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A Discussion with Adriana Salcedo, Activist, LIS Justice Movement, Mexico City, Mexico

With: Adriana Salcedo

June 28, 2016

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship, in June 2016 undergraduate student Carolyn Vilter interviewed Adriana Salcedo, an activist with LIS Justice Movement in Mexico City, Mexico. In this interview, Salcedo reflects on applying the theoretical to the practical in aiding refugees, and she discusses Mexico's social responsibility to protect migrants.
What is your name?

My name is Adriana Salcedo. I’m 30 years old, I’m a graduate of the undergraduate international relations program of the Universidad Iberoamericana [IBERO], and I completed a master's in criminology and criminal justice at Durham University in England.

In relation to the theme, I began to work on the topic of migration through Martín Iñiguez’s class at IBERO, because that was the first time I heard a little bit about Tapachula, the situation there. I’d read some in the news, but the class really changed my perspective. The summer was coming up, and here at IBERO, there’s the option to do an external stay for the summer, so I went to the summer options fair and saw that there were two vacancies in a human rights center for the summer—Fray Matias, in Tapachula. I applied and was chosen, so the summer of 2010 I went to the center. There, they explained the function of the center and asked what area we wanted to be involved in; I ended up in the legal area, so I worked with the lawyer in the center.

It was really interesting, and I learned so much, particularly because we would go the the detention center Siglo XXI [Twenty-First Century], the largest detention center [estación migratoria] in Mexico, with a capacity of 1,000 people, when I was there. We went every Tuesday and Thursday, and what we did was look over the lists they gave us and tried to ascertain different people’s stories. The center already had the most complicated themes identified, so we called people and interviewed them with the questionnaire that the center had. The goal was to identify people who could possibly apply to solicit asylum as refugees in Mexico.

When I was there, I heard all kind of stories and met people of many different nationalities. What impacted me the most was that these people were fleeing their countries, had arrived in Mexico, and told stories of mistreatment, suffering, and becoming victims of any and all types of violence both in their home countries and in Mexico. Something that also really affected me was that these people were only just beginning—they had only made it to the southern border of Mexico, and they still had an entire, enormous country to go.

I think the most powerful cases were the children, because there were children, mostly Central American. There are two Salvadoran children in particular who I’ll never forget: the biggest, quote-unquote, was only 9 years old and always asked me to bring her fruit, because her grandmother at home had always brought her fruit. So she would say, “Please bring me a banana.” And they obviously didn’t let me bring anything into the center, so it hurt me a lot to always say “Listen, I can’t,” to which she would say “But you’re allowed to enter and exit!”...really difficult.

Another thing that really affected me was that I could actually observe the physical and emotional changes between the first time we saw them and the future times. I saw the worry, the sadness, the isolation, the despair. They would ask us lots of questions. I assumed at the beginning that they knew what they could do—that they could solicit asylum, that they had rights, whatever the case may be. But no. They had no idea. So trying to be psychologist, lawyer, teacher, and everything at the same time, with very little time, and with many limitations. They told us about all sorts of things, and I should mention that they had good experiences, too, especially with los OPIs, the Child Protection Officers. I think those are the most most sensitized immigration officers, because they work with children who end up being their little friends. But there were also children who told me, “I don’t like them, because they yell at me,” or something like that.

Something else that was impactful was that I learned to recognize people who had been or were gang members. It was remarkable to see them at the beginning, because they had this look like, “I’m going to kill you,” at first, but once they began to speak and began to tell their story, we’d both end up crying. The experience truly changed my life. It expanded my interest in the topic, and I decided that yes, I wanted to continue with the topic.

When I returned from this trip, I graduated and applied to work with Amnesty International. There, I coordinated a campaign called “No Más Víctimas Invisibles” (No More Invisible Victims), and we went to various states like Veracruz and went to different high schools. Our objective was to talk to young people who lived close to the train tracks, because those were the ones who would say, “I see trains. I see people passing on them, but I have no idea what the story is.” Some would say, “I’ve given them food and chatted, and they’ve told me where they’re from,” and some would say “They’re all so dirty. Where are they going?”—we encountered both perspectives. We created a movie with Gael Garcia Marquez and Father Solalinde and others and would show this in town squares or at panels, and then people who saw it would come and ask us questions. The idea of all our work was to sensitize the population to the issue.

Around this time, in 2010, the assassination of 72 people in San Fernando, Tamaulipas took place. This was really powerful, because I think it was one of the first times that Mexico was singled out so harshly by the international community for migrants having been killed by organized crime. Here, too, it resonated a lot, and lots of resolutions were passed by the senate, by the congress, about the topic.

Then I began working here at IBERO in the Migration Issues Program [Programa de Asuntos Migratorios, PRAMI]. At PRAMI I met the colleagues with whom I conducted an investigation that consisted of going to various shelters to help volunteers, who go with very good intentions, to know how they could be helpful. They arrive, but they don’t know what to do: how to care for others, how to care for themselves, how to attend to the problems. So we made a manual of best practices, specifically as to how to aid three vulnerable populations: women, children, and the LGBT population. Because this topic wasn’t very discussed in Mexico. We also made videos, since many of the people who arrive don’t know how to read or write.

Now I work in research management here at IBERO, where our objective is to promote involvement in research investigations by professors and students, with national and international standards, and see how research and social impact intersect—which is to say, aiming for research investigation to achieve something in society.

