Thursday, February 08, 2007
Run! Hide! The Illegal Border Crossing Experience
February 4, 2007
Heads Up | Hidalgo, Mexico
Run! Hide! The Illegal Border Crossing Experience
By PATRICK O’GILFOIL HEALY
CLAD in black clothes and moonlight, our guide Poncho adjusted his ski mask and faced us to speak. The desert has claimed many lives, he said, but tonight we would make it across the border.
The night was crisp and clear in the central Mexican highlands, the moon illuminating mesquite trees, cactus and pastures. Our group of 13 was about to set out on one of Mexico’s more bizarre tourist attractions: a make-believe trip illegally crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States.
“Where are you going to, my friends?” Poncho asked the people clustered around him.
“To Texas,” a skinny Mexican teenager replied.
“And you?” he asked another man.
The four-hour caminata nocturna — nighttime hike — traverses desert, hills, brambles and riverbeds in the Parque EcoAlberto, an eco-park communally owned by the Hñahñu Indians who live on some 3,000 acres of land in the state of Hidalgo, about three hours northwest of Mexico City (and roughly 700 miles from the border).
Organizers say they opened the park about two and a half years ago, with financing from the Mexican government, and began the caminata as a way to offer tourists a taste of life as an illegal immigrant.
The Hñahñus are people who know something about that life. Of the approximately 2,200 Hñahñus from this area, 700 live in Mexico and 1,500 live “on the other side” — mostly in Las Vegas and other parts of Nevada, where they install drywall, drive trucks or work on farms, residents say. Many of the tour guides here have crossed the real border several times.
“Being an immigrant isn’t a source of pride,” said Poncho, whose real name is Alfonso Martinez. “We abandon the family, the language, the earth. We lose our sense of community. The idea here is to raise people’s consciousness about what immigrants go through.”
Of course, compared with actually crossing the border, the caminata is as watered down as an airport cocktail. The guides don’t desert their groups, and the most danger visitors face is twisting an ankle or walking into a low-hanging tree branch.
The idea of tourists’ aping illegal immigrants can seem crass, like Marie Antoinette playing peasant on the grounds of Versailles. But the guides describe the caminata as an homage to the path immigrants have beaten across the border. And the park’s approach to consciousness-raising is novel, but not completely unique. In 2000, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders set up a camp of tents, medical stations and latrines in Central Park to recreate the setting of a refugee camp. Last year, the refugee-camp project returned to New York and also traveled to Atlanta and Nashville.
Park guides say about 3,000 tourists — mostly Mexican — have hiked the caminata since it began in July 2004. It costs 200 pesos (about $18 at 11 pesos to the dollar), and tourists who want to stick around at the park can also go river-rafting, rappel down a cliff and sleep in cabins with roofs of maguey leaves. But guides say the mock border-crossing is the park’s main draw.
“Of course it’s just a game, where you’re always safe and where there are no real fights,” said Antonio Flores, a sociology professor from Querétaro, in central Mexico, who hiked the caminata in November with a group of students. “It was very interesting, very important. Often, immigration is a subject so far away. This gave us a chance to experience it through our own steps.”
My group’s hike began outside a white stucco church, where we huddled around Poncho and another masked guide, Luís Santiago. About 10 Hñahñus accompanied us on the walk, playing the role of fellow immigrants. The men explained they were heading north to look for work. A woman carrying a 2-year-old girl slung in a shawl said she was seeking her boyfriend.
After unfurling the Mexican flag and singing the national anthem, the guides organized us, telling us to walk in a file, strongest in back, weakest and slowest in front.
“In the night, everyone is equal,” Poncho said. “Here, everyone wins, not just the fastest or smartest. If we make it, we all make it; if they catch one, they catch us all.”
They advised us to be brave, to remember our ancestors and to hit the ground if we heard gunshots.
We’d been walking down a gravel road for 10 minutes when people started shouting and tearing off into the dark. “Vamos rápido!” they shouted. “Vamos corriendo! Hasta el puente! Apúrense!” (“Let’s get moving! To the bridge! Get going!”) Behind us, headlights and the police drew nearer.
“Run!” Mr. Santiago shouted, frantically directing us toward a concrete bridge at the bottom of the sloping road. “Shut off that light, they’re coming. Fast, fast. Damn it, shut off that light!”
Sirens whooped. We scrambled down a hill of loose dirt, tripping and stumbling over rocks and gouges in the ground. We ended up in a mire along the Tula River, ankle-deep in mud and water.
A 5-year-old boy known as El Relleno showed up and guided us through the brush.
“Come on, this way,” he said, jumping around moonlit puddles.
Poncho shooed us into a thicket of bush. We’d nearly been discovered by the Border Patrol. We hid as men with flashlights roamed the field in front of us, taunting us in Spanish and accented English.
“Come here, guys,” they said. “Ya sé que están escondidos. We know you’re hiding. We’re going to send you back to Mexico.”
“Escuchen!” said another, telling us to listen up. “No van a cruzar el rio. You’re not going to get across the river.”
Suddenly, someone from our group darted from the bushes and past the guards.
“Stop! Stop!” yelled the guards, and fired a half-dozen shots (blanks, of course). “Where you running, huh?”
About 70 Hñahñus make part of their living as guides, guards or fellow immigrants on the hike. One of them, Purificación Álvarez, said that visitors often walked away stunned.
“They learn to value the liberty they have in their own countries, that they don’t have to run and be chased in their own lives,” she said.
When the smell of gunfire dissipated, we sneaked away, crossing cornfields, passing drowsy mules and slipping under barbed-wire fences. Brown moths darted in and out of the flashlight beams, and the guides philosophized about the significance of the hike, the empathy it aims to teach.
At one point, we paused at the river’s edge, where Mr. Santiago told us to cast a stone into the water to symbolically expel evil spirits. We did, and then Poncho pointed up at the night sky.
“Look up,” he said. “A rain of stars. This is a magical place.”
Parque EcoAlberto, (52-75) 9727-7016; www.parqueecoalberto.com.mx.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company