Immigrant Stories: Learning about the lives of migrants heading north |

Immigrant Stories: Learning about the lives of migrants heading north

From left, Tess and Kelsey Freeman
Tess Freeman

Intro: Kelsey Freeman spent the fall of 2016 and most of 2017 in a migrant shelter in Mexico, interviewing Central America migrants who were fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and heading north to the United States. Her book, “No Option But North,” blends the stories of the migrants she met with her insights into the systemic failures that forced the migrants to flee in the first place. During the last two months of her stay, Kelsey was joined by her sister, Tess, a photojournalist. Tess photographed many of the migrants profiled in the book.

Gallacher: Kelsey, can you talk about the genesis of “No Option But North”?

Kelsey Freeman: Tess and I grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley, and so I think we both always wanted to learn Spanish, to better connect in our community. But, for me, the book began when I was an undergraduate. I was traveling in Chiapas, Mexico, doing research for my undergraduate thesis on indigenous social movements.

During that time, I was seeing how connected indigenous rights were with immigration. One day, I had a conversation with a man sitting next to me on a bus, who had been deported from California. He asked me, “How is it that you can come to my country to study my people for two weeks when I’ve been repeatedly denied a visa to go back and visit my family in California.”

That question stuck with me and caused me to want to go deeper into how nationality, race and class all play a role in who gets to come here through our legal processes and who must undergo this perilous journey north.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.

Gallacher: Tess how was it working together as sisters?

Tess Freeman: Kelsey and I are three years apart. I’m older, and my background is in photojournalism. When Kelsey asked me if I wanted to come take photos for the book, I saw it as a great opportunity to work with my sister. As a photojournalist, it’s rare to have such camaraderie with a writer. Our care and concern for one another made working together that much better.

Gallacher: Well, not all sisters are close, but it sounds like you are.

Kelsey Freeman: Definitely. We still live together, so that says a lot.

Gallacher: Tess, you were there with Kelsey at a really difficult time.

Tess Freeman: Yes, I was there during the last two months of Kelsey’s stay. I was grateful that I was able to be there with her. Kelsey was dealing with serious challenges at the migrant shelter during that time. We’ve always been able to talk through things. And, also during that time, Kelsey was in the hospital twice with dehydration. That just added to the heaviness of that time. We’ve been through a lot together and have always faced challenges head on.

Gallacher: Speaking of sisters, one of the sections of the book that brought me to tears was about two sisters.

Kelsey Freeman: Yes, we met Maria and Joselyn and their parents, Jackie and Ernesto. The girls were 3 and 6, and Jackie was 8 months pregnant. They traveled on foot and by freight train — La Bestia, as the migrants call it.

I think this family’s journey is one of many examples of how much immigrants sacrifice, how much violence they are navigating just to get to the border and never mind trying to cross it.

Gallacher: Why would parents who are expecting a child, take their two small children and leave their country and their families? Describe the situations that are driving people to make desperate decisions that some people may see as crazy and foolhardy.

Kelsey Freeman: People have attached all sorts of stereotypes to demonize people that are fleeing. There are reasons people are risking their lives on the journey north. They are fleeing because there’s greater risk in staying, there’s greater suffering at home.

The main reasons that I heard in speaking with people were profound lack of economic opportunity, just no way to make a living at home. Family was another huge theme, reconnecting with kids in the U.S. I spoke to a lot of parents of U.S. citizen children who were trying for the fifth or sixth time to cross the border because they were unwilling to accept the reality living without their kids, as they grow up. I think most of us in that situation would do the same.

And then the most pressing reason is the prevalence of gang violence. These are everyday citizens who want nothing to do with gangs or cartels, but as cartels and gangs take over, they increasingly touch the lives of everyday citizens and threaten people, everyone from business owners to taxi drivers, to parents who find that fleeing is their only option.

Gallacher: Why have cartels increased their involvement in migration?

Kelsey Freeman: Cartels play an essential role in two horrible ways. First, they’re the reason why a lot of people flee in the first place. I spoke to a lot of business owners across Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, who have to pay a tax to local gangs or cartels simply to exist.

If you refuse to pay the fee, the gangs come for you. Your only option to survive is to leave. So they’re the reason a lot of people are fleeing in the first place. Many of the cartels in Mexico have made a whole industry out of kidnapping and targeting migrants.

Gallacher: Why are cartels focused on immigrants when they weren’t in the past?

Kelsey Freeman: Well, in this warped kind of way, it’s diversification of industries. Because cartels in Mexico are constantly battling each other for territory. And that’s where civilians get caught in the crosshairs. Los Zetas is one of the main cartels that has made kidnapping migrants an industry. They kidnap migrants and hold them for ransom until their families in the U.S. pay. Mexican authorities are looking the other way, or in some cases, even working with the cartels. It’s an unimaginable web of violence.

The stories that would roll through the shelter where I was interviewing were just astounding. I spoke with people who had been kidnapped, released and then kidnapped again. I spoke with people who had experienced sexual assault, which is really rampant on this journey north, never mind what you were fleeing in the first place.

Gallacher: Tess, what was it like for you photographing the two little sisters?

Tess Freeman: I was reminded of Kelsey and me as little girls. They were so little and had already experienced so much. I was thinking about that when I met them. We played together for quite a while before I picked up my camera.

Gallacher: Do you know what happened to that family, Kelsey?

Kelsey Freeman: They were the ones that we lost touch with. I tried to stay in contact via Facebook and WhatsApp, but I haven’t heard from them.

Gallacher: Tess, of all the people you photographed who resonates with you?

Tess Freeman: Rosara: Her hope and tenacity was so inspiring for me. She was from Guatemala City, and she and her husband had left because they had been threatened by gangs.

Kelsey Freeman: They were looking for work as many migrants do along the journey north to be able to continue. A man approached her husband and said he had work. Her husband went to meet him the next day and was never seen again.

And so, then Rosara was left in this shelter grieving for the loss of her husband and trying to figure out any leads to find him and trying to decide whether to continue on. But as a woman traveling alone, she was at incredible risk. It’s estimated that as many as 80% of the women that attempt this journey experience some form of sexual assault on the way. Which is astounding, right, to knowingly take on that type of life-altering trauma, again, says a lot about the situations people are fleeing. Rosara eventually decided to go back to Guatemala City, even though she felt like her life was at risk for going back.

In the book, you talk about the five forces facing migrants on their journey north — the cartels and gangs, the coyotes, the immigration officers and the train security guards.

Kelsey Freeman: Yes, these are all people or kinds of characters who are all targeting migrants in some way. The train security guards are private security guards hired by the train companies to patrol the freight trains. Imagine taking a freight train that was never meant for humans. That’s another risk that migrants take on. And then on top of that, cartels will patrol the trains to target migrants. Sometimes its state police helping the cartels. Sometimes it’s them looking the other way. So corruption is a really hard thing to fight in Mexico and across the globe.

Gallacher: Corruption even pervades the shelters where the migrants seek shelter.

Kelsey Freeman: Certainly. Migrants don’t know who they can trust along this journey, because even the woman selling tacos on the corner who offers them a place to sleep at night might be working for organized crime. And that’s also true of the migrant shelters at times, as I found out. I’ve gone back and talked to many of the migrants I interviewed about this question. I asked them why they still go to the shelters if they know they may not be safe. One of them told me, “We do the best we can. We hope for the best. We pray.”

Kelsey and Tess Freeman’s book, “No Option But North,” has won the 2020 Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

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