Araceli and Alicia, sisters from Mexico City, left their home to pursue greater opportunities, earn money to go to school, and escape a cycle of poverty. Instead they found harsh desert conditions, sexual harassment, and an impasse. But they also found reasons for hope and acts of kindness.
In Mexico City, Araceli (26) worked as a nanny, and her sister Alicia (30) had a job in retail. Each made about $200US a month, not enough to live on in an urban area, and certainly not enough to stay enrolled at university, obtain a degree, and break out of the cycle of economic hardship they’d known all their lives. Helping to support their ailing parents added to their financial pressures. The increasingly urgent question was how to earn enough to live on while paving the way for the more stable and promising future they dreamed of. Over time and with no viable options to improve their lives in Mexico, the answer became: head north, save some money, learn English, and return with the resources to re-chart their lives and leave poverty behind once and for all.
The long and uncertain migrant journey is rife with obstacles and dangers, most especially for women who are vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment. Rape is so common that migrant women often take birth control pills to avoid becoming pregnant, understanding there is nothing they can do to prevent the emotional and psychological trauma they may be exposed to. So when women choose to migrate, it is never a casual decision. Still, Araceli and Alicia made that choice, though their timing—the height of the summer when dehydration, injury, or losing direction can lead to death in the desert borderlands—only added to the dangers.
The sisters traveled on their own, with instructions and phones provided by a guide. When they reached the mountains near Agua Prieta in early August, they arranged to meet the guide at a designated pick-up spot. He gave them each two liters of water, and directed them to jump over a nearby wall, then walk a short distance further. Though Araceli suffers from weak knees, she forged ahead anyway—they were so close! But the jump injured her knee further, and one of their water bottles broke.
Based on the directions, Araceli and Alicia expected to arrive at their destination quickly, but they walked for hours, wondering if they were lost or if they’d been misled by their guide. Then a monsoon downpour hit, soaking them and their belongings, including their phones—now they could no longer call someone for help. Thirsty, hungry, lost, and scared, the sisters took a chance on heading to a ranch house in the distance. The man who opened the door offered them water and oriented them about where they were. When his wife arrived soon after, Araceli and Alicia received a hostile reception—she scolded her husband for helping them, shouted that all migrants were violent criminals, and called Border Patrol. The woman’s insults left Araceli shaken and confused, but grateful for the man’s goodwill.
The Border Patrol agents treated Araceli and Alicia roughly, laughing at their situation, yelling orders at them, and looking at them in ways that felt disrespectful. Araceli said, “It made me feel as if I were a criminal. I know that I came into your country in a way that is not legal, but I had no other option in order to move ahead in my life and support my family. I felt as if I were guilty of murder based on the way I was treated by Border Patrol.”
Araceli and Alicia are now in Nogales, recuperating from their journey and figuring out next steps. Amidst the companionship and solidarity they have found at the KBI, they are able to regain a sense of strength and dignity, and reflect on their recent experiences. Their encounters with the couple at the ranch house, the border agents, and KBI staff and volunteers have shown them a range of behaviors and reactions—from curiosity to indifference, from resentment to generosity, from bigotry to compassion. The sisters acknowledge that this is not very different from home, and like so many of us, they hope for greater understanding in the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico—at both political and individual levels—in which mutuality and respect prevail. As Araceli said, “We have so much to learn from one another—about traditions, customs, ways of living and being. What if we listened to one another, and learned from another, instead of treating one another with hostility or contempt?”