Honduran boy, Jose, 14, who had been at Hospitalidad with his family for a few months already, leaving home felt almost surreal.
“It was new.” he said. “I had to get across the border and go through periods of hunger. It feels like I’m on vacation, just that it’s a permanent vacation. Permanent and unexpected, since I’m not going back to my country and I won’t be able to see my friends again.”
Children who have fled have mixed emotions about returning home.
“I miss it in terms of visiting my relatives, but on the other hand I don’t because there’s this fear that something could happen,” Jose said.
Carlos professed no such misgivings.
“If I could return right now, I’d already be there,” he said.
For Vilma, 36, a mother of two from Guatemala who asked that only her first name be used because of safety concerns, the thought of returning home is out of the question. She and her children fled their home in January after a sequence of traumatic events that she said included the rape of her daughter, the robbery of money she had been loaned to sustain her family and a subsequent attempt on her children’s lives after she couldn’t repay the loan.
Vilma said they were forced to live in one room for over a month, defecating in a trash bin and unable to step onto the patio for air because they were being monitored by their would-be assassin. Her children still get scared when they hear a motorcycle or car whiz by.
Violence is pervasive on the journey, with sexual violence particularly common among women and girls. Experts say most of the women and girls migrating through Mexico have experienced sexual abuse and violence since childhood. In many cases, they normalize incessant gender-based violence as a coping mechanism. Latin American countries make up more than half the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, according to the United Nations. Only 2% of gender-related killings are ever prosecuted.
Vilma’s 13-year-old daughter stared blankly ahead as she waited near her mother. She doesn’t like to talk anymore, Vilma said. Not after the rape.
“She’s quieter,” Vilma said. “She remembers what happened in our country and she doesn’t like to talk about it.”
Still, being in Mexico has improved things for her kids – at least a little.
“My children felt calmer when we entered Mexico because they know that their lives are in danger in our country,” Vilma said. “Arriving here, they’re already a bit calmer. Not 100%, but they’re a little calmer. We can go out in public.”
Unlike Vilma’s two children, many young migrants do not have the support of family to help them escape. Half of all child migrants in Mexican shelters are traveling without parents, one of the highest recorded proportions in Mexico, a UNICEF report said.
The statistics are pegged against them: Amnesty International reported that in 2019, 9 out of 10 unaccompanied youth from Central America that came into contact with Mexican authorities were deported. As of June 2021, Mexican authorities had reported deporting half of all Central American unaccompanied child migrants in their custody.
One unaccompanied minor, Gaby, 17, spends her time in Bicentenario Park. The Honduran teen, who identifies as LGBTQ, perhaps finds some solace in the park, where some of the other migrants visibly buck gender norms, donning bright lipstick or wearing dresses and long hair.
Gaby said she sometimes goes up to five days without eating because she can’t afford food. The park is the only place she can go to.
She left behind a culture that would not accept her, where her life was in jeopardy for being herself. Except for a sister who lives in the United States whom she hopes to reunite with, her family doesn’t love her for who she is, Gaby said.
“My father doesn’t accept me for who I am,” she said. “My siblings don’t love me, they just abuse me. They kick me out of the house, throw me to the streets. I’m forced to go sleep in the parks.”
Gaby fled Honduras after an attack left visible wounds. She kept photos of the wounds on her cellphone to use as proof in her asylum application, but she lost important evidence of the abuse after her phone was stolen during her migration.
But if she returns to Honduras, friends have warned Gaby that she could be murdered. And she isn’t alone. One out of five unaccompanied child migrants from northern Central America report having fled death threats, according to UNICEF and UNHCR.
Still, Gaby knows that there’s a chance she won’t receive humanitarian protections in Mexico, which could mean larger consequences for her.
“The truth is that they could deport me back to Honduras again,” she said, “but I don’t know. And if I go back there, they say that I’m going to be killed.”
Gaby planned to apply for asylum in Tapachula. If she takes such a step, her migration journey could be significantly altered until she turns 18.
Unaccompanied minors identified by Mexican authorities are sent to government-run shelters, which are segregated by age and gender. According to shelter protocols, at such institutions, adolescent males are separated from their female siblings with no possibility of reunification while they remain there. Unaccompanied minors who identify as transgender are forced to stay in the shelter associated with the gender they were assisgned at birth.
Mexican state shelters for unaccompanied minors have come under criticism from some human rights organizations for allegations of abuse and discrimination, although officials deny the reports. Ivonne Bautista, a child psychologist at Fray Matías Human Rights Center in Tapachula, called the shelters for unaccompanied minors traumatizing for migrant children.
“It’s like a prison. They’ll often see it as: Why am I here? Why won’t they let me leave?” Bautista said. “It can traumatize them, and when they experience trauma, there are other major long-term implications.”
Nora Raquel Soto-Soto, director of the Tapachula office of the National System for Integral Family Development, the federal agency in charge of shelters for unaccompanied minors, acknowledged that some migrant children do attempt to escape the shelters soon after they arrive. But she said it isn’t because of anything wrong with the way the shelters operate.
“They usually come with the intention of getting further north,” Soto-Soto said. “That’s the reason that they don’t want to be here because there’s someone waiting for them or they’re motivated for some other reason.”
The migrant journey is grueling, and for many young people who migrate unaccompanied, it isn’t their first attempt to leave home. UNICEF and UNHCR report that a quarter of them already have tried to reach Mexico or the United States at least once before.
But whether alone or with family, young migrants who have made it to Tapachula have one purpose: They will continue on, their sights set on the promise of a better life in a place that isn’t the one from which they came.
In a cramped room full of twin-size beds at the bustling Jesús el Buen Pastor shelter in Tapachula, 31-year-old Heidi Yohana Mejía Umanzor watches over her daughter Tatiana, 14, and niece Sandra, 16. She left two younger children, a 13-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, in Honduras, where they are staying with an uncle.
Umanzor’s tight black curls bounce as she describes her two earlier attempts to reach the U.S. after fleeing domestic violence. Umanzor said she’s determined to see her journey to the U.S. through this time, despite the risks.
“They rob you of your belongings. You run the risk that they’ll do harm to you as a woman, whether or not you’re a woman or a man,” Umanzor said. “It’s not easy. But all of this that happened to me – if I manage in the situation that I was in, I will be able to do it. I will make it there.”
The journey, she said, has weighed heavily on Tatiana and Sandra, but the fact they’ve made it this far is enough to keep her moving forward.
“I already made it through all this and I’m still alive, my children are with me. I have to keep going,” Umanzor said.
Tatiana, too, said she’s much happier in Tapachula. At Buen Pastor, she spends her days sleeping and scrolling through Facebook on a phone while her mother works at a nearby cafeteria.
Tatiana doesn’t miss anything about home except her family, especially her younger brother and sister.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “I remember them and know that something could happen to them. I feel a heavy weight in my heart or in my chest. I can feel that they aren’t OK.”
But she’s also grateful to be safe and with her mother, and hopeful that better days lie ahead.
“Thanks to God that we are here again,” Tatiana said. “And that we are OK.”
Reporters Geraldine Torrellas, Laura Bargfeld and Athena Ankrah contributed to this story.