LIS Movimiento, our civil society organization, is currently writing a guide for public servants, for example, at the National Migration Institute [Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM]. Migrants arrive and ask, “How can I return to my country?” or “What do I do if I’ve been repatriated?” Initially you’d assume that the people who work at INM are familiar with the issue. To create this guide, we went to all the institute’s programs and interviewed people. We discovered that they have lots of trainings, but they don’t seem to have much contact between the different areas of the institute or the country.

It seems like the class you took is what initiated your interest in the topic and all the work that followed. Were you interested in the issue before you took the class?

I think that I became interested because the class was good. At the end of the class, we had to write a research paper, and I chose the topic of human trafficking, and when I started working I realized I liked the topic. What I took away that was most inspiring is that one can help—even if just a little—others in vulnerable situations. I think migration has always been present in my family—some members arrived in Mexico from Spain, and my grandmother moved between states in Mexico—so these roots were always present. So all of these things combined interested me a lot.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your current work?

I would say it’s ensuring that you do the best possible thing for the individual case you’re working with. For example, if there’s a woman who was raped in her travels and wants to get to the United States, but she is undocumented, what can you do for her? If she asked you directly, it’s a challenge to know whom to send her to, where to direct her, how to treat her, because often when we interview them, they don’t want to talk, so how best to ask them questions? How to advise them? From what you’ve learned in your classes, what can you tell this person? Often, theory is very different from practice. So this is a big challenge.

Children also present a big challenge, because an adult can speak to you, but a child doesn’t talk about it—sometimes they don’t even know how to name what has happened to them. It can be difficult, too, to discern if they’re alone or if their accompanier is a family member or actually a trafficker. And I would also say, keeping one’s spirits up. After hearing so many things and seeing so much, you ask yourself, how can I not cry, how can I continue believing in the people of this world? I think every person has their own way of forging ahead. One person cries, the other runs, another prays—who knows? Someone said to me, “Pray!” and my response is, “Who will answer? What does that do?” These are the big challenges.

What responsibility does Mexico have to these people and the situation? What can be done to make it better?

I think Mexico has a huge responsibility, bigger than most countries, because Mexico is a country of transit, of origin, of reception, and of return. So attending to all these populations is an enormous responsibility. I think that, as a society, we need to learn not to discriminate, because we’re a society with a great deal of discrimination. Communities that live around the train tracks are often very hostile and xenophobic—they don’t like having people from other countries or other regions. “No, because he’s blond,” or “No, because he’s black.” I think this implies a huge social responsibility—from your house, from your family, from your school, how do you work on this? To ensure that your children don’t discriminate?

And the government—well, I think Mexico’s two biggest problems are corruption and impunity. Insecurity, too, but that comes as a result of the other two. I think the government resolves only urgent matters, and doesn’t have time for other things, and also responds readily to the interests of the United States. I don’t know what it will take for Mexico to say “I’m independent, and I’m going to do this, not that.” I know that, in this globalized world, countries need to work together, but I think those in power often aren’t aware, or haven’t seen, what’s happening. They see things from high up, on TV, on the news, but they don’t see the reality, so they don’t know how to attend to it.

Tell me more about the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

We say that the United States is the father, and Mexico is the child who has to obey. But Mexico has also lost a great deal of power and leadership it formerly had in Central America: Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s was the father, the one who united Central America, but now it’s the one that separates them. It’s treating their citizens horribly. Mexico is reminiscent of the United States, who’s treating Mexican citizens badly. Mexico does the same thing, or worse, with the people of Central America. And this is a serious problem.

This interests me a lot, because my impression is that residents of the United States don’t have a very nuanced understanding of Mexico, and they think of Mexico solely as a country that sends migrants, not as a country of transit or receiving country.

I think the United States has forgotten that Mexico isn’t just a sending country, yes. It’s a complicated question of how to attend to and resolve the economic, the social, the political—every aspect of the issue. Because many people have asked Mexico, “Okay, so are you in favor of migration? Or are you opposed to having Central Americans passing through your country?” It’s not a question of being in favor or opposed. It’s a humanitarian crisis. There are people dying of hunger, dying from violence, and out of sheer humanity, you have to help them. Out of humanity, not out of anything else, without thinking “No, because the United States–” or “No, because the Plan Frontera Sur–” or “No-” ...you simply have to attend to the present urgencies, as always. Because we’re also lacking policies of integration, also, policies from the countries of origin. Because Honduras is falling apart, and where’s the government? They don’t have answers either. I think if they unite again—Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, with Mexico, with the United States—if they make free trade agreements, but well, not the way they’ve done it before, then it would be a new situation.

What’s your understanding of the Mexican public’s perception of Central American migration?

I think it’s been on people’s minds since it became so public and high-profile with the events in San Fernando in 2010. I think it’s always existed, and people know of migration through the Bracero program for example, but I think people were frightened, for one thing, and for another, became aware of the issue: so those are the people who made albergues (shelters), who now help, give food. But it also depends on who you ask. Once, I gave a workshop to children, and we were struck by the fact that they were children with family members in the United States, who lived in the center of Mexico City, and if you asked them, “What is a migrant shelter?” they would say “A place that smells bad.” This was their answer. So our workshop couldn’t be explaining the complexities of migration, only explaining—okay, but why is that? Because he doesn’t have a home, because she doesn’t have a bathroom, because they’re traveling.

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