When a Listening Tour Turns Into a Revival for the Rights of Women

Imagine standing on the swampy land next to the narrow Suchiate River on the Mexico-Guatemala border. It’s often hot, buggy, fortified with sandbags to hold up runoff beachhead and rocks, and the area is filled with people moving across the border: refugees crossing into the country on makeshift boats, merchants crossing to Mexico for goods, and ordinary folks just needing to get across. Then there’s the difficulty of knowing that all around, locals live in abject poverty and in need of basic services. In the State of Chiapas, which borders the river, nearly three-quarter of the population lives in these conditions. Yet this is where Mexican lawyer Esmeralda Maya Casillas Garcia, with little reservation or fear, does some of the most important work in Central America. Serving as the Legal Advisor for Chiapas’ Center for Care and Advocacy of Women’s Rights in Migration, known as “La Casita,” Casillas Garcia waits on the Mexican side of that border to help people. Specifically, she waits to give advice to women leaving unimaginably abusive circumstances in Central America who may, surprisingly, fall into an even worse situation in Mexico. “[During the migration route to the U.S.], women face an increased risk of violence or getting raped. This may happen after they’ve stabilized in some places. Like in many other parts of the world, immigrant women from Central America in Mexico are considered sexual objects without rights. Anything can happen to them. It’s a grave injustice and why I choose to do what I do,” she told us in an interview last month. Casillas Garcia is the main headliner of the Education and Advocacy Speaking Tour led by Alianza Americas, a network of Latino immigrant organizations representing more than 100,000 immigrant families in the U.S. Through the tour, Alianza wants to help raise consciousness about the violence and insecurity in Central America, and the ongoing exodus of young people, children, and families from the region, particularly countries of the northern triangle. The tour consisted of a series of events and meetings through Birmingham, AL; Decatur, GA; Durham, Raleigh, High Point, Henderson, and Chapel Hill, NC. These cities were targeted due to the growing Latino immigrant population and as a way to bring information to places that may be dealing with their own local challenges with respect to immigrant integration. Community members heard about the most challenging aspects of migration which include abuse of children, sexual violence against women, and the dangerous methods of transportation people use to leave their homes. The trip was not set up in response to the election of the new anti-immigrant U.S. President, says Alianza’s Mobilization Manager, Cristina Garcia. But now that it’s happening in the midst of these “extreme anti-immigration U.S. laws”, it’s important to remind Americans of the humanity of this population and the rights they deserve. And the best way to do that, she says, is by hearing directly from those at the front lines of the challenge. “We wanted to bring in someone like Maya who is working directly with immigrant communities and can best explain the realities of the problem to people. Someone who can open up dialogue while raising the voices of immigrants,” she said over the phone while on location in the South. As Casillas Garcia tells the story of her work and the brave women she represents to audiences in community halls across Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina this week, it’s important to remember that the difficulties immigrant women face are usually not front-page news. Indeed, while the immigration of thousands from Mexico into the U.S. has historically received the most attention here and abroad and has focused largely on men, immigration from the poor and violence stricken countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador into Mexico is just as serious and also includes large numbers of women. According to Mexican authorities and the World Bank, there are now more people—and women—being sent back to those three countries than are coming into the U.S. Casillas Garcia has been at the forefront of the fight to recognize women’s rights in Mexico. She has helped them and their families find safe living conditions through her advocacy work along the Guatemala/Mexico border, as well as helping file for and secure asylum for many others. Some of her organization’s work involves educating young immigrant woman on the importance of using contraceptives to avoid pregnancies in the event of rape. Unfortunately, this is the reality that many women face on this perilous journey from the northern triangle through Mexico in search of a safe-haven. Perhaps more importantly, she wants immigrant women to believe in themselves as worthy of full human rights and equal protection under the law. She tells of terrible circumstances where even strong-willed girls who are threatened with violence and psychological torture by men seeking to control them eventually acquiesce because they distrust local authorities to protect them. Sadly, she says there is a lot of truth to that particular fear. “When wives or daughters arrive, the law of most Mexican states establishes a person needs to be directly affected by an event of violence. The level of crime they need to report almost comes down to having a member of your family get killed; otherwise cops may not pay attention. If women don’t have a physical mark on their body, for example, they’re not valid as a victim in the eyes of the law. This has caused many to return to their country where they’re bound to be further abused.” Then there’s the massive problem of moving into communities already ravaged by violence. Many of the leading Southern Mexican gangs take advantage of the transience of these women and kidnap them to sell into sexual slavery. Another way in which Casillas Garcia and her network of advocates combat violence against women long-term is through hate-crime legislation focused on gender equity. She says crimes of passion against women are a problem in Mexico because of the sociological role of machismo in the country’s culture. This problem often expresses itself in jealousy, opposition to women’s reproductive rights as sanctioned by the powerful (and male-dominated) Catholic Church, and even to the disregard of legislative successes by the LGBTQ community. Historically, Casillas Garcia says few laws have defined the importance of hate crimes in the culture. “Up until a couple of years ago, only three states had laws that protected people from hate crimes; the State of Mexico, Jalisco, and the city of Puebla all recognized that type of violence. Just last year, out of 122 municipal districts in Chiapas, only 7 of them recognized hate crimes,” she told us. Seemingly positive developments by the Mexican government intended to curb violence and injustice at its southern border are not doing much, either. A recent program that was supposed to provide incentives for employers to give jobs to the immigrant population and push an inclusive message of hope, called We Are All Mexicans, failed to materialize into any significant difference to those in need. As she traverses the Southeast in small town halls this week, Casillas Garcia says one thought continues to fill her mind. Those who are most vulnerable always need help from those of who can provide it, and “people—always—have the right to dignity and to security in their lives.”