Monday, August 5, 2013

What's "Rural" in Honduran Immigration?

In rural Honduras, the northward pull is strong

That's how the Washington Post headlined an article that, unfortunately, is unlikely to give people in the US anything other than another set of stereotypes about Honduras to add to drug violence and gang violence.

Let's start with "rural". I started the article thinking, maybe finally someone got out into Yoro to talk to people there, like the ones I worked with in the early 1990s-- before electricity arrived.

Or maybe they visited Santa Barbara, where on my first visit to the site my compadre was excavating in the early 1980s, we needed a flashlight to walk through the lightless night-time streets of the city-- the capital of the Department of Santa Barbara state.

That's rural. And there are still plenty of backwaters in Honduras where sanitation, electricity, and potable water are not routine, where cities are a long way away.

So imagine my surprise when I realized that the "rural town" here is Comayagua-- the colonial capital city, the capital of the department of Comayagua, and one of the most populous cities in the country.

I would have characterized Comayagua, located on the main highway that links San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, as urban. It's a city of approximately 60,000 residents.

The valley in which the city sits is a center of commercial agriculture, which the Millennium Challenge Corporation described in 2009 as
of the utmost importance to Honduras, agricultural and cattle breeding activities carried out in the valley stimulate the national economy; the valley is leader in the production of oriental vegetables and pickles in Honduras and Central America.

Think Dubuque, Iowa.

Rural, if by rural you mean agricultural. Not if you mean remote and antique.

But that is what the photo essay accompanying the Washington Post story seems designed to suggest. 

The first image shows a man roping a bull-- a common part of life even near San Pedro Sula, the industrial powerhouse of the country, due to a long heritage of cattle ranching. The annual Feria Juniana in San Pedro Sula centrally features cowboys riding, and a cattle show-- like any country fair anywhere in the US.

But that image set a certain tone for the representation of Comayagua, which was reinforced by images of mango vendors on the side of a road, and reached an absurd climax with a series of three images of two young men, hard at work "at the Villa San Antonio community outside Comayagua".

Pause for geography lesson: Wikipedia, to which I resort out of necessity, informs us that the Villa de San Antonio is located 20 minutes outside the city of Comayagua, has 17,000 inhabitants, and its "principal economic activities include farming, factory work, and construction". 

Back to the images: the first shows a view along the paved highway. Cars drive by-- three are visible-- but our focus is on two young men in a cart. The caption describes them as riding to work "in a typical carriage pulled by oxen".

Now, "typical" usually implies "normal": what most people might use. Ox carts, though, are actually more used for specific kinds of work than as the typical form of transportation, even in the really remote rural areas I have worked in. As early as 1955 a US news article characterized Honduras as having moved directly from ox carts to airplanes, making this an especially durable image of primitiveness applied to the country.

The second photo in the sequence shows the same two young men and describes them as working "to extract dirt from the bank of a river, which they will later sell".

So far as I know, there is no market in Honduras for dirt (as such). It is possible that these two young men were digging clay, a principal material for building adobe houses that still form an important part of the housing stock in Comayagua.

Villa San Antonio's mayor made news last year asking for funding to pave the town's streets, noting that it also needed potable water. It is exactly the kind of place where adobe houses still are the most practical option for people.

So yes, Villa San Antonio is rural, if by rural you mean: poor.

But not rural as in remote, removed from urbanization. In fact, the mayor went on to talk about the need to plan for infrastructure impacts when the military air base at Palmerola is finally rebuilt as a civilian airport. Because Palmerola (Soto Cano Airbase) is in the Villa de San Antonio.

And Villa San Antonio and the other places featured in Comayagua are not particularly central to the story of Honduran migration, anyway.

News coverage today in La Prensa today says that 52,000 deportees were returned in 2012, about 32,000 from the US.

According to authorities quoted, they came primarily came from the departments of Cortés (where San Pedro Sula is located), Francisco Morazán (where Tegucigalpa is located), Yoro and Choluteca-- the last two actually rural.  No mention of Comayagua as a leading source of Honduran would-be emigrants to the US.

Of course, this isn't really a story about Honduras. Instead, it offers another stereotype: the story of Central Americans trying to reach the US, forced by Mexican drug lords to pack drugs into the US.

The narrative on immigration is just as incoherent as its representation of Comayagua. Admitting that the total of intercepted would-be undocumented immigrants at the Mexico border is at its lowest point in 40 years-- since the 1970s-- the article seizes on the fact that a higher proportion of those still trying to enter the US are from Central America.

For Hondurans, we are told, the immigration reform bill "has nothing to offer".

That's convenient: immigration reform offers nothing for Central Americans, who are coming in a "surge of unlawful newcomers", "an exodus".

Of course, it is both a small surge and an unsuccessful exodus: of an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Hondurans trying to make it to the US in a year, we are told, more than 50,000 are deported from the US-- and what cannot be estimated is how many turned back before crossing the border.

There are real issues that could have been covered here. The portrayal of Honduran immigrants as semi-willing drug mules ignores a horrific and well documented recent history of hopeful immigrants being kidnapped by Mexican criminals and held for ransom, raped, even killed.

The Post could have followed the lead of Columbia University's Katy Orlinsky, whose reporting details the risks Honduran immigrants experience riding the Mexican rails. She documents the bias Central Americans face Mexico, where (as in the US) they are viewed as likely gang members.

Most of all, she presents these people in full humanity, wanting to "show Americans what they go through to make it to the other side" She wrote:
I worked to capture their feelings of hope and uncertainty, fear and anticipation... of the young people I met in the rail yards were brave and generous. They took care of one another. People shared food; they took turns keeping watch. They felt safe with one another.

The Post could have done something similar; the last ten photos in their essay actually tell that story, if they had been explained.

They start with images of Hondurans crossing the border with Guatemala at Corinto, on the northern coast, supposedly starting for the US. Next comes an image of a bus full of Hondurans deported from the US, at the old airport of San Pedro Sula. The two ends of the journey.

The images that follow mix two centers to support returning migrants, one at the border crossing at  Corinto, the other at the San Pedro airport.

Honduran press describes the center at Corinto in 2012 as intended to serve Hondurans deported from Mexico. Funded initially by the Red Cross, the Centro de Atención a Personas Migrantes responds to the medical needs of these Hondurans-- needs caused by the conditions that Orlinsky wrote about. The mission is one of serving people who have suffered.

The second center featured, Centro de Atención al Migrante Retornado (CAMR), is one of two located at the major Honduran airports. It is supported by the Catholic Missionary Brothers of San Carlos Borromeo, along with the Honduran government and an international NGO, the International Organization for Migration. Its mission, too, is to serve:
To assist those vulnerable Hondurans who return to the country, through actions directed to attend to their immediate needs and to promote their social adaptation and integration.

Vulnerable Hondurans.

This is the real story of Hondurans attempting to make it to the US: danger, risk, and need. Not as sexy as drug running, of course.

1 comment:

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

I too was puzzled at the article in The Washington Post. I hardly think of Comayagua as rural.

The study of rural migration to the US as well as to the major cities of Honduras is important. An important question is "Why is this happening?" I think one of the factors is the economy, the lack of opportunities even for educated young people. I know of several cases of high school graduates who have left rural towns and villages for San Pedro Sula, where they work in maquilas.
Also, a few weeks ago 21 men left several rural villages in Ocotepeque for the US. Why? and Why now?
Thanks for picking apart the article - another example of how Honduras is misunderstood in the US